It’s my fault, though. I made a couple of glaring mistakes.
The first: Whenever my Japanese friends have told me about their trips to Hawaii, they invariably mention that what held the greatest appeal for them, what alleviated most of their anxiety about traveling to a foreign country, is that Japanese is spoken everywhere. Hotels, shops, police officers, you name it.
I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration.
I mean, come on. I come from a very tourist friendly city, too. New York does what it can to accomodate any one with the money to visit. Signs in major tourist areas are often in a number of languages including Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Information booths are staffed with speakers of the most popular languages to visit those locations, etc…So, I imagined that Hawaii was similar.
I was wrong. Hawaii is friendly to three languages: English, Japanese, and Hawaiian. (and I didn’t hear much of the latter.)
I’m not much for shopping. I go shopping about once a year, for clothes that is. When I do go shopping I like to get quality stuff that will last, durability and style-wise, at least until the next time I go shopping and hopefully beyond. I’m not a brand name guy but I have had very good experiences with the clothes from Ralph Lauren so I’ve been a regular shopper there for years. There are a couple of Ralph Lauren shops in Waikiki. The one I went to had some really eye-catchy stuff in the window. POLO stuff. I went in and noticed I was the only person not of Asian descent. I’m talking customers and staff. And I’m not including Polynesian.
When I was young, back in NY, if I went shopping in a store like this I would be followed around by plainclothes or uniformed security as a matter of course. I’ve worked at Macy’s in NY as a security guard and though I was never told directly that this was store policy, it was suggested that people that look like me were to be watched carefully or I wasn’t doing my job. There was no security, as far as I could detect, in this RL shop aside from the obligatory cameras and alarm clips on clothing. I didn’t even look hard for any. I was busy checking out the sweaters.
As an adult, however, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of pandering and solicitation from staff people. I had been looking forward to this. I hadn’t had my ass kissed in English in a long while. Their mission is to make sure my wallet is lighter when I leave than when I arrived. How light depended solely on their skill, their persuasiveness as salespeople. Especially in high-end shops.
Most of the customers were Japanese. They were walking around the store carefree like they owned it or had controlling stock shares in it, with staff people following them around and pandering in that kiss-assy way that staff people pander in higher end stores. I was reminded of Pretty Woman, the second time Julie Roberts went shopping, with Richard Gere and his cards in tow. The staff were speaking Japanese but I suspect they were Chinese or Korean…they had kind of an accent and flubbed the keigo (super polite service Japanese) in a way that would be almost unacceptable in Japan.
I found the sweater I wanted and was looking for a dressing room to try it on. I flagged down a staff person that didn’t appear to be stalking a Japanese customer and asked where it was. She smiled politely and pointed to an area in the rear. It reminded me of Japan when staff people would use pantomime and broken English to respond to me despite my having spoken to them in Japanese.
I made my way to the dressing room and tried on the sweater. It fit like a glove. I threw it over my arm and went searching for more. Where were the caps and slacks?
“One moment please…” a sales person snapped and re-inserted her nose into the asses of the Japanese customers she was standing behind. They were just browsing. No conversation was taking place. No sells pitch was being pitched. She was just posted at their beck and call. I looked around for another sales person. They were all situated as such. Then I noticed one free staff person re-folding blouses.
She turned, smiled, and came over to me. “Yes?”
“Where are the caps and slacks at?”
“Caps are on the second floor….slacks are over there.” She was almost on her way away from me before she finished the sentence. I pushed the issue.
“Over there where?”
Once again, she pointed. I guess I’ve been spoiled. In a Japanese department store, the staff rarely say, “Over there.” They will personally take you over there ot they’d have over there brought over here for your convenience.
“Thanks,” for nothing.
I turned away. I was on vacation. I wasn’t going to get upset. She was just having a rough day, I told myself as two Japanese girls approached me giggling and Kawaii-ing each other’s selections and shopping acumen. Then they saw me, tensed up, like they do back in their country, sharply changed directions, like they do in their country, and one looked back as if to make sure they weren’t being followed and whispered to the other the all clear, like they do back in Japan.
Between the staff and the girls my Polo high was dead. I placed the sweater on the nearest rack and headed for the exit.
The second mistake: I booked my trip through HIS, and they recommended the hotel. I Should have known better. I Should have remembered from my experience with KNT on my trip to China what to expect from a Japanese travel agency. The hotel staff was great. The service was excellent. The accommodations were superb. Everything was clean and orderly and safe.
The hotel was like the Japanese Embassy…and some of the Japanese guests behaved as if they had diplomatic immunity. Immune from having to behave as if they weren’t home…immune from having to be on their best behavior.
The first day, I got on the elevator to go up to my room and before the door could close a Japanese couple boarded, vacationing, happy, carefree, and…oh shit! They take a gander of me. Suddenly, Papa-san decides that it’s in his best interest to turn his back on me and pretend I’m not there, like I was a bellhop or an elevator operator or something. I was standing near the buttons so in order to press his floor he needed to face my direction. He chose not to, and kinda reached his hand over blindly for the buttons…just like they would do in Japan…
I took a deep breath…
“Nan kai desuka?” What floor?
His wife, who had been watching her husband’s bizarre behavior like it was the most prudent thing, her eyes liked to pop out of her head…
“Nihon-go ga jouzu desune!” (Your Japanese is very good) she sang at me informing her husband who, too, had decided that it was less of a risk to actually look at the button he was pressing because I could say something in his language…perhaps I was a staffperson in the hotel he probably told himself. The couple kind of nod/bowed and visibly relaxed.
I envied them.
to be continued…