This past week I feel like I've been living the storyline from the movie "Lost in Translation". While I had assumed the movie to be a fictional encounter of an American abroad in Japan, I'm now not so sure it was fiction.
Many times I found myself laughing - they'd bow, then I'd bow in return only to have them re-bow again so of course, I'd bow back. This courtship dance seemed to go on for an awkwardly long time before I'd finally say "enough" and break the sacred cycle.
After that little courtship dance we'd settle down to dinner. You know those awkward moments when you sit with strangers and then begin a conversation neutral enough not to offend anyone, yet focused enough that you don't end up "bornering" yourself in a dead conversation with no way out? Try striking up a conversation when the only thing you can do is mime... I typically do well in ambiguous situations but for me, with no language skills - each day is a 24 hour ambiguous event. I'm not sure if the flowers at the dinner table are for decoration or eating. I'm not sure if the bottles of condiments are for "condimenting" or for straight consumption. I really don't know if its true that "only old people" use the warm towels they bring before the meal for washing your face. I didn't care - young or old, I scrubbed away like I was a three-year-old. Everything is ambiguous and while you're emotionally vulnerable, you learn to simply roll with it. Even last night's civil disobedience; 11:30pm at an empty of traffic cross-street while waiting along with a hundred other people for an insufferably long red light to signal green, with not a vehicle to be seen or heard anywhere, I simply ventured across against the light. You do it all the time in big cities in the states, right? In fact, if you don't you'll likely get pushed out by the folks behind you as your'e between them and the other side. Not here thought, I swear I heard a collective gasp. Clearly I had committed a great sin and in their hundred-fold eyes, I'd done the rough equivalent of not taking my hat off during the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. Ambiguity in everything.
When the evening is finally over and you've fulfilled the obligatory drinks, dinner and karaoke thing, finally settling blissfully alone on your hotel room - safe from the expectations of others; you wonder how you'll make or through another day. You think back on the beautiful sensations you experienced, lack of the lack of auto traffic in a city of 30 million. The total absence of angry horns honking, the wonderful sight of hundreds of well groomed, modestly black suited professionals headed the same way. Best of all, the beautiful sound of hundreds and hundreds of shoes and high heels simultaneously leaving the safety of the curb once the light flashes green. You can actually hear the shoes making contact with pavement - try that in Chicago where all you can hear are horns, loud busses, garbage trucks and motorcycles running straight-pipes. Even curbside garbage is neatly bundled and draped in blue mesh to thwart the birds.
All this beauty reminds you that you're in a different place and a toll need be extracted; to see all that beauty you had to pay a price. At the very least, you had to give up a bit of the "wild self" and endure some collective order and restraint. We westerners bristle at the very thought of it.
To share these lessons at home would be a fool's errand. This is a beauty that need be experienced personally as any attempt to verbally convey will simply be lost in translation.