I got into Narita and called Masae – I said I was “standing under the ‘L’,” and maybe that wasn’t clear enough because she ended up paging me. =) First we went to the courier counter to pick up my suitcases – she was even going to pay for them (more than ¥4000!) but I couldn’t let her, social norms be damned I blurted out, “Watashi no kaban des!” and paid myself. (“O, nihongo!” she murmured to her husband. But it was nothing at all, really.) They were my stupid heavy bags, and my responsibility alone.
She had brought lots of little things for me to take home to share with family, so we spent a bit of time organizing and repacking and in the end I had to leave a few things with her to dispose of to make room for the pseudo-omiyage. Amusingly, she was saying “Thank you,” and I was saying to her, “No, thank you.” I knew it was all hideously inappropriate – this is a culture where gifts have to be new (and I did, thank God, get her a new stuffed toy of the Tokushima mascot – it elicited a sincere “Kawaii!” exclamation), and even though these weren’t gifts it felt really awkward. I hope that she understood, as I did, that these were extreme circumstances.
It wasn’t just a matter of space – it was more a matter of mass – I had to take things out of my checked bags and put them into my already-bursting carry-ons because one of my suitcases passed through a magic 32kg barrier and the $50 overweight charge would have turned into $200.
Anyway, once we got all this stuff sorted out, we sat down for a bit and enjoyed some tea her husband bought for us. We had quite a lot to talk about, and not much time to do it – twenty, maybe thirty minutes. All too soon, I had to get myself through security. As I passed through I could see that she was watching from the public side, and she didn’t leave until after I was out of sight. (I couldn’t really wave at that point – it would be too much like communicating, “Yes, I got the drugs through OK!” =)
She had admitted to me over the phone a week earlier that she had been apprehensive about meeting me last January because she (correctly) remembered me as a lying, deceitful child, and “not a very nice boy.” She was really showing hospitality to my mother and father, and I was a proxy. But she said that she couldn’t believe how much I’d changed and now she has a completely different view of me.
I think I was in Grade 3 or 4 when she visited us – now that I think of it, Grades 3 through 10 were pretty bad years for me. =) 11 wasn’t hot either, but I used my notoriety to get elected to the Student’s Council at my high school and that really changed my life because it became my job to get interested in other people. A whole new world opened up for me around that time.
Still, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. I was entering a new world, sure, but I was doing it without all of the experiences and wisdom that my contemporaries already possessed. It’s been a slog. I get along with some people and clash with others. I still brandish my opinions with a sting that is probably unnecessary and definitely unflattering.
2009 is going to be my fix-myself-up year.
* * *
I was going to take a window seat on the flight (I’d picked a seat online months earlier), but the check-in agent offered me the chance to pick another seat, as the flight wasn’t crowded – I thought about it for a second and got an aisle seat, as it would be nighttime at both the departure and destination airports. The sun would come up in mid-flight and go down again later, but in any case I wasn’t in the mood to attempt aerial photography.
Also, I realized this would be my first time experiencing arriving sooner than I left! (We didn’t take off until around 7:30pm, and we landed in New York around 5:25pm – both December 24th.) Of course, since I piddled away 95% of this time at JFK airport with customs, AirTrain rides, and baggage storage, it didn’t turn out to be as much of a thrill as I’d envisioned.
The immigration counter was a breeze – the woman looked at my documents and asked if I was coming back to Japan. “Ever?” I wondered, and then I realized, “No, not on this visa.” Theoretically, I did have the option of buying an re-entry permit so I could enjoy the last nine days of my permission to be in the country (to work), but that would have been $60 and I would have had to get it way back in Komatsushima.
Incidentally, many people ask me if I’ll ever go back to Japan, and I’m happy to say that I will – I’ve got unfinished business, not the least of which is the pilgrimage! Essentially, I’ll go back when I run out of money (to work) or when I have an insane amount of money (to tour and visit).
There was random extra screening on the gangway between the gate counter and the plane – just something to be aware of; I was waved through it.
As I sat on the plane, one of the first things I wrote was: I hate air travel. They should just offer a surface baggage option. How often do you need every damn thing you take immediately?! I’d be happy to wait a month and avoid this mess. (Fewer things = happier travel) -> it was OK back when they didn’t monitor and screen (and measure) every little thing. (Did such a time ever exist?)
One of the flight attendants announced, “our flying time will be three-” (Trepidatious, tentative cheers from the passengers.) “… Sorry, thirteen hours.” (Laughter.)
I’m never a fan of taxiing – I don’t think anyone is, and in this case our initial distance to New York was 10,839km but now it was building to 10,841 and we were still on the ground. Were we just going to drive to France and take off from there?
ALRIGHT! Airborne, finally! And, this time, the entertainment worked, and my noise-cancelling headphones were OK too, but they weren’t comfortable enough to just wear for the entire flight. Also, the entertainment wasn’t really on-demand like I assumed it would be; it was really just a bunch of simultaneous channels running under a computerized menu. It’s kind of like how pay-per-view movies used to work in the early days of digital cable; the popular movies would start every fifteen or thirty minutes, but you might have to wait longer for some of the other ones.
I guess the games are on demand, but they’re about as responsive and quick as your average Java-based cellphone game, which is to say that they’re neither, and they take forever to load. (It’s hard to kill the five minutes of waiting for the next showing of Monk to start when the game you might want to play takes three minutes just to load.) I discovered that a controller was embedded in the armrest and could be extracted at the same time that I discovered the games, which was a good thing because I think the poor guy in front of me was able to sense my furtive jabs at the touch screen (he kept looking back sideways). Imagine playing Tetris on the back of his seat while he’s trying to sleep, sheesh…
Anyway, the system was far from perfect, and I didn’t watch any movies because they weren’t playing any good ones, but it was far better than the crippled airshow-only situation we had on the way over to Japan last January.
(I wish I could link to that great talk show clip where that guy is talking about how we should be amazed that we’re sitting in a chair whizzing through the air… does anyone have that? Even for more than ten hours, whizzing through the air at 953 km/h 11km off the ground is kind of cool.)
So flying’s fine: the only things I don’t like about it are checking in, security screening, take-offs, landings, collecting bags, clearing customs, the stupid way that some cities have their international and domestic services at separate airports, ascents, descents, and carrying a small country’s worth of belongings on my shoulders halfway to the moon.
As we were approaching JFK, I finally discovered that the tops of the headrest could be upfolded into a neck pillow so that your head doesn’t roll around and wake you up. Ah… next time!