Japan Part 1 – China’s OCD Nephew

“How was Tokyo?” A lot of people asked me this after I returned from Beijing, and I corrected them as gently as possible. I can’t blame them. Our ethnocentric American education system fails to teach us at every turn about the rest of the world. My high school history classes barely taught what they were supposed to about the US and Europe, so the other side of the Pacific was out of the question. Before college, I might have even made the same mistake. I wouldn’t know the first thing about the difference between China and Japan had I not wandered into an East Asian history class my first semester.

The fact is, Tokyo and Beijing are about as different from one another as Chicago and Mexico City. It can’t be ignored that Japan owes a lot to China. The Japanese language borrowed thousands of Chinese characters, and much of China’s buddhist culture and esthetics can be seen in Japan’s art and architecture. But that’s where the similarities end. Japan effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world from a “sakoku,” or “closed country” policy that lasted for almost 200 years. Many of the quintessentially “Japanese” cultural artifacts–Kabuki, Geisha, Haiku–developed during this time, while China went on its own merry way. Then Japan was forced open by, who else, the U.S. of A., and they became the first Asian country to rapidly industrialize and start colonizing the world. This maddeningly fast technological revolution and military ambition culminated in World War II, and we all know how that wound up. Here’s the best (and shortest) summary I’ve seen of the country’s entire history:

But this is all academic. Spend any time in the two places, and any vague notion of a single, monolithic “Asian” culture will be shattered. Japan, and I mean this in the best way possible, is like the OCD nephew of China. The emphasis on cleanliness and orderliness is will hit you right when you step off the plane, and stands in total contrast to the filthiness of China which David Sedaris and I have written about extensively. In China, everything from spitting to defecating on the street is tolerated, though luckily the latter is (mostly) only done by children. In Japan, I haven’t seen so much as a slip of paper on the streets. They’re pristine, almost to a creepy, fake Truman Show degree. When you do decide to throw something away, it’s not the simple matter of cramming everything into one bag like we do in America.  A poster in my dorm helpfully explains how I am to sort my trash into five different colored bags to be recycled or processed separately.


This is all great if you don’t want to live in squalor. But Japan’s insistence on keeping order sometimes verges on nannying. For a nominally “Communist” country, China was very good about leaving you alone and letting you do whatever you wanted. In Japan, you can’t take a step without being mindful of some rule or regulation. Often that’s quite literal, as stepping from one room into another requires taking off your shoes. This is most true at my gym, a place where I want to feel strong and independent, yet have never been made to feel more like a child.

When you enter, you immediately have to take off your shoes and replace them with a pair of “gym-only” shoes that have not been sullied by the outside world. But if you want to go into the locker rooms, you need to take even this pair of shoes off, meaning you’ll have two different pairs of shoes in two different places. On the first day of my membership, I had just managed to stow away my first pair of shoes when I was intercepted by a smiling personal trainer. I was pumped up on red bull and ready to start the workout I had spent the previous week planning, but the gym staff had plans of their own. The trainer led me into the workout room where he had a page of unintelligible Japanese attached to a clipboard, and began to demonstrate what they wanted me to do. This consisted cycling through every machine in the gym and proving that I could do a certain number of reps at a low weight. If I were a geriatric patient (as most of the members seem to be) or someone who had never set foot in a gym, I might have appreciated the tutorial. But I’ve been working out for a while, and I want to build muscle. Heavy free weights at low reps are the most effective way to do this, so fiddling around on machines was essentially wasting time. But alas, I didn’t learn how to say this in my Japanese classes, so I grudgingly went along with their plan thinking it would just put off my workout by 15 minutes or so.

The first kink in my attempt to get this out of the way quickly was how slowly they wanted me to lift the weights. During their demonstration, they looked as if they were moving in slow motion. Taking several. . . seconds. . . to lift the weight. . . and then. . . lower it. I did my best to imitate this as I performed the exercises under the trainer’s watchful eye, but the movements were so light and easy I would accidentally lapse into lifting weights at the speed a normal person might.

“Sam-san,” the trainer said with an ingratiating smile that nevertheless managed to make me furious, “what did we talk about? You need to go slower.” I grit my teeth and put up with the condescension. The other impediment to going faster was the strange ritual of actually using the equipment. After your sets, they ask that you take a mangy little brown towel that is hanging on the machine and wipe down every surface your body has touched. What are you wiping off exactly? Well maybe sweat, if this were a real workout, but my wiping seemed more like a pantomime done just for the sake of doing it. This sums up the superstitious quality of a lot of Japanese etiquette, which is more about appearances than any practical result. Wearing surgical masks when you or the people around you are sick? Well sorry, those masks don’t actually filter out airborne viruses which are small enough to slip through. And as far as the shoes go, they have no way of knowing whether I’ve worn them outside the gym. (I am almost hesitant to write this, because I’m sure if it were in their power, they would have you under drone surveillance just to make sure you weren’t wearing your shoes in the wrong place.)

At last I had visited every machine. “Great,” the trainer said, and indicated on his clipboard where he had recorded my reps, “now you just need to do the whole thing again 2 more times and record the results here.” This was too far. “Do I have to?” I asked. The trainer, still with the same smile, said a few sentences in Japanese too blisteringly fast for me to understand. But the effect was menacing. I knew I wasn’t getting out of this today. So I dutifully went back to the machines, feeling my wasted sugar high and motivation drain out of my body. 

Everything you do in Japan becomes this sort of chore. From signing up for classes, to opening a bank account, everything has been tangled in bureaucracy, everyone busy for the sake of being busy. I owe a great debt to my Japanese friends who acted as interpreters through all of the hurdles I had to jump, as I couldn’t have written my address once in Chinese characters, let alone on the dozens of forms and applications I had to fill out. Through all of this, I thought of my gym in China, where I had spoken to the staff the day I signed up and then never heard from them again. This is the same gym where I pulled a chest muscle that landed me in a Chinese hospital, but that’s the other side of the coin that comes with freedom and risk-taking. As much as I enjoy clean streets, safe food, and politeness in general, it’s not worth making life a sanitized paint-by-numbers exercise where you always feel safe, but never in charge of your own destiny.

Beijing Part I: Somewhere Over The North Pole

We're not in Kansas anymore. . .

We’re not in Kansas anymore. . .

My flight left Chicago at 7:20 pm. The plan was to fly over the pole and reach Beijing at about 9:45 pm local time. Anyone familiar with traveling great distances East or West knows this presents a problem. If I were to go to bed a couple hours after takeoff (the time I normally would), that would leave me rested and ready to take on the day right at the tail-end of Beijing’s evening. I didn’t want that. So I stayed up as long as I could. This meant keeping myself busy with reading, studying Chinese, and having a near-panic attack at the realization of how little Chinese I actually knew.


I was flying on American, a Boeing 777, which gave me some comfort. This in spite of being on an airline which can’t seem to arrive or depart on time, and whose service is a notch below IHOP’s. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to keep a plane in the air, but I have faith in the 777. This is because it’s one of few planes that has never had a hull-loss incident, meaning there’s never been a crash where the whole plane was destroyed/sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I wouldn’t say I have a fear of flying. I don’t have to be dragged, trembling, onto the plane. But my imagination gets especially vivid when I ponder what a crash would be like.

The other reason I like 777s is that they’re relatively new. 747s were flying when Roger Moore was 007. The 777, by contrast, was designed in my lifetime, and in fact was the first plane to have been designed entirely on the computer. An added comfort is that many of them have been outfitted with fancy new touch screens, with which you can watch movies and TV shows. For me, this is a roundabout way to practice Chinese since they had a huge selection of Hong Kong and Mainland films on my last overseas flight.

Would you fly on a plane this outdated?

Would you fly on a plane this outdated?

I was not so lucky on this flight to China. At the front of every section were flickering old tube TVs showing clearly ancient camcorder-quality footage of the American outdoors. You’ve seen these videos before: Slow panning shots of Yosemite, bubbling streams, babbling brooks, frolicking bears. Along with the spa music, I assume these videos are meant to pacify people like me who are already mentally planning how to survive for a week on a piece of wing floating in the Pacific. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a particular scene from South Park…

This plane was even old enough to still have ashtrays. I looked up to see that they had installed the always-illuminated “no smoking” signs, and wondered why they hadn’t bothered to remove the ash trays at the same time. It made me wonder what else they had forgotten to do. Replace worn bolts? Change the oil? The other red flag was the empty seats. I’ve only ever been on full flights, usually with people waiting on standby. But this time I sat next to an empty seat. In fact, the whole rear section of the plane was half empty. Could it be that people weren’t just chomping at the bit to go to China?

I was also seated in the exit row, meaning I had no no window. This was frustrating as we made our final approach to Beijing. I like to see the city from the air as I’m flying in. It usually gives me a sense of the place’s size, and I figured that would never be more true than flying into the largest city I’ve ever visited. I looked around in vain for open windows, across the aisle, back to the row behind me. Everyone was awake, but no one had their windows open. What is wrong with these people, I thought. What could possibly be more interesting than the city they’re about to land in? After the touchdown I couldn’t see coming, the excitement set in. I was at Beijing Capital Airport, the same airport that Richard Nixon flew into in 1972 and began the historic rapprochement between the US and China. Thinking about the magnitude of this, I realized that my journey was really happening. Now there was no going back.


Getting into the airport was easy. We zipped into the gate and were off the plane faster than in any American airport I’ve visited (China gets major points for efficiency.) Getting out was not as easy. In fact, it was as awkward as I could make it. After using my clumsy Chinese to buy as many bottles of water as I could carry in case I got stranded, I went down to the massive taxi pick-up level. Here they had us line up, and as taxis became available they would point and direct us to the nearest one. As I approached my taxi, I managed to topple my luggage cart and spill my 170 lbs of bags into the street. Several people, including the cab driver, rushed to help. I appreciated their concern, but saw their expressions change to annoyance when they discovered just how heavy my bags were. After stuffing them all into the cab’s trunk, which further provoked the ire of the driver (I think he was keeping fragile electrical equipment back there), I told him the name of my University in Chinese. He replied in a series of completely unintelligible sentences, and we were off.

Driving into a city like Beijing, especially at night, is surreal, almost frightening. After passing the tollbooths out of the airport, you find yourself among a sea of cars on an enormous, unlined expanse of pavement, which gradually narrows into a real highway. All of the lights had an aura of thick, polluted air, as if I were looking at everything through a sheet of gauze. In the darkness alongside the highway, enormous Chinese characters, glowing red, were suspended from the tops of high-rises. We had to have been on the road for at least 45 minutes, and it gave me a real sense of just how huge the city is. There’s another skyscraper, you think, and there’s another superhighway, over and over again. Until finally we stopped in a relatively sleepy neighborhood which I took to be my university’s.

The Drive

The Drive

The driver gestured out the window and said something that, again, I didn’t understand a word of. I peered outside, and saw a dark street lined with dark buildings. I had a vague idea of where my apartment was in relation to campus, but it’s a big campus and without the google maps teat I didn’t know which side I was being dropped on. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this to the driver. But as luck would have it, I recognized the name of a nearby building. “Liyun Apartotel,” it said in big, bright, beautiful letters. I didn’t know what an “apartotel” was, but that name! I had seen it everywhere in my admission materials. And in my exhausted state, I even thought it might have been where my apartroom was. I decided that was good enough for me.

So I was left on the street with my bags, alone. It was past midnight now, and all of the shops and restaurants had closed. I dragged my three suitcases (plus backpack) through the only opening in the Apartotel’s fence (which took some time to find) and into the building. Feeling empowered after my victory over the revolving door, I approached the front desk and asked the concierge in Chinese whether this was, indeed, the Number 2 International Students Dorm. The woman at the desk curtly told me this was Number 3. My heart sank. I asked how to get to Number 2 from here, and the woman simply pointed out the door.

I turned and looked, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Outside were the same shuttered buildings and streetlights. “‘I’m sorry,” I might have said, “but I just flew halfway across the world. So before I go wandering towards the southeast. . . in the dark. . . with all of my luggage. . . could you be a little more detailed about where I’m supposed to go?” Unfortunately, my more than 24 hours of travel had left my Chinese as lacking as my sense of direction. So I politely asked if she could write down directions for me.

“Write down?” she repeated back in Chinese, her eyes widening. She looked at me as if I had asked for nuclear launch codes. I gave a timid nod, at which point she sighed, rolled her eyes, and pulled a piece of paper from behind her desk. She drew a little map which actually made good sense, and showed me that, thankfully, No. 2 dorm was on the same street. See, I wanted to say, was that so hard? But good manners prevailed, and since I had apparently ruined her night by asking for help, I opted instead for “thank you.”

Crossing a street as large as the one I had to cross (6 lanes, plus 2 for bikes) can only work one of two ways: You can either go all the way to the next big intersection and wait for the crosswalk, or you can use one of the above ground pedestrian walkways which are placed quite regularly along the road. As it happens, one of these walkways was much closer than the nearest intersection. The drawback is walking up and down two flights of stairs. Picture me slowly ascending the stairs two bags at a time, then leaving them on the landing to go back down to get my heaviest bag, then repeating the process. In retrospect, it’s really pretty funny. But that’s not what I thought at the time. At the time I thought I was all alone in a big city in the dark, and if someone wanted to jump me, or take one of my bags while I was busy climbing stairs with the other two, nothing was going to stop them.

My street

My street

Things started looking up when I saw, directly on the other side of the walkway, “Beijing Normal University No. 2 Int-.” The rest of the letters were burned out. But still, home was within sight! My joy faded when I saw another figure on the dark street below, pacing back and forth with what looked like a drunken stagger in front of my apartment. I cautiously corralled all three of my bags down the stairs at once, eyeing him warily. Turns out he was actually one of my building’s security guards. Lesson 1 from China: your first impression is usually not only wrong, but the total opposite of the reality.

I had made it, but there was one more hurdle: checking in. I entered a dark, empty lobby lit by a single eerie blue light. It looked like the set of a David Lynch movie. With me in this bad dream was a lone security guard. I leave it to you to guess whether he spoke English or not. I went to the unmanned concierge desk and stood there, waiting for no one. This got a laugh from the guard, and after a short game of charades I discovered I had to knock on the door behind the desk. I was willing to try anything at this point, so I crawled under the desk’s only opening (one of those with a horizontal trap door things that flips up to let people pass. This one wouldn’t budge). I gave the door a few taps, and scurried back out from behind the counter.

After a moment of silence I looked, incredulous, towards the security guard who was now joined by his staggering friend from outside. They both laughed again, nodding as if to reassure me I had done the right thing. Just when I began to think they were screwing with me, a woman poked her head out the door behind the desk, squinting into the lobby. “American?” she asked upon seeing me. I said yes, and she shuffled, yawning, out of the closet-sized room. I peeked back to see a bed, and felt another pang of embarrassment once I registered that it was 1 am (I’ve since found out they work 24-hour shifts and do actually sleep back there.)

At this point I was a sweaty, disheveled mess. Running on just a few hours of uncomfortable sleep had made the outdoor wrestling match with my luggage that much more difficult. My Chinese was reduced to grunting and pointing, but somehow, miraculously, I signed a piece of paper which produced the keys to my room. Except for going to the wrong elevator first (could this night ever end?) I made it to my room without difficulty. But of course it turns out the difficulty was IN my room.

When I moved out of my apartment in Norman, I was meticulous about cleaning it out. This was easy since it was gently-used to begin with. So when left it, there was maybe a little dust on the desk and a slight color change on two little spots above the window where I had used toothpaste as Spackle. For this, I was charged over $300 in painting and cleaning fees. By that standard, the condition of my Chinese apartment probably translates to about $10,000. The hot pink (not kidding) walls were riddled with cracks, scuff marks, and what, on CSI, they refer to as “splatter patterns.” There were half broken picture hangers still lodged into the walls, including one that says “sweet home” (the irony of which was lost on me at the time.) The room was so worn and lived-in I wondered for a moment if I had walked into someone else’s. When I realized this narrow pink cubicle was, indeed, mine, I felt an intense loneliness. I laid down on my rock hard bed under the buzzing fluorescent lights, and gave in for the night. What I wanted to do was get my bearings, to see and get to know this new, mysterious city I was to live in. But there was no place to go in the middle of the night. And even if there was, I was unable communicate with anyone here. I was trapped in this little room that I could not make feel like home, the previous tenant’s decorations notwithstanding.


It would get better after this, and I would get adjusted, though my experiences that first night only hinted at the weirdness I would see on a day-to-day basis China. The lesson I’m still learning is to abandon all expectations. People will tell you this, and I thought I had done it pretty thoroughly before I left the US. But if I could go back and talk to myself a month ago, I’d say this: Don’t kid yourself. You have no idea what it’s going to be like, what’s going to bring you joy, what’s going to make you laugh, and what’s going to challenge you. There’s a lot more to say about this, and about a great many other things in China. There will be later posts about the food, the people, and the cultural differences I’ve observed in my short time here. But for now, I’ll leave it with the close of my first night, and the realization that my “welcome” in Beijing, like so many things, was not what I expected.