The Sound of Goodbye

Here I sit on a trans-pacific flight, a tag groggy after a light nap. I am embarking (or perhaps disembarking) on a great adventure. Today finds me leaving my much-loved country of Japan, the land I have called home for as long as I could identify a ‘home’, and the land that has been my actual physical home for fourteen of my twenty years. This departure comes with a feeling of sadness, more aptly described by ‘pang‘ then the ‘tinge’ I have felt so often before when boarding an aircraft for a foreign country. Indeed, sometimes I have felt very little sorrow when leaving Japan, but I was much younger back then, and a lot less wise.

As a missionary kid who is uprooted every at least every four years and forced to adapt to a new environment, I have never been a stranger to change. Most time I faced it with courage, ready to tackle the new challenge ahead with the support of a loving family and a rambunctious younger brother. In truth, change is now so ingrained in me that I find myself feeling uneasy and yearning for a new setting every few years, a change of routine that I can re-accustom myself too. Yes, I have become accommodated to travel - to constantly seek broader horizons and brighter vistas.

So then, in light of that explanation, what set of circumstances have me feeling pangs of sorrow upon what will be my 25th airplane flight in 20 years? The answer is pretty straight forward - every other time, I had plans of returning. This time I embark for the United States unsure of when I will return to Japan, the closest place to a home that I have. I will arrive in America with plans to begin work, purchase vehicular transportation, and launch out on my own. I cannot do this in Japan. Japan, as it stands now, represents a safe place; somewhere too familiar for me to take risks and challenge myself. At this point in my life, I feel that I can do no more growing in Japan. I need a change. And for the first time in my life I have no plans made to return to my parents. I believe this is healthy for me.

But it is not easy. Tearful goodbyes were said to my mother and father. People who are close friends of mine in Japan I shared a last beer with; unsure of when I will see them again.

At the same time, the silver lining is bright. One of the upsides of the missionary-travel lifestyle is that almost everyone you know travels just as much as you do, and therefore you always have an a completely unexpected reunion to look forward too. (Who would have known that you would both happen to be in Tierra del Fuego in October!) A lifetime of traveling has made us flexible, and spontaneous schedule changes cause unexpected meetings. These moments I can look forward too. A goodbye can never be fully accepted, because hope is always present.

This past weekend then I fully packed up my room, loaded my suitcases in the car, and rode with my dad to the airport. Long car rides like that are always so hard. On one hand you want to get as much conversation as possible, with this person whom you are soon to leave, into the ever-diminishing time remaining. On the other hand, conversation is very hard to force. If you genuinely don’t have anything to talk about, you end up waiting for your plane alone, full of manufactured regret. Fortunately, this did not happen to me this time around. The goodbye with my father was of course quite hard. I respect the man so much, and it is hard to part with someone who you know loves you and wants what’s best for you, even if that means you leaving him. Holding back the tears I made my way to the gate.

As I rounded a corner I saw a shop attendant standing in front of her duty-free store with a plate of free samples. “Man, what a boring job,” I thought. Seriously, who wants to stand there all day holding a tray? What was on the tray, however, a complimentary shot of a premium Scotch, was very much appreciated and immediately brought a smile to my face. God bless Japan.

All of the mundane boarding procedures went smoothly, and I soon found myself sitting in a seat with ample legroom. I whipped out a book on Leninism that I had stuck in my briefcase and proceeded to devour chapter one and regurgitate detailed notes, all the while munching on the complimentary, well-packaged pretzels and sipping a can of Sapporo beer. Though there is something very blue-collar and perhaps even proletariat about drinking beer and reading Lenin, they don’t quite go well together.

Also, yay for nice stewardesses. Yay!

I will soon land, get my life in order, and boldly take on whatever challenges come my way, knowing that my family and friends support me from afar. Which, when you think about it, is becoming closer and closer with each day that passes. Far is never too far when your whole life revolves around travel.


Lighting up the Room

I am writing this entry from a small McDonalds in Japan. The place holds about thirty people of all ages, offering them the same menu available to millions and millions of people around the world. You may ask, “What is the main difference that makes this one worth blogging about?” One deep breath will give you the answer. This McDonalds is not non-smoking. In fact, it is quite filled with smoke, as a quick glance around will tell you. At least five people are puffing away, with a few others tentatively fingering their cigarette packs and lighters on the tables.

Most people in the US would be outraged, with cries of “Second hand smoke!” ringing out across the McFlurrys and double cheeseburgers. I am not worried. Should I be? Second hand smoke is a proven health hazard and, it is true, I don’t smoke myself, so I have every right to be mad. But I am not. Having spent many blissful hours in smoky arcades, I do – to a degree – find smoke comforting. It takes me to a happy place of sorts. The way it lazily curls up in the air, blanketing the ceiling, gives me something to focus on, something to keep my mind from wandering. But, of course, that is not the only reason I do not mind smoke.

The truth is, I like that fact that Japanese society is tolerant to the degree that it allows smoking in a very child-friendly, family restaurant. I like that people are willing to tolerate other peoples' so-called “filthy” habits in order to allow the greatest variety of people to be at the same place, enjoying the same food, at the same time. Simply put, I am willing to put up with smoke in order to facilitate a tolerant society – a society where people feel free to do what they want, where they want. I even go so far as to consider myself considerate of others because of this. So often we want someone to stop something they are doing – in this case lighting up – because it bothers us. I say, “Is the confrontation and undoubtedly hurt feelings of the smoker worth the complaint? They just want to relax the same way you do. Stop believing you are number one for a few minutes of your day and think of those around you." They want to smoke? Let them.

This is very Japanese of me. And, in a country where porn magazines are regularly read openly on trains, ads on the street for sex shops contain nudity, noise pollution laws are non-existent, and truckers openly urinate on the side of the road, it could be argued that smoking in a public restaurant is the least of the Japanese peoples’ worries.

Putting up with cigarette smoke is a small price to pay for the privilege of being in a society where people are forced to interact with each other. In the suburban US it seems that so much of the population goes from their isolated house to their isolated car - very controlled, environments – and rarely have to interact with other people to the degree that city-dwelling denizens do. People matter, smokers matter, and if having a all-smoking restaurant is part of nurturing the wildly diverse society that is present in Tokyo, more power to them.

Differences Magnified Through Coffee

As I sit here in the Starbucks outside of Tokorozawa station, a Springsteen record barely audible in the background over the hubbub of chatter and small talk, my mind wanders, and I smile at the subtle differences between American and Japanese culture brought into the light when examined in the common setting of a coffee shop. Coffee is such joy for some, a vice for others, and part of the young adult culture as we have come to know it. How we enjoy it, and how it is representative of culture in general, however, varies greatly from country to country.

As I sit here at a bar looking out onto the sidewalk and busy pedestrian traffic, I can’t help but notice just how different and foreign this atmosphere would be to an American in their 20s. This particular Starbucks has seating for about fifty. Most of the tables are set for two, but there is a bar that seats five (where I sit), a group table seating six complete with chill blue lamps, and two sets of armchairs. Items that have become iconic of a Starbucks such as the lamps above the pick-up counter, the checkerboard tables, and the modern abstract art on the walls, are of course present. The clientele, however, is much more varied than at a typical American Starbucks. As I look around I see young girl, maybe 12, sitting with her older brother. There are five college age kids sitting at the group table, a grandma eating a baumkuhen alone, a black (saying 'African American' seems silly here) street vendor ordering coffee, a woman reading a book. People of every age, ethnicity, and color come here. Due to the high recognition of the chain the place often finds itself as a haven for foreigners. The staffs are considered appropriately, and most of the baristas at any Starbucks you enter will speak basic English.

The ‘yuppie’ image, so associated with patrons of Starbucks and other supposedly ‘high end’ coffee shops in America, is non-existent here. Why is that? I believe it is because the famous chain is so accessible here. Starbucks is everywhere, and it offers patrons a place to rest, come in out of the summer heat, and enjoy a good caffeinated beverage. But more importantly, it is seen as just a coffee place. The fact that it may be somewhat expensive is not a factor when you think about the many benefits and relaxing atmosphere that literally wraps itself around you when you enter. So what if I just paid ¥460 for a venti iced caffĂ© latte? I get to sit here for as long as I want, soaking up the ambience of the establishment, sipping my beverage, writing this entry, and smiling at the passersby on the other side of the tinted window. I am in no hurry to go anywhere. Starbucks in Japan is a place for the common person, a place for anyone at any time.

As you can probably now imagine, Starbucks is incredibly popular in Tokyo. Granted, I have no experience with a Starbucks in any major US city, but I would imagine they are not varied to the degree that they are in Tokyo. The one I am currently at has two wings, one on the outside of the station, and one on the inside, offering coffee to people waiting for a train on the platform. The Starbucks in Hiroo, an area of Tokyo known for having quite a few embassies, has a four-story Starbucks. The busiest Starbucks in the world, located at the Hachiko intersection of Shibuya, refuses to offer Short versions of the drinks because of the great volume of people they must serve in a day. The Christian Academy in Japan, my alma mater, has even managed to arrange a nearby Starbucks to cater to special events they have on campus during the school year.

So, what causes the great differences in how Starbucks is perceived in the West versus how it is in the East? Does it have to do with the transportation involved – the car vs. the train? Does it have to do with accessibility? Location? Advertising and product placement? I doubt it.

I believe that it has to do with the stigma surrounding the place; the attitude of the Japanese when patronizing Starbucks. The Japanese simply see it as a place to get coffee. Nothing more. Social class is not an issue. Nobody will think you are stuck up. Starbucks is simply a place for a very busy society to slow down; a place to relax and talk. There’s very little planning involved in going to a Starbucks; it is simply a place to go, a place to be. You, whoever you are, are always welcomed at Starbucks, and it shows in the appreciation and recognition given by the people of Japan.