Whenever someone spends time in a different culture, there are bound to be moments when the differences seem so extreme that the visitor’s mind goes “Boing! Did I really just (see, hear, feel, taste) that?” I know, for a fact, that visitors to the United States often cannot comprehend the portion sizes in American restaurants, and that is just a small example of the weirdness that can be found in American society.
When you visit a culture that is still very grounded in tradition and ceremony, and then run across events that seem surreal and extreme even in modern society, that event can and will leave an everlasting impression.
This was one of those days.
I lived in Okayama, Japan for three years, teaching English conversation at two different Language schools. Those years represent a powerful time of my life–a time where I grew into my own identity, learned to live on my own, found my first “home,” began to understand the complexities of our world, embraced the beauty and mystery found in other cultures and belief systems . . . The list of what I learned from that experience goes on and on, including both positive and negative experiences.
Most of the negative experiences came from cultural misunderstanding and opposing belief systems that would never be reconciled. On this particular day tradition, moral issues, sexuality and power came together to create a sound that still resonates.
The day, which took place during my first year there, began when Akemi a good friend (and student) invited Mary and me to her Tea Ceremony at her friend Kanzaki-san’s home. Sensei and Kanzaki-san wanted to meet me, and wanted me to learn the tea ceremony. Of course, when a gaijin (foreigner) is invited to experience something typically Japanese, it very rarely consists of simple observations. On this day, Sensei insisted on dressing me in Kimono and taking pictures, as well as having me participate in a tea ceremony. Putting me into a kimono was quite the endeavor. In addition to the general wrapping, tucking, and binding that any Japanese woman must endure to wear these beautiful robes, I had the added pleasure of being bound as tightly as possible to try to flatten my–ahem–”bodacious ta tas” (to borrow from a quote made on my legendary bra post). However, after several painful moments, I found myself in a beautiful pink silk kimono ready for photographs and my first lesson in tea.
The photos themselves are revealing . . . women dressed in kimono, posing without smiles, followed by one shot that shows what we had for lunch. The oh so traditional box from McDonald’s. ;)
The ceremony was beautiful, despite my legs falling asleep as I sat with them curled under me in the traditional way and the thick bitterness of the green tea. I was really honored to be included.
After the ceremony we sat and ate a more truly traditional treat of O-manju and tea. Then the discussion turned to what we should do next. (In typical fashion, any adventure I had with Japanese friends usually turned into an all day or several day event). Kanzaki-san suggested that we all go to dinner, and then go to a bar that she either owned or another friend owned or something (I’m still not quite clear of the connection, which is a little disturbing).
Many hours, meals and discussions later we found ourselves in a bar we had never been to before, and that’s when the day took a darkly bizarre twist.
It turned out that the bar was a gay bar. I was okay with that, although a little surprised. At that time of my life I wasn’t quite as comfortable with discussion of any kind of sexuality (particularly my own), and hadn’t started vocalizing for people’s right to love and marry as they please. Come to think of it, this experience might have been the beginning of my own beliefs in equality and human rights. Anyway, I digress. The bar had some, for lack of a better term, host(esses) that were there to entertain the customers. These men were dressed impeccably with more style and a better use of makeup than I ever had.
As soon as we entered, we created a stir. This wasn’t unusual, a single gaijin always attracted attention, two gaijin with a group of Japanese women (including the wealthy Kanzaki-san) entering a gay bar is like Branjelina entering a McDonald’s in Kansas. The owners rushed to welcome us, and insisted that the hostesses entertain us.
The owners wore expensive suits, they toted tight curls on their heads, and I think at least one of them was missing a part of his pinkie. All together that indicated that they were members of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. My time in Japan is marked by some strange interactions with yakuza–some scary, some amusing. During my last two years there, I lived down the street from them, and they seemed to enjoy having their token gaijin around. In a strange way, I always felt safe knowing they were there.
Anyway, the owners eventually left us in the capable hand of their hostesses. I found myself drinking, dancing, and talking with a man dressed as a woman, who was flirting with me as if he found me attractive. Whenever the bosses were watching, the fun games and flirting grew louder. But, in quieter moments, sitting at the table with Mary and some of the other hostesses, the dark story came out.
These men were from the Philipines. They had come to Japan to find work, and had their passports stolen. While some of them were truly gay, some were not, but were forced to service customers if they wanted any chance of getting their passports back and getting out.
I had walked into the dark underbelly of Japanese society. The place where girl’s panties are sold out of vending machines, and women’s bare breasts are fondled on national tv. The place where the men get the idea that all American women are whores, which made them aggressive at times including trying to pull me into cars or telling me “You will not go home. You will go to a hotel with me.” (Another bar, another day. My response: SMACK!!!!!)
I know this darkness exists everywhere. I’m sure the twisted side of American culture is even darker and more terrifying. Those darker truths are sometimes revealed only to strangers, and I was truly a stranger in Japan.
The dichotomy between the ancient traditions of Japan and this made this day truly distinct. From kimono to McDonald’s from Tea Ceremony to dancing in the arms of a gay transvestite–my world swirled from the sublime to the ridiculous in mere hours.
The hostesses reached out to Mary and me, asking us for help. I admit, Mary tried to help, but I was too afraid . . . I don’t really know the end of the story. That makes me sad.
So there you have it, folks, the truth behind my memetastic truth. Not necessarily a funny story, but one that resonates in my life and had a powerful impact on who I have become. I promise to add some of the pictures from that day as soon as I can recover them from boxes that remain packed.
Thanks for listening to my tale.