It was like seeing a real-world person stepping suddenly into a prolonged and barely lucid dream. A black and white character bursting through into a Technicolor television landscape, a visitor from a distant planet where all of the fashion is distinctly alien, where the language is barely even language. Greeting a member of my family at the airport in Korea, seeing an electric spectre of home life suddenly alive and befleshed in my long, bizarre sojourn was bewildering. Two worlds meeting, despite them seeming untenable, and just too far to bring together.
It is, I suppose, a chicken and the egg sort of thing, blended with a healthy dose of confirmation bias. Was Tokyo always a weird place? Or did people seek out weird things, and those things became popular, and thus the bizarre and the ludicrous in turn grew more profitable, more popular, more verdant and lushly crazy? If you go into Tokyo, Japan, seeking mainly to have the weirdest time you can, isn’t it just your own fault for then leaving and thinking of the place as, essentially, an enormous, metropolitan Wonka Chocolate Factory? The answer to many of these questions may be yes.
Which is a way of saying: my weekend in Tokyo was pretty weird, everybody. Just as I wanted.
We were sitting at dinner, discussing essentially nothing: food or books or music. The din around us was filled with the sound of other people speaking, the clatter of spoons and chopsticks on dishes, sizzling things in enormous central pots. Suddenly, I perked like a bloodhound, and raised a hand to my friend to stop speaking.
“The women at the table behind us are speaking English.”
Beth tensed, alarmed. We were both in fight or flight mode, without intending it. “What? No. Impossible.”
We both stopped to listen, and in time confirmed that the syllables being exchanged adjacent to us were similar to our own. We were petrified. We felt awkward. How could we go on speaking to each other now? There was a miniscule chance that we might be overheard.
There are times when I imagine a rending of the universe, like a zipper coming down in the thin sheen of reality. The fabric of space and time rips open, and out pops me: a me with more years, with more miles. He would be drenched in a coating of intertemporal vernix, because that’s what happens with time-travel. There would be lines on his face, scars on his skin, and also a time-machine, because I like to think I would have found access to that sort of technology. He would be coming back to talk to old me with news of great import, if he had bothered to travel back at all: grave danger or some sort of quest. But I also wonder at what kind of look he would give me. What kind of advice he would give me.
I wonder if he would totally hate my guts.
Korea in the summer is a sort of wide, hilly crock-pot. The humidity is high and soupy, and walking is basically no different from swimming. The warmth is incredible and only endurable for the regular and everlasting thunder storms which gush and guzzle for weeks at a time. In such a hot, sweaty apparatus, things start to waft. Summer in Korea is a time of duality, of scents that repel and attract. Down one street, something gently ushers into your nose, calling you forth to embrace it, to eat it, or drink it, or roll in it; down just another alley is an ungodly stench that may as well be personally assaulting you and stealing your wallet.
“Do you mind if we sit with you?”
I was outdoors, minding my own business, but being as precariously white as I am, this alone can attract attention. Looking up, I took an inventory of the sudden, unexpected English producers. They were young, younger than me; their hair was prim and jaunty, their grins placid and probably genuine. They wore short-sleeved dress shirts with thin black ties and nametags. They seemed happy and unlined, their skin baby-smooth and pallid, their teeth numerous and straight and enormous. It looked like they had never touched a cigarette or a drop of alcohol or anything particularly fun beyond a board game in some time, or maybe ever.
There was no way they were not Mormons.
One of my greatest joys when travelling is the local food. Tracking down the good eats comes just behind getting into the country and finding a place to sleep. With time I’ve even come to grow more selective in my travel partners, based purely on ingestion-based criteria : exactly how much can they eat? How adventurous with taste and texture and varieties of animals? Are they open to eating more than one dinner, or inventing wholly different meals throughout the day when hunger or something delicious-smelling strikes us? Of course, the dinner companion is not the only concern: we need to actually get the food, first, in order to eat it. And making that happen while abroad is sometimes not so easy.
“Michael,” my coworker quavers. She is clutching a notebook in her hands, and she only uses this tone when she is about to say something she knows will upset or infuriate me. She has steeled herself for this conversation, has thought of every permutation. She has maybe practiced it a few times before a mirror, to rehearse. “The teachers had a meeting yesterday with the Vice Principal. About English education. They have some ideas that they want you to do…”
Even when I was young, there was always a bookshelf in my room. As a boy, the books were big in dimension and heavy with colour: every page was an explosion of primaries and secondaries, huge fonts scrawling across cardboard and paper and soft felt. My parents would buy me dozens of books and read them with me or endure my first faltering, stuttered forays into reading them myself. My mom’s books would be stuffed under the coffee table in the living room, my eldest sister’s ferreted away when she moved out. My grandparents had their own immense bookshelves, filled with Pattersons and Grishams for my father’s father, Binchys and old poetry and probably still more Grishams for my mother’s mother. There was a library just down the street, and most summers they had some sort of program to trick children into reading by dressing it up in the garb of the Olympics, of old Medieval tournaments, of strange futuristic robots-and-lasers plots. I knew the ruse, but didn’t care. Give me a book and fill up my sticker collection, I had a summer to fill.