Apology: Being irresistible to old men (Part 2)

28 12 2010

Dear Japan,

I’d like to apologize for giving your middle-aged men the “wrong impression” while walking outside train stations, where I was obviously confused for being a sharply dressed male prostitute one too many times.


Elder Swift

Part 2/3

It was a beautiful, warm summer morning in Tokyo.

The cicadas were singing, much like the crickets back home, except instead of a symphony of miniature, squeaky violins, it was a dull cacophony of invisible yet omnipresent buzzsaws. Ten thousand insectoid string instruments were proving, once again, that no matter where you go… there you are. I challenge you to find a sound that could possibly be more annoying, and yet lend such a measure of strange, familiar comfort at the same time.

It’s unsettling, really, to realize how you get used to things. How, once you experience them enough, things can actually become “normal.”

Like… getting fondled in public by strangers.

Yes my friends, it’s time for Part 2 of my first Apology, and here’s how it happened.

Elder Jukes and I were on exchanges. Now, exchanges are one of the greatest blessings that the fickle world of missionary companionship can offer. For one day, one brief day, you and another missionary duo switch off partners, shucking the old ball-and-chain for someone who isn’t in your life 24/7.

Perhaps I haven’t been very clear about one of the core concepts behind being a Mormon missionary: you’re essentially volunteering to have a roommate for two years, who watches everything you do (and you watch them). Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the faces will change every month or two, or you yourself might get a change of scenery every two to three. In other words: you get to move around, and you get new companions, but they are always with you.

So, unless you’re using the bathroom or taking a shower, you quite literally live, eat, breathe, and sleep with (well, next to) this snappily dressed mirror image of yourself “until transfer day do you part.” Although, about the showering thing, I’m sure the Church likes to believe it doesn’t encourage homosexuality amongst its impressionable young men (they even forbid masturbation – a “truly terrible sin” – for the fear of natural solo curiosity developing into full-blown male-on-male mutual exploration!), but that doesn’t explain the Missionary Training Center (MTC), where, in the many dormitory style housing units, the bathrooms feature large, very open and incredibly public spaces for showering.

With no stalls.

Just giant, gleaming metallic pillars jutting from the pale, white tiling that branch up and out into a half-dozen showerheads. Yes, that’s right, as young men we were expected to strip down every morning, noon (after gym), and night to shower around giant phallic looking poles. We, not-so-affectionately, referred to ours as the Tree of Life.

I’m sorry to make you picture this, but after being peed on one too many times while trying to rub recalcitrant sleepies out of my eyes, all in the name of making sure we weren’t doing anything “inappropriate” during shower time, I’m just a little concerned that the Church’s left hand doesn’t know what it’s right is doing.

More than one chunky young missionary would try to wake up early during our first week at MTC and try to beat everyone to the showers, possibly ashamed of their larger mass and seeking just a moment of private solace, only to realize that every other chubby cheeked cherub of the Lord had the same bright idea. Honestly, it was like waking up and seeing a bunch of people had hit the road trying to beat the holiday rush on the freeway too.

I always felt sorry for those poor kids, but they became conditioned quickly enough – their wills broken down by the utter fatigue caused by the daily grind of language learning, religious indoctrination, physical exercise, and nearly nightly fireside devotionals. Soon enough they were standing next to us in the showers like big lumbering zombies, stealing all our hot water.

Oh, and yes, I did end up asking the Sisters about their MTC bathroom accommodations. They were rather surprised at our situation: they had private shower stalls, with nice, private, plastic curtains. Apparently it’s just the men with this whole “inappropriate conduct” problem.

Anyways, back to exchanges!

There we were, two missionaries freed from the constraints of our mutual significant others for at least a good few hours. We’d decided to bike over to one of the train stations that dot the city, and do some of the Lord’s work in one of the open plaza areas outside. We filled the time with stories, bitched about our companions, and were looking forward to hitting up the Sizzler as a group of 16 (a lot of missionaries had come into Tokyo earlier in the morning for a zone meeting) so we could eat them out of house and home.

Sadly, I think we actually succeeded – our favorite Sizzler went out of business later that year (I hope they’re back by now!), and I can’t help but feel that having a bunch of gaijin decimate the entree bar every week, while only paying for the amount of what a Japanese person might normally eat, just wasn’t helping them maintain a sustainable business model.

As we walked towards the plaza we came across two young women, probably early twenties, dressed in (pretty revealing) matching outfits from some random company handing out tissues.

Tissues? Yes, this gets better.

You see, the Japanese have discovered that a disturbingly successful method of advertising is to hand people little packets of Kleenex (like 10 sheets in a tiny plastic wrap), surrounding by a printed advert for whatever service they’re trying to get attention for. The girls also jumped around a lot and jiggled, so I was pretty sure it was for a hostess bar.

Sure enough, I looked down and got the gist of the name from the Katakana characters, which could have been anything from “Kuraimakusu Kafe” (Climax Cafe) to “Amerikana Hottosupotto” (American Hotspot) – I really don’t remember what the name of the place was, but you get the idea. After a while, you just roll with it and don’t even bother being judgmental.

We took the tissues despite the salacious solicitation the little anime girl pasted on the cover was making (one finger posed seductively over her lips, her breasts poised to bounce out of her cartoony maid’s outfit at any moment), because, well, if you ever try to use a public restroom in Japan, such as say, in a train station, you’ll realize that someone ahead of you already used all the toilet paper – weeks ago.

Has it all come together now? They literally print advertisements on these little handout tissue packets, whose main purpose turns out to be for emergency toilet paper. Did we take it? Of course we did. We didn’t care what it said on the ad, we just knew that a bowel movement could strike at anytime. Mealtimes are sometimes brutally unpredictable for a missionary.

We even came up with a theory that Japanese advertising companies pay homeless bums to go into train stations and waste all the toilet paper on purpose, just to create demand for the tissue packets. We felt pretty clever about it too, but now, later in life, I realize it’s like proudly telling people that the movie theaters make all their money from the outrageously overpriced food and drink, and not the tickets. Everyone else already knows it, and you feel dumb when they pity-laugh along and say “Yeah, yeah, that’s how it is all right. Ha haa.”

So, taking my soft packet of sanitary salvation, we thanked the girls. They smiled back sweetly and said something in unison, with one of them shaking her non-existent butt a little bit, excited to be handing something like this to a gaijin. Side note: remind me to talk about what is and what is not attractive about your average modern Japanese girl, one of these days.

As they waved bye to us we tried to wave back, requiring us to do this weird, half-backwards, half-sideways shuffle you do when you’re trying to say goodbye and escape at the same time. Then, turning, we found ourselves facing a crowd of people leaving the station from the last train that had just come in.

The train started sailing out of the station at a smooth clip, the clop-clop of metal wheels picking up pace and breaking time with the marching feet of the oncoming crowd, and people of all ages and descriptions were starting to flow around us like water around rocks in a river.

Then I had a “headlights” moment.

You know those: like a deer in the headlights, but as a person – you’re walking, and someone is walking towards you, and you’re going to collide. But this isn’t chicken – chicken is where you’re both trying to out-last the other in some machismo-laden display of fool-hardy bravado, hoping the other guy will chicken out and move out of the way first.

No, this is the ackward “I go right, he goes right, I go left, he goes left” thing – played out enough times to be really uncomfortable. See, the trick is, in Japan, most people move to their left in this situation, where, if you think about it, Americans try to move to their right (e.g. since they’re facing each other, they’re now on a collision course!).

This makes sense, given that they drive on the opposite side of the road, and it’s not limited at all to just driving: even on escalators it’s the left side that’s slow and the right side used to speed by the slowpokes.

In front of me a middle-aged fellow was closing fast, and we were still trying to get out of each others’ ways, and I was failing miserably. He’d cut to his left, per his entire cultural upbringing, and I’d cut to my right, per mine. Collision course! Then I’d try to reverse my thinking, and he had the same idea, then we’d pause ackwardly, and well, then there he was, right in front of me, grinning and looking down.

My companion had seen the impending situation and wisely stepped off  to the side, leaving the fellow right in my “bubble”. It’s always gotta be someone in my bubble.

Now, from my previous encounter (See Part 1) with small, smiling, wrinkly men, you’d think I would have known better than to keep standing there. But no, no, I had yet to learn my lesson and wanted to at least say “excuse me.”

Then the guy checked me out.

It was at that moment I knew what a woman felt like to be visually undressed by the lecherous eyes of someone she wasn’t really into. Ladies, now I know. And as my jaw dropped in indignant surprise to say something, and as my foot finally got the belated message from that brick I call a brain, he got a hand in my crotch.

In my crotch! Beneath my suitcoat (and still over my trousers, thankfully), fully cupping my package which he proceeded to lift and separate, while aghast citizens nearby slid their eyes over to look as they passed in sudden silence. Well at least I knew it wasn’t normal, judging by their reactions and the sudden death of multiple conversations. I was beginning to fear this sort of thing was actually some sort of time honored way of saying “Hello!” to foreigners.

And unlike last time, where I had the temerity and reaction time to do something about it, this time the guy got away with it scott free, pushing past me and tossing a “Good size, heh” over his shoulder as he chuckled on his way.

I looked down, the pack of tissue was trembling in my hand and I quickly stuffed it in my suitcoat pocket. My companion came over and put a hand on my shoulder, steadying me. It was one of the most stereotypical shock reactions in my life: I just stood there, trying to figure out just what the hell had happened.

I turned around but the guy was already gone, and the temporarily stunned onlookers had kept moving and soon the crowd was gone. The two tissue girls hadn’t even noticed: “Thank God,” I thought – then wondered why I needed the approval of girls I couldn’t even teach missionary discussions to (only the Sisters could teach women), let alone ones who spent their free-time providing lap-dances for drunks and doubling their breasts as pillows for sleepy victims of karaoke night.  And that’s on the up-and-up side of what a hostess bar can provide.

The moment passed, and there I was, standing with another missionary in that nice, pleasant plaza I’d been to a dozen times before.

And it would never be the same.

You hear a lot in the news about the “groping” problem on Japan’s railways – horny guys who don’t know the first thing about women or how to be a decent man, so they board trains and molest some poor girl who can’t fully defend herself in the tight, sardine-packed tin-cans that millions use every day. You hear how horrible it is to be violated in a smothering crowd by errant fingers and wandering hands, and you just know you would knock the lights out of anyone who tried that on someone you knew.

They call them chikan (“chee-con”) – pervert.

And here I was: I hadn’t even gotten as far as the train part, and I’d already managed to attract my own, personal chikan experience.

But did I learn a lesson this time? You bet your ass I did! Never, ever, get stuck in a “headlights” moment with suspicious looking middle aged man, especially if he’s grinning.

For the rest of my time in Japan I forced myself to think in their terms about being on the left side of the road. I even passed the crazy left-laned obstacle course they call a driving test (which is pretty awesome, actually) and got a license!

I was so successful at reprogramming myself to keep to the left that, to this day, to this very day, I still tend to nearly cause collisions in public by moving the wrong way in a crowd in America.

So I’m sorry, Japan, I’m sorry for holding out a hostess bar invitation while wearing my best suit and tie and blocking the path of middle-aged salaryman who took my lack of coordination all so very, very wrong.

Can it get worse? Yes, yes it can, and in Part 3 it’s actually kind of my fault.




3 responses

29 12 2010
Seth R.

I kind of wonder is some guys don’t just have some sort of genetic neon sign going off over their heads that they aren’t aware of.

I spent my two years in Japan as a missionary and never got touched once – although I got hit on by giggling teenage girls a few times and a couple times (I think) by leering middle-aged moms. But I had one companion who seemed to invite closer acquaintance for some reason.

He couldn’t get one drunk aforementioned leering o’kasan off of him at one community event, and another time he had two high school girls make a beeline for him stare somewhere in the vicinity below his chest (as far as he could tell) for about a second, and then swiftly poke him directly in the package and run off.

See, I never had this kind of stuff happen to me. But he just seemed to have had this invisible sign hung around his neck reading – “enjoys getting frisky.”

31 12 2010
Apology: Being irresistible to old men (Part 3) « Sorry about that, Japan!

[…] exercise” to get us together a day earlier and have us go on exchanges (see Part 2 for my thoughts on those), so despite the rain I was still pretty happy to be […]

1 01 2011
Last Call for Brodies Nominations! | Main Street Plaza

[…] Apology: Being irresistible to old men (Part 2) […]

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