Day 1, Airborne, South China Sea
I’m several hundred miles southeast of Guangzhou (whence the iPad on which I’m typing probably came), enjoying French wine and a Duras novella aboard an American run, Japanese crewed airliner. We’re headed for Ho Chi Minh City, a town part Vietnamese, part French. Had to steal the iPad back from my Pinay-American girlfriend, who was playing a German board game. I’ve spoken three different languages today, and practiced on two others. The world feels very small right now.
This, of course, is deceptive.
I’ve traveled Europe and glimpsed Africa from Spain, but this is my first time coming all the way west. The Japanese are too much like us, and perhaps too familiar to me, to offer many surprises (Narita Airport isn’t Japan, but all the same… Japan feels very safe, not at all threatening. Hell, you can choose from three styles of toilet — pit, western with auto-bedee, or straight up western, T-P and all. For the record, I wasn’t feeling adventurous).
In a few hours, I’ll be in something more like the real Asia, albeit with a heavy filter of tour guides and catering to American tastes.
I want to get back to Duras’ The Lover right now (in a few days, in Sa Dec, there’ll be a chance to visit the eponymous Chinese gent’s house), but a few random impressions…
- I’d no idea — or maybe I’d just forgotten — or maybe constantly sounding like you’re apologizing is just odd to a North American — how much the Japanese use the word sumimasen. It’s something like the English “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” but where a Frenchwoman would say bon jour when you enter her shop, a Narita shop girl says sumimasen. You’re sorry you’re here, bothering me while I shop in your store? Yup, the legendary politeness of the Nipponese is no joke.
- Everything is new — glitteringly new. The plane I’m on from Narita to Saigon isn’t just new equipment — it’s spotless. Not a scuff on the overhead bin doors or a fabric pill out of place on the seats. I never want to fly on a dingy friggin’ American airliner again.
- Mobile infrastructure like whoa. It’s no joke how pathetic our wi-fi and cell access is in the U.S. standards are higher in Japan. I was in a bus on the tarmac when I realized I hadn’t synced Evernote before boarding. I flipped open my iPad, immediately found free, open wi-fi, and got synced up while driving from the gate to the plane. This would never have happened in an American airport. I’d have lost the signal while waiting for my credit card to clear.
- The Japanese are very nice about letting you try to speak their language. Unlike the Dutch and Québécois, who take one look at you and switch to English, or Berliners, who suspect you’re having a go at them if your accent sucks, the Japanese will let you make the attempt before helping you out.
- Did I mention you can choose from three different types of toilet?
- If you’re ever in Narita and have a few minutes to kill with a clear view of the tarmac, watch the baggage truck guys work for a few minutes. Their OCDness in the way that they arrange the trailers they’ve been towing is charmingly, almost enthrallingly Japanese, and they pull off some precision driving stunts in tight spaces, with full trains of baggage trailers, that you’d never see their American counterparts even attempt.