Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Quiet Walk?

Asia is a hard place for the introvert to lose himself in reflection. There are so many people. And those people are everywhere.

On the last weekend of January, I went with Maureen to her musical rehearsal in Hobetsu, a small mountain town of 3800 to the east of Tomakomai. The JETs in Hokkaido are a very active bunch, perhaps in part because of the isolation that comes with living on an island that is snowbound for half the year. The gaijin here tend to band together, and every year, a group of them produce a Broadway musical with a Japanese flare. This year’s selection is “Guys and Dolls,” and Maureen has a role as a dancer and chorus girl. The cast and crew assemble for one weekend each month throughout the school year to prepare the show, then give performances on the last three weekends in May. The plays are done in English, but include enough Japanese lines that someone who spoke only Japanese could still follow the basic plot.

I had plenty to keep me busy during the rehearsal, from photographing the cast, to reading, to taking meditative walks through the quiet village streets in the bright winter sun. Or at least trying.

I was walking up the snow covered sidewalk in that contrasting time of evening that only comes to the deep valleys and hollows. It was that time before twilight but after the low sun had dropped behind a nearby, towering, confining hillside. The sky was bright, the painfully clear blue of cold winter. The clouds were cotton white rimmed in gold, the blue-white snow shadows covering a land that was neither dark nor bright in the sky’s reflection. The packed snow of the un-shoveled, unsalted sidewalk packed tighter underfoot with each step, and I had drifted a thousand miles away to the windswept plains of Inner Mongolia where the last of the giants still steamed across the grasslands.

My thoughts were on the railroaders of that barren land, in particular the ones I had met and given my photos, given those little parts of myself. And I had just found out from another traveler that they have been selling those photos, my photos, to other steam seekers for a little bijou money. I’m surprised but not, perhaps most surprised at myself for being so naïve in thinking they wanted my photos for anything other than potential income.

With the haunting acoustic melody of the Goo Goo Doll’s “Name” drifting through my mind, I notice for the first time two teenage girls walking toward me. If this was America, I could keep looking down, keep looking at the sidewalk, looking through the sidewalk to that place deep inside myself where my current thoughts were fixed. If they were American high school girls, they would think nothing of me and I would think nothing of them, and we would both pass and walk onward, our thoughts and conversations untouched by our coincidence in that place and time. But this isn’t America. This is Japan, and they were already watching me for a long time before I ever saw them, even though in that moment, as I was looking up, they were looking down and pretending to study that same, snow-covered sidewalk I had been looking right through for so long. I’m 190 cm tall, fair white skin and just can’t hide. So I looked up, looked outside myself and right at them until they finally met my gaze and then quickly looked away again.

“Hello!” I said, loudly, clearly and cheerfully.

“Herro,” the first one answered, quickly and timidly.

“Hello!” I hailed the second. She was too embarrassed to speak.

They were not two steps past me when the high-pitched, squealing laughter broke out. And I had to smile. My reverie was broken, lost and not likely to be found again, but I had to smile. Simply by being here, I’m a participant in the internationalizing of rural Japan whether I want to be or not.

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