Saturday, March 19, 2011

My First Foreign Assignment

My thoughts have been with Japan this last week, the first foreign land I ever visited (cos if you're Malaysian, Singapore doesn't count) and the surprise it turned out to be for someone brought up on stories of WW2 atrocities. The year was 1993 and I remember having to transit through Hong Kong and how rude and unbearable I found everyone in the airport there. I reasoned that since Japan is even more developed, they would be, proportionately ruder, more boorish and supercilious.

I couldn't have been more wrong. (Yes Sheldon, there can be degrees in wrongness as Stewart the comic book shop guy kindly pointed out) Everyone was courteous to the nth degree (it helped that we were a bunch of South-East Asian journalists on an economic tour sponsored by the Japanese government) Our host, the one who took us around and saw to it that we were properly looked after was actually a very senior official in a Japanese corporate. A few years later he came to Malaysia as CEO of the Malaysian office. As I was the only girl in the group (and the youngest, being 21 at the time) the guys tended to ignore me and go off together.

So Mr Ota would sit next to me in the trains (we went on an awful lot of trains, whether intra-city or between cities) and regale me with all the things he loved about Malaysia. He said he had been to KL 14 times in his life. He had only been to Osaka 4 times.

When he took us to Mitsukoshi, the poshest Japanese departmental store, where I wouldn't have been able to afford a napkin, let alone a napkin ring, I braced myself for Hong Kong-style rudeness (where if you ask the price of something, a snooty salesgirl buffing her nails would tell you that if you have to ask, you probably couldn't afford it). Instead, the saleswoman smiled, told me how many yen, and then bowed. She even bowed and smiled when I decided not to purchase (like real oni) said item.

My last night in Osaka, I drank copious amounts of warm sake (a misleadingly harmless seeming drink that tasted like Japanese tea or so I thought) on a relatively empty stomach (I hadn't quite appreciated the food) and ended up passing out in the toilet. And then having to be hauled to the hotel (which was more than walking distance from the pub). There are vague images from the night, but I do remember that I threw up on everybody and everything.

Not my finest moment.

Have you ever had to board a plane the night after a sake episode? It's not pretty. Especially as I was still feeling sick and the first thing the plane did was to go into massive turbulence, buffeted by the strong winter winds. The overhead luggage compartments flew open and all the nuns onboard (to my alcohol-fevered brain the plane seemed to be full of women with shaved heads dressed in saffron robes) giggled as it dipped. I fumbled for my throw-up bag, couldn't find it in time, tore open the bag that contained the earphones and threw up into that instead.

Not my finest moment.

I remember how I would observe the Japanese on the trains and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was reading. Some young guys were reading comic books (it might have been anime). But still. Reading. The bookshops were huge. I went to the English-section of one and found all the old Richard Bach books (the ones he wrote about flying - like Biplane, Nothing By Chance and another one whose name I can't remember now) before he wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

One girl on the train was reading an English book. She was standing, feet firmly planted, holding on to nothing, with her English book in one hand and a huge dictionary in the other. Every so often she would refer to the dictionary to check up on a word.

Wow, I thought. Just wow! This is why they're so far ahead of us. I can't imagine a Malaysian doing that, even if they were sitting down on the swaying train and didn't have their balance to worry about.

(I am being unfair here...since then Malaysia has introduced the Light Rail Transit in KL and I did observe a girl reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, wholly absorbed. In fact, she was so absorbed that at her stop, she got up, still reading, and made her way out by feel, in a kind of trance)

I wrote about six stories from my trip. Mr Ota, whom I met later (he gave me a call when he came to KL for his next visit) told me that they had been "very pleased" with my coverage. The two editors who came on the trip hadn't written a single story and the journalist from the Philippines had done all of one.

On our last day there we visited Kyoto and I was so glad that we did. I loved it. Temples, golden temples, 1,000 Buddhas, Zen rock gardens and all.

I wish I had kept a travel journal of the trip. (I had loads of time after we retired to our respective hotel rooms after a full day of activity).

But I didn't.

And blogs weren't invented way back then.

So what I have now are vague memories of people I never kept in touch with and images of a place where everything was clean, everything worked and everyone was unfailingly polite.

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