Saturday, May 24, 2008

Being American

Dandelion About to Be Blown

She forgets to mention some spectacular moments: 3 women getting on the tram in traditional dress – stiff Japanese fabric with a wide sash bundled around their bodies, those odd white socks with toe sleeves for the special shoes, extra white faces – all on a bright hot day; the super skinny girls and young women with jet black over the knee leggings and stiletto heels or s&m shoes, short shorts, piled hair and leopard print shirts; the countless groups of young men in opaque black business suits and cool glasses with briefcases; people riding bicycles in full fancy dress – an umbrella stand for the umbrella to hold the sun and rain away.

They had their first disappointing meal last night. They joined Deena, an African-American undergraduate from Beloit College, who was lonely and in need of company, downtown to find dinner. (She has an internship here for the summer, speaks some Japanese, will babysit for us occasionally and lives down the hall in a single dorm room.) With the jet-lagged kids in tow, it was hard to find a place that felt right. They ended up at a restaurant with a big ceramic bear fountain in a sombrero out front. He “pees forever” is what the kids kept saying and they insisted on visiting him throughout the meal. They had fish pools inside that you could watch through the dirty windows – flinching shiny fish and hysterical lobsters in the hands of the chefs. The kids were starving and they ordered shrimp tempura for them and cold sake for themselves and wanted to order more but the staff did not understand. When the tempura was delivered, they ordered the rest: rice, mixed sushi, chicken yakitori. David kept telling her to calm down. She was being very American – impatient, complaining that this was taking forever. She couldn’t eat some of the sushi because it was too chewy and she had to admit that the sushi they had from the supermarket was much better. They took a taxi home and she fell asleep with the kids right away at 8:30.

Once again the kids woke up at 1am and then were up for good at 5. She got up with them and they all ate granola with yogurt and watched Puff the Magic Dragon on YouTube. They called their guardian angel, Susan – a biostatistician from Minnesota, in Hiroshima with her husband Andy and their 3 year old daughter Josie. They made a plan to meet at the mushroom fountain that looks like stainless steel buttocks by Jeff Koons, in front of Hiroshima Station where one can take the bullet train that goes 150 miles per hour. It was drizzling so they took a taxi. As soon as they met, Guthrie and Josie began chasing each other in circles with glee. They took a free shuttle to the biggest mall in town so that the kids could play indoors with abandon in the top floor play area – 5$ for 45 minutes. She and Susan went to find a baby monitor and some of the required items for the YMCA. She ended buying a splendid ladybug swimsuit with matching bathing cap, crazy towels that snap around the chest, a raincoat for Guthrie, cloth lunch bags, cups and silverware for the kids. Susan is going to look for a baby monitor at the PX on the base because it will be cheaper and in English.

She was overwhelmed by the enormity of the mall – at least eight floors and super western, but also by the incredible sense of design of practically everything she looked at. Even the Babies R Us commodities looked different, better – nostalgic patterns, fine cuts, layers of cloth, wild toys and marvelous bags. She always felt trapped and tempted in malls, as if she didn’t have enough time or money to fully experience it and certainly not enough good sense to just stay away from it all together. She could probably get all this stuff downtown, which she would try to do tomorrow. They had burgers, fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets and French fries at Freshness Burger.

She is struck by the monolithic concrete buildings everywhere. There is very little beauty in the architecture here - drab grey, dirty neon, lots of electrical wires, slow traffic, crowded blocks. She understands that this was all built after the bomb that destroyed everything that used to be here and that was what the time dictated – 1950s modernism, a concrete jungle, brutalism, bunker mentality. Deena said, “They all drive these ugly boxy cars.” She didn’t respond because the boxy cars in shades of avocado green and pale grey were some of the things she loved seeing – flashes of old-fashioned style. She also noticed that when she made statements about the U.S. atomic bomb or happened to mention her past protest at Fort Benning against The School of the Americas to other Americans, they did not respond. An American in Japan, she did not feel like an American.

She keeps wondering if everyone here, from here, living here, thinks about the A-bomb on a daily basis. Do they worry that there may still be contaminated soil and poisoned air as a result? How can they not harbor an immense hatred or distrust of Americans? Spending time on the web yesterday, trying to find an art supply store in town, she found a traveler’s guide to Hiroshima. It said something like, “If you are feeling especially uncomfortable about being an American in Hiroshima because of the A-bomb, or are having a difficult conversation about it, say something like, ‘well, don’t you think the Japanese would have dropped the same bomb on us if they had gotten to it first?’” What good would that do? Seems as if the war just continues on different levels, with a lesser intensity. The travel guide also claims that the Japanese have “gotten over it and love Americans.” I don’t know. People look tired.

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