Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order."

I stayed an hour late at the consulate to try and finish up some work on the Welcome Packet; when I finally left at 6pm I was blisteringly hungry. Rather than allowing my stomach to continue releasing strangled cries for help (borborygmi being on par with flatulence or blatant nose-picking in japanese society), I opted for what I considered to be the lesser of two evils: public consumption of food.

Eating out in the open is BAD in Japan. Despite the fact that at the end of every electric line you can find a phalanx of vending machines humming quietly away, offering all manner of beverages and snacks (and often porn -- but that's a different blog), you will not see people eating or drinking on the street. It's uncouth; it's gauche. It's just not something nice people do. And yet, having purchased a fresh-baked whole wheat roll from the bakery in the station, I was prepared to break -- indeed, was intent upon breaking! -- this cardinal social rule. And on a train, no less. Ms. Manners-san would not have been very pleased.

I did feel sort of guilty, wedged inbetween two other commuters, stuffing my face with torn off chunks of warm wheat roll and getting flour all over the green velvet bench seat. I tend to eat like a half-starved animal, with a lot of snarfling and speed, and it is not an aesthetically pleasant sight. It's one thing for a japanese person to toe the bounds of social politeness, but quite another for a graceless foreigner exhaling puffs of flour to do so... The fact that it was bread was probably also perpetuating some horrible stereotype about gaijin eating preferences, although I doubt that had I been shovelling in sticky white rice from a bowl with chopsticks it would have been somehow better received.

Somewhere in the middle of the last few mouthfuls of roll, I thought I detected a muffled noise coming from my workbag. Unbelievably, I had managed to ratchet up my shameful behavior that much more by not putting my phone on 'manner mode' in the 'no cell phone usage allowed' train car. Fumbling in my bag for the cell phone, gulping down a wad of bread, half-eaten roll in one hand, ipod wires running hither and yon... Well, you know. I'm used to being looked at, but it's usually out of curiosity rather than distaste. My only consolation is that it's nice to have your preconceived notions of things affirmed, so at the very least I hope the scene I was making was rewarding to the japanese people around me in that sense. Stereotypes save a lot of time and energy. If I've learned nothing else on the consular line, I've certainly learned that.

On the walk home from the local train station, a lone bat wheeled erratically above me for a block or two, turning somersaults in the air. A strange creature that had the audacity to both fly and drink milk. I'm amazed that we ever find order in anything.

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