Saturday, February 26, 2005

To bite or not to bite...

Sea bream w/yours truly (C) Lrong Lim

It was snowing quite heavily outside yesterday and the scene actually looked quite beautiful from my office window.

The snow should stop by the time I head for home, I thought.

The snow did stop, except that it turned into sleet; frozen rain, that is.

As I mounted my bicycle, I cursed myself for not taking the car in the morning.

Within minutes of riding, my palms and fingers turned numb at the wet and cold weather.

A day before, an acquaintance had invited me to lunch at a restaurant specializing in crab delicacies.

I am not particularly fond of prying crab shells for the meat.

'Too much effort, too little meat', a friend used to say.

But I went anyway.

He is working for the immigration department and his current assignment is to research on Islamic terrorists.

A former student of mine, a retired banker, introduced him to me.

This was the third time we were having lunch together and he had footed the bill on both the previous occasions.

I insisted on paying this time but was flatly refused.

How kind, I thought to myself, struggling with that stubborn claw.

Halfway through the terrorist conversation, he abruptly changed the topic and invited me to accompany him to patronize a nightclub specializing in Russian girls.

And I had thought that the only imports from Russia to Takamatsu are the crabs we were gnawing at.

Topless dancing, he proudly announced.

The top club in town!

And, the most expensive!

I was surprised at my disgust.

Under 'normal' circumstances, I would have jumped at the opportunity.

But circumstances these days are anything but 'normal'.

My workmate just got the axe two weeks ago for molesting a student over a miserable ten minutes.

To top it off, his (ex-)wife promptly kicked him out of her house.

Prior to that, a senior administrative official got his head chopped off for pocketing official funds.

And currently, a psychology professor is being charged in court for caressing the private parts of a woman whom he claimed to be counseling.

And would I accept an invitation to a topless club?

Tantalizing as it was, but no cigar!

Just imagine, what if a dancer girl at the club lunged forward to grab me, hug me, or even, god forbid, kiss me right on the mouth?

She'd probably be a smoker, and I can't stand the smell of nicotine.

And immediately a yakuza pounced on me, accusing me of stealing his girlfriend?

Now that would be quite some news.

Yes, appalled I was.

How can this man, a senior immigration official, forehead apparently receding at a faster pace than yours truly, be patronizing such a nightclub, I asked my puzzled self.

I flatly said, no sir!

He insisted.

I persisted.

It seems that he had gotten to know a Russian dancer there who speaks broken Japanese.

On some days, the girl would call him on his hand phone, nudging him to come to the club.

Sometimes, she would call up to ten times a day, persisting.

He took pity on her.

He was sure her boss was coercing her to make the calls.

Business must be bad at the club, and I would like to contribute to their sales, he mumbled.

Hey, what a kind man, I thought.

Last weekend, we went to check out a new 'mansion' near the university.

'Mansion', as in a 'glorified' apartment.

The size is tiny, this being land-deprived Japan.

We were looking for a small mansion, a so-called 3LKD.

A 'standard' three-roomed, living, dining, and kitchen set-up.

The interior was impressive, what I would call 'modern living'.

The cost was a little over 20,000,000 yen, or US 200,000 dollars.

We considered the purchase, but hesitated.

Our preference is still to find a small plot of land and build our own house.

The following day, the salesman called.

I had made the mistake of giving him our house contact.

On the few prior occasions that we asked for information on new houses or 'mansions', we were in turn always requested to fill in a questionnaire.

This questionnaire has items that ask your preferences, your family structure, your job, your income, etc., on top of your contacts.

We had always rejected this request for the fear of salesmen turning up at our doorstep.

But that particular salesman seemed like a polite, nice guy.

He was very good at bowing.

His shoulders curved, probably from years of doing it.

In our conversations as he showed us the mansion, he referred to me as 'Lrong sama'.

'San' would have been a sufficiently polite salutation, but 'sama' was a bit too much.

It is normally used as a salutation for 'royalty', or some big shots.

My missus politely said, 'next time' and we forgot about it.

However, on the early afternoon of the third day, the salesman came knocking at our door.

Surprised, should I say?

He wanted to talk to us directly, and show us why we should make the purchase.

My missus, who was alone at home, was exasperated.

She called me at the office, whispering, and I was equally exasperated.

She told him to go away.

When I cycled home at almost seven in the evening, I immediately found him sitting inside his car.

He approached me, urging.

That just about killed off any remaining enthusiasm we had in the purchase.

Back in the house, I looked at the handwritten note he gave me.

'We will give you the air condition unit, the dining table and chairs, the sofa set, the curtains, the big flat TV, the digital recorder, the beds...'

Enticing as it was, but no sir!

My thoughts returned to that of my acquaintance, sipping on his whisky and water...

and his Russian dancer friend... her soft hands attentively placed on his lap...

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Playing a losing game

Kumamoto Castle, from my hotel room (C) Lrong Lim

Just returned from a trip to Kumamoto, a city in the southern island of Kyushu.

I was there to attend a seminar on 'The Internationalization of Japanese Universities and the Future of Foreign Student Education'.

As is previous occasions, I came away with the feeling of how lost the Japanese people are with regards to their role as a host nation to the over 100 thousand foreign students in Japan.

I should be writing a paper on this stuff, soon.

I also took the opportunity to visit the family who hosted me 18 years ago when I first came to Japan as a foreign student.

I was studying the Japanese language at Hiroshima University when I saw an offer for a home stay at Saga prefecture (which is next to Kumamoto prefecture).

There was a question that asked why I wanted to home stay there.

I had been in Japan for only two months; I had no clue why.

I asked my Japanese language teacher.

She said, rather casually, 'well, how about saying you want to eat Kyushu ramen (noodles)?'

So I wrote.

And it turned out that my host family was a Kyushu ramen seller.

I had noodles and noodles for most of my lunch there.

Fast-forward eighteen years.

As I walked to the train exit, Mr. Yoshinori Natsuaki and Mrs. Yoko Natsuaki were standing there, gently waving at me.

(Their rare surname literally means, 'summer-autumn'.)

I could not help grinning from ear to ear.

What a pleasure to see these folks again, I smiled to myself.

Although Mr. Natsuaki is over seventy years of age, he still looks strong.

There was much to catch up in not so much time.

We instantly zoomed to their house.

Their house still stood as it had, only this time, more family members populate it.

The eldest daughter, Naoko, is a nurse at the university hospital. She is married with one kid and lives nearby.

The second daughter, Miho, is married to a Frenchman and now lives and works in France. They have two daughters.

The first son, Takenori, is now running the ramen shop, appropriately called 'Take-chan'.

He was sent by his dad to train under a top Kyushu ramen master at nearby Kurumei city.

The 'soul' of Kyushu ramen is the broth, which is made from boiling pork bones until they disintegrated into a thick whitish soup.

I don't mind the broth, but I have some problems with that top layer of greasy lard.

The second son, Yoshikazu, who was a little boy then, helps out in the shop.

Both the sons are married, both their wives help out in the shop, and both have two kids each.

I relished the ramen after an eighteen-year absence, carefully spooning away that top layer of grease.

Prior to leaving home, I had asked my missus to buy me two large packets of sweets to bring to the Natsuakis as goodwill gifts.

I bought an extra packet of local sugar-cane delicacies for safety.

This is the anti-thesis to what we had been practicing so far.

We do not fancy receiving such 'gifts' and we do not fancy giving them either.

But many a time, we end up losing the game.

The Japanese (like Malaysians, perhaps?) are fond of exchanging gifts.

It has become a bit like, mandatory. Obligatory.

To us, it is more like, extra baggage.

Many a time, we end up bringing the gifts home after almost always failing to reject them.

Sometimes we return the favor.

Sometimes, we don't.

But this time, I could not bring my self to visit the Natsuakis empty handed.

So there I was, lugging the three huge packets of goodies like someone on the move.

When it was time to leave, Mrs. Natsuaki handed me a heavy packet of stuff.

And another one that she said is good pottery.

I tried to refuse the pottery, fully realizing that it was futile.

Back home in Takamatsu, we almost immediately engaged each other in a verbal 'duel'.

To give or not to give... to receive or not to receive... that is the question...

There is just no way this battle can be won.

I suppose we should try to enjoy it from now on.

In the process, we can burden ourselves with more luggages, fatten ourselves with unwanted sugar and calories, and cram our tiny house with artifacts not quite our interests...