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Stranger in a strange land

Updated: May 1

The initial mystery that attends any journey is: how did the traveller reach the starting point in the first place?


– Louise Bogan


The brochures never mention the suffocating dust or the flies, man. Dust and flies. And the warm, spermy smell of maize tortillas and conchas coming from the local panaderias, silkening the character of the fetid air. And the Monetesque unrefrigerated meat hydrogenating outside the carniceria. Again, with flies. The smell of gardenias, blossoming elegance, spoiled by a whiff of urine.

I was out exploring Mexico on my own, and pulled my Suzuki Samarai (I’m not kidding) up to the tiny, tiny cantina in a tiny, tiny, town outside of Thulum that was rumored to have the best burritos in the area. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into an olfactory-angled romp, since I’m practically anosmic, but thought I’d try to set the scene with some whiffs for once. My family and I had headed south of the border for a destination wedding: my brother-in-law was getting married to a Korean woman, and since they had been vacationing in Cancun for years they decided it was the perfect place to bring everyone to celebrate their nuptials, and enjoy a sun and sand holiday together at the same time.


There was an Asian couple sitting at a table in the outside courtyard and I figured they must be with the wedding party, so I said hello. It was weird to see them in a small cantina in a dusty nothing smudge on any scale map of the world. They were. Thui, a Thai, was a location scout for a movie company in Hollywood, and her husband Ryan was an assistant director of photography. They had known my soon-to-be sister-in-law in California, when she was an elementary school teacher. A few minutes into the conversation, and they, we, were joined by three other ladies, also part of the wedding party, whose names escape me right now. One of them was Filipino, and the other was Mandarin Chinese. The third woman was a dentist from Atlanta. All of them knew each other from either high school, or their sorority at college. I sat there dumbfounded. It was an incongruous cinematic set-up for me, shot with a long parallax view lens, a bit like watching a scene where a leopard, a hyena, and a crocodile sit down to have a bite together in the food court of a suburban shopping mall – natural enemies who would normally be having each other for lunch – polite, and out of place. The cognitive dissonance was almost as laughable as the analogy.


There were no minorities of any kind in Wrentham, Massachusetts, except maybe rich people, so I like to say I was raised blissfully ignoracist. Actually, that’s not true: there was one lesbian and she drove the only taxi in town. I thought Jews were the people in the Holocaust – I had no idea they actually still existed outside of history books, or Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Seriously, here’s how naïve I was, we were ­– the whole town included. Actually, it was the three surrounding towns since I went to a regional high school. There was only one black kid in all four grades, and we all called him Nairobi – even the teachers. He was well-liked, and always smiling, and I think was the equipment manager for the basketball team. Anyway, I looked him up in my yearbook recently and come to find out he wasn’t black, he was Indian. His real name, which none of us knew or used, was something like Dipankar, or Pardeep. We were so dirt-ignorant and sheltered we couldn’t even be racist correctly.


The only time I ever saw an Asian in my life is when we’d go visit my father at his office in Boston, which was on Kneeland Street, shoehorned between Chinatown and the Combat Zone, Boston’s red-light district, which I’ve written about fondly in another monograph. I heard about “chinks” and “japs” (and much later in college, JAPS), and “slopes” and “gooks,” but I had never seen any of them, not in the flesh as it were. And to be fair to the times, and my crippled, parochial upbringing, I was called a “Wop” or “Guinea” or “Dago” by my friends, and I not only didn’t take offence, I didn’t know you could, or what that would look like if you did. Sticks and stones was what we all said and lived by back then. I still remember one of my favorite jokes at the time was: What did Hitler say to Mussolini when he dropped by unexpectedly? “If I had known you were coming I’d have baked you a kike.” Which was ironic, because it had to be explained to me the first time I heard it since I had no idea what a “kike” was.


My uncles were always referring to certain people as “spooks,” or “hebes” and I laughed along but I didn’t know exactly who they were talking about. I did know the Germans were “krauts” and “jerrrys” from all the war movies I had seen, and the French were “frogs” for some reason, but all the other racial epithets were vague and abstract which is why everyone I knew was dumb or unaware enough to hurl them without fear or favor.


I lived in Asia for a total of about two and a half years, and it’s hard to imagine, and even harder to paint a believable picture of how deeply and sincerely racist the Japanese are because they are seemingly so polite and non-threatening on the surface. Yes, with a squinty hai, hai, and a low bow they could charm a dead misanthrope, but beware, brothers. Beware!

I had a writer working for me when I was the sports editor at The Japan Times named C.K. Lang, and he was the best of the best – diligent, hard-working, patient, curious and smart. He grew up in Japan and was native in the language and the culture, but had gone to the American University in Tokyo so his English was also flawless. He also knew and loved sports, and had even played semi-professional basketball for a while after college. He was always positive, professional and polite. Everyone at the newspaper hated him except me.


Why? First, he was tall and very good-looking. Second, even though he was born and bred in Japan, his parents were Korean. His dad had joined the Soviet military during WW II to fight the Japanese, who had been the colonial power on the Korean peninsula since 1876, and had invaded and ruled it outright from 1910-1945. The Japanese occupation had one goal, and it was always the same everywhere: Erase the culture and history. Exploit the environmental resources for Imperial Japan’s war machine. Execute the chinilpa, the dissenters/traitors, with impunity. I won’t even go into the disgraceful “Comfort Women” controversy, since it’s still an unacknowledged and unapologized for open wound, but you can imagine the simmering hate and resentment on both sides – Korea for its humiliation and suffering, Japan for its ignominious defeat and retreat. C.K. even changed his name to a Japanese-sounding one, but it didn’t fool anybody.


It’s an American truism that anything that happened before the United States, or outside of the United States is irrelevant to the United States. So whenever centuries-long feuds, mostly foreign and incomprehensible to the short-view American mind are brought up, I’m always reminded of a story I heard about the 1974 World Cup that took place between (West) Germany and Holland in Munich. Someone was holding up a sign on the Dutch side that read: “Give my grandmother back her bicycle.” Which is a bit different than “Rah, rah, team” as you can imagine – sixty-million deaths different, give or take.


The Japanese disliked me, and for good reason, too, but mostly because I was a gaijin, a “foreign devil,” but a necessary evil to be tolerated since I could speak English, and make them money. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been even granted an interview. So when people tell me I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against, I tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. The world is a benignly-indifferent place, mostly, but also a very malignant, hateful cauldron of segregated hierarchies, pyramids upon pyramids of power and discrimination, and filled with more people who are as unlike you as you could possibly imagine, and who want to and will, given the opportunity, do you harm. And under the right circumstances, enjoy making you writhe in agony for sins of omission, since you’re the loathed other – an apostate, a threat, free.


In all fairness, I think part of this antipathy on the part of the Japanese toward me specifically was my irritating recalcitrance and studied irreverence, which was antithetical to their mindset of groupthink and obedience. I impishly picked metaphorical scabs and provoked the wrong people in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time just to get a rise out of them. My boss Shimada, poor man, was always admonishing me not because he was angry at what I had done, but because he found most of my behavior almost inconceivable and borderline delusional, if not criminal and surely certifiably insane. He spoke English perfectly, but was often at a loss for words, I’m fairly certain, because the adjective he was looking for to describe me and the particular ludic idiocy in question probably didn’t exist in the Japanese language.


We put out three editions daily: the first deadline was for the daily and that was at 4:30 in the afternoon. The second was at around 8 pm, in case there was any evening news, and then the late-night edition’s was at midnight. If I had the night watch, I’d get the 8 o’clock edition out easily, usually with the final scores of a few local ballgames or soccer matches. If there was an important sporting event that was taking place in the U.S. or Europe, we might throw that into the late edition, but usually we waited until the next day to run the full story. From 8-12 most nights there wasn’t a lot to do, so my other writer Arnold (after Palmer), a scratch golfer but hopeless hack writer, and I would sometimes go up to the roof of the old headquarters in Minato-ku, and whack golf balls high into the Tokyo night, landing them in the desolate railway yards across the street. Sometimes we could hear them ping and dink on the tracks.


When Shimada finally found out about my nightly driving shenanigans he called me into his office and his zen-like calm impressed me, because I knew he must be furious. But he wasn’t angry, I soon realized because he wasn’t emotionally or mentally capable of believing the rumor, and had just called me in to confirm that it wasn’t true. It’s not true, is it, Cataldo-san? I was actually a bit insulted because I thought he knew me and my impressive depravity and insouciance better than that. Anyway, I’m going to plead the fifth here – but I will say in my shameless defense there was an admirable, empathetic end which justified my mendacity. I figured the Japanese people didn’t need any more fuel for their racist hatreds and salamandrine Caucasian funeral pyres, did they? And I didn’t want to be held responsible for an honor-bound salaryman trying to save face by committing ritualistic seppuku at his desk in the middle of a beautiful afternoon, did I?


When I was in Hong Kong several years later, as I related briefly in The Hong Kong Gong Show, my roommate and I had a Filipino Amah named Dolores who used to clean the apartment, and it was this slender bewitching shift who told me about the borderline insane bigotry and prejudice the Chinese have towards them. Whereas the Chinese hate and fear the Japanese in equal measure, for good reason – just look up the Rape of Nanking atrocity for a quick history lesson in justified antipathy – they look down on the Filipinos as inferior intellectually, economically, culturally and physically as a matter of course. The “flips” in Hong Kong have a long history of doing all the scut work, and were always and still are treated as servants, beneath contempt.


Dolores told me that the Amahs get Sunday off, and if you go to any park in the city you’ll see thousands of them hanging out, picnicking, and enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. Birds of a feather. What you won’t see, Dolores told me, is that a lot of the bars and discos in Wan Chai, the red-light district, open up early Sunday morning so the Filipinos can go there and party and dance, and “entertain” hourly, all day, until their 8 pm curfew. This circus-circus is what the whole world would be doing on Saturday night if the Filipinos had won the war, to paraphrase Raoul Duke. It’s mad-town Manila during fleet week, and everybody knows it, and shit-shows it. The Chinese aren’t invited to this party, ever, and they stay away. At 8 pm, the battle lines are redrawn, and everyone goes back to their respective roles for another week of mutual exploitation and disdain.


I was a deplorable in that dynamite city myself, being a gweilo, but I had vibe with the eely and oily Chinese that I never had with the Japanese. And they with me. Like I said before, the Cantonese were arrogant, money-whore xenophobes, but they also had a pitch-black sense of humor that took no prisoners. In their grim, bigoted avarice, they were still somehow charming, and I didn’t take anything they said personally. Once, I was a feeling a bit under the weather for a week or so when Hong Kong was molting its winter chrysalis and spring was butterflying forth, so I took my friend Edward along to an anorexic apothecary shop in Central near Yat Lok Roast Goose, a restaurant we’d go to sometimes after work. It had a misspelled name like BIG WONG HEALTH WORLLD and it was not even eight feet wide and twenty feet long, jam-packed, floor to ceiling, with glass jars full of dried mushrooms and tiger penises, yak tongues and large, furless rodentia floating around in formaldehyde. Dark-stained oak cubbyhole cabinet drawers marked with Chinese calligraphy, mysterious and cobwebbed, surrounded. The whole ramshackle quack spectacle smelled like the Peabody Museum. There was a wispy oriental geriatric sitting on a low bamboo hinoki stool against the back wall, wearing Mary Jane slippers and an inscrutable grin.


I’m hoping Dr. Fu here is going to make up a brilliantly complex and tailored-to-me concoction of spider legs, lychee seeds, pulverized rhino horn, shark fin shavings, goji berries, a delicate lotus petal, porcupine quills, astragalus root, mixed up with, I’m guessing, bald eagle pee and musk ox oil that’ll cure me miraculously, mocking modern medicine, and making me an instant convert to the Orient. I’m excited as Edward explains my symptoms, occasionally asking me to clarify something – is it just in your throat, or do you feel it down into your lungs, kind of thing. Dr. Foo nods, and nods. It sounds like ching choo chee chee wah ho ho hoo woo mah. I take the whole comical scene in. When Edward is finished he tells me he described everything perfectly and asked what the good Dr. recommends. The little funny Manchu looks me right in the eye and says, honeyed with contempt, “Sudafed.”


My time in Thailand was illustrative, too, as far as nationalism and bigotry was concerned, though far less humorous and entertaining, and I’ll sum it up in an offhand remark I overheard: “Cambodians hate Thais for historical reasons, and hate the Vietnamese for actual reasons.” Indochina has a complicated history, too intertwined and layered to discuss here, but needless to say there’s a lot of bloody war and simmering and murderous ethnic and race conflict and cleansing involved that goes back to the 1800s, which to me is especially surprising considering the majority of the people on the Malay peninsula are Buddhists. Peace is but a parenthesis in these parts.


This is a patchy smattering of my immersive education in the real Asia, when I was there on the ground, present and curious, and still had all my synapses more or less firing in line and on time. And I was still able to be amazed. I definitely had my opinions about prejudice, but the truth of it was undeniable and real since I was an other myself, and lived and felt the not exactly revulsion but irritation and friction every day. It was an alienation that’s hard to put a finger on. Back then, if you were a Caucasian in Tokyo or Hong Kong, you were definitely different and noticeable and noticed. Everyone, including other foreigners, knew you didn’t belong, since absolutely everyone else did, and you couldn’t somehow hide your whiteness. The upside were the gaisen, Japanese women who loved foreigners, and they were always willing and available and able. The downside was there was no escape.


The otherworldliness was most noticeable when I would go to a small town in China or Japan and people would follow me around and touch my hair and giggle in embarrassed amazement. Children would follow and grab me, shake my hand, and take my picture, and they’d have stories to tell their grandkids. I used to hand out candy, like a conquering WW II GI. America as you may know, but not really know, in contrast, is such a melting pot, you can go to any American city and see every color of the rainbow and assume everyone is American. Or at least not be able to tell who isn’t. Or not even notice, which is astonishing.


Ingrained, biological-based bigotry might seem vile and solipsistic, but it makes sense evolutionarily-speaking, for survival, and is especially true in this volatile part of the world, since it was in most cases justified, rational and intractable. And in a lot of other parts of the globe too. But it was so foreign to me, no pun intended, with my genuine, open-faced America optimism and romantic sense of fairness and platonically-conceived integrity and self. I am well aware that the graph of tribe loyalty over time has a long tail, literally, and that fact’s confirmed by personal experience: us Red Sox fans were born hating the Yankees, truly and deeply. It may have been mostly a sophomoric sibling rivalry born of envy because they won all the time and we were losers all the way back to before I was born, to 1918 in fact.

But when Roger Clemens went over to the enemy and pitched the World Series win for them in the early 2000s, most of us loathed him for his betrayal, not the Yankees for their victory. If he ever sets foot in Boston again, we’ll send that “Rocket” straight to the moon, bang zoom, Alice! Seriously, try hating a Canadian for more than five minutes. It’s impossible.


Looking back on it I guess the deeper roots of the disconnect was that I just couldn’t believe never mind accept that there was malevolence in the world, and that willful naivete would get me betrayed and broken down to the ground one day as a result. Unbelievably, since then my optimism and gratefulness is wider and deeper than ever, undarkened by the shadow. And I still judge everyone as an individual, on a case by case basis, not on innuendo or stereotype, but by their own words and actions, and am very careful not to make fatuous and absolute condemnations that wouldn’t hold up to even the most cursory pin-prick or even intellectually-dishonest debate. Personal responsibility? What a concept.


So back to the Mexican polvo and moscas. The wedding the next day on the beach was postcard-perfect, and the reception at the hotel afterwards a delightful and joyous celebration of a hopefully fruitful and happy marriage. I gave a speech to that effect. Afterwards, I was sitting at the table with my now sister-in-law and several of her bridesmaids, including Thui, and I kept telling them how strange it was to me that they were such good friends. It would never happen in Hong Kong, or Tokyo, or Manila, or Bangkok. Ever. And an inter-racial marriage is rarer still over there, and will almost always be the daughter, somehow fallen or cast-out, and not the prized son, since these are strict and seriously-unforgiving patrilineal cultures. I think the ethnic make-up of Japan is something like 98%, and in Korea it’s even higher. Or at least it was back when I was living there.


They couldn’t understand where I was coming from because they all grew up in America, and all that historical, nationalistic, and cultural bigotry, and past but present still-bleeding grievances seemed silly and irrelevant to them. Yes, they were raised in their own cultures as far as it goes, since almost all of them were first-generation immigrants, but they were Americans first, even if their parents didn’t feel that way themselves, or didn’t want their children to lose their invaluable heritage and subsume their identity into something shinier and in their eyes shallower and crass. Living in this fabulous if not perfect place allowed them to respect the past but enthusiastically embrace the future, trust in the possibilities and rights the Constitution promises and delivers, and cherish the belief, however subconsciously, that character will and must triumph over color or creed, inevitably.


But, and I like big buts and I cannot lie, we mustn’t forget that the moral and civic responsibilities that go along with these freedoms, bristling with glitter, are equally precious, the envy of the world, really, and must be lived and loved every day with intention, gratitude and wonder.

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