Tag Archives: Japan

Nothing is Lost In Translation

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Look! Charcuterie to Go.

So, I’m here in Tokyo. I tell anyone who asks me that I have two favorite cities. One is Barcelona – for the weather, food (amazing charcuterie), people, architecture, you name it. It is a warm, inviting and beautiful city filled with gorgeous buildings, parks, and women. Plus, I speak the language – mostly. The other is Tokyo. Why? It’s not the weather. Each of the three times I have been there, it has been cold (late October, early December, and late February). I’ve yet to make it during the coveted Cherry Blossom season. Then, what? Food? Not as much as Barcelona, recall that I despise sushi. Two things. The people and just how foreign it is.

THE PEOPLE

To a one, the people in Tokyo are absolutely ridiculous. Indeed, the people I have met there, the strangers who have gone out of their way (repeatedly) to help me, make me dislike Americans. We aren’t so friendly in comparison. The people are just so kind, considerate, and interested in what you have to say. And service is king. The women are lovely, and the men all seem gay to me – the younger ones at least – and that makes me feel super comfortable. “Gay or European?” really should be “Gay or Japanese?” Oh, and I love the sense of style. Color! Patterns. A Scarf! Socks that are crazy patterns. Bring it. Love it. Plus, any country that is absolutely head over heels in love with Hello Kitty, or Kitty Chan, as she is affectionately called, is more than alright with me.

JUST HOW FOREIGN IT IS

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Signs everywhere, but what do they say?

This is kind of hard to explain. The thing about Tokyo is that it is so, so, so NOT America. I mean, it’s not the US, Canada, England, or Scotland. Duh, Butch. It’s in Asia. No, I get that. What I mean is that it is the one place that I have been where I felt totally and absolutely out of my element. What do I mean by that? You can’t read the signs. In Italy, France, Portugal, Mexico, and many other countries I can decrypt most words enough to figure out “police” versus “pub.” Not so here in Tokyo. If the picture next to the Hiragana word for Shinkansen didn’t let you know it was a train, you would be still searching – and you would miss your train that will absolutely be leaving on time without you.

Most people do not speak English (or they might not let on that they do). Money from an ATM? Good luck. Want to use your cell phone? I don’t think so. It is an entire city that is homogeneous. Everyone looks very similar – and no one looks like me. By this, I do not mean to discount the amazing differences between Japanese people. No, not at all. What I mean is that much more than in the US or England, the people have similar coloring.

Now, that is not to say that there aren’t similar minded people there. That there aren’t Butches, lesbians, mothers, democrats, atheists, English speaking people, bow-tie wearing lovers of musicals, operas and craft beers. Of course there are. But more than any other place I have been, the people look similar to each other and they don’t look like me. I am still taller than most, blonder, bigger, and let’s face it whiter, more awkward and more rude. Try as I might not to be any of those last three.

Want me to prove it? When I travel there, with two different companies, I have been given a “handler.” It is so different, so much harder to get around and find your way, that companies assign someone to help you get from point A to point B. And, thank goodness.

So, it is indeed foreign. It is like being in a sea of beautiful Koi – all of whom it seems understand me and are unbelievable kind – and I am a flounder. Also, I am pretty much in love with the culture of respect. There may be other countries, other cultures, that value each other and respect each other the way the Japanese do, but I haven’t found them yet. Evidence the bow. I love this. It is not subservient or menial. It is a strong, self-possessed person giving way by bowing to another. It says, thank you. It says, I am sorry. I says, hello. How about this? When you leave your office at night, you stand near the door and bow to your colleagues saying Osakini shitsureshimasu. Translation? “I am sorry that I am leaving before you.” How great is that? Even the ground crew for my plane leaving Tokyo bowed to the plane/pilot as we rolled away from the gate. It is a way to honor the other person. I freaking love the bow. How weird would it be if I just incorporated this into my everyday life back home in SoCal? I think I just might. Hello, bow. I am sorry that you had a bad day, bow. Thank you for serving me, bow. Sigh. The respect that this imparts is really ridiculous. I had a protracted conversation on my last evening with the younger colleagues about the bow, the significance, the depth of the bow. It was fascinating.

NOTHING IS LOST IN TRANSLATION

Even though I do not speak Japanese, I have learned enough to impress almost everyone I meet. I think this is more of a sign of how difficult (translation, foreign) the Japanese language is for Americans, rather than the strength of what I’ve learned. I would love to learn more. It is a beautiful language. When I listen to my colleagues and friends speak, I catch a word here and there (thank you, I’m sorry, we, I understand, no, yes, beer, please, woman), but it is nothing like when I hear any one speak a Romance language. I catch lots of those words. Again, foreign. Am I getting this across? And, yet, I feel welcome. Comfortable here.

Perhaps it is because I am at a point where I am trying to find difference. Searching for adventure. Seeking out places where I feel uncomfortable. I love it when English is the second language, or even better, not even on the sign. I think this is why I love Tokyo (and the other parts of Japan that I have visited). Maybe I just like being out of my own element. Way, way outside my comfort zone.

Whatever the reason, I don’t feel like anything is lost in the translation even when I do not understand a single word of what is being said. It’s butch to be out of your element. Be Butch.


I Don’t Like Sushi

I don’t like sushi. There, I said it. I love veggie rolls, and anything that is cooked, but not raw fish. It’s a problem. For real. And something I will either have to hide while in Japan or be prepared to deal with.

My Japanese colleagues will want to take me to excellent sushi. After all, what do most Americans want to experience in Japan? Sushi. So, I will go and eat sushi and I will drink lots of sake and it will be fine. I also cannot stand shellfish. Any kind of shellfish. Lobster, crab, scallops, mussels, abalone, clams, oysters – disgusting. The lot of them. Again, I realize that this makes me a bit of a freak. Whenever I am at a high-end event and all of my friends and colleagues are freaking out about the “amazing crab legs” or the “ridiculous oyster bar” I just shake my head. It’s really a texture thing for me. The flavor is ok really, but I can’t stomach the texture of these sea creatures.

On top of that, they are sea creatures, very small animals. When served, they frequently are still the whole animal. I have trouble eating a life. A piece of pork under cellophane in the market, or a lovely piece of steak on my plate, totally distanced from its source, is one thing. And both pigs and cows are indeed delicious. But a lobster, in tact, sitting on my plate? No, it’s too much for me. A friend said it really well recently. She is a marine biologist and she shares my distaste for all of these sea creatures, which she explains are her friends. How can she eat her friends? I note that she is a very attractive femme, and I would try anything she asked me to, so it’s a good thing she doesn’t care for shellfish. To my friends reading this, if you didn’t know that about me, take note. It can easily be a new sport for you – a form of hazing Butch.

And, before you say, “Butch, you need to try it,” let me assure you that I have. My ex wife is a lobster freak (I assume this is still the case), and my ex GF loved all manner of sushi and shellfish. Each of them at various points in our relationships encouraged me to try all of these items over and over again in case my tastes had changed. And, of course, I always try things that I am asked to try. Each time, I would say, “Of course, honey” and try what I was offered. My tastes had not changed, much to their chagrin. Even last weekend at dinner with a bunch of friends at an amazing place, a friend was over the moon with her scallops – my least favorite of all shellfish – and she asked me to try them. She’s a pretty femme, and well, what can I say? Of course I did as she asked and tried a bite – washing it down with the Chimay I was drinking as politely as I could. Blech.

So, I am an American business woman in Japan (sounds like a tag line for a show) and a lesbian at that. And, I don’t like sushi. I refuse to make that joke – you know the one – because I think it’s gross and very, very far from the truth, but I’d be a fool if I didn’t acknowledge that at least some of you are thinkng it. For shame.

Dear Japanese people and sushi fans the world over: I am sorry.

Dear PETA and fish friends: you are welcome.

Well, what can I say? It’s butch (or at least good business) to eat things you don’t want to in order to not offend your hosts? Ok. Be Butch.


The King Treatment

Yes, please.

Yes, please.

I’m enjoying my third trip to Japan. All have been for business. This means several things. First, it means that I have a carefully planned agenda, filled with meetings, occasional sight-seeing events, cool meals (with tons of people), and nice accommodations. I love to travel, but I don’t fly business class when I am traveling for pleasure.

There is a huge downside, of course. You do not control your itinerary. As it is with my current trip. I am traveling for a full 5 days, to get two and a half days in the office working. There will be no time for any side trips. If my energy allows, which I think it will, I will wander about after the long business dinners are over. But that will only allow some exploration in Tokyo. Perhaps Roppongi or Shinjuku, the gay area. Yes, I will make sure to head over there. I’ve been to both before and had fun in each place.

On my two previous trips, I travelled with colleagues; but on this trip, it is just me. No companions. I am really looking forward to it.

As I write this, I am flying. Sitting in business class. Ahhh. Deep sigh of relief. It is a wonderful experience. Over the course of the twelve-hour flight, there is all manner of goodies, beverages and snacks. It is so much fun. Kind of like a kid in a candy store. Unlike coach, business class has choices – lots of them. Shortly after take off, I was served orange juice or champagne (any guesses as to which I chose?). Then I was given a menu and asked to review it. There will be a main meal service, and then there are a variety of things you can order at anytime during the long flight. And, there is a long list of alcohol and other beverages you may enjoy.

The food is delicious. First an amuse bouche of blue cheese and fruit, and a Manchego, almond and smoked duck dip. Then, the hors d’oeuvres of marinated scallop, tuna pastrami, and foie gras mousse. The main dish that I chose was prime beef wellington, with a portabella mushroom pastry and mashed potatoes (lobster thermidor is the other choice). Dessert was Panna Cotta with mangoes. Yes, on the plane.

At varying points in the flight, I have had Jack, Champagne, and Japanese beer (almost always disappointing). Near the end of the flight, after I woke up, I enjoyed a cheese and fruit snack followed by a roast beef and horseradish mayonnaise sandwich (tiny) with a lovely salad of lettuce, asparagus and balsamic. Are you getting the picture that the food was good?

The flight attendants of JAL.

The flight attendants of JAL.

More than that, the service is amazing. I have had at least four different flight attendants help me, check on me, offer me items. All of them are young and lovely, too, by the way. I think the labor and employment laws in Japan are quite different from in the US (I know this, actually). Most of the time when I fly Southwest Airlines, I feel awkward about asking for anything. The last few times, I’ve either been helped by attendants who were older than my mom, or pregnant. How am I going to ask either of those women for anything? I can’t really expect someone my mom’s age or older to go get me more peanuts. How can I ask a pregnant woman to fetch me a Jack on the rocks? Isn’t that cruel? I mean, she can’t have one. So, JAL is a nice change. Here, there is literally a flock of super kind, super attentive, super deferential Japanese flight attendants. All have lovely smiles for me when I ask for something. All make me feel like it really is their pleasure to serve me – rather than an inconvenience because they really are just here for our safety (the message the US airlines disseminate more and more).

So I sit back with my slippers on, enjoying the warm towels each time they bring one, and order whatever I want. I feel like a king. And this is not just on the airplane. The Japanese people have an amazing ethic about service. They take pride in doing it well. If you are in their restaurant, they will make you feel like a king. Indeed, I’ve never been anywhere else in the world (yet), where you can literally yell out “Sumi mas sen!” whenever you want something, and someone will sprint to your side to get it for you. It’s how its done. It’s not rude. Like, say for example the one time last summer when I was in the Mediterranean and I actually whistled in a pub. My British companions almost fainted because what I did was so rude. And it was rude. I will never do that again. Ever. In Japan, though, that is not an issue.

It’s butch to let others take care of you when it is their job – especially when they make you feel like a king. Be Butch.


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