An odd sort of homecoming
NOTE: This post started out as a
brief thank-you to all those who hosted and spent time with me on this
monthlong trek. However, the raconteur lying latent within awoke and
had me pound out this long blog-style post in one sitting. So rather
than give you installments like in the past (like the case of my Peace
Boat Reports (http://www.debito.org/peaceboatreports.html)),
let me do this all in one installment, with my thank-yous within. All
photos courtesy of my cellphone digital camera. Arudou Debito in
CALIFORNIA TRIP AUGUST 2005
Hello Allison, Roddy, TJ, Jeff, Barry, Don, Larry, Portia, David,
Steve and Yuki, Chalmers and Sheila, Sonia, Colin, and Joe Mama and
Arudou Debito here, back in Sapporo as of September 1, saying
thanks for all the hospitality you showed me during my California stay
in August 2005. But rather than end it there, please allow me to recap
for those who are interested in what happened. This is long but I hope
worth the read, especially since those who only saw a slice of my trip
have been asking for an update. Here goes:
LEG ONE: SANTA CRUZ
My month in California (my first in fifteen years, and my first
trip to the USA in a decade) started with my bringing fifteen Japanese
university students (12 from Hokkaido, 3 from Kyushu) over to UC Santa
Cruz, where through an university extension exchange program they did
intensive English classes and homestays for four weeks. And yes (people
have been asking), I did get through American passport control at San
Jose Airport just fine despite being a White guy with a Japanese
passport. The official (an African American gentleman) spoke to me in
Japanese to check I guess to see if I was legit, and put me through the
regular protocol (digital photos and fingerprints, where am I going and
for how long) without so much as a shrug.
We first spent a week in UCSC dorms, where my students soon got
used to Amercian dining. In fact, they ate so much American college
food--you know, the stuff designed for economies of scale in terms of bulk and edibility but not
necessarily nutrition--that I had to caution them to eat more veggies
and cereals! I almost expected a "Yes, mom" from them, but sarcasm isn't Japan's
strong suit. Anyway, during week two my students moved from the UC
Campus proper (one of the most beautiful in the world, where you can't
see the buildings for the forest, of redwood and eucalyptus) to very
friendly homestay families. Likewise I moved for a week to some
university extension apartments, where I spent my time watching movies,
eating Mexican, enjoying Santa Cruz's compact downtown (rebuilt after a
recent earthquake) and scouring stores for used CDs and shoes in my
size (13). Honestly, I had one of the most relaxing times of my life,
where I was only on call in case of emergencies (there were of course
none), and all I really had to do was show up to accompany our
extremely hospitable program host Allison on excursions with our
students to San Francisco, on day hikes, Santa Cruz Pier hikes, what
have you. It's amazing how well you can find yourself not getting bored
when you have absolutely no work to do!
As for my students, to finish this segment of the trip, I found
they were in fact serious about study. One of the advantages of my
school being a lower-tier university in Japan is that my students are
not from the top brackets, either in intelligence or in income. Meaning
they are rarely children of rich families--unlike students from other
prestigious Japanese universities attending UCSC this time--and were
not merely there to see the sights, get drunk, or get laid. Results
mattered to them, since after all, they were forking out often their
own hard-earned money for this experience! One of my favorite moments
happened during my nightly custom, during our first week in the dorms,
of getting everyone together at around 9PM for trumps (we loved Daifugo
and Uno) and conference, to make sure people were settling in properly.
By the third night, few people stayed to play cards. Why? They had
homework to do! Johodai students doing their homework?? Ashita ame ga
Moreover, my hands-off attitude, forged by years of counseling at
scout camps, paid off. The first night there was a panic, because
students locked themselves out of their rooms. After they woke me
up to fix things, I instead demurred, groggily finding the campus
security number, pointing to a phone, and telling them to fix things
themselves while I went back to bed (advising them
to rouse me again only if someone was going to be arrested). It worked.
They put their heads together and fixed it (moreover they never locked
themselves out of their rooms again!). By the end of the third day the
students stopped asking me how to do this and where to go for that
(hell, I was a visitor at UCSC too; what did I know?!) and found they
could fend for themselves, or at least pool their language resources
and work as a cooperative to accomplish any goal. Bravo!
I would choose my group of fifteen mediocre but
dedicated students over fifteen fluent but lazy hangovered souses (some
of whom even disrespectfully called their hosts and fellow
international students "gaijin", which I always growled at). Any day!
In mid-August, my co-worker from university flew over to relieve
me, so I had two weeks off to drive around California. My first stop:
LEG TWO: BAY AREA
College friend Rod (whom I call Roddy, since his late father did,
much to the former's chagrin until he got used to it) came to pick me
up and take me from sunny Santa Cruz to foggy summer downtown SF. I've
known Roddy from a more innocent--naive, rather--time in our lives,
from Freshman Year at Cornell back in 1984, when he still a
church-going judgmental but good-hearted nerd who still thought he was
Straight. People change. Now he lives in a cosy three-bedroom
cooperative with three other men (one his boyfriend, another guy a
charming but slightly scary male gigolo redolent of actor Joe
Pantoliano, and the third a 67-year-old elder of uncertain profession
or bent). Recovering from a bankruptcy (only two plus years remaining
of penance to pay under Chapter 13), Roddy's in the lucrative home loan
business, recovering from various addictions incurred when he hit rock
bottom financially. He also gave me a good primer on how SF society
lives with the AIDs virus (his boyfriend is positive, Roddy still
negative), and how it doesn't seem to put too much of a damper on
lifestyles. Above all, Roddy is still Roddy, except for the shaven head
(I'm realizing just how lucky I am these days with a full head of long
hair at forty.) Next time I visit I anticipate seeing him in full
SF, meanwhile, was a bit of a drag. Dark, cold, and full of fog
each day (quite normal for August), it was as Twain put it: "The
coldest winter I ever saw was a summer in San Francisco". I tried to
find the brighter side--migrating to the sunnier side of the Bay to
Berkeley and UCB. I met with Dr TJ Pempel, director of UCB's Institute
of East Asian Studies, who taught at Cornell when I an undergrad
majoring in government, who caught me up on what's happening in Asian
Studies in the US. I asked him why my book on racial discrimination in
Japan, JAPANESE ONLY (http://www.debito.org/japaneseonly.html),
is being ignored by American academia. His response, in summary: "If
you get beyond the fact that academics receive manuscripts and free
books almost daily and are asked for reviews, moreover have to publish
materials of their own, your book is neither lacking company nor
everyone's cup of tea. JAPANESE ONLY, which I read and thought
important, is still not an academic work per se, which is why no
academic reviewer is paying attention to it. My graduate students found
it informative, however." A little dejected, I still hawked my book to
local libraries and bookstores afterwards, and consoled myself at
Telegraph Avenue's Rasputin and Amoeba Records' used CD bargain bins. I
also bobbed around Nob Hill and the Haight, and got used to traveling
on the fun cable cars and the scary BART subway system (Notices:
"Report anything suspicious to the authorities"?? Looking at the
passengers, where to start?!)
Moreover, two net friends found time in their schedules to take
me out. Jeff of the classic Paramount Theatre, Oakland (who would email
me to say, "I'd write more, but Robert Plant is playing at the
moment..."), took me for a hike around Angel Island (a state park on
the Sausalito side of the bay, overlooking San Francisco and Golden
Gate). Famous as the "Ellis Island of the West", Angel Island has a
bashful history of interning Chinese immigrants during the Eugenics
Laws Era, and has little more than a plaque commemorating the affair.
Also, friend Barry, formerly of Stonebridge Press and now of the Sierra
Club, met me for a Thai lunch, and invited me to spend a night at his
cooperative in little-known Emeryville (abutting publicity hogs
Berkeley and Oakland). I took him up on it. After Roddy dropped me off
at SFO, where I had reserved a rental car (Pontiac Grand Am--a nice
drive), I spent the afternoon getting used to driving on the wrong side
of the road, scaling Mount Diablo for a lovely view of the Bay Area,
and driving around my birthplace, Walnut Creek (of all places! Long
story...), before having dinner with Barry's cooperative (they take
three meals per week together, watch out for each others kids, and
share upkeep of the facility through weekend coordinated schedules) and
dessert of Trader Joe's frozen cheesecake (Fifteen years ago, the last
time I had it, I ate half a cake--probably at least 2000 calories in
one sitting, as the cheesecakes are the size of a small pizza and
inches thick. I was promptly sick; no doubt the fat cells are still
within me to this day.) in their hot tub. We spent the better part of
the night swapping music from my computer (I bought a total of fifty
used CDs during my California month, and converted them all into mp3
for my new iPod: best discovery--the atmospheric and haunting nighttime
guitar music of Canadian world-music genre master Michael Brook.).
Amazing how these chance meetings over the internet keep making for
great intellectual cross-pollenizations and gracious homestays!
LEG THREE: SONOMA COUNTY
Then I headed for Occidental, one of the most beautiful and
relaxing neighborhoods of Northern California--guest at chez Don and
his world-travelling wife Chris. I met Don, a painter and graphic
artist, on the Peace Boat last March, and he impressed me with his
youthful attitude and demeanor even though he's well into his fifties.
He still swims two miles daily (fifty yards straight underwater), and
quickly, too--putting me to shame in the pool as I struggled to make my
usual nonstop kilometer. So I could keep up, he lent me his swim
fins. He also lent me his paintbox--and I settled down to bliss at
for the first time in twenty years to do a portrait in oils
(yes, once upon a time, I wanted to have a career as a graphic artist,
having won a State award for my cartooning in high school; see my
recent cartooning handiwork, parodying Japan's shameful republication
of "Little Black Sambo" at http://www.debito.org/chibikurosanbo.html#parody). It's still drying in Sonoma; oils
take a few months to coalesce nonsmudgingly (especially my favorite
paint, pthalo blue), Don says he'll send it to me if he doesn't sell it
Anyway, I enjoyed the lifestyles of liberal (read: matured
hippie) California. Don spent his working hours designing medicine
labels for pharmaceutical companies (in a reverse-paean to Andy
Warhol's soup cans?), surrounded by his glowingly colorful past
paintings and lots of loud music. Sunny wife Chris worked at the
Charles Schulz Museum (yes, of Snoopy fame) in Santa Rosa, getting me a
discount on various Peanuts paraphernalia (I am a lukewarm fan). And we
went foraging for food in all the organic supermarkets daily. (Amusing
fad: so many labels saying what the product NO LONGER contained: "No
sulfites!" "Paraben free!" "Made without chemicals, keytones, or
polyunsaturated proteins!" (okay, so I'm kidding!)). Interesting to see
what Americans who care about what they put into their bodies now
fashionably eat. And how they scare themselves into customer
loyalty by eating foods "without" something in it. Problem is,
who knows how far we've polluted our bodies with those "additives" up
to now unconsciously, before the corporate world (thank heavens!)
saw sense to worry about our health?!
Here's another irony I saw in California residents: They have one
of the largest economies and progressive governments in the world, not
to mention the most intriguing and beautiful ecosystems anywhere. Yet
do they complain! "Gas is too expensive!" (It's still double-digit
percents cheaper than Japan or most of Europe!) "We have to pay a toll
to cross the Golden Gate Bridge (Yes, a whopping five bucks! Three for
some of the LA toll roads. My daily commute of 45 kilometers in Japan
involves a ten-dollar toll charge. One way.). "It's too foggy!" (For a
few hours daily at only certain times of the year?) For those without
fog, people down in Southern California complain that there is too much
sun and "not enough weather" (They miss the four seasons!? Huh. I never
did during my two years living at UC San Diego!). Reminded me of a
scene in movie THE MATRIX, where machines, using people as
battery power, tried to reproduce a perfect world for humans without
they could enjoy their somnambulance. It didn't work--people wouldn't
believe it, and drones kept snapping out of their trance and fouling up
the system. So the computers created an artificial consciousness full
of dirt and strife that was easier for humans to swallow. Likewise,
California often strikes me as the closest to perfectible green world
one sees in sparkling visions of the future (UC campuses even feel like
Starfleet Academy), where cities and nature abut each other
sustainably. Yet the residents still moan, as if to give their life
LEG FOUR: DOWN TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
This was where I took the blue pill, said my goodbyes to the
wonderful cooking of Don and Chris, and headed south on Route 101
(fast-food hell, but a tasty hell), via SF, through Salinas, and down
to the coast to where Southern California really starts--Pismo Beach. I
arrived at a heartbreak hotel (I was half expecting to see
recently-widowed or divorced people jumping out of windows or doing
Thelma and Louise runs), a well-run place named "Inn at Avila Beach"
(see pictures of Avila Beach at http://www.avilabeachca.com),
and got a late-arrival discount on a charming room (with a four-poster
bed and Mexican-painted toilet bowls) overlooking the beach. I
strolled, ate from a deli, sat in a hammock until it got too cold (darn
fog, gripe gripe), did my laundry for free, and borrowed books from
their library. Recommended as a stopover if you want a comfortable
jaunt driving between north and south.
Especially since I had been advised not to do it all at once,
hearing "tons of stories" (Calfornia slang--they love the word "tons"
with anything coming in large amounts) about how bad LA traffic is. So
I hit the city (now at least 50 miles across) at 1PM on a weekday, and
got through smoothly (it's still nothing compared to Tokyo or Bangkok
traffic, really), arriving at San Diego at 3:30 PM to smell the
eucalyptus at UCSD's also lovely campus. I called my next hosts,
dermatologist Dr Steve and wife Yuki, to find out what time I should
darken his doorstep.
Steve: "Give Chalmers a call. He wants to talk to you."
Whoa. Let me back up a little here. Chalmers Johnson, prominent
Japanologist and Sinologist formerly of UCB and UCSD, is famous for his
analysis of Japan in the 1980's as a successful model of Industrial
Policy, as per his renowned book "MITI and the Japanese Miracle". My
mentor at UCSD, Chalmers retired shortly after I graduated to found the
Japan Policy Research Institute (http://www.jpri.org),
and write books about America as flawed hegemon: "The Sorrows of
Empire", and "Blowback". Now writing the final book in his trilogy, his
wife, Sheila K., was nonplussed when I emailed them in July as to why I
would want to stop by and see them. Sheila: "If it's just to schmooze,
sorry, but I'm under strict orders to keep Chal's schedule clear for
writing--the MS is due in November." This is what I reported to Dr
Steve when he asked me about the possibility of Chal (whom Dr Steve, an
omnivore of information, had read a lot of).
Steve: "Give me Chalmers' phone number."
Me: "What?! What for?"
Steve: "To talk to him. What else?"
Me: "You're going to call him up out of the blue? You don't do that to Chalmers Johnson!"
Steve: "What's the worst thing that can happen? He hangs up on
me. So what. I'm not cowed. I'm not a former student of his like you
are. Now give me the number."
I did, and now here Steve was telling me to call Chal myself.
Chal answered the phone not in his academic lecture mode, but in
his sociable voice. "David, yes I remember you. Hello. You're doing
good works in Japan. Now what do you want to talk to me about?" I told
him I wanted his advice from on high about what I would be facing in
the Japanese government with my next steps in my activism. "Well, I'm
74 and not quite as plugged into Japan as I once was, but if you want
that badly to see me, how does this evening at six sound?"
I gasped. "Thanks! And should I bring my friend Steve?"
"Oh yes, Steve. We almost came to blows over the phone. Yes yes, bring him. It will make the evening more interesting."
I called Steve to tell him of the coup. And also to ask him what the hell he did.
Steve: "I just criticized his stance on China and we went on from there."
How did the evening turn out? Magically. Chalmers and Sheila were
lovely hosts, inviting us to stay for dinner and helping us put away a
couple of bottles of wine. Chalmers was, however, surprisingly negative
about my chances of achieving reform in Japan. "Japan will never really
change, you know. They've been very good throughout my decades of
studying the place at presenting the veneer, at least to satisfy
Western expectations, of change. But at heart Japan will probably never
accept you as a Japanese."
Sheila chipped in a story from Alan Booth's book ROADS TO SATA,
about how Booth, fluent in Japanese, had a conversation in Japanese with a
hotelier about tidings, then asked for a room in the hotel. He was
refused. Why? "We don't speak English here." Despite the fact that they
had no problems communicating before! East is east, never the twain,
To be honest, I get annoyed by bon mots like these. Because they
usually only tell half the story. So I asked, "And what happened next?"
Sheila said that "next" wasn't included as part of the book.
"Then that's irresponsible. What did Booth do next? Cry? Complain?
Leave without comment? Go to the authorities? Try to argue his way in?
Find something sharp? Why doesn't Booth drop the other shoe here?"
I continued: "Look, this sort of thing happened to me at a hotel
in Nagano just months before the 1998 Olympics. They claimed they had
no beds, only futon, and no Western-style baths. Therefore. So I told
them 1) I know how to take a Japanese bath, 2) I've slept on futon for
ten years, and 3) if they don't let me in, I would raise this incident
with the Nagano authorities about how one of their local hotels would
be an international embarrassment on the eve of Nagano's biggest
sporting event ever. They let me in.
"So if Booth is just going to tell this story merely for dramatic
effect and act as if he faced an uncompromisable situation, he would be
wrong about the power of persuasion and protest in Japan. Lots of
people protest in Japan, and fewer foreigners see themselves as
'guests' nowadays, unable to complain about their 'hosts'' treatment.
You haven't been to Japan, as you said earlier this evening, in around
fifteen years. Things HAVE changed in Japan, and your impressions and
imported bon mots are, if even accurate after all the dramatization,
woefully out of date!"
Chalmers and Sheila seemed impressed, and heard me out.
Afterwards Chal said, warmly:
"Well, anyway, I wish you luck. I do
think you are doing a good thing. And if you succeed, I will be first
in line to claim you as MY student."
Let me return to skimming stones again
in terms of storytelling. The rest of the stay in San Diego was
punctuated by great evenings out with friends whom I met through UCSD
or Dr Steve. The Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific
Studies (IRPS, http://www-irps.ucsd.edu
) at UCSD, my alma mater, offered me an alumni party and speaking
engagement, where I told people not only about human rights, but also
about life after graduation and what IRPS did for me (I learned how to
write reports quickly there, thank heavens). Also how our alumni,
largely businesspeople and public policy bureaucrats who are not
necessarily using their language training in their line of work, are by
and large successful professionals working for good wages. I'm the
exception in that I'm not a businessman or a bureaucrat (and I won't
discuss my wages), rather a part-time human-rights activist, so
my case was the most interesting. Not least because they envied the
fact that as an academic in Japan, with months with no classes, I had
so much free time at my disposal.
Alumni association chief David had an interesting point about
what brought us together: "Our school was founded in the late Eighties,
on the principle that Asia was the way of the future, when people were
taking Japanese language and business models to gain competitive
advantages. After all, Japan was buying up the US, and our future
bosses where reckoned to be Japanese. Now what? More eyes are turning
to China. This may be a natural turn of events. A century ago, the
language of the hour was Turkish, believe it or not, for much the same
expectations about rising empires. But people didn't found a whole
graduate school back then based upon a new paradigm of world power,
like we did with IRPS. Still, for all its shortcomings, IRPS grads are
able to parachute anywhere and make do--because we learn how systems
work. As we can witness with what Debito is doing over in Japan. Our
training has been invaluable regardless of whatever job we took up, and
our alumni are surprisingly cohesive." That has been bolstered by our
longest-staying staff member, Portia, who welcomes every alumnus like
family and takes in details of our lives (her office is decorated with
our baby pictures) as if we were the most important people in her life.
Long may we all correspond.
Another great evening of conversation was with, coincidentially,
a Turkish family. Sonia, a naturalized American, is living the American
dream. Selling medical supplies in a highly-specialized market (despite
not even being a native speaker--try doing that in Japan!) and living
in one of the richest neighborhoods in the US, she is raising two young
teen daughters in an area that inspires fear at this impressionable
time in their lives: drugs, absentee parents, diets of sugar and
hundreds of channels of TV, We sat down for a conversation with her
parents, visiting from Turkey, with Yuki and myself--all
immigrants--about what America meant to us. Yes, we couldn't understand
why Americans couldn't see how good they have it, and why they quibble
over such such small things (like the price of gasoline) while they are
missing the big things: letting their children loose in a blackboard
jungle domestically, losing so much credibility abroad with atrocious
foreign policy, etc. How can a country with so much going for it also
squander so much potential?
Twenty years ago, I would have taken
umbrage. Now, as a foreigner myself now in America, I could see exactly
what they were talking about.
The people who introduced me to these people with million-dollar
homes and lifestyles, Dr Steve and Yuki (who got me back on a Japanese
food diet after weeks of pizza, sandwiches, and tacos), were
incidentally excellent hosts. Not only because they left me alone to
have daily adventures around town and at the beach, but also because
they would ask me how my day went and what thoughts I had as I visited
my old haunts, fifteen years later and a whole lifetime away.
got a bit emotional thinking about the paths not taken, how I could
have stayed in this land of long sunsets and eucalyptus-scented air,
"Yes, you could have stayed here. But you went overseas. And it's
all good. It made you the person you are now. You are doing good things
in Japan, things you can be proud of. Which you couldn't have done
without the choices you made. So there are no mistakes, no losses here.
Don't sweat it." Such is the wisdom of meeting people more advanced in
years (Steve is 61), who have advice if you need it. And as I have no
real father figures in my life (I have to figure everything out for
myself, from scratch, often asking friends' advice on things so basic
that they wonder why I haven't figured it out for myself by now), being
able to visit and comparing paths and decisions with old friends has
been very instructive and reality-checking. The reward of a long life
surrounded by good people.
LEG FIVE: SPRINT NORTH
Then it was time to head back. Starting on Route 5 at the Mexican
Border at 6PM on August 28, I activated the cruise control and pointed
the car north. Reaching Irvine by 8PM, I managed to squeeze in one more
visit with a college friend, American-Thai friend Thanva (otherwise
known at IRPS as Joe Mama), who finally, at age 42, settled down enough
from his hyperkinetic lifestyle and got married with charming
girlfriend Stephanie. We talked about the Thai language, life in Irvine
(a beautiful community held their condo), life after selling medical
equipment (Lots of my friends seem to have gone into biotech! With the
profit margins in the US, I'm not surprised.), and old times of him
cracking his neck all the time distractingly in class, eating pizza two
slices at a time by folding one onto the other, burping high-decibel
comments to questions (something Stephanie says she's almost cured him
of), and hosting Edwin and Haru Reischauer when they were still alive
and living in San Diego. By the time we had finished downing Thai
takeout and wine (lots of wine snobbery nowadays in California; much
deserved), I realized that it was now 2AM and wanted to escape LA
before Monday morning traffic. They offered me the couch, but I instead
accepted cans of Mountain Dew (more caffeine than the average soft
drink without the addictiveness of Red Bull drink), and hit cruise
control north again.
With Bill Clinton keeping me company reading from his book MY
LIFE (I bought used books on tape as well as used music: ten
Shakespeare plays, Homer's ODYSSEY, and Lauren Bacall reading BY
MYSELF), I drove all night. I hit Bakersfield by 3:30 AM. Saw sunrise
by 5 over the San Joaquin Valley, And reached Santa Cruz by 9:15.
Dropping off my bags at my dorm room, I drove the final hour to San
Jose Airport and returned my rental car a half hour before it was due.
Then I took the bus back to Santa Cruz, bought a new suitcase, and
began packing the CDs, shoes, and foodstuffs destined for Japan.
My final night in America was spent at a farewell picnic,
watching my students issue tearful speeches to their host families and
the other 90 students (UCSC's biggest summer intensive class ever),
asking them if they were ready to go back to Japan (They most certainly
were not! Good!), checking on their English progress in the two weeks I
was away (they were really very conversational, although few wanted to
speak to me in English). They even did a skip-rope routine (which they
practiced on the streets of Santa Cruz and SF for money) which was the
hit of the event; I was proud to claim them as MY students (and they
didn't have to change American society to do it!). And then we all
returned home to Japan, richer in spirit, more aware of the human
condition, and better informed of the lifestyle choices available to
people in this great world out there.
I'm glad to be home in Japan again. I'm also glad to see what
might have happened if I hadn't chosen Japan as my home. But I'm
especially glad the fact that my vocation affords me the time to step
outside my lifestyle like this. And to tell you about it like this
afterwards. Thanks for reading.
Sept 8, 2005
Copyright 2005 Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan