Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tokyo Red Eye - What we can learn from a night flight to Japan

Years ago, when I was more readily able to fly around the world at the drop of a hat (not that I took advantage of it very often), I flew to Japan to visit two friends who were teaching English. One friend was in the heart of Tokyo, and the other was living a somewhat lonelier existence farther south in Marugame, Kagawa, the home of most of Japan’s fan (uchiwa) production and the tastiest soba noodles I have ever encountered.

In order to add a visit with a friend teaching in England on my way back, I had to fly the same route both ways, starting with an Atlantic crossing from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Heathrow airport, in London, England. The second leg consisted of an overnight flight across Europe and Asia to Narita Airport, near downtown Tokyo.

My trip came upon me much faster than I’d intended, lost as I was in the flurry of activity required to meet a story-board deadline… which I didn’t quite make, sadly. I’m not sure the director has ever forgiven me. But the result of all this work was a number of late-night work fests and a final all-nighter, right before I was due to leave. I hadn’t left my apartment yet but after being up for about 36 hours straight I had taken care of that nasty jet lag all on my own!

I dropped off my board, then rushed home, threw clothes in a suitcase and hurried to the airport to catch my plane. By the time I got through customs and checked my bags I had pretty used up any reserves of energy I had left after my extended deadline push of the days preceding my trip.

The flight to England was about eight hours, and I tried to roll up a jacket for a headrest and push my seat back to get some shuteye. It was then that I discovered the main drawback to British Airways’ vaunted service… it never stops. I was seated on the aisle and was consistently interrupted with offers of tea (always yes), snacks (always no) , meals, magazines, blankets and headphones. And when the hyper efficient staff wasn’t offering me yet another creature comfort, the other people in my aisle were squeezing past me to use the facilities.

Suffice to say, I got very little sleep in my up and down, upright position and was one groggy, bleary-eyed world traveler as we touched down at Heathrow for my five- hour stopover. It was then that I discovered that Heathrow is, indeed, the world’s most expensive airport. A single cup of coffee and a scone cost me over13 pounds! Holy %$#!!!

So I was 46 hours awake and dead on my feet when I finally boarded my night flight to Tokyo, which was to take something like 11 hours. Thank heavens this flight seemed more conducive to napping. There was some actual legroom to stretch out my gams, and they had dimmed the lights to create a pleasantly soothing, sleep-supporting atmosphere for me and all the Japanese travelers surrounding me. I managed to score two blankets so I could roll one up to support my neck.

Sadly, I had officially passed exhaustion and was well into my “too tired to shut my brain off” stage. So I simply closed my eyes and tried to fool my whirling brain into thinking it might actually be drifting into slumber. The wonderful thing about the flight to Japan was the fact that a number of the meal options were delicious Bento boxes, much like those available on the Shinkansin bullet trains that link Japan’s islands at super speed.

My body was thrilled to be facing real food as opposed to the vacuum-packed muffins and plains sandwiches at Heathrow. By now I had not only crossed several time zones, I had passed the 50-hours-awake mark, and I needed all the nutrition I could get. I was lost in the pleasant stupor of dinnertime, smelling the aromas and thinking about, well… not thinking at all, actually. That’s a polite way of saying I was completely exhausted and my brain was pretty much flat-lining by now.

As I sat with my dinner in front of me I felt a tug at my sleeve.

Across the aisle and one row back, a Japanese man was holding out his plastic-wrapped knife, fork and napkin combination with a supportive smile on his face. "Mistah! Hey Mistah! You use!" He smiled at me and shook the utensils.

I smiled and shook my head back, thinking, "He must think I'm some kind of silly Gaijin who can't use chopsticks." But the man, and his wife beside him, kept trying to foist their spare utensils on me. After all, what did they need with silly Western knives and forks?

As the pair continued to plead with me to take their cutlery I felt myself growing more insulted. It was pretty rude of them to assume I couldn't handle chopsticks on my own just because I'm not Japanese. I smiled as graciously as I could muster and shook my head "No" a final time. Then I indignantly turned back in my seat. Seriously, the nerve of those two, right? After much shifting in my chair in a losing effort to make myself more comfortable, I finally settled down with my meal.

Then I looked down at my tray…. and at my hands.

And all was revealed.

I suddenly realized that while I had picked up the chopsticks I had not yet taken a bite. And all this time, my slack fingers, barely holding the chopsticks upright, had been listlessly dragging the chopsticks back and forth across my plate. Back and forth. Back and forth. Baaaaack and forth. It was quite hypnotic to watch, actually.

I had not picked up a single grain of rice.

I had not lifted a single morsel of teriyaki salmon to my mouth.

It had been not doing all of that utterly independent of my conscious brain.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It was still happening.

And I had no idea how long I've been doing this.

That poor man and his wife had been watching me fail to take a single bite of my much-needed nourishment for who knows how long until they were finally driven to their cross-cultural mission of mercy! Would no one give this poor, idiot, western man a knife and fork?

I surreptitiously placed my fingertips on my food, taking a quick temperature to help me determine how long my hands had been making a fool of the rest of me. The food was still lukewarm, which meant, thank God, that I likely had not been making my sweeping motion for more than, oh, ten minutes or so.

For some unknown reason, that gave me a feeling of quiet dignity.

I gathered myself, mustering all the willpower at my command and stared at my hands, ordering them to clench around the damn chopsticks. With intense effort I managed to steady my hand somewhat and position my fingers correctly. Shakily, I directed my wooden utensils toward the salmon. Picking up rice would have been too much to ask of my poor extremities just yet.

Narita Airport, Japan.

It was amazing how difficult it was to do something I do without thinking any other time. The stress of the moment, and some of my embarrassment, faded away as I lifted the teriyaki salmon to my mouth. I quickly took the bite, worried that somehow it would explode out of my quivering hands if I didn’t act right then. My mouth full of the delicious salmon at last, I turned and smiled broadly at my Good Samaritans.

Determined to complete my return from the depths of embarrassment and restore my tarnished dignity, I held up the chopsticks clicking them triumphantly in a salute to my would-be benefactors and displayed the international symbol for yummy by rubbing my tummy in a circular motion.

The man and his wife smiled back, evidently relieved that I would neither starve nor force them to watch me disgrace chopsticks any longer. They joined together in silent round of applause for the big, stupid Gaijin learning how to eat. Their job was done.

If you teach a man to fish and use chopsticks he will always have food.

There are several morals to this little story.

One. Just because you think you’re doing something right, doesn’t mean you aren’t fucking it up.

Two. If someone offers you help, guidance, or even a little constructive criticism, they could be seeing something you’re too close to see.

Live the adventure.