The Twinkie Times

The life and times of a Chinese American. Born a Jersey boy, lived the expat life, attended boarding school (Lawrenceville), converted to a frat boy (Sigma Pi), got an MBA (Columbia), returned to China, and back to the East Coast now trying to carve out an identity and life as an Asian American dad (gulp) in the midst of a "tertial life crisis" ©

Friday, August 27, 2004

FLASHBACK: Land of the Rising Sun Vol. II

I am shown into my apartment and as I lug in my monstrous suitcases, the woman gives me a horrified look as she unbuckles her high heel shoes. I run back to the front door, apologize repeatedly, and throw in a couple bows as I hurry to take off my shoes as well. The studio is quite small but it is very clean and my first impression was that there was an abundance of gadgets and remote controls. By my count, there were two for the tv and digital cable, one for the air conditioner, one for the digital radio, an elaborate video screen for the intercom, and two different control panels to operate the bathtub, one in the bathroom and one in the kitchen - in case you want to get the bath started while you are doing dishes. From this control panel, you can set the water level and the water temperature automatically and even put it on a timer in case you want a nice hot bath waiting for you after a long day at work.

After a quick tour of the apartment, I am left alone to relax and I begin to take in the surroundings. I try the TV to see if I get any English channels and am a little worried when everything is in Japanese. I try the cable box but since all the remote controls are labeled in Kanji characters, I don't know how to switch the input. I decide to leave it until after I have freshened up so I head into the bathroom to survey the facilities. The bathroom is divided into 3 separate rooms: toilet, laundry, and shower. As I'm playing with all the various buttons and switches, I see one next to the toilet which I assume is the fan. I push the little square red button and an alarm goes off in my room. While I am scrambling to find an off button, a siren is blaring in the room and a robotic female voice is barking orders at me in Japanese from the intercom. I hit every button on the intercom and one of them thankfully stopped the alarm. Then the phone rings. I answer the phone and it is the front desk checking if everything is ok. I apologize profusely and explain that I had hit the emergency button accidentally.  

With that utterly embarrassing situation behind me, I decide to take a shower to freshen up. I unpack my Target-bought Herbal Essences and Irish Spring and smile at the familiar sight. As I'm fiddling with the temperature of the water, I notice it is rather dark in the shower with the curtain closed. I look up and notice that the light is not on so I search for the light switch. I see a button next to the bathtub control panel and wonder if I should press it. This one is yellow and circular so logic tells me that it could not possibly be another emergency button. I hit it and the all too familiar alarm and voice are heard again throughout the apartment. I grab a towel and jump out of the shower, dripping wet, I turn off the alarm and this time pre-emptively call the front desk. I explain that I was trying to turn on the light in the shower (which I later learned was a dead light bulb) and this time, the woman tells me there are 4 emergency buttons in the apartment, 1 in the bathroom, 1 in the shower, 1 in the hallway, and 1 next to the bed. Duly noted.  

Not wanting to take any chances with another alarm, I get dressed in the dark and then head out to explore Yebisu Garden Place, slipping out the side door to avoid contact with the front desk. Walking around a little, I note that I could easily survive a whole month without ever stepping foot outside of this complex. To my left, a Sapporo Brewery and Beer Museum next to The Garden Hall, where some Japanese pop star must have been having a concert since there were legions of teeny bopper Asian Britney Spears-look-alikes amassed. To my right, a sprawling multi-level department store complete with a book store, supermarket, and food court. In the center, under a giant arched translucent covering is the Starlight Cinema (a-la Bryant Park) where, to my surprise, they're playing an American movie with Japanese sub-titles. I watch for about 5 minutes but Sean Penn's overacting soon wears on me and my stomach begins to growl. I set off in search of nourishment, not used to having to get my own food since I had just recently been brought course after course by the lovely staff of Continental Airlines. I wander into the food court and find something recognizable: beef, rice, and what looks like potato salad. After struggling with the various coin denominations, I pay for the dinner box and retreat back to my apartment.   

This time, I manage to turn on some lights without alerting the TKPD. I gobble down my dinner and feel the jet lag setting in. I awake to find the TV still on and fumble for some sort of time-piece. 4:30 AM so I force myself to go back to sleep. . . 5:30 AM and I'm wide awake as the sun begins to come up. I decide to give the TV another try and this time manage to switch to the digital cable box. I'm delighted to find CNN, so I set out to unpack my things while catching up on the 'swift boat controversy' back home. 7:30 AM rolls around and I decide to head over to the office to check some email and call the parents back home. As I'm walking over to the office tower, I notice out of the corner of my eye a very familiar icon. I peer underneath the promenade and see the Golden Arches. Immediately, I go in and order up a Sausage Egg McMuffin with hash brown.   

Arriving onto the 8th floor of the office building, I am relieved to see the Morgan Stanley Logo and an English sign for Information Technology. I go up to the door and swipe my pass, nothing. I go to the other end of the hallway and try again, no dice. I find a phone and dial the helpdesk number - they're only open during business hours. Just when I was about to give up, I hear footsteps on the other side of the floor. I rush over to see who it is and luckily 'excuse me' is also in my repertoire of Japanese, thanks to Bernie (a British coworker back home married to a Japanese wife), and I attempt to engage him in conversation. I flash my Morgan ID and show him my business card but he does not speak any English whatsoever. After showing him that my ID will not open the door, he understands what the issue is and picks up the phone to dial a number. Part of me wanted to just forget it and leave since he could have been reporting me to the police for all I knew but after a lengthy conversation, he motions for me to follow him. He takes me to the 4th floor and into the security office. I panic for a split second as scenes of 'The Fugitive' flash through my head, but remember that I had seen his ID, he was a consultant for Morgan Stanley, and besides I was taller and bigger than he was.   

A security guard comes out to greet us and they have a brief exchange and then the consultant disappears. The guard takes my ID and retreats into a backroom. I sit patiently and go over escape routes in the worst case scenario. Finally, the guard returns, with a sidekick this time, and the two security personnel approach me with a piece of paper. I apprehensively look at the sheet and am relieved to see a printout of my corporate directory profile. In very very broken English, they manage to convey to me that they have activated my ID card for Sunday only. I try to explain to them that I will be working in Tokyo for one and a half months to no avail. Finally, one of the guards brings me a pen and writes "8/22/2004 -- " . . . on a piece of paper and I fill in "10/2/2004" and they understand.   

The guards were ultra polite and very helpful and I was extremely thankful for running into that nice consultant. I head back to the IT floor and triumphantly enter the office. I wander through the sea of cubicles and begin scanning the name tags looking for my colleagues. Toward the end of one row, I notice on the opposite side a series of Sybase mugs displayed on the wall. I had found my temporary home. I log into the computer, bring up my email, and call my parents back home to let them know I had arrived safely. Sitting in front of the computer, sifting through thousands of emails, and chatting with my parents, I was comfortable in familiar surroundings and suddenly the prospect of living in this foreign city did not seem so difficult.

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Saturday, August 21, 2004

FLASHBACK: Land of the Rising Sun Vol. I

After a delightfully painful 13 hour flight where I was reacquainted
with the wonderful world of business class, I arrived in the New Tokyo
International Airport. Although I should have tried to sleep a little, I
was too engrossed with the multitude of movies playing and the seemingly
endless supply of food they were serving. At one point, after the 3
course dinner had been served, the dessert tray was rolled around and
the two stewardesses approached me with the spread. I settled on the
warm blueberry cobbler and when they offered me ice cream on top, I
replied with such excitement, "That would be great!" that they imitated
me in broken English, giggled, and then moved on. I took that as a sign
that I should probably stop eating and frying my brain watching tv and
started to read a book. (until the next movie started of course)

So, I disembark the plane, grateful to be able to stretch my legs, and
follow the crowd to the customs area. Standing in the Foreign Visitors'
line, I was comfortable surrounded by other Americans and Brits, little
did I know that that would be one of the last times I heard anyone speak
English for awhile. I suppose since I am Asian, it is understandable
that everyone would assume I spoke Japanese, but I sometimes wish I
could wear my passport around my neck rather than returning a blank
stare. Luckily, the two phrases I had burned into my memory were 'I do
not understand' and 'Do you speak English?' I guess my next phrase will
be 'Hello, I am not Japanese'.

Even though I followed Kendra's (my manager's) advice and hurried to the
bus stop as quickly as possible, I still missed my bus by about 20
minutes and had to wait an hour and 15 minutes for the next one. The
primary reason for any delay was waiting for my luggage in a sea of
identical black Samsonite suitcases and decoding Japanese ATM machines.
It was a bit disconcerting to withdraw currency with 5 zero's after the
number but after convincing myself that spending 100 yen was like a buck
back home, it was much easier.

At last my bus arrived and I was amazed that it pulled up exactly at
3:25 pm just as the LED sign indicated. The bus was very comfortable
but I was not looking forward to another 2 hour ride having just been on
my rear for a nonstop 13 hours. We made good time on the expressways
but once we pulled into the city proper, the motion sickness kicked in
as we weaved and turned up and down hills on these small local roads.
Just as I was about to break into a cold sweat, we arrived at my stop
and I hurried off the bus thankful to feel solid ground beneath my feet.

The last leg of my adventurous arrival in Tokyo would be to find my
apartment and check-in. As I struggle with my two man-size suitcases
looking for the elusive entrance to my apartment complex, I marvel at
the Yebisu Garden Place (and Sapporo Brewery). The center was amazing
and I could not help but think that New York would probably never have a
similar area. I would compare it to Rockefeller Center, minus the
hundreds of tourists, but with spotless tile floors and infused with the
proper 'zen' aesthetic.

I finally find the entrance to the front desk and am greeted by two
young Japanese women dressed meticulously in matching pink uniforms. I
tell them that I have a corporate apartment there and I work for Morgan
Stanley and they both looked at me with a peculiar look. In those few
seconds, I had flashbacks of spring breaks where they conveniently
'misplaced our reservation' or 'overbooked' and was on the verge of
sheer panic when they ask me if I am Su-san. With a sigh of relief,
they show me to my room where I am eagerly anticipating some time to relax.

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