Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urashima Taro Part 1: Platinum Smiles

From an old blog, this is part 1 an account of when I visited the US in 2006, my first visit after for 9 years of living in Japan.

January 24th, 2006

We woke up early to get the cab to the airport. The apartment had been prepared for departure, and our luggage was logically grouped so that we could concentrate on the baby and leave. Before we left, R had the idea that we should measure ourselves and write a little goal for the trip. I wrote that I would look into graduate schools; R, that she would eat something really delicious. We gave N the goal of having fun with his American relatives.

While waiting to board, I saw the pilot at Miyazaki airport open the window to wipe the windshield with a little spray bottle and rag. In system administration, there are people using paper clips to patch cables and fix keyboards, but I thought jet planes would be more... high tech and careful. Is opening that window a good idea? I thought that aviation would be an alchemy of momentum and thrust, balance and lift, but there is the pilot leaning out the window of the cockpit to clean his windshield.

We are heading to Tokyo on a plane with what appears to be about over 100 students from Nichinan Agriculture and Forestry High School. For most of them, this is probably their first trip to Tokyo and maybe even their first time on a plane.

As we waited at the gate to board, the baby was a big star. Some of the female students asked to have their pictures taken with him. I don't blame them. He is terribly cute.

In the cabin, businesspeople, jaded to the whole act of flying, read the news of the arrest of Livedoor's president Horiuchi as we lift off. Most closed their eyes or read their planners while right past their elbow was the miracle of flight. The high school students squealed and applauded at liftoff, as well they should. They have much to look forward to, both long- and short-term, as they are on their way to Tokyo, Japan's Land of Oz.

It is a shame that the business commuters continued to be unimpressed with flight, even as the shadows of clouds majestically drifted across the sea. In contrast to excited teens and jaded commuters, my 1-year-old son nursed a bit and then went right to sleep. He had no idea that we are aboard the grand machine he loves to point to in picture books. We live near the airport, and he loves to find airplanes when they pass overhead, pointing to them and saying, "airplane" and "hikouki bun-bun." Before boarding, he was enthralled by the sight of real airplanes dwarfing the people scurrying about below them. However, he did not realize that he was in one, probably because we boarded through a tunnel, not seeing the outside of the plane. It does not look the same from the inside.

As for myself, I was in another state, another place of mind. While I was enjoying the novelty of my first trip home in nine years, I was not thinking of myself or my interests and desires at all, only of the wife and child that I had to care for. I would be responsible for navigating and translating the whole time, and I had to get my mind in order.

I like to watch people, though. The business flyers carried on with their newspapers, and it was fun to catch the flight attendant reading the front page of the man in the first row... a glimpse of the human behind the uniform. I am always pleased to find these moments, to peek through the role at the person playing it: the extra dab of foundation to cover a pimple, the note written on a backhand or thumb, the fashion magazine clipping sticking out of a uniform pocket.

The fashion magazine clipping was a fun discovery. I was on a business trip to Fukuoka a long time ago, looking at Epson printers at the showroom there. The woman attending to me was perfectly ordered and polite, extremely businesslike. I was impressed at the time, because this was the big city of Fukuoka, and she was perfect - conservatively beautiful and poised, never stuttering, never pausing from her perfect speech rhythm and polite Japanese. But then I noticed a face sticking out of the pocket of her uniform. I made a joke about it being a lucky charm or photographic proof of ghosts. It turns out that she was considering making this her next hairstyle for her sister's wedding the next weekend. It was a wonderful moment, as she blushed and suddenly became a person, not a function. Her tone changed, and her polite Japanese become a little warmer, her movements a little more casual. A few levels of politeness fell away like someone peeling back layer after layer of lace curtains.

The flight attendant on the Japanese domestic flights were like that, too. They are completely immersed in their role, and finding that person behind the role, the human being performing a function, is very difficult. Catching a flight attendant reading a passenger's newspaper made me feel somehow privileged.

These moments remind us that people performing these functions are just that, performing. We call them occupations because they occupy our time. The actions and functions inhabit our days, hours, our entire lives. But we also "occupy" a job or position in the same way that we occupy space or a home. We learn the content of that position and fill that space. The flight attendant occupies her rear-facing chair, her perfect make-up and poise presented to the passengers as a human interface to the airline itself. Not even the most traditional old-world gentleman would offer to help her serve apple juice and chilled green tea, because she occupies that role. She has filled the position, and the position is full of her.

Besides, we are too busy being passengers. One of us may be an engineer reviewing Mitsubishi mechanical notes, another a restaurant franchise district manager preparing for an orientation, another a high school boy deciding how he will present himself, and there I was being a young father and inexperienced traveler who had no idea of what he should do when.

The transition from All Nippon Airlines to United was a culture shock. ANA flight attendants are like precision instruments: even if the attendant is not young and beautiful, she (always she) is perfect and poised in her role, with no self-consciousness about performing a job. In Japan, even young hooligans with pierced noses and dyed blue hair are perfectly-mannered when on duty at the fast-food shop or pub. The individual never interferes with the role. No matter where you go in Japan, clerks, waitresses, and attendants are their roles, and little evidence of their individuality is visible when they are on duty. The Japanese do not seem to have the same embarrassment about being absorbed by a role or job.

The United flight attendants, unlike the All Japan stewardesses, were male and female, and they were older than the All Japan stewardesses... much older. They were stately, round, and mellow, and their approach to the job was not one of filling a role and becoming the job. They were doing the job, and they were doing it well, but they were bringing their own style to it, making each attendant different, with a distinct character. Each one of them brought a part of him- or herself to the job. and each colored the job itself rather than blending in, chameleon-like, to the color of the job. One matronly attendant had a broad Massachusetts accent and gave passengers suggestions like she was giving advice on good living. Another was a precise older man with a mid-Western accent, and his style was matter-of-fact and clean. In this paradigm, you are doing the job because you have chosen to do so.

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