Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lost in Transition

At the end of three weeks of travel in Asia, I found myself at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The plan, 3 months ago, had been: land in the city, immediately take a shuttle into town (I was sure it was only 30 minutes away, like most airports are, from the city center ), and then just go on a fabulous journey for 20 hours and then get back on a flight, without sleep, and collapse for 11 hours of sleep before getting back to America. Halfway through my trip, that morphed into a “well, maybe it would be good to get some sleep and thus I should get a hotel room, but I still plan on taking the town by force late at night” idea. When I landed in Narita last night, the plan was that maybe I should go directly to my hotel room, take a hot bath, order room service, call my girlfriend, collapse in my bed watching strange Japanese TV, and have pleasant dreams, followed by sleeping in, breakfast in bed, and a leisurely ride back to the airport. Which is exactly what happened. All except the breakfast in bed thing. I paid vestigial homage to my Tokyo dreams by calling the front desk around 7pm. “Are there trains into Tokyo?” “Yes, sir, but the best way to get them would be to go back to the airport, and the train will take you an hour and a half, and the last train comes back around 9pm.” He already knew what I would ask and answered perfectly. One last try: “What about taxis?” “Around $200-$300US.” Okay. Back to bed.

Let me explain. It wasn’t that I didn’t find Tokyo very worth exploring, or that I somehow had forgotten that I wouldn’t be back that way anytime soon (I had taken 2 decades to come back to Asia this time); it was more that I wish it had happened in the front of my trip as opposed to the back. Travel takes as much from you as it gives, perhaps more, and Tokyo was cold, but not anywhere near the Arctic breezes currently ravaging the United States. I knew I was heading back to reality and I was bracing for it, but wasn’t looking to embrace it just yet. And when I left Tokyo today, my customary charm and the ease with which I get my way was stifled by relentless Japanese adherence to rules.

I have flown roughly 100,000 miles in my life on perhaps 15 different airlines. I am well acquainted with baggage rules, and I have often flaunted them because I know I can usually talk my way out of an extra luggage fee. I’m quite convincing – and God wouldn’t want me to waste that talent, would He? In any case, without exception, International flights almost always let you take two pieces of checked luggage gratis. You can take around 60 pounds or 23 kg. I had taken four pieces (two checked, two carry-on) of luggage to the airports at Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Singapore. I had even transitioned through Tokyo on the way to Singapore with that load, but at 14:50 Tokyo time today a very efficient Japanese lady gave me the equivalent of what the Black Knight once uttered in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie: “None shall pass.” She looked down at my two large checked pieces, then over to my two large carry-ons. “Sir, we can’t let you take those on.”

I was casually filling out bag tags, thinking I was going to get away with it, for the fourth time this trip and for probably the twentieth time in my life. I looked up, purposely misunderstanding her: “Oh, don’t worry, they will fit in the overhead bin.” “No, sir, I mean you can’t take those on, they are too big.” “You mean, they are too big – they won’t fit? But I have fit them in the overhead bin before.”

Now, this is partially true. I had come to Asia with two large roller pieces, a garment bag, and a duffle bag. Inevitably I purchased gifts for my family and employees, and I was also given mementos to take back. The two large roller pieces and the garment bag swelled to their absolute limits, and I bought an even larger duffle bag. I had taken the duffle back from Thailand to Singapore, but with a small backpack, it wasn’t such a dramatic flouting of the rules, though I had talked my way out of that too.
“Well sir, I’m sorry, we can’t do that.” Okay, I’ll play along. “Well, how much is it for another checked bag?” I knew it would be at least $100US for an international flight. “22,000 Yen.” “I don’t know how much that is.” Yes I did. A ton! “Around $220US.” I widened my eyes deliberately. “Well, I don’t have $220US. I’m a college student, and I’m at the end of a three week trip, I’m bringing back gifts for my family from my relatives, and I don’t have that kind of cash on me.” I managed to tell the (rather Jesuitical) truth – I was a college student, even though I was taking the Spring semester off from my MBA (I was feeling burned out), I was at the end of a three week trip, I was bringing back gifts from my relatives (and a ton of stuff I had bought), and I had zero cash on me (I had no American currency for weeks, my Thai baht and Singapore dollars were completely spent, and I had overspent the budget I had allotted for myself for the trip). She took my combination of plea for pity, statement of facts, and begging for mercy at face value, and then she went to her supervisor to go to bat for me.

Now, this exact situation had played out in the US at LAX when I left. My garment bag, which was “regulation” and has been for its entire existence, was ruled “too tall” to be carry-on. When we “went to the supervisor” there, he nodded his head in agreement that it was regulation but that at LAX they were a bit more strict as of late, and that’s why he was checking it on for free. This was not only because it made sense, but because in America the customer is always right, and I had presented my case politely and without rancor. Nowhere else in the world is the customer always right, and I was about to be reminded of that.

The supervisor came over, speaking to my girl – Paola was what was listed on her nametag – not a very Japanese name, but I took it as the face value transliteration of her probably “Miko” type name. He then turned to me, and said in a perfect American accent, “How can I help you?” I restated my case, except this time I threw in the slightest air of exasperation, as if I couldn’t quite believe I was having to explain this to a couple of airline employees, and I added: “You know, this is the fourth of four segments I have flown with American or an American codeshare, and I wasn’t stopped at LAX and I wasn’t stopped in Singapore.” “Well, our records showed you checked three bags in LAX, and you weren’t charged for that.” Oh, snap. I was exposed. “Yes, that’s right,” I nodded, “but,” I pointed to the garment bag, “they said that was ‘too tall.’ Have you ever even heard of that before? That’s totally regulation.” Change subject, hope to throw them off. “Okay, I agree, but your other carry-on bag is too large.” Counter. “But I wasn’t charged or stopped at two other airports.” Parry. “Well you should have been charged, it’s not fair for you to bring on so many bags. What if everyone else acted like you?” A hit, a very palpable hit, I could almost hear Osric say in the background. Although it had lessened in my old age, my youth was possessed of Raskolnikovean “rules are for other people” disease. Here was a little bit of it coming out. He saw that I was faltering. “And, you know, baggage rules are listed on the website. It’s your responsibility.” Flailing, I uttered, “Well, you are the only segment out of four that has stopped me, three flights, and the fourth one this happens, don’t you think that’s a minority viewpoint?” Lame, I know. It’s so lame that I am embarrassed to write it now. But, I’m committed to telling you exactly what happened, despite how badly it reflects on me. He had me. I had flaunted the rules and had come up against a good employee and a by-the-book supervisor, who spoke unaccented idiomatic English who had my number. After the necessary thoughtful pause, I asked, “What can I do?” Now Paola jumped in, as if she had been waiting to come to my rescue after her supervisor had administered his beatdown. “Well, we could combine the luggage, or you could mail some of it back,” she pointed to the Japanese post office, literally 100 meters from our position.

Now, stop and think about this for a second. Because, this is damned brilliant on the part of the Japanese. Be tough about baggage and offer a cheaper alternative to the 22,000 Yen penalty. What if we had a US Post Office inside every major airport? What if there was a special “airport postage bag” which offered a flat rate and a rush rate? What if we even had one behind security, so that if any of your items got confiscated (I had a beautiful $100 silver cigar lighter taken once that I had completely forgotten about. I haven’t bought a new one since. I guess I’m still in mourning.), you could still send them to yourself? Well, I won’t hold my breath for innovation from our post office, which still manages to staff their locations in inverse proportion to the number of people waiting in line.

“May I leave my things here and consult regarding these rates?” “Yes, certainly.” The supervisor regarded me with a calm countenance, not for one second betraying the self-satisfaction that any efficient company man must feel upon defeating an adversary (I mean, “customer”). I had to give him that. His look seemed to say “I’m done here” and he was right: I didn’t see him again after that interaction.

“Can I see what your rates are?” I blurted out, in what seemed like totally clunky, though perfectly American English. In non English-speaking countries English always sounds like an alien, unknown tongue. I even remember that in Britain last summer I always hesitated before speaking, because I knew I wouldn’t sound like Darcy when I spoke, and how hickish would that be? The Japanese earnestly strove to be helpful though, and returned a wonderfully blank stare to me. “How much?” I hoped that a more common phrase, said slowly, would ring true in their ears. “Oh, hai. Here-ah.” He handed me a color coded card. I knew that the piece they would make me mail home was around 20 kg. My fingers ran down the chart to 20 kg, which looked to be the maximum. I then moved left and right and seized on the 10,000 Yen figure. “What does this 10,000 Yen mean?” He looked at where my finger was pointing, scrunched his eyebrows to conjure up the English, and then said slowly, “Ah, 2-ah months.” “Two months?” I exclamation-pointed. I slid my finger over to the right to the higher rate. “Ah, tu-er weeks.” Again to the right. “Ah, fivre days.” 22,000 Yen. The same it cost to check it. I shook my head and robotically said “Origato gozyemas” with the briefest of bows.

Paola was dutifully waiting. I was early for check-in. Or maybe everyone else was late. “Can’t do it.” We looked blankly at each other, then at the luggage, then at each other, then back at the luggage. “Do you all have a box,” I asked? “Yes, but it is not free, it is $10US.” Adaptive, she had already figured out that this American couldn’t count to Yen and did the conversion for my ignorant self. “That’s fine, let’s give it a whirl.” She brought the box out. I still was thinking “in the box” and lowered one of the pieces in. It didn’t fit. At this point, I realized I was going to have to just try to pack everything into the box, lose a piece of luggage – maybe mail it back empty.

I consigned myself to an uncluttered, semi-private part of the check-in area and went to work. 23kg, I thought. I was an efficient packer, I mean I had managed to pack all of this stuff in the first place, right? I brought over what I thought was a pretty full load. “27kg” the machine remorselessly displayed. Paola looked despondent – on my behalf. I think I had won her over with my determination. “All right, what if I do an overweight bag – or in this case, box?” “$50US,” she replied. “Okay,” then let me make this one overweight to the max…what is that? “32kg.” “Okay.” I walked over, grabbed two pairs of shoes, two t-shirts, and a pair of shorts. Oh, and a stuffed lion for my always rawring-around-the-house nephew. “31.8.” I triumphantly smiled. She frowned. “But, I’m afraid the box will break. Look, put some more in your other checked piece. Even if it is over I will only charge you for the box being over.” “Wow, thank you.” The box finally closed for business at 30kg, my other checked piece was 25kg, two pounds over. Now, back to the carry-on. I thought at first that I would be able to put my duffle bag inside my garment bag, until I remembered the design element that sold me on that duffle bag and simultaneously precluded it from going inside my garment bag. It had a rolling metal rack, which meant the bag couldn’t be folded. “Well, then you’re the one I’m sending home,” I thought to myself. I emptied out its contents into the garment bag, then zipped it tight.

I walked up to the counter with a steady ease. I wasn’t going to print a big “Mission Accomplished” sign and put it on an aircraft carrier, because, well, I still had a few things to do, and I didn’t want to celebrate prematurely and have it thrown in my face for the next 5 years. “I think we’re done,” I exhaled with visible relief. She was visibly relieved too. She had to do the normal double duty of issuing boarding passes and then passing through security to do gate check-in. She had already printed my boarding pass, sent my checked pieces through, and handed off the situation to her relief, who was ready to take my credit card to pay for the box and the fact that it was overweight.

I had taken four pieces of luggage and reduced them to…five. The box had eaten up contents but no luggage, one of my black rollers ate the smaller one, I had my garment bag, which held the contents of my formerly full duffle bag, and I had the most sensitive and expensive stuff in a small backpack which had formerly been packed away but was now deployed for duty. I went over to the Japanese post office. I filled out all the paperwork and handed over my credit card. “Oh, velly solly, sir, we only take-er Japanese cash.”

He bowed deeply, as if he anticipated I would hit him over the head like colonial overlords of old, which is incredibly funny, considering Sino-Chinese relations vary from frosty to cold, depending on which way the wind is blowing. (I mean, I look Chinese, as evinced by no fewer than 20 people coming up to me in Singapore speaking Mandarin, thinking I understood a word of what was coming out of their mouths.) I mean, wasn’t he supposed to be in denial about what Japanese history books mendaciously call the “possibility of an incident at Nanking” which the rest of the world knows as the Nanking Massacre, or more properly, Nanking Total Disgusting Inhuman Slaughter of Human Beings by a Deranged Race? And as a Chinese, wasn’t I supposed to hate him for it? No on both counts. He was part of the new Japanese generation, which had no notion of its history, and accepts the Yasukuni War Shrine and its resistance to historical realities, or more probably, had no notion nor care for anything that happened prior to 1990. And I was only half-Chinese, and my grandmother had probably drained the last of the dregs of the cup of anti-Japanese sentiment, though my mother did mention the atrocities when she saw my facebook photos of the WWII monument in Singapore. “That’s the only time I ever saw my father with tears in his eyes.” And you should see my maternal grandfather: he was fierce.

I went to the nearest ATM, withdrew cash, and took a picture of the 10,000 yen note. It was odd, because an American ATM would never give you a $100 bill if you asked for $100. It would give you five $20s. Or if it were an ATM run by the federal government, it would have given me $20 and told me that the rest was for Goldman Sachs and GM, thank you very much. I paid, and went to security.
The security check was just as I have faced in America, except that they didn’t make me take off my shoes, because, you know that really keeps us safe in America! However, when I rounded the corner on the jetway I ran into a small army of people. Incredulous, I mouthed, barely aspirating, “You want to check my carry-on luggage?” “Yes,” came the perfectly unaccented English answer. Hands inside, rummaging around, feeling for something hard and metal, perhaps? Something that had made it through the X-ray machine or something I had picked up in duty-free: killer wasabi, peut-etre? It was over soon enough. I turned around to face…a woman who was going to feel me up. I stretched out my arms, restrained the urge to laugh, and got a cheap massage.

I slowly put my backpack on, grabbed my garment bag, and reflected on the tightness of Narita’s security. I had been checked at the entrance to the airport. Security had boarded our hotel shuttle and demanded to see all of our passports (standard procedure for every single vehicle that enters the airport) while another officer checked the baggage and under the vehicle. We then got the standard security metal detector perp walk. Then a check of my carry-ons, followed by a pat-down, as if I was going to the VIP section of a club. Put this in greater context. Japan has a limited military – mostly engineers – because we are even more afraid of their military coming back than we are of Germany’s. However, the Pentagon has in recent years lobbied for Japan to get more weapons, ostensibly to fuel the sales of the only thing America actually makes anymore: weapons. This, and the practical (and stupid) reason of providing a buffer against China, as if we will be able to convince Japan that their interests are more aligned with ours than with China’s. Everyone knows that this will be China’s century and that America will fade, and quickly, and the Japanese know that too. Playing on old prejudices will not work, despite how hard-headed some of the elders of either Japan or China are. The rising generation, the ones who will lead Asia in this century are either too unconcerned with history or don’t know history at all. They are looking forward, at the future. I cannot remind people enough that none of the Asian races like the idea of finishing second ever, and will not rest until they are #1 in everything, China being the likeliest candidate to do it (take the pole position) in my lifetime. And Americans of any generation, except any that are still alive who lived through the Great Depression, have never known America as anything but super-sized everything, and as a result, have never thought that we’ve had to compete for something. Don’t worry, that wake-up call is coming. Keep sleeping, though. Hit the snooze button. Yeah, again.

Add to this security the presence of over 30,000 troops on the South Korean border, and the entire Third Marine Division at Okinawa, and you have an incredibly dumb place to stage a terrorist attack. Further, since Japan doesn’t have a stupid, aggressive, and thoughtless foreign policy, no one wants to attack them. The logical prima facie adducement from this, according to the myopic Bush and Obama Administrations is that Japanese people must be really restricted in their freedoms, because terrorists hate America because of our freedom. That’s why they attack us, say the Stupid Parties. No, elephant and donkey, they attack us because we interfere in their countries, overthrow their governments, manipulate their only natural resources, and because their religion – in the Koran specifically – rewards the killing of unbelievers with Paradise and believes that the world ideal was, is, and will be, an entire Muslim world (Daar el Salaam). It is the only religion in the history of mankind that rewards, without conditions, Heaven to the believer who kills the unbeliever and urges relentless ruthlessness towards “unbelievers,” specifically Jews and Christians (Surah 2 : 190, Surah 5 : 51, Surah 8 : 36, Surah 9 : 12 Surah 9 : 73)!

At some point we will realize that profiling doesn’t have anything to do with seeing if someone “looks” Muslim, but rather, is Muslim, and using this “profiling” to put massive civil restrictions on Muslims until their religion changes to fit reality: i.e. the other 5 billion of us won’t tolerate a religion that rewards killing believers of other religions just because they don’t accept ours. America managed to beat polygamy out of the Mormons, didn’t it? Why can’t we beat “martyrdom” out of Islam? Because that would be racist! Xenophobic! Intolerant! No, just honest, real, and taking Islam at its word, and expressing repulsion at that word. Let’s put it in Islam’s court.

I know; I’m not holding my breath.

So, I lost a bag, paid $120 all told for postage and the luggage. But I learned two lessons. One I have learned many times and will one day learn completely (I’m 90% there): the rules do apply to me, too. The second: Japanese politesse doesn’t exclude being firm. The Japanese might say

顧客は、彼が間違っていない限り、常に正しいです。
“The customer is always right, unless he is wrong.”

They’re right.

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