2014/03/30

Hai, Daijoubu Desu


"Daijoubu?" Are you OK? a young, smartly woman asked me as I stepped out of a taxi in Tokyo. She must have seen that no more than 30 seconds earlier, I was just climbing into the same taxi and was now resentfully climbing back out.

"Hai, daijoubu desu." Yes, I'm OK, I replied. Though my backpack, American "style" of clothes (ahem, shorts, flip flops, a T-shirt, and a hoodie), and perhaps my face (depending on who you ask) may have given away my non-Japanese identity, I still tried to be as convincingly non-foreigner as possible. Given the Japanese practice of stoicism in the face of hardship, though, I was failing in my I'm-Japanese-enough fakery.

I started to cry.

She and her three guy friends took pity on me immediately. They surrounded me, asked me where I was trying to go, lamented at not being able to speak English (how did they know I speak English?), and immediately climbed into the taxi I was just in to confront the driver.

Moments earlier, I was tiredly asking that taxi driver to take me to a nearby capsule hotel (very, very nearby) and was showing him the address of where I needed to go. He took one look at me and claimed to not know of the hotel--quite forcefully, in fact. I kept pointing at the address on my reservation paper (written in Japanese), and spoke to him only in Japanese so as not to worry him about taking on a non-Japanese speaking foreigner. I eyed his GPS, but was too meek to demand that he use it to plug in the address and drive me the one kilometer that it took to get to this place. At last, he said something that I didn't catch. "Sumimasen... mou ichido itte kudasai..?" Sorry, can you say that again one more time? I asked. He looked at me, seemed to think something over to himself, repeated that he didn't know where this hostel was, and denied very firmly for the last time to take me there. He gestured for me to get out of the taxi. That's when the kind young woman and her friends found me.
This group of young Japanese friends all stuck their head into the taxi and told the driver where I wanted to go, using--as far as I could tell--words no different than I had used. They persistently argued with him, pointing at the address on my paper and asking him why he didn't use the GPS to find the location. He waved them off, gestured for them to get out of his taxi, used the automatic switch to close the passenger door on them, and drove off, passenger-less.

Frustrated, my group of Samaritans hailed the next taxicab in line. They patiently explained to him where I wanted to go. By this time, I was swallowing sobs and wiping away my snot and tears with the sleeves of my already dirty maroon hoodie. The taxi driver agreed to take me. The girl helped me into the cab, backpack, tote bag, purse and all, and I was off.

As we drove to the destination, the taxi driver lectured me about taking the wrong exit out of the train station to get where I needed to go (I had no idea) and that the hostel was not far at all from the station in the first place. I tried explaining to him that I was injured from having climbed a mountain for the past two days, that I was tired from having been in transit for the past 17 hours, and that my bags were quite heavy to carry for even such a short distance. To say that I was walking with a limp would have been to assume that I could walk at all. My legs were completely shot and my body was more tired, wrecked, and sore than it's ever been before--and that's coming from someone who's run two marathons, many half marathons, and has climbed her fair share of mountains. I'd rather pay the $7 (hell, I'd have paid much more than that) to be taken directly to my hostel than hobble around Tokyo with all my bags, alone, in pain, and lost. I tried explaining all this, but with my limited Japanese, all I could say was "Yes, thank you... I was traveling yesterday, and climbed a mountain, and now my legs hurt, so..." He gruffly acknowledged my attempt to explain myself. I could tell he had no pity for me, though.

When we arrived at the hostel, I paid the fare, and wearily looked up at the two flights of stairs it was going to take to get to the check-in desk. I slowly made my way up. I removed my shoes at the threshold of the entrance, gave them my name, and paid for my night's stay. "Sixth floor," the front desk clerk told me. Good God, you've got to be kidding me, I thought. Thankfully, there was an elevator to take me up the rest of the way from that 2nd floor reception desk.

Not so thankfully, I ended up having the top bunk of the capsules. Also not so thankfully, the only place to store my 10-kg back was up there in my bunk with me. It took all my strength to hoist my pack up to the bed before climbing the ladder for myself, using only the strength of my arms to reach the soft white linens of the clean hostel bed while my legs dangled uselessly below me. The past couple of years of bouldering is paying off.
The notorious Japanese capsule bed.
True to Japanese standards of public decency, the capsule room was dead silent. Even without any visibly posted signs threatening against talking on the phone (only one sign was posted, asking guests to "please rock the door before leaving". Oops. I guess despite the dozens of English speaking guests the hostel gets every day, not one in their years of business has had the heart to bring the innocent translation error to management's attention), I assumed that such was the rule here. I texted Brian, asking him to video chat with me, but warning him that I wouldn't be able to talk. Headphones plugged in, I listened to him struggle to make one-way conversation, comforting me, distracting me by telling me about his day, and creatively trying to turn all his conversational questions into nod-your-head-yes/shake-your head-no questions. All the while, tears poured down my face and my chest spasmed with hiccups from holding back sobs.

After we hung up, I undressed, put on the yukata (robe) given to my me be the desk clerk, grabbed my towel, and stumbled back down the ladder. The past year and a half of going to onsen (Japanese public bath areas where men and women roam about completely naked, sometimes separated by sex, but not always) has taught me to care little to none at all about being caught with my pants down (literally, anyway). I slowly and painfully walked around the 6th floor, looking for the bath area, but finding only more rows and rows of capsules and robed women. I went down the elevator, stopping at all the women's floors, but still finding nothing but capsules. Finally, not wanting to talk the male desk clerk while in my yukata, I approached a female guest on my floor.

"Excuse me, is there a female onsen in this building?" I asked in Japanese. "Sorry, no Japanese. English?" she said to me in broken English, presumably for my benefit. Now, two days later, I think about what an image we must have been in this international hostel, two Asian-"looking" young women trying to figure out where the other is from, and ending up both speaking English as her first language.

I asked her again. She pointed me in the right direction. It turned out that the women's onsen was on the basement level. I couldn't find it because, of course, in line with my perfectly unlucky day, the elevator only went down to the second floor. As far as getting past the first floor and down to the basement--I was on my own. Stairs, here I come.

With no other option, I sucked in my breath and winced through the tightness of my immovable leg muscles and drop, drop, dropped down each step of each flight of stairs. Sure enough, there was the women's bath. There were other women there, dressing, undressing, blow-drying their hair, chatting with their friends naked, showering, and relaxing in the bath. I quickly undressed and hit the shower (thankfully, in Japan, it's customary to shower while sitting on a stool in front of a vanity instead of standing in a shower stall). About a minute after taking my place, the other women in the bath area cleared out of the room. Perhaps they had already been there for 10, 20, 30 minutes, had their fill of relaxation time, and decided to head back to bed... or maybe they saw my very foreign, palm-sized flower tattoo on my back and decided to make a break for it, getting as far away from me as possible. In Japan, a Japanese person with a tattoo is often assumed to be affiliated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Obviously, they don't think you're part of the yakuza if you're White with a tattoo, but, well, I'm not White with a tattoo. I'm ambiguously Asian with a tattoo. Tattoos are hugely offensive in some onsen, water parks, and I suppose just offensive to be visible (or to have) at all. I've been kicked out of an onsen for my tattoo, mid-shampoo and all. Since then, I've been 40% paranoid about stepping foot into another onsen and 60% not caring and wanting to have a bath anyway.

At any rate, with the other women gone, I now had the pleasure of the 45 degree Celsius bath to myself. I'm a weakling when it comes to hot water, so I only let my legs soak in the teeming hot water, sitting on the edge of the pool.  I reflected on the events of the past hour... day... four days...

To the woman and her friends who helped me out with the taxi situation, I was a lost, helpless girl. To both taxi drivers, I was an emotional, stupid tourist. To the hostel desk clerk, who cheerfully greeted me just after stepping out of the taxi--me, watery-eyed and red-nosed--who had to help me figure out how to pay for my night's stay via their payment vending machine, explain and give me the appropriate sauna attire (another kind of yukata... as opposed to the one they had handed me only 20 minutes before), and frantically chase after me as I nearly mistakenly walked into the men's bath area in my towel and robe when I was looking for the women's bath, I was a confused--very, very confused--foreigner.

They may have all been correct, to some extent. To me, none of these were good enough reason for me to start crying in the middle of the sidewalk at 1 a.m. in Tokyo. I've traveled to other continents on my own. I've bargained on excursions and cheap souvenirs despite language barriers with local salespeople. I've suffered food poisoning and excruciating diarrhea (or, as my friend called it, "the double headed dragon") after eating fresh pho on the streets of Vietnam. I've been questioned at immigration (U.S. immigration of all places) while traveling alone, have survived 30-hour transit journeys, and told off con-men for trying to sell me fake visas, all without crying or otherwise displaying any sign of helplessness.

Yet, in the middle of Tokyo, in the country that I've called home for nearly two years, while speaking to a taxi driver in language that I have a decent handle on in a place where taxis are known to be consistent and fairly priced (if not fairly and consistently expensive), I broke into tears. Why?

I was so exhausted. I was drained, hurting, annoyed, and just tired to my damn bones. I hadn't eaten in 12 hours, I had just pushed my body to extremes it'd never been before, and I had been successfully fighting back tears even as I trekked the 8 km descent of a mountain by myself and as I was jostled and shoved on the last trains of the evening during Tokyo rush hour.

Why had such a minor incident as a jerk of a taxi driver set me off, you inwardly wonder (or maybe not), kind Japanese lady? Because sometimes, you know that the options in front of you suck and you're patience is spent, but all you can do is choose the lesser of the sucky options and continue to be more patient and let the end of the night come to you at its own pace. And you can't help by cry. Trust me, you think you're stronger than that--I did--but patience is nothing but a ticking time bomb.

This is traveling alone in all its ups and downs. Shit happens, and you gotta deal--usually, small, inconsequential shit, in the grand scheme of things. People are generally nice and helpful, and when someone isn't, you'll find someone else. Or you'll figure it out. And if you don't figure it out, you'll eventually find a pillow to lay your head on, a decent enough dinner, and you'll figure it out in the morning. You have to. If nothing else keeps you going, let it be the thought that you and you alone have to either figure out a solution or approach someone to help you get the right answers. On your own or with some help from a stranger, you'll get through it.

And yes, it's OK to cry.

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