First, a little about how this game was conceived…
A while back, in an effort to maintain sanity amidst absurdity, I’d taken to avoiding looking at Japanese people by walking through the streets of Yokohama with my head down.
Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’m dead-ass serious! I still do it, sometimes.
Enter, or sometimes even approach, a space occupied by Japanese and the atmosphere palpably changes. The Japanese body language of uneasiness ensues everywhere you look.
If I enter a confined space like a train car or an elevator, at best, the atmosphere becomes something akin to the atmosphere of a room where everyone is catching everyone else up on the latest bit of nasty gossip…about me. I enter and the people around me transform into stiff and self-conscious caricatures of themselves. Faces turn from joyous or relaxed to grim or perturbed, or freeze into a plasticity that is painful to watch. And, that’s on a very good day. Typically, though, the space becomes a classroom and I’m a notoriously strict teacher who has been known to randomly decapitate Japanese students in his immediate vicinity with no provocation; a mortified hush comes over the trembling student body as they silently pray to exit the classroom in the same condition they entered: with their heads intact.
The overall effect is it leaves one feeling like such a ruiner; the rain on the Japanese parade, the wind wreaking havoc during a cherry blossom viewing party, tearing those pretty little precious petals from their branches; that dark cloud threatening to dampen an otherwise picture-perfect summer evening’s fireworks festival.
It’s a disheartening feeling because you’d like to ideally have just the opposite effect or, after you’ve lived here a while and adjusted your expectations a bit, just to be disregarded. It’s also a sickening feeling because you know it really has nothing to do with you personally. It’s spawned from an ignorance you have very little hope of addressing and there’s little or no recourse. It’s an unavoidable aspect of life in Japan. One of those ugly quirks most foreigners here refrain from acknowledging (for various reasons). One that requires tolerance and/or nescience to the Nth degree.
That’s why I resorted to keeping my head down as often as I could. And, you know what? It actually helped a lot!
Back in NY, people who walk with their heads down or avoid looking at people are flagged as shady, dodgy, hiding something, potential evil-doers, or suffering from some kind of mental derailment. But, here I’ve found that keeping my head down was not only acceptable but served two purposes:
For one, it positively impacts the behavior of Japanese people significantly. A good number of them, it seems, feel better if they believe that they are flying below or above my radar, invisible as ostriches with their heads in the sand. The difference between those whose presence I acknowledge with even the merest glance and those I go out of my way to avoid acknowledging is measurable. They can bypass me with a reduced concern for their well-being. The behavior I mentioned above is reduced by at least half.
And, two, walking around looking like a mental patient (from my perspective) prevents my paying them too much attention. If I really try hard, it is unlikely I’ll see the actions they are almost certain to take to indicate their discomfort with both being seen by me and being in my vicinity and, consequently, I feel a lot less like a pariah and killjoy on a daily basis.
Yep, it works like a charm…usually!
However, walking around like this did not come natural to me at all. I mean, I’m not a confrontational person, per se, but I don’t shy away from it, either. It’s my belief that the best stories are derived from conflict (at least that’s what my writing teachers used to say) so why in the hell would I avoid conflict when I’m endeavoring to be a solid writer?
As I walked around, looking like I’d lost my winning lottery ticket somewhere, I’d ask myself ultimately rhetorical questions like if they’re ignorant and xenophobic then why should I care what they think and do? I’d have mock trials in my head. Part of me defending them, echoing the excuses they always spew in my ear like: We are homogeneous and we are shy and we can’t speak English and… blah blah blah, etc, etc. And another part of me would argue on behalf of my creative self, reducing the behavior of many people here, by virtue of overwhelming evidence, to simple statements like: If it slithers and hisses and sheds its skin like a snake, then it’s a fucking snake.
But, whenever the blame game is in the off-season or I take a recess from the courtroom drama playing out in my head, I’d think seriously, and rather selfishly, about my life here and the impact it was having on my character. I’m a fairly proud person and a really observant one. So, I had to make a decision: shall I keep my head held high and endure, or keep my head hung low and turn a blind eye on my surroundings?
The idea of keeping my head down, thereby denying myself the visual stimulation that spurs my creativity, in order to appease ignorant people, was not only stupid, I’d concluded, but worse: counterproductive and counter-creative. Like a paparazzi photographer scared to take pictures of people without their consent. So, little by little, I started lifting my head again, and every time I did I told myself, “you can handle this. This is nothing. Grandma went through worse. Take it like a man!”
The bombardment of offenses would still disturb me, somewhat, but the knowledge that I was going to use them creatively soothed me. Yes, it took a bit of soul-searching but eventually I decided that I would not ignore nor reward bad behavior, nor would I let it mold me into a bitter, cynical person. I decided I would face it head-on.
They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (god, I love clichés) so I started working out, so to speak.
It was at this time that I stumbled upon my game idea…something that made keeping my dignity less of a crucible.
One day, I was walking through Yokohama Station on my way to work, with my head held purposely up, exposing my chin, hoping it was not made of glass, when I caught the eyes of a man coming towards me. I could see the desire to evade seize him, accustomed as I am to seeing it. On his current path we wouldn’t walk into each other but he would pass dangerously close (from his mindset) to making physical contact with me (our arms might brush one another’s) and this was apparently too close for his comfort.
He suddenly stopped, looked around as if to non-verbally say ‘now, how the hell did I get here?’ Like he’d been beamed to his current location without his knowledge. Then, just as suddenly, he displayed the body language of ‘oh, I know where I am now! I need to go that way!’ That way was out of my path…he darted that direction. I see this behavior at least 5-10 times a day or more so, though it vexes me, it hardly surprises me. However, his frantic maneuver ran him smack into a woman, dislodging her purse from her arm and almost knocking her over. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. This was something that happened occasionally but I never used to find much humor in it. That day however I found it hilarious. It felt like instant karma.
He apologized to her and kept moving. I tracked him visually, watched him make a another sharp turn back onto the path he’d detoured from a few feet past me. The woman had continued on her way, too.
That got me to wondering: Hmmmm…if I shifted directions at just the right time could I make the person trying to avoid coming near me crash into another person? Could I actually cause a collision? Certain conditions had to be met for it to be possible, of course. First of all, it would have to be a crowded space. Secondly, the person had to be headed towards me at a fairly rapid clip. Thirdly, the person had to be of a mind to avoid me, as opposed to one of over a dozen other ways Japanese display their discomfort at the potential impending graze against me.
All three of those conditions are ubiquitous in Yokohama.
Also, and here’s the rub, there had to be a third person…so the timing had to be impeccable.
I decided to give it a shot. The next day, as expected, I caught the eyes of an approaching salaryman just as he realized one of these groups just doesn’t belong here…
…but he turned before I could find a third person. He only detoured slightly, and not very abruptly, like if he were merely avoiding a puddle.
A couple of days later a woman was coming my way. Fear. She stopped, and spun around slowly, timing her spin perfectly with my passing so that our eyes would never meet again yet she could confirm I had passed at the tail end of her spin, and that she was once again safe to go about her business in the gaijin-free world that existed only in her mind. It’s a pretty drastic dance I unfortunately know the steps to all too well. Only this time I did the unexpected. Just as I was passing her I stopped. When her eyes came around to confirm that I had passed, and notice with a jolt that I hadn’t, she spun around. And there I was a couple of feet behind her. She liked to have jumped out of her skin! I was looking off to the left as if I had stopped to see something. I didn’t even acknowledge her alarm. Then I continued walking.
This was going to be harder than I had anticipated.
It was a week of practice and failures before I was able to get to the next level in this game I had created. If you can’t handle failure, or detach yourself from the humiliating acts that made this game possible, stick to Nintendo.
This is NinGendo! (ningen means human) and it’s not for the squeamish.
Play at your own risk!
The next day, a man was coming my way. Our eyes met in passing, at least mine passed. His locked. He becomes a mask of utter disgust. I looked for a crash dummy. Another man was approaching from his left…I veered right abruptly placing myself on a line that would take me to a kiosk and would make our passing that much closer but still unlikely we’d touch unless he were blind. The disgusted man veered left suddenly and bumped squarely into the third man!
I even think their foreheads collided!
Yatta ze! (I’d done it!)
I’d become a human joystick in a not-so virtual reality game!
Though I find it ironic and sometimes amusing when iwakan/xenophobia/racism/WhatHaveYou gets turned against the perpetrators, I didn’t like the idea of involving innocent people. Hard to feel any remorse when people hurt themselves escaping from their own ill-conceived notions when all you’re doing is minding your business. But should they injure someone else just minding their business, I suspected I’d feel somehow slightly culpable. So, I updated the game replacing bystanders with inorganic obstacles like walls, columns, sign post, puddles, gutters, etc… Top scores are achieved if a trip or fall occurs.
I don’t play too often cuz actually the game is still a bit glitchy.
One of these glitches is: if you’re like me and unfortunately (at least here in these parts) feel compelled to keep your head up and eyes wide open when you’re out and about, you’ll notice that the game just starts of its own volition sometimes, and you can’t turn it off! Unless of course you lower your head or close your eyes. Otherwise, all you can do is watch it play with itself; random people all around you dipping and diving, dodging and ducking, twisting and turning, evading and eluding, avoiding and averting, all the livelong day. And, yes, regularly, they smash into each other, walk into walls, stumble over each other and take some nasty spills…
…And without any animus on my part.
Like I said, it’s a bit glitchy.
I can’t help but get a sick kick out of this glitch, though.