Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lost in Translation

My husband goes to Japan once a year and I have gone with him twice.  The first time was very unnerving for me because I am no stranger to anxiety, and lack of sleep or a major change in sleep patterns (there is a 14 hour difference where night and day are reversed) only intensifies this affliction.

They have "greeters" that stand outside the elevator and in various areas of the hotel.  Sometimes there are two and three at a time and that is ALL they do - they get paid to stand there and smile and bow.   My husband gets very annoyed at this and says things like, "It creates so much overhead" and other things that I pretend to understand.

I actually LIKE the greeters.  They seem really genuine.  If there were greeters in America, they would bow and smile and then when you walked away they would turn to their coworker and make fun of your fat ass.  I tried to catch them doing this in Japan, but they were always still bowing and smiling even after I was around the corner.   

Looking back, the entire time I was there, I was off my game completely.  I was there for a week so I had plenty of opportunities to make an ass of myself and I did not disappoint.  I felt so out of it the entire time.  I want you to imagine being the only American on the train or turning on the television and not understanding a thing that is being said.  Don't get me wrong, the Japanese people are the most polite people in the world, I just felt like a big white, blond sore thumb the entire time I was there.

The "Western-Style" hotel we stayed at housed people from all over the globe.  One morning at breakfast, I was feeling anxious as usual, and the chandeliers started to tremble.  Everyone looked up and then continued their conversations.  I was beside myself.  All of the blood drained out of my face and I stepped one foot out from under the table preparing to sprint out of the dining room, down the hall and out of the hotel.  In his usual fashion,  my husband put down his fork and said, "What in the hell are you doing?"

"We are about to have an earthquake, " I stammered.  "I am NOT going to sit here and eat undercooked EGGS while it happens."

My husband stopped the waitress and asked her about the tremor that he still was not convinced just happened.  It was like that dream you have where you are checking out at the grocery and you look down to realize that you are naked from the waist up.  You are horrified but no one else seems to understand your stress level.

The server politely explained that it was, in fact, a tremor and that it happened frequently.  In my defense, Japan had a significant earthquake a few weeks after we returned to the states.  SO I AM NOT CRAZY.

The sushi is NOT the sushi you are used to here.  It has eyes and scales and feels like you are swallowing a slug.  I liked eating salad for breakfast, though.  After a while you will eat anything that looks remotely familiar whenever you can get it.

That is not to say that every meal was terrible. because it wasn't, and our hosts were extremely accommodating.  Unfortunately, even the meals that I enjoyed, I had to endure the slimy appetizers that preceded them.  The Japanese watch you like a hawk, and if you do not eat something they become concerned and offended.

My husband basically enjoys the food that my children enjoy - pizza, chicken fingers and hamburgers.  When I think of meals with him in Japan I think of his pale face grimacing while he pretended to swallow something and then spitting it in his napkin when they looked away.  When they looked back he would always smile. At the end of the trip, I would choke down the appetizers like they were some challenge on Survivor only to look down to find another one on my plate that my husband had sneaked  there.

One of the days there, we went to what they call a "spa" up in the mountains.  You would no more recognize their spa than you would their sushi.  It is a Ryokan, which has traditional Japanese style accommodations which means you put a kimono on and you sleep on a mat of the floor.  Hey, and guess what?  More slimy exotic fish tank raided meals - that's right, dinner AND breakfast.

Upon arrival my husband instructed me to just start drinking beer to get through the dinner.  "It's gonna be the worst one yet. Put on your robe.  They're gonna be here any minute."
"What are we doing now?" I naively asked.
"We will drink some more and then we will go to the spa."

I perked right up, for the word "spa" conjured up images of shiatsu massages and mani-pedis - to no avail, my friends. After we drank beers in the room, we all traveled in our grandma house shoes (Brad and my toes poking out) to the spa.  (Have I mentioned how ridiculous my husband looks in traditional Japanese attire.  He is Godzilla there.)

As we rounded the corner, Brad goes, "this is where we separate" and I found myself smack dab in the middle of a sea of naked Japanese women.  There was obviously some protocol that I was supposed to be following but because I didn't speak the language I tried the "observe and mimic" routine that had become all too familiar to me.    

So this older Japanese woman comes up to me and is trying to get me to understand the spa customs.  It has already been explained to me that the Ryokan is a sacred place for the Japanese and is it is obviously a real treat for our hosts who work constantly.  The woman has a washcloth on her head and she is pointing to the empty baskets in the cubby holes that I assumed were for my personal effects - like underwear.

As I strip down, she becomes more and more animated and (it seems to me) irritated.  In my sleep-deprived, buzzed state, I am simultaneously exasperated and embarrassed.   EVERYONE is looking at me.  It is PACKED.  The woman continues to bark at me after I have deposited my stuff in the basket and, naked as a jay bird, I make the decision to put the washcloth the attendant gave me on my head.

"OKKKAAAY.  Are you happy?  I have no idea what you are saying to me!"

 The laughter was deafening. The acoustics in the stone room were perfect for this type of outburst.  No, it gets better.  Then I had to, with everyone watching, squat naked over a stool (I have not touched a public toilet in my life, let alone some stool that generations of naked Japanese women have sat on) while I scrubbed myself worthy of a costarring role in Silkwood.  I can only HOPE that you all will never have to feel the way that I felt in that moment in your entire lifetime.

Finally, I escape outside to the open air hot spring tub overlooking a cliff.  It truly was beautiful, if only I could unclench my teeth. As I concentrated on becoming invisible to the two other women in the water with me, a booming American voice over the wall on the Men's side bellows, "So, you guys come here a lot?"

P.F. Changs is my favorite Asian restaurant.  I don't really eat sushi.  I will eat it but when the Japanese come to visit, we always take them there.  I mean, they traveled thousands of miles, but at the end of the day, it is really about ME.  Their Dan Dan Noodles are to die for.  I like their Mongolian Beef, Honey Shrimp, and Garlic Chicken.  Get their Won Ton soup sometime, too.  It is extremely fresh.

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