Who Said It? Part I

Who said it?

On the US Congress:
“They’re playing for the quarterly report, they’re playing for the next election cycle, and that is mortgaging the actual future of this nation. The rest of the world is going to pass us by.”

No Squid for the Ladies

After graduating from Temple, I took a trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima with my parents and my grandmother. The plan was that we’d return to America together, but I regretted that I wouldn’t be able to have a going away party with all my friends.

My parents agreed to change my ticket, so I could stay a couple weeks longer. I had my apartment for as long as I wanted, and there was nothing in particular for which I needed to hurry home. So once I finished my exams, we took off for Kyoto.

I was pretty worried about my language skills, because I had been told repeatedly that Kansai Japanese is totally different from textbook Japanese. I spoke fine back then, but I wasn’t fluent. I had nightmares of not even being able to order food. When we got off the train in Kyoto, I asked a lady at the station information desk how to get to the New Miyako Hotel. Of course, I asked her in Japanese.

She wrote the name of the hotel in English. I stood there for a moment. I looked at her, and then I looked at the paper. Then I looked back at my parents, who were standing near the doorway. I looked at the station staff member, and I asked, “Where?” in the local tongue.

She was pretty embarrassed, and she drew me a little map. She also pointed and told me, “You can’t miss it.”

We checked our bags in at the hotel because our rooms weren’t ready. In defense of the New Miyako, it was morning, and we arrived early to get on a tour bus. We rode through the city, and out to Nara, where we saw a giant Buddha statue inside an even bigger wooden temple. Outside of this temple, Todaiji, you can buy some kind of crackers or biscuits which are meant for deer. Once you get your hands on some, you have new friends.

These deer will stick their faces in your ass. They’ll try to open your bags. They’ll peck at your rig. They’ll try to bite off your hand when you feed them. They’re not particularly violent, they’re just hungry. Of course, I bought a bunch of crackers, or biscuits, or whatever they were. I feel like my dad took some pictures, but I don’t remember seeing any.

The bus took us around to a few more sites and I became acquainted with wisterias. The wisteria is a beautiful flower. It’s no wonder that its Kanji symbol is used in seven out of every three Japanese surnames. We stood under a canopy of them on some forgotten path in the Nara woods of April, and I thought to myself, “When I go home in two weeks, there’s no way I can let it be my last time in Japan.”

I had very little trouble ordering food that night, but I didn’t know exactly how to read the menus. We ate ramen in a truly diminutive shopping mall. I think it consisted of like six restaurants, a travel agency, and a place to take passport photos. I had to point to the pictures because I wasn’t familiar with the type of ramen. Kanji symbols aren’t so simple to read. There’s no inspecting letters, no sounding it out phonetically. It was really embarrassing to have my family see that. I swore to myself that was the last time on the trip. I made a point of impressing them with my ability.

That leads us to the next night we went out in Kyoto, which could have been the following evening, or it may have been a couple days later. There was a day trip to Hiroshima mixed in there somewhere, and that night, we just went to a chain izakaya and had Ramune sours with egg mayo pizza.

The night I’m talking about, we walked the streets of Gion, and were lucky enough to see a sampling of three different types of Japanese performing arts. We watched Noh, Kabuki, and one other thingy. We’re open-minded folks, but when we walked out of the theater, we didn’t really say much. I don’t remember who broke the ice, but someone said, “Was anyone else kind of creeped out?” We had a pretty good giggle.

Gion is absolutely marvelous, but it wasn’t my favorite spot in Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is right up there near the top of the list of most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. So, aside from that, a night on the streets in Kyoto’s geisha district is most apt to have you re-thinking what you’ve made of yourself. Just try to avoid going in late April, May, June, July, August, September, or maybe even early October. The main shrine was adorned with lit red lanterns, and for some reason, nobody else was there. We did a lot of staring. That was all after dinner though.

Before all that, we took a taxi straight from the hotel to a small restaurant just down the street from the shrine, near the theater we’d eventually walk to for the Kabuki and stuff. The driver dropped us off right at the door, and he may have even walked us in and introduced us. I might be filling that in with my imagination, though.

It was a small place. When you entered through the sliding wooden door, which faced the sidewalk, you could reach the bar if you had arms. I noticed three or four salarymen sitting on bar stools to the left of where I stood. The master welcomed us and motioned for us to sit at the one table which had space for four. It was to my right. That’s all that this restaurant was. Four stools and a four-seater table. The hotel called ahead for us that day or maybe one before, so we were expected.

I surprised the master, his wife, and the few other patrons at the bar with my language ability, which was petty bull compared to what it is now. Nonetheless, it was a spectacle. We made small talk, and I told them about my studies, my family’s visit, and our plans for the evening. We were the toast of the tavern, at least for a moment.

We had some options. They asked me if there was anything we couldn’t eat, so I said, “Peaches,” and all the salarymen laughed. I asked the big kids, and my mom said, “Octopus and squid, and stuff like that.” My grandma seconded.

The master’s wife understood what they said, so she checked with me, and I affirmed. I think I also added something trivial like mustard. She relayed the information to the master, and he muttered benevolently that they “don’t usually serve octopus or squid anyway.” The bar crowd chuckled.

Now, Japanese culture is what is referred to as “high-context”. A brief example to help illustrate what that means is the issue of my inclusion in a school field trip. In 2011, I was working at two all-girls high schools in Ishinomaki City. One of them was totally destroyed by a tsunami. As a gesture of support, the city of Osaka arranged for transportation, lodging, and a stipend for that year’s trip, so long as the trip was to Osaka. Perfect. They probably would have gone there anyway. When I first heard about this, I was very happy for my students (a group of around one hundred girls, aged sixteen and seventeen). The dream of most teachers in my program was to go on a school trip with the students. My partner teacher, Erika, said, “Hey, why don’t I ask the principal if you can come with us?” I was shocked, assuming that it was out of the question. She had been at the school for ten years though, and she thought it was a good idea. Now, in a low-context culture, the principal would say, “No. Are you kidding?” Low-context people use definitive statements and provide little room for interpretation. Japan, though, is not one of those cultures. So when Erika asked the principal about taking me, he said, “Absolutely not. That will not work.” Not very Japanese of him.

Back to Kyoto. The master and his wife (or the master and her husband, either way) started planning the meal, and I heard the words for squid and octopus again. My mistake was that I dismissed it as chatter. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d not mentioned my own distaste for blobby weirdfish with a million legs. Then, the master told the other gents that they didn’t usually serve it.

Being the high-context culture that Japanese is, when I confirmed that the ladies were the ones who didn’t want squid or octopus, I was, by proxy, special-ordering it for my dad and myself. It didn’t hit me until they brought out our appetizers. The ladies got something that looked very nice. It was thickly-sliced ham with a mustard sauce.

The owner (the female one) brought out two bowls and placed one in front of each Corbett man at the table and walked away. In perfect synchronization, we looked down, looked straight ahead, turned to each other, and made the “Oh shit!” face. Three thumb-sized, purple and white squids were sitting intact, on rice in each of our bowls. I think I saw one move, and they were definitely looking at me. When I picked one up to inspect it, some grains of rice stuck to the thing, and I thought about coating the whole guy with a rice layer. I decided that would slow me down, and my best bet was to maximize efficiency. I felt some cultural insensitivity coming on.

We ordered more drinks.

I had one specimen, swallowed it whole. I thought of my stomach as a miniature sea, and of the creature as an old, old wooden ship. When I stood, the ocean was upright and the U.S.S. Diversity sat floating near the top of my midsection. As I fell onto the firm bed at the New Miyako, rogue waves splashed the little guy around so he touched all my inner walls. He righted himself just under my abdomen, and enjoyed a moonless night on soft seas. For the next few days (until I was sure he had been passed), I repeatedly cringed, kicked, and writhed at the thought of what I had done.

Mr. Corbett was much better about it. He had two.

Coffee is Magic

April 2008. I was a week away from earning my college degree, a goal I long thought I’d never achieve. Three members of my family had just arrived, and were preparing for the grand tour. I had a couple of papers to finish and another couple of exams. We started sightseeing a day or two before I finished, so I was juggling being a student and being a host.

Obviously, our time in Japan was limited, so we had to jam a lot of sand into a small shoe. On the day of the final exam of my undergraduate career, I rose before the sun (a misdemeanor in Japan). The test was at seven o’clock that night, but we had a full day planned.

I put on some clothes and a shoe or two and walked around the corner to meet my parents and grandmother at the Sunshine Prince Hotel. It was four in the morning, so we had to take a taxi across town. The trains weren’t running yet, and we had to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market in time for the tuna auction.

This was my second time watching this daily event. I did a little interpreting for my folks when the auction started, but it was really hard to pick up what they were saying. Even on my third trip, four years later, I couldn’t catch much of anything. Fly to the other side of the world to watch an auction, and you’ll realize that we’re all fundamentally the same. I did speak to one reporter though, and when I asked about the most expensive fish he’d ever seen there, he told me that a solitary tuna had once sold for six million yen. That’s approximately sixty thousand dollars. This was where the best fish were sold. The sushi you could get at Tsukiji Fish Market was the best in the world.

We got breakfast at that McDonald’s right there across from the station. It was still only about seven o’clock in the morning though, so the coffee was magic. We had a long way to go. After checking out a small shrine or something in the area, our next stop was the Ueno park and zoo. We got there before the zoo’s opening, so we had to wait around in the park for a bit. It was fine though, because there were kindergarteners waiting with us. If you’ve ever seen a class of Japanese kindergarteners…

We spent the whole morning with the animals. Ueno Zoo has a magnificent population, but some of the cages are pretty depressing. The otters, in particular, seem especially dejected. The zoo is split into two sections. Typically you’d start the visit with a walk around the east garden, taking a look at the panda, other bears, elephants, gorillas, birds, monkeys, penguins, and big cats. The west garden is below, and you can get there by walking down the hill or riding a tram. Then you can go back up to the east garden because you missed the capybaras. If you come down the path at dusk, you can catch the angular sunlight gleaming through the bamboo and off Shinobazu Pond as the pelicans flutter about. It’s one of those sights that really allows you to feel shitty about yourself. When you’re looking at those birds, it’s kind of embarrassing to think that you complained about your download speed no more than an hour prior. You think about the things you call problems and you say, “Fuck that. Look at this.” Either that or you need to learn to appreciate your world a little more.

We were really hoping to see Japan’s only fully-Japanese-owned panda, but Ling Ling wasn’t feeling too well. He ended up dying the next day.

In the afternoon we went to Asakusa. Exiting the station, I told the folks to turn around and get a look at the Asahi building across the river. It’s a tower of twenty-two stories, built to resemble a foaming beer glass. It’s difficult to hold onto a bad mood while looking at the beer tower and the giant flaming turd next door (look up “Asahi building”), so we proceeded to Kaminarimon with a good chuckle. The giant traditional gate summons thousands of tourists each day, and rickshaw runners try to get their money.

We proceeded through (around) the gate, three of us in awe. I had seen it many times, but I still adore the sight. There’s a good little flea market on the path to the temple, Sensoji, and we got a chance to look for trinkets. Sensoji is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and it’s one of the city’s most famous attractions. After gazing into Buddhist wonder, we proceeded to the river. The plan was to take a cruise down to Odaiba, which is the perfect cap to an Asakusa visit.

We relaxed on the Sumida River, passing under a thousand bridges. The boat docked at the man-made island, where we walked around the shopping mall and took in some breathtaking views of the city. The sun started lowering and my seven o’clock test began to loom. It wasn’t exactly multiple choice, so it had been grabbing at my shoulders all day. I had already turned in a ten-page paper entitled “Japan and the League of Nations” for this class. Here is a totally random selection:

“It was well known that before the annexation of Manchuria in 1932, Japan was alienated from the other members due to the distance between Tokyo and Geneva, the lack of a racial equality clause, the lack of Asian representation, the lack of concern for Asian issues, and eventually the Manchurian Incident.”

This test was going to be another handwritten paper of five to ten pages. We had from seven to ten o’clock to complete it. This was a capstone class, which meant that it was requisite for graduation. I was in no trouble of failing, but I had become a competitive student. I just now looked at my transcript and saw that I got a B+. I still graduated magna cum laude, and summa was way out of reach, so it ended up not being a big deal. I had been out for drinks the night before, up at four in the morning for the fish market, walking around all day, and writing a freaking book in a silent room with about twelve people on a weeknight, so I am not ashamed of what happened.

The professor was named Kazuhiko Togo. He is an incredibly impressive man. The first night of the class, he introduced his career to me and the other students. I can’t even scratch the surface of his résumé, but he was a diplomat who worked in Russia, The Netherlands, and on many other assignments. One of the last questions we asked him that first night was, “Aside from Russian, Japanese, and English, do you speak any other languages?”

“French,” he replied, “and Dutch,” he added almost as if there might have been more, but he couldn’t remember them all. He was brilliant, moderate, and descendant of a historical diplomat cut from the same cloth. His grandfather was Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Second World War. He was also once the Minister of Colonialism. Needless to say, he was a contentious figure. After the war, he was indeed arrested by Douglas MacArthur and convicted of Class-A war crimes (though there is a great debate about not only his guilt, but the validity of his conviction). His grandson, my professor recalled that Minister Togo answered the call of his country because he felt that it was his responsibility and he thought his best chance to do good was to effect change from the inside. It is universally recognized that my professor’s granddad was an adamant opponent of most of the campaigns which constituted his crimes, but he was a victim of circumstance and his own patriotic loyalty. Shigenori Togo died in Sugamo Prison in 1950. His soul was enshrined at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. In 1971, Sugamo Prison was torn down. Today, its former site is home to the Sunshine 60 building, and the Sunshine Prince Hotel, where I picked up my parents the morning of the test.

I can’t recall the subject of my exam, but like I said, I barely missed out on the A for the semester. I’m quite sure I know what happened.

I fell asleep four times while composing my paper. I literally trailed off mid-sentence. There were at least three spots on my paper where a letter became a drag mark, and one of them ran off the top of the page. I apologized to Professor Togo, and before hearing my excuse, he said, “I understand. Well done this semester.”

After making it out of the room, I met up with my best friend Bernadette, who was also in Togo’s class. We hustled across town to Shinjuku where we met up with my family and went to an izakaya. We were joined by our buddy Tatsuya, and the six of us held graduation ceremonies for me in a red-light district tapas restaurant. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Soon after, we sailed south for some squid.

To be continued.

Why America, again?

“The Greatest Country on Earth”. How’s that?

Pretty much only people who have spent their entire lives inside the borders and people in the wealthiest ten percent say that.

My reasons for loving America are the sports culture, entertainment industry, food, folkways characterized by gregariousness, and all the individual people who have made me who I am today. I am in love with so much of America that it pains me to feel the way I do about American society.

When you hear something like free (or even debt-free) college education or universal health care, and you think, “That’s all well and good, but it’s just not plausible,” you really mean, “Can’t happen in America.”

Go ahead and imagine a kid somewhere in the US who forgoes medical treatment for a minor injury or a nagging illness. Plausible? Damn right it is because I did it for three years from 2012 to 2015.

Go ahead and imagine a kid spending all of her disposable income (and even some indispensable income) on student loan repayment. Plausible? If you think not, stop reading now.

Now go ahead and imagine higher education as the cause of thousands (millions) of Americans not going to the doctor for things like muscle pain, bronchitis, or mental goddamn illness. Plausible? No shit.

Now, imagine a country where college is free. Plausible? Yes. They exist.

Now, imagine a country where everyone has health insurance and health care costs are low. Plausible? You bet your ass. I write to you from one of them.

NOW… imagine a country where both of those are true (in other words, two of the shittiest elements of American life are not on the minds of people in these fictional Utopias). I don’t mean you go through 8 years of chemotherapy and snag a Ph.D. in the process without spending a dime, and I don’t mean you party in well-appointed dormitories on your student meal plan. Living costs money, and it should. What I do mean is you basically avoid debt for those two specific services. Plausible? Ask Austria, France, Germany, Norway, Sri Lanka, and various others who are pretty close but whose people may incur limited, nominal debt.

“Yeah, well those countries aren’t America.”

Precisely. There are countries out there providing things for their citizens that America isn’t providing, or as some seem to think, can’t provide for its.

Some things might not be plausible in America, you say? Doesn’t America have the highest GDP in the world, and aren’t we in the top 5 or 10 in per capita GDP? So, why again can other countries do things we can’t?

Right. If you want those things, you have to move. So let me ask you again, how is America the greatest country in the world? Don’t get me started on student allowances (some countries pay kids to get an education). Don’t get me started on private health insurance and the bottom line mentality of corporations. Just think about the fact that that dread diagnosis (dread: adjective. causing great fear or anxiety) could cost someone their house (happens), or a graduation ceremony could be a harbinger of homelessness (happens).

The point is not that these services are owed to us. The point is that these services should not be able to sink us.

Next time you brush off these concepts as ideological fantasies of the self-pitying, maybe you should stop for a moment to think…

“Why America, again?”

Probably just your loved ones, your taste buds, and what’s on TV.

Kugunarihama

My time spent living in the fishing village Ogatsu was short. I was there for a year and a few days before I moved down to the center of Ishinomaki. When the move took place, I changed from rural middle and elementary schools to two suburban high schools for girls. I still made weekly elementary school visits and monthly visits to a special education school room.

I was very excited to move downtown, because I would be able to go to the mall any time I wanted, join a gym, go out for drinks with my friends and walk home, and take the train without having to pay to park my car. The drinking was the most important part.

The legal limit for alcohol consumption and subsequent driving in Japan is none. Drinking a beer in the passenger seat of a moving car is fine, but have one sip and get behind the wheel and you are probably going to jail. That is, of course, assuming you’re caught. In the case of a foreigner working in Japan on a teaching visa, if you get caught, you’re on a plane home immediately following a nice vacation in a cell.

I was terrified of getting charged with that sort of crime, so I never committed it. During my year in Ogatsu, if I wanted to drink with friends (who didn’t have cars and wouldn’t come to me even if they did), I had to spend the night. So much for having a cold one with dinner, or trying the microbrew a buddy discovered. If I was to be introduced to a new kind of sake, I needed to borrow a futon too. This quickly evolved from charming to annoying. Of course, the root of that problem was not alcohol. It was my detachment from everything fun while living out in the sticks. When I say “the sticks”, I really mean it. Ogatsu had one convenience store, some mom and pop shops, one traffic light, a small bank branch, a little post office, and two restaurants with parking. The gas station closed at four in the afternoon. The elementary school had about one hundred and twenty kids, many of whom commuted by bus or taxi.

When it came time to decide whether or not I would re-contract with my city, I told my supervisor that I would stay on if I could be moved downtown. Luckily, a spot was opening up. It was at the two all-girls high schools, though. There was some initial concern over sending a tall, athletic, American man into those settings, but my professionalism and the city’s desperation to avoid the cost of hiring a new teacher won out.

As my time out in the bush was nearing its end, I began to get emotional. I realized that I would miss filling my water bottles at an artesian spring. I was sure to miss driving through the tunnel into that sliver of habitation that was hugged so tightly by the mountains, and kissed so sweetly by the sea. I launched an initiative to be outside as much as possible before moving into a six-story concrete building on a narrow street by the downtown docks. I fished for tadpoles with the special education kids under the bridge on Saturday. I rode my bike instead of driving. I read my book at the picnic table in front of the Family Mart. I jogged through town to the City Hall branch office instead of up the mountain to Shinrin Park.

One of my friends (I’ll call him Mike, because that’s his name) invited me to go camping out near a small beach on the Oshika Peninsula, still inside Ishinomaki City limits. We got beer and fireworks, and we were excited to swim in the ocean and drink by the fire. The ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) who was placed out in Oshika met us at the beach. His name was also Steven. We three guys, Mike’s girlfriend Kei, and her friend Mika made up the camping party. Mike is a Canadian.

I parked my car near the beach, and we all started drinking on the sand. We ate some easy food because we didn’t feel like grilling. We played in the water and enjoyed the incredible Pacific afternoon. We didn’t really have all that much to drink, and the atmosphere was pretty serene. It was more recreation than adventure. Just for fun, Mike threw me his girlfriend’s floatie. It was a colorful duck made for children. I put it around my waist and swam toward the rope in the water which designated the end of the swimming area.

There are giant concrete tetrapods lining much of the Japanese coast. These are enormous four-pronged jacks which interlock randomly to form a barrier in front of the shoreline. The idea is that they help blunt the power of tsunamis. They’re rather unsightly, but you just have to get used to them, because they’re basically impossible to remove.

Steven and Mike thought it would be a good idea to climb on these mountains of piled stone eyesores. At this particular beach, Kugunarihama, they couldn’t have been stacked too high. My guess is we were ten feet above the ocean floor when we made first contact. It could have been much deeper, but I felt better thinking it was ten feet. There was something terribly ominous about the tetrapods, and when Mike and Steven climbed up, I stayed in the water. It was getting dark, and we could barely see the shore.

The guys goaded me into climbing up, so I landed tentatively. I felt off balance, since there were no flat surfaces anywhere. All we had for footing was curved concrete, and between the prongs of the tetrapods, there were large gaps. I sat down on top of one, and the guys walked parallel to the shore. They continued to call back for me. I was content to sit and look back at the landscape beyond the beach until Mike topped off one of his taunts with, “… you pussy!”

I stood up and took a step forward. I promptly lost my balance. My right leg fell back to the block behind me, but my left leg whiffed and fell straight down into one of the gaps.

My foot was under water inside the cornucopia of concrete hands and arms. I found out later that I took a chunk out of my right big toe trying to pry my left leg free. The missing piece was about the size of an almond. I was able to finally get my leg out, and on pulling it up, I looked down.

A valve had opened, and blood was pouring out of a canyon in the flesh just above my knee. I didn’t want to cry wolf, so I had to focus on trusting my eyes. I was probably about one hundred yards off shore with a very serious laceration on my leg. It was getting dark and I was in pink swimming trunks, with a duck floatie stuck around my waist. What’s worse? I was in the middle of nowhere.

I gathered myself enough to realize that I had to act, so I yelled, “Guys! I’m hurt! I need to go now!” I immediately dove off the tetrapods and into the water, with blood gushing from a wide gash. I created a new variation of swimming I like to call the shitstroke — a hybrid between a three-limbed freestyle and feeble writhing. I howled not in sentences but single words. My head rose out of the seawater, “Help!” Back in. Back out, “Fuck! Help!” Down. Up, “Guys!” In. Out, and extended for maximum attention “Heeeeelp!”

Later when I told some co-workers what had happened, and told them where it had happened, one of the teachers said, “Oh, wow. There are sharks out there.” I asked if that was true, and the others nodded with concern.

I hobbled up the beach, leaving a visible trail of blood in the sand. The girls were very alarmed, and the guys had followed me back to shore. Steven later told me he had never seen someone swim so fast, and that I looked like Michael Phelps. I think it’s probably true. I could have lifted a car, too.

I reached the road to try to get someone to call for emergency assistance. I was close to falling into shock. I couldn’t see anything on the beach, so I had walked right past my belongings. I stood in the middle of the road to try to stop an oncoming car. The driver saw a large, soaked, shirtless, panicked, bleeding, white man and slowed to a stop. I was saved.

Just as I was letting out a sigh of relief, the car started moving again. Backwards. The driver made a three point turn and scurried away. I was bleeding in the street, and the Good Samaritan ran away. I was blind and deaf to what was going on around me. I left a crimson puddle where I had stopped to flag down the car. If someone were to have walked through, it would have splashed and gotten on their ankles. I was bleeding for real.

I tried to touch my cut to see if I could do some sort of first aid. It was so disgusting that I just closed my eyes and shivered. I had to get somebody to help me. I started calling out to the few nearby homes. I saw a porch light, so I limped over to the house. The window was open and there was a light on inside.

“Excuse me,” I called in the calmest voice I could muster. “I’m badly hurt and I need your help. Will you please call an ambulance for me?”

A woman of at least eighty approached the window. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m really sorry, but I’m seriously injured. It’s an emergency. Please call an ambulance.”

The woman backed away from the window and said, “(Something something something something). Alien (something something). I don’t know. Alien.”

A man approached the window and shouted at me. He was hostile. I was in trouble. I was in bad trouble, and I was very obviously asking for assistance. The people in the house were actually going to turn this into a conflict.

“Good evening. I’m sorry. I need you to help me. Please call an ambulance now.” I backed up into the light to show him my leg. He told me to go away. I approached the window again, and he shouted at me again. I shouted back, “Hey! Call an ambulance now! Now! Call it in! Now!” I repeated my orders, and he shouted at me again. The old woman started crying.

In a holler, I demanded to know why they wouldn’t help me. I had my face up against the screen, and I could hear my friends calling for me from the road. I yelled angrily for the old folks to call an ambulance, and they declined. I was starting to feel light-headed.

I had the idea to threaten to enter their house. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I figured that if they wouldn’t call me an ambulance, maybe I could get them to call the police, who would then call me an ambulance. I no longer cared about my job or my status in Japan.

I shouted, “I’m a robber! I’m going to enter! You had better call the police!” The response I got from the old man utterly blew my mind.

He said, “The police won’t bring you an ambulance! They’ll arrest you.” He was not a senile old bastard. He knew exactly what I was trying to do, and he wouldn’t let me do it. I got fucking pissed.

I started to scream at the top of my lungs. I yelled for them to call an ambulance. I pounded on their screen. I screamed that I was going to die in their yard. I pounded on the screen some more, and the frame rattled in the wall. I was not going to stop. I had turned down a path that wasn’t going to lead anyone anywhere good.

My friends finally caught up to me. Apparently someone on the beach, one of my group, the driver who fled, or a neighbor had realized what was happening and called for an ambulance. Mike, Steven, Kei, and Mika had yet to see my state, so they were not ready. As I came out of the devil family’s yard, I approached the others as if walking on a peg. I didn’t want to bend my knee.

Mike said, “Dude, there’s an ambulance coming for you,” in a tone that held the connotation, “You’re taking this way too far.”

I screamed, “Look at me!”, and as I got close enough to see, one of the girls shrieked. She ran off to grab something to wrap around my leg, and instead of going for my white t-shirt, she apparently chose her new sundress. I was later told that she forcefully wrapped it on me, so now I was sporting a sundress bandage, pink thigh-length trunks, and an inflatable, pastel duck.

The ambulance pulled up, and the paramedics came over to me. They took my hand and guided me into the treatment compartment. Mika wanted to accompany me to the hospital, even though I barely knew her. Actually, she had been rude to me before, and I didn’t want her with me for this. She thought she was doing me a favor, but I didn’t think I needed it. It was pride or something. I insisted to the ambulance crew that she not come with me. I repeatedly demonstrated that my Japanese was fine, and she couldn’t interpret anyway. I never would have been so rude if I was completely sealed. She rode with us. A few months later, at a Halloween party in Sendai, I met another friend, and when I told her my name, she turned to Mika and said, “Oh! Is this the ‘I’m gonna die!’ guy?” So I guess their group of friends made fun of me for this.

The paramedics cut the floatie off of me, and replaced the sundress with real bandages. They may have injected me with something, or maybe I really was going into shock. I don’t remember everything. I won’t go into too much detail about the twenty-two-mile ambulance ride, but I’ll give you the abridged version. Here are some highlights:

“Have you guys seen Inception?”

“Nope,” the paramedics replied.

“But you know Leonardo DiCaprio, right? You should go see Inception. I really mean it. Seriously.”

After explaining to them what the old man had done, “He was a monster. I love Japanese people, and I’ve met so many nice people here, but that guy was inhuman.”

“Can you see the bone?”

“Yeah, we can see it.”

“Where are we going?”

“Red Cross.”

“How will I get my car?”

“Don’t worry about that now.”

“You guys are awesome. I really like you guys. I hate that guy back in Kugunarihama, but I really like you guys.”

“Hey, what’s the length of the cut?”

“Almost ten centimeters.”

“Am I going to get stitches?”

“Haha. Yes.”

“Wait, did you guys already stitch me up?”

“We didn’t.”

“We’re here? I can walk. I’ll be OK.”

“You’re not walking anywhere. Just wait.”

So after the marathon drive to the downtown hospital, where I would meet the CNN reporter just about eight months later, I sat on a gurney in the emergency room for at least an hour. I was taped up and relatively stable. I was getting light-headed though, so I asked for water repeatedly. I went to the bathroom a few times. I had been given a robe, so I was able to wield at least a modicum of dignity, which I promptly tossed away by bleeding on the floor and having to hold myself up on the wall.

When they were finally ready to zip me up, I was given a bed. The doctor came out and asked me a few questions. They told me they were going to “suture” the cut. I assumed they meant that they were going to stitch the wound. That’s not what they meant.

Kuht… ching. The first staple went in. It got progressively easier, and the sixth one was a breeze. Taking the staples out at Ogatsu Hospital a couple weeks later was the hard part. I was returning to America for a summer trip, so they removed the staples a few days early. I got some good, strong medical tape.

They bandaged me back up on top of the metal sutures. I had to go through some paperwork and chatting with the doctor. I got instructions and prescriptions. When I was released into the waiting room, Mika was waiting in a low, gray vinyl chair. The others came around shortly after.

They entered with bags of food. Mike said to me, “Dinner’s on you.”

I said, “Haha. That’s fine.”

I found out the next morning when I opened my wallet that he didn’t mean I owed them a debt of gratitude for picking me up. What Mike meant was that he got my wallet from the glove compartment of my car, took out my alien registration card to bring to me, then he took my cash out of my wallet and used it to buy food for everyone. You know what he bought me to eat? He bought me eel. Other people got beef bowls. I got fucking eel.

We decided to scrap camping so we slept in Steven’s apartment, which was pretty close to the beach. I slept on the hardwood floor with no pillow and no blanket. I had six staples in my knee and various chunks missing from my feet, and my “friends” really pulled out all the stops to make me comfortable. They even went so far as to buy themselves food with money taken from my wallet, just so I didn’t have to go to the trouble of deciding how to show my appreciation. For the next few months, they also insisted that I owed Mike’s girlfriend a dress, as if I asked her to tie her cheap slip around my leg. The paramedics took it off a minute later, and I never even realized it was there. They left my t-shirt on the beach. Plain white. Too small. Sweat stains.

When we awoke in the morning, I was not in a good mood. I wanted to get to my car and get the hell back to Ogatsu. They doddled. Somebody made some pancakes. They watched internet videos. I asked them to take me to my car and they wouldn’t. I got impatient and told them that I was leaving, but I needed some bandages for my toes, and the decent thing to do was to give me a ride.

Mike and Steven looked at each other with that juvenile “Do we tell him?” look on their faces. Apparently the old man and woman who refused to call an ambulance for me had complained to the police about my actions. The guys told me that I was going to be asked to pay for a new screen, because one of my fingers had made a cut about a fifth of the size of the one in my leg. They wanted ten thousand yen, or about one hundred dollars. I was to send it by the post office’s verified cash envelope service because my “friends” had taken my money for dinner and I was broke at the moment. I was furious. I was so fucking furious.

They also wanted to take me down to the house to apologize face to face. I gave the most contrived, sarcastic apology imaginable. The old man berated me for calling him a “monster” the night before, using a barely-comprehensible reproduction of the English word just to show that he knew it. I had said it in Japanese, though. Whatever.

I stepped back while the others talked to him, and I said, “This is such bullshit,” to Mike.

Mike made an “Are you serious?” face at me and said the words, “Dude. Think about what you put them through.” Those were his exact words, and I’ll never forget them.

“Think about what you put them through.”

He said that.

“Think about what you put them through.”

“Almost ten centimeters.”

“Can you see the bone?”

“Yeah, we can see it.”

“The police won’t bring you an ambulance! They’ll arrest you.”

“Almost ten centimeters.”

Kuht… ching.

“… you pussy!”

“Oh, wow. There are sharks out there.”

“Think about what you put them through.”

When the post office opened that Monday, I went over to their ATM and made a withdrawal. I folded the bill a few times, crumpled it a little, and walked up to the counter to ask for a verified cash envelope. I had written out a note that I was going to include with the cash, and you bet your ass I verified that note right there in the fucking envelope with the freshly-weathered ten thousand yen. It read something like this:

                Here is the money to fix your screen.

                Next time there is a person who needs help, help them. I am embarrassed about what happened, but not because of anything I did.

                Enjoy the profit you’ve made at my expense.

I frequently thought of immature measures of revenge for them, and now I’m ashamed of my pettiness. At the time, I wanted to burn bags of dog shit on their porch. I wanted to tag their perimeter wall with a penis so everyone who drove through the village could see. I wanted to park my car down the street in the dead of night, and cut a full ten centimeter gash on their pretty new screen.

On March 11th, 2011, those tetrapods did absolutely nothing. Kugunarihama was wiped clean by the tsunamis. The subsidence of northern Japan (point of highest recorded sinkage: Oshika Peninsula, Ishinomaki, where Kugunarihama was) produced haunting effects. The sandy beach is gone. At the time of this writing, the waves crash right up onto the road. The land is flat and it’s difficult to make out foundations of buildings. The water level has permanently hidden the tangled wall of concrete jacks. That old couple’s house? Much like the gash in my leg, nothing but a scar. Everything in Kugunarihama is gone, and it is pretty reasonable to suppose that the old couple went with it.