Man, I gotta thank god or the devil or whoever or whatever it was that gave me the inclination, the motivation, the divine inspiration, to make this move. I mean, on my list of decisions made, and un-regretted, moving to this man’s country has to be so high on top that number two is barely visible. Number two, by the way, happens to be graduating from University, an English Major at that, for without that piece of parchment, which heretofore was about as useful as a 3rd lip, number one wouldn’t have been possible. It’s almost too good to be true. Every day I keep expecting reality to pimp slap me, like reality is prone to do, but so far it’s like this place isn’t even on reality’s compass.
Even before I arrived here, umpteen thousand feet over Alaska or some icy tundra, 9 or so sleepless hours into a 14 hour flight, little did I know, I caught a sneak preview of what was to come. And it wasn’t in the in-flight movie, either, but in the form of this little Asian cutey. She’d been sitting unobtrusively beside me the whole time and had finally relaxed enough to smile in my direction. Didn’t take much for visions of joining the Mile-High Club to get at me, and that little bit of denim she must have fancied was a mini skirt had been teasing me since JFK. When she’d gone to the toilet, inching by me, giving me the ass-not the crotch, it was all I could do not to goose her. She’d thrown a blanket over her creamy legs and thighs and hadn’t blinked for 8 hours, engrossed in some book that, when glimpsed at, reminded me of how Neo must have felt in “The Matrix” trying to catch a glimpse of the machine-generated world he’d previously been a part of, but it was all in computer code.
The smile gave me the courage to say Hi. I’m such a pussy when it comes to kicking it to girls. I usually can’t think of a damn thing to say. Opportunity usually has to throw bricks at my window to get my attention. Without a generous smile, some serious eye contact, peer pressure (which has a tendency to bring out the extrovert in me) or something else that would fall under the headings of “forward” or “passive aggressive” there would be a lot less notches on my belt. The girl’s imagination of what I must be like would be damn near enough to get me some leeway, but then I’d go and open my mouth and spout some dumb shit like, “Let me guess: you’re a Gemini, right?”
And, this time was no different.
“Are you Japanese?” I asked her on a plane full of Asians, figuring the odds were in my favor since the flight was headed for Tokyo, never mind it was a stupid way to set-off a conversation. I was the only black passenger on the flight and, aside from a couple of Mormons (white guys, dressed in the standard Mormon attire, but somehow were able to disappear into the well-dressed milieu) and a Middle Eastern looking cat (Man, the looks he got…I would’ve had to hurt somebody), one of the few non-Asian passengers, and feeling blacker and more un-Asian every time I went to take a piss or stretch my legs. The eyes of the other passengers had begun to notice the discrepancy, it seemed, but I’m not above a paranoid episode so it might’ve been my imagination.
“I’m Japanese,” she sang, and if she didn’t want me to do her on that plane, right then and there, then her smile and the sparkle in her eyes, and that patch of denim, were going to conspire to get her date raped one day, for sure.
“Nice to meet you.”
She extended her hand formally for a shake, like she’d learned introductions in some introduction course. Her hand was soft, just this side of cloying, and her grip was awkward yet determined to get this damn thing right. In her eyes, alongside the sparkle, or maybe beneath it, she was reading me. All that she’d learned about me, but not about the real me, was in her eyes. With obvious effort she held my stare. She was hiding something, perhaps, or she could see the lust I couldn’t conceal in my eyes, I thought, yet she fought the urge to avert hers.
“Nice to meet you, too,” I said, and released her hand and eyes. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“Natsumi,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Baye,” I said, and was about to say nice to meet you again but caught myself, realizing that she’d gotten the order twisted. The name exchange came before the nice to meet you exchange. Maybe it’s different in Japan, I wondered. Maybe they don’t exchange names at all, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Or maybe they don’t volunteer their names to strangers. What I don’t know about Japan would fill an unabridged encyclopedia. But, that’s not possible. In preparation for this move of mine, I had taken a two month course in Japanese and had learned how to introduce myself, so I knew a thing or two. Of course, names were exchanged first, even in Japanese. If I were her instructor, I’d have to give her an “A” for the handshake and eye-contact, but a C- for screwing up the intro.
“Are you going to vacation?” she asked.
“Going to vacation where?”
She looked perplexed for a moment. Then, said. “To Japan.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, I’m going to live in Japan.”
“Honto desu ka?” she asked, beaming.
I remembered “desu ka” from my class. It meant a question. But I had no idea what “honto” meant. From her expression and her intonation I guessed it was something to do with surprise, so I said, “Yep. I’m going to Japan to teach English.”
“Uso!” she blurted, and again from her face and tone I knew it had something to do with disbelief or amazement. Shit, I thought, I don’t need to learn Japanese. I could just read the body language and facial expressions and fake it.
“What do ‘honto’ and ‘uso’ mean?”
“Sorry, my English is too bad,” she frowned. “Anoo…it means, like, ‘really’ or ‘you tell a lie’. Like that kind of thing.”
“Ah, thanks for teaching me,” I said. “Your English is fine.”
“I think you understand Japanese, I mean, I thought. Your face is like you understand.”
“That’s because I’m an actor,” I said, matter of factly, but just kidding.
“Honto?” she asked again, eyes aglow. “Like Eddie Murphy? Your face is like Eddie Murphy.”
The impulsive fury I feel every time I’m told by some white person (and it has always been a white person guilty of this offense…black people are much more on point with their assessments of my likeness) that I favored some famous black person of which I knew I had no resemblance whatsoever, aside from skin color and maybe a tendency to emote, sparked, but only for a moment. I mean, if you would have seen her face. The very epitome of naiveté and artlessness, you would have forgiven her ignorance on the spot, and reserved judgment, too. Well, maybe you would have. Yet and still my sarcasm spewed out.
“I was just thinking the same thing. Why don’t I tell the stewardess I’m Eddie Murphy? And tell her I think they gave me the wrong damn seat. I belong upfront somewhere…business class, first class, hell, even the cockpit is better than this coach shit! I’m Eddie Murphy dammit!” Then I made the old Saturday Night Live/48 Hours Eddie signature guffaw, to lighten up the “how the fuck do I respond to this outburst” look on her face. I leaned closer to her and winked, “You want to come join me in first class?”
She laughed, looking relieved that the anger she perceived she’d caused somehow had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Of course, what she was truly thinking I will never know.
“You are joking, deshou? She asked like she’d heard a rumor about me, but not the real me, and I’d just confirmed it.
“Sou desu yo ne,” I replied, like my instructor, a petite Japanese woman, who dressed like one of those actresses who play sassy secretaries in screwball comedies; sexy, but not too sexy, just enough to entice one of the execs out of bachelordom. My class was on Friday afternoons so I called her “My Gal Friday.” She used “sou desu yo ne” all the time to express agreement or affirmation. She explained that in Japanese society it is important to be in sync with one another. And I wanted nothing more at that moment than to get in sync with Natsumi.
“Hora!” she almost shouted. “You speak Japanese?!!” and glee had never had such a beautiful representation as the look on her face.
“Just a little,” I said. “I took an 8-week course at the Japan Institute.”
She said, “Nihongo ga umai desu,” which I recognized as a compliment of my Japanese ability. Umai means clever or skillful, depending on the context. My teacher also explained that a compliment is a common cultural ice breaker; which is like a modified version of the Western saying “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” The Japanese version is more at “Say something nice, period.” So, I took her compliment with a grain of salt. Then, Natsumi proceeded to, I guess, tell me her life story, in Japanese, and I listened without interruption, nodding my head when I heard familiar words, of which there might’ve been 10 or so in her 5-minute soliloquy- unbeknownst to her.
“Omoshiroi desu,” I said, because this was an interesting conversation, if only one sided. “But, can you say all of that in English? I’m a teacher, so I can help you if you need it.”
“Ok,” she grinned, with some secret knowledge. “I will try, but don’t laugh, ok?”
“Ok. I’m from Niigata…you know Niigata?”
“It’s in Japan, right?”
“It’s Japan, of course,” she said, with a smile, not aware of the nuance of using ‘of course’. Always smiling this one. Something a bit distrustful about a person who is always smiling, my father used to say. People who smile too much are liars. Even My Gal Friday didn’t smile this much, and I thought she overdid it..
“I moved to Tokyo for university. I graduate 2 years before now. I study…anoo…international relations in Waseda. You know Waseda University?”
“No. Is it famous?”
“It is famous school in Japan, dayo,” she said with a little bit of pride.
“I came to America for homestay for studying in English,” she blushed. “You know what is homestay?”
“No, but I guess it’s like some kind of study abroad program where you stay with a family and take classes and practice English in an English environment. That kind of thing?”
“Sou desu!” she said. “Yappari, umai dayo. You are smart!”
“And you are…uh…kawaii,” I replied, remembering the word for cute.
“Honto desuyo!” I said, trying out a conversational response.
“I think you can speak nihongo very well, I think.”
“No, I’m just a beginner,” I said, but catching a vibe, I added. “But, if you help me, I’m sure I could improve quickly. And I’d be happy to help you, too.”
“Ureshii? Ureshii? That means ‘happy’ right?”
“Yes, I’m happy.”
“Ayyy…nan darou…it’s like, I know it, or I think it already.”
“Yappari, huh? Just as I thought, you mean?”
“Unn, but it has other mean too,” she said looking a bit distressed at not being able to express thoughts well in English. “Muzukashii…difficult to explain.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and then something occurred to me. I reached in my backpack and pulled out a Japanese-English, English-Japanese dictionary. “I just remembered I had one of these.”
The woman sitting on the opposite side of Natsumi had been awakened by our conversation, I’d noticed earlier, and surreptitiously had been listening. Her eyeballs rested in the corner of her eyes, on us, but the rest of her appeared to be preoccupied with some deep thought. The cabin lights suddenly went out and the cabin went dark aside from the light from individual overhead lights that came on above people reading books and newspapers, or from people using laptops or playing handheld games. I slid open the shade on my window. The harsh white light from the icy clouds outside flooded the cabin and poked me in the eye. I slid it shut quickly.
“Samui desuyo ne,” Natsumi said, and pulled her blanket higher on her body, just below her perky breast, poking through a sweater that would have been 2 sizes too small for my 7-year old niece. I whipped out my blanket and like a gentleman, offered it to her. At first she refused but I pushed the issue a little.
“I have a jacket and pants on. You’re wearing, well, much less.”
“But, will you be cold?”
So, I moved as close as the armrest between us would allow and I put the blanket over both of us. Her smile, in the dim light of the cabin, seemed to say “what a great idea. You’re so smart and charming I’m gonna give you a blow job you’ll never forget!” Rather forwardly, I pulled her blanket over me as well. She didn’t resist at all. All the while I was doing this I was praying to God, and I’m as Christian as the Buddha. But, nonetheless, I was praying, “make this happen, make this happen…shit, I’d get saved if you make this happen!”
“Atatakai ne,” she said, and whatever it meant, I knew it was a good thing from the purr in her voice.
“Sou desu yo ne,” I replied using my first favorite phrase in Japan.
True to my MO, my gun was loaded, the target was within range, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. Instead, I sat there, feeling the warmth of her enthusiasm emanating from her body mere inches away, correcting her pronunciation and grammar and being the general good guy I pretend to be when I’m trying to woo the panties off of women. I could feel myself sliding headfirst into yet another friendship with sexual overtones that never get acted on. By the time I make my move, and stop scurrying from side to side like a crab, it’s usually too late. That’s why I get religious, because without a divine shove or a helping hand from whatever is out there looking out for my libido’s best interest, masturbation would be more than just a hobby, it would be my occupation.
“Why do you come to Japan?” she asked, which was not the first time I heard the question, but was to be the first of about a million times I would hear it from a Japanese person over the course of the next 5 years.
The truth, at least I think it was the truth, raced through my mind without stopping for a breath, followed unhurriedly by a gang of lies, trotting like they had all the time in the world. The truth was moving so fast I couldn’t really get a good look at it, just a blurry streak of light. But, the lies…they seemed to be saying, “Go ahead, run! You ain’t going nowhere we can’t find you!” I got a good look at the lies. I always do. I’m not good at telling them, mind you, but they’re always around. They love to entertain people, or attempt to manipulate minds, molding themselves into just what I think people want to hear. They serve me, I guess, but I often wonder if they are just serving themselves with my reaping the rewards, on occasion, and the penalties, more often then not. The truth is cheap, but lies can be expensive as hell
…and I’m a spendthrift.
But, instead of splurging on a good lie, I decided to buy a dime-a-dozen truth imposter. The truth must have gotten wind of this purchase and came jumping out of the bushes or from behind a boulder where he’d been catching his breath and before I could even think about the validity of what I was about to say, I was saying, “I want to learn more about Japanese culture for a book I’m working on.”
“Ayyy? A book? Wakaranai. A book of Japan?”
“Yes, I’m writing a book. I want to compare the culture in Tokyo with the culture in New York.”
“Ah, sokka. You a writer, deshou?”
“Suge!” she said, which sounded a lot like “cool” the way she said it. “You write a book before…eeeto…Yomitaiyo. Can I read your book?”
“This is my first book…, well, actually it’s my second. The first one didn’t do so well, so I’ve shelved it for a spell.”
“Wakaranai means you don’t understand?”
“I don’t understand, yes.”
“I…,” I began, but then thought fuck it, I’ll probably never see her ass again so… “Yeah, it’s in the bookstores in America. But, not in Japan…not yet. I don’t have any copies with me, but if you give me your address, I’ll mail you a copy. Can you read English?”
“Sukoshi dake…a little bit,” she said sadly. “But, ganbaru…I will do my best!”
There was something about her that ruined me that first day. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, though. I must confess I’ve always had an affinity for young girls with nubile breasts, especially thin girls. But, it was more than that. There was an allure; the combination of girlish reserve, modesty, innocence and broken, baby English was just the icing on the cake. There was something inside that cake that had me so open our blanket would have become a tent if I had unleashed it. At least I hoped it was wrapped around something. And, I didn’t know it then but it would be a long time before I found any women besides Japanese women attractive.
“Do you like Japanese girls?”
Yeah, I thought. That’s what I’m talking about! Cut to the motherfucking chase. “Actually, you are the first real Japanese girl I’ve ever met.”
“Much Japanese people in New York, deshou?”
“Yeah, but you never see them unless they are like tourist or working at a restaurant or something. All of the Japanese girls I’ve met are as Japanese as I’m African.”
“African-American,” I corrected her, kind of sharply, at that. For some reason I felt that I had better make it clear, and quickly, that I was not an African. I’m not sure why. I certainly wasn’t raised that way. “I was born and raised in New York, and my parents are from the south. And all the Japanese girls I’ve ever met are 3rd or 4th generation Americans.”
“Ah, sokka,” she said, but I could tell she didn’t understand well, and I decided from then on to limit my English to simpler sentences, and cut down on the expressions and idioms as to not intimidate her. We were on a good track and the last thing I wanted to do was get derailed.
“But, to answer your question, yes, I like you.”
“Thank you,” she sang and beamed like I’d told her she was the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. Thank you for liking me? Something told me I was going to have to get used to unusual responses. My Gal Friday never spoke English, from day one so I had no idea what to expect.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and patted her thigh just below the hem of that patch of denim hidden beneath the blanket, like it was the most natural thing. Why, yes, we always pat girl’s thighs when we flatter them. Her skin was so soft I could only pat it twice. If I had done it three times, I would have left it there and probably scared the shit out of her and wound up spending the rest of the flight sitting handcuffed next to the Sky 5-0, who was sitting 5 rows ahead of us and as inconspicuous on this flight as I was. The least they could have done is gotten an Asian marshal for this flight. Natsumi was looking at me, with eyes that said yes you may and a smile that said what are you waiting for, but I like oral confirmation of all physical moves; at least a hint or innuendo, a little double entendre, or a faux Freudian slip. Something. I’ve always been that way. Handling rejection has never been one of my strong suits. In fact, I avoid it like the plague most often. But, I had a feeling nothing of the sort was forthcoming. I was on my own. Something about her told me that it was beyond her to be any more forward than she was being already.
I sat there cussing myself out, calling myself all kinds of pussy. Man, there couldn’t be a better moment. The lights are low and that mini skirt is high. The blankets are warm and her thighs are hot. You will regret it if you don’t push. You’ll be kicking yourself in the ass for years to come. This is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is the ultimate story to tell the guys. You’ll be the man! From any walk of life, all men would respect, admire and envy this. It is forbidden to let this opportunity pass you by.
“Do you like black guys?” I asked.
“You are first black guy I have meet,” she blushed. “You are nice guy.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Your welcome,” and she patted my thigh, and left it there a little…no…significantly longer than I had. Like a good 2 or 3 seconds longer. That was all I needed, the thumbs up from the power that is.
But, my mental celebration was short-lived because I started wondering whether or not I should renege on my pledge to the Creator to get saved. Crazy, right? I mean, in general, I’m not known for reneging, not even when I play Spades, but these are promises made to people, not to the all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent force of the universe. And, if I do renege, answered prayers have a way of backfiring, don’t they? Sure, you get the pussy, but you might get a little something else you weren’t praying for, like gonorrhea or a psycho stalker or a psychotic ex-boyfriend, all of which have come attached to answered prayers in the past, haven’t they? But, isn’t it a little out of touch with reality, not to mention self-aggrandizing, to assume that the Creator is the slightest bit concerned with whether or not I join the Mile-High Club or not? I mean, come on, get a grip! So, the question becomes do I attribute my good fortune to the prayer, or coincidence, or is it just the inevitable result of my initiative, boyish charm and passive persuasiveness? Besides, He should know me better than anyone, so He should and would know my agnostic ass was just fucking around when I said I’d go for a swim with the Christians, right? I mean, when the prayer goes unanswered- which is the case a decidedly higher percentage of the time- I don’t blame Him. I don’t blame anyone except myself, usually. So, why shouldn’t I take credit for this potential triumph? Moreover, I wasn’t very specific with the wording of my prayer, was I? Make this happen? What the hell does that mean anyway…this is a very vague pronoun, and don’t they say when you make a prayer you should be very specific? So, even if he is answering my prayer, what he is going to make happen is beyond me. Maybe he could search my heart and see exactly what I meant by this. But, my heart is such a labyrinth, if he could make sense of anything in there who knows what he’d find attached to this. Maybe he’d find that this is simply airborne sex with Natsumi. Or, maybe he’d find that sex with Natsumi was just a small fraction of this and that the complete this is something truly extraordinary. Yeah, I’d love to think I had more depth than I let on.
Yes, answered prayers always make me more than a little crazy.
So, what now, I thought as I put my arm around Natsumi’s shoulders, kind of fatherly, protectively and leaned her against my shoulder.
“Atata…what did you say before?”
“Atatakai…it mean warm.”
“Sokka,” I said. Nodding at my arm, I asked, “Is this ok?”
“Unn,” she nodded, and inched as close to me as she could get. “Kimoochi ii.”
“It mean good feeling,” and she did something with her eyes and face that looked like pain and pleasure simultaneously, I guess to illustrate kimochi ii, and from her expression I knew exactly how and when that phrase was generally used.
I slid my hand from shoulders, to neck, to back, down to her waist. She inched up a bit to let me get low. She was so small that she had mad room in her seat. Her hand slid back to my thigh, and after a gentle squeeze, headed for my crotch. Before I knew it, and with a dexterity I couldn’t imagine she had, she had my zipper unzipped and my pants unfastened. She proceeded to give me a hand job and she was clearly experienced at this as well. And, gifted. My hand found her thigh and slid under her mini skirt and found some moist satiny panties. I rubbed but not with any clarity, for the hand job was such that I couldn’t focus on anything aside from kimochi ii. Her hand felt silky-smooth and slightly lubricated, but I hadn’t notice her lubing up or even spitting in her hand. When I came, I had to muffle my cry and fight the urge to spasm. She handed me tissues from her purse and with the clarity that often follows an orgasm I couldn’t help but think she did this kind of thing all the time. It kind of diminished my psychological triumph when I saw the simplicity of my lust through her eyes. How simple it was to make me feel like “The Man.” I almost felt ashamed at the vulnerability of my ego, my libido. Almost. But, then she smiled and whispered, “Kimochi yokatta?”
“Kimoochi…feels good. Yokatta?”
“Yokatta means good.”
“Ah, past tense, right?”
“Yeah, like desu is now, and deshita is before. Katta means past tense.”
“Un, sou desu yo ne. You are smart, before I said.”
“Anata wa umai desu.”
“Umakunai yo,” she blushed.
“I remember, nai means not. Umakunai, not clever or skillful, right?
For the rest of the flight we intermittently slept and talked, exchanging language and ideas. My lust had subsided entirely. I wasn’t exactly fiending to get laid in the first place. I had virtually lost interest in sex to be honest, and she’d behaved as if the hand job had never happened.
“So how long have you been studying English?” I asked her, just to change the subject of the conversation I was having in my head.
“Anoo…since children we study English in elementary school and Junior High School and High School. But, grammar only. So, I don’t speak English well.”
“Who are we?”
“You said ‘we study.’ Who are we?”
“So, everybody knows English?”
“But, almost everybody can’t speak.”
“Well, I guess that’s where I come in, huh?”
“That swear icon…nani?”
“That is where I come in. It’s an expression. Means that’s why I’m coming to Japan.”
“Ah, sokka. That is where you come,” she beamed, like this conversation was something she’d cherish for years to come. “Your accent is cool.”
“What accent?” I snapped defensively, thinking instinctively she was taking another stab at being innocently offensive.
“You have American accent, deshou?”
“What’s an American accent? There’s about 100 different accents in America.”
“Ayyy…ah so na no. Shiranakatta.”
“I didn’t know, means Shiranakatta.”
“You didn’t know? You think me and George Bush have the same accent?” I asked, incredulously. Then, putting on my best Bush impersonation, I said, “‘My fellow Americans…America must defend itself against evildoers that want to destroy our way of life’…I sound like that?”
She laughed. “You are good actor, do you know that? Jouzu dayo.”
As we talked, I began to notice that she was chockfull of stereotypes and generalizations about everything from the difference between “American” culture and “British” culture, and how British culture is more like Japanese culture because it is an island too, to how British English is proper English and therefore the best English to learn but she prefers American English because Americans are cooler. It was like she learned about everything outside of Japan from some Western Culture Cliffs Notes. And, she’d studied the material well. I sat there in amazement. I’d encountered ignorant people before but she was something else.
“They teach you all this nonsense in school?” I asked.
“Eeee…nonsense wa nani?”
“Nonsense…umm…bad information, misinformation…”
“Isn’t it true?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Honto dayo. Proper English depends on upbringing and education and whatnot. Not what country you’re from. Some British people can speak properly but most can’t. Same in America. But that doesn’t matter because no one cares as long as they can understand and be understood. Communication is more important than speaking properly, don’t you think?”
“Ah so nan da. Thank you for teaching me. Hai, communication is more important. Demo, in Japan, speaking properly is more important, too.”
“More important than communicating?”
“Unn, more important sometimes.”
“It’s Japanese culture…you must speak properly. It’s rude to use not properly words.”
I kept grilling her for hours about culture and language. She was my first interaction and I had a book to write, after all.
As Natsumi spoke, and even though some of her English was unintelligible, I found myself captivated by her cuteness. She had a way of making me feel…I don’t know, bigger. More important than I knew I was. I basically talked about some of the same things I would talk about with a girl I just met back home in the US. The kinds of things that would usually make me feel like the most boring person alive. Those topics whose presentation I’d been trying to tweak, entertainment-wise, over the course of my adult life, as opposed to removing them altogether, because for some reason I felt they were essential to starting a relationship. Such as, my place of birth, my educational background, my job history, family, ex-loves, etc…By the time I’d get through all of that, if I even got that far, I’d usually forget my initial motivation and wind up with a new friend instead of an invitation to bed.
But, with Natsumi it was different. She was riveted, hanging on my every word, and just as wide-eyed as if I’d been explaining the secret to speaking English fluently in just 2 weeks; a salacious smile here, a girlish giggle here, encouraging questions throughout. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I had become one of the great conversationalists of our time. She, however, was not. Not in English, anyhow. But, I didn’t care, and apparently neither did she.
I’ve never had a fascination with Asian women. They were so high on the untouchable list where I come from that I didn’t even bother to fantasize about them. Black women, sure, white women, sometimes, latino women, occasionally. But, that cutie in the Chinese restaurant did not make it into my masturbatory ruminations. Nor did that honey that works at the fruit market, or the cleaners, or the liquor store…They were there, but they were not there. They were just these beautiful women admired from afar. I love to gaze into the heavens but I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut.
What did capture my imagination about Asia was the culture, truly. Albeit, it was a culture I learned about mostly through books written by non-Asians, news reported by non-Asian news agencies (and thus tainted,) and from movies. And if the news and films from Asia were anything like the news and film in the US, then clearly what I saw was a misrepresentation or at best an exaggeration of the reality. Ironically, of the three sources, the movies were probably the most useful because they were indeed created by Asians themselves, and though some may have been created for foreign consumption, many were tailored to the taste of Asian filmgoers, and we in the west were an afterthought. So, the only way I was going to get an accurate look at the real was to go there, not as a tourist, but as a visitor, for an extended period.
Ever since I was a child, the movies from the East have held the strongest appeal; The Kung-fu action movies especially. The principles were so simple: heroes and villains fought it out and the heroes always win. But, the characters were very colorful. A drunk versus a monkey, eventually discovering they are on the same side, both heroes, with a common villain, a snake. So in the end, it’s a drunken monkey versus a snake. A snake versus a Shaolin monk. A Shaolin monk versus a Ninja. A Ninja versus a samurai. A samurai versus the Shogun. You killed my father, killed my master, raped and killed my wife and daughter, invaded my country, burned down my temple, betrayed the Shogun, mercilessly killed many of my people, and now I’m back for revenge. Revenge! Revenge! You do something bad and, you can bet your ass, retribution is forthcoming. Retribution at, literally, the hands, or sword, of a martial artist who’d been training daily since childhood in order to forge his mind, body and soul into a tool for survival, an instrument of defense, and a weapon capable of inconceivable feats of strength, endurance, and yet somehow it’s all very plausible. I love it!
Later I realized what I found most interesting was not the fighting, though. It was the glimpse at the ideology behind the fights, at the civilization that made the fight possible and inevitable. These were snapshots of Asia, even though they were probably filmed in a movie studio and controlled by a communist regime. Who cares? The lies we tell, tell as much about us as the truth. Our heroes are our best selves.
An American hero is a clever clown who uses his wit and charm to overcome stupid villains. A Chinese hero is a skinny guy who sacrifices his life for the good of his family, community, nation and race. An American hero overcomes the challenges of his life, his junior high school level education, his black skin, his cancerous brain, his missing limbs or diminished mental faculties, prejudices and various other character shortcomings and learns that money isn’t the key to happiness, and one is rich if one has friends, and finds the love of a great woman. An Asian hero obeys his father regardless of his own independent idea, even unto his death, for his father’s face is more important than anything else. An American hero comes from another world to discover that democracy is the greatest political system in the galaxy, or that human feelings are their greatest asset, and devotes his virtually invincible life to defending and spreading it. A Chinese hero carries wine jars up a mountain with boulders tied to his legs and beats the bark off of trees until, eventually, and by eventually I mean after many years of self-torture and sacrifice, gains the ability to scale high walls in a single bound, block swords with his arms, break blades with his hands, and kick so hard the force embeds his opponent in a concrete wall, all the while guzzling wine from a jug the size of a keg. An American hero dedicates his or her life to helping the poor, hungry, diseased and crippled. The Asian hero gladly sacrifices his life at the behest of his liege lord for political reasons. The American hero rushes into a burning building with a hose and fire retardant clothing and saves lives. A Chinese hero prays to Buddha while the temple burns around him until he is engulfed in flames, still holding his beads.
The values portrayed were similar to the values I was raised on, just a little more, well, ruthless? Guiltless?
Christianity has this good versus evil thing too but since you’re not supposed to judge people, who’s to say who’s good and who’s evil aside from God? You can say the bad guy was possessed by evil spirits or the devil or just had a rough childhood. He grew up poor and hungry and decided that he would never be that way again, no matter what he has to do. So he steals, or kills. Or you can say the good guy is good because he sacrifices himself in the spirit of the good of the many outweighing the good of the few, or the one, or he saves lives regardless of the risk, or he does anything extraordinary or not in the name of altruism. And, you may be right. But, I guess I got sick of Hollywood teaching me western, thus European, morality and decided I wanted to learn how universal these values were for myself.
So, I found myself years later on a plane sitting next to a beautiful Asian girl who tells me that her culture’s ambition is to be more like the Europeans.
I hoped she was wrong.