And the story continues ….
So it’s 1994 and I get the call that my dream is coming true and I will be going to Tokyo. Ten days, all expenses paid, teaching two classes at a western bank. I’m giddy with excitement.
And then a moment of panic. I’ve never had sushi in my life. It didn’t exist in the U.S. when I was a kid and it wasn’t something I sought out as an adult. It was something I made bad jokes about. (“If I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I expect them to cook the food.” Rim shot.) But I figured I didn’t want to embarrass myself in Tokyo and I’d better do something about it before I got there.
I got in my rental car and drove down to Atlanta from Norcross and stopped at the first sushi place I could find. I sat down and told the waitress, “I’ve never eaten this in my life. Give me an assortment and don’t tell me what anything is.” I was afraid that lifelong built-in prejudices would kick in if she told me that something was octopus brains or guppy gonads. She brought me a plate with 8 different things, I ate them all – and liked them all. “Okay, tell me now, what was the pink one, what was the white one ….”
When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the epitome of the dumb American tourist. “Oh look, they have trees!” My hotel was on the dividing line between Shinbashi and Ginza, if I recall correctly. I dumped my bags in the room and hit the streets. It was night time. I walked around with no idea of where I was going. I met some Japanese businessmen. They were already drunk and it was a scene from every guidebook you’ve ever read. “Can we practice speaking English with you?” “Okay.” Laughter. “Where are you from?” “America.” Laughter. “What do you think of Japan?” “It’s beautiful.” Laughter. Apparently I was the funniest person they’d ever met. But not funny enough for them to invite me to join them for a drink. Oh well.
I got to the office the next day just in time for lunch. “We’re going out for lunch. Do you eat sushi?” “Of course!”
It turns out I wasn’t supposed to go to the local office. They were quite unhappy to find out that the Hong Kong office had booked a Tokyo job. Well, no one warned me.
There was one American working in that office and he took me around Roppongi that night. Mogambo, Geronimo, Motown House, Baccarat, all the popular gaijin spots. It was really easy to meet people and make connections. There weren’t as many westerners there as there are today. So if you were in a bar and saw another white guy, you instantly had something in common and would start talking. And one other thing I found out – white guys were in season. We were the latest fashion accessory for Japanese girls. Having a foreign boyfriend was seen as a desirable thing, and they went out in packs in Roppongi hunting for us. At least, that’s what I was told.
The next day I started work. Midway through that morning, an earthquake hit. It was the first earthquake I’d ever been in. It was a small tremor, nothing to worry about, but my heart leapt into my mouth as my students all ran to the window to watch the other buildings sway back and forth. I got over it quickly enough. The next time there was an earthquake and everyone jumped up, I looked at them and said, “What’s the matter? It’s just an earthquake. You have them every day. Sit down. Back to work.”
Nights were a drunken haze. For most of my first week, I was the ugliest Ugly American ever to go to Tokyo. Every night I got drunk and every night I acted like a total asshole. It took about a week for me to settle down. I scolded myself. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? What gives you the right? Just because you’re in a foreign country? Because these women are Asian?” I calmed down and went back to being myself and almost immediately after that I found myself a Japanese girlfriend.
Actually, she found me. The temperatures in Tokyo were running above 40 degrees, even at night. One night I barely made it up the stairs to Geronimo. I walked in, closed the door, and collapsed against the wall in a puddle of sweat. This woman at the table right next to where I was schvitzing invited me to sit with them. She was cute but her friend was even cuter. The only problem was that she was passed out. She woke up eventually and the three of us went to Gas Panic to dance. And at some point the cute one, the one who was passed out earlier, asked me if I wanted to meet her the following night.
My friends told me, “She’s Japanese, she’s not going to show up to meet a gaijin alone. She’ll bring a friend.” She showed up alone. And we were together a lot after that. She was a nihilist. She always dressed all in black and wondered pessimistically what was the point in almost everything. But she was also as sweet and as nice as anyone you could hope to meet. One thing I remember – one day we went walking through a Japanese garden and an elderly Japanese man came up to us. She translated for me. “He’s wondering if you, as a foreign barbarian, can appreciate the beauty of a Japanese garden.” I smiled and told him I thought it was really beautiful. That made him happy.
I finished my work after ten days. I didn’t want to leave. I had some vacation time coming so I just stayed on. I moved to a cheaper hotel with a tiny little room that didn’t even give me enough space to open my suitcase; I had to drag it out into the hallway. Every morning I’d check my bank balance and my vacation balance and push back my return flight by another two days. I met a much-younger Jewish Canadian woman and started spending a lot of time with her. I was surviving on McDonald’s every day, the cheapest thing I could find, until I finally discovered ramen shops. I think I had ramen 3 meals a day for the rest of my stay there.
I don’t remember exactly now, but I was there for somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks. I finally ran out of money and ran out of vacation time and had to go back to my empty life in New York. I said goodbye to my new friends and told them I’d be back.
As it turns out, it was four years until I got back to Tokyo. I stayed in touch with both of those women via letters for years. I never saw the Canadian woman l again. It was 4 or 5 years until I saw the Japanese woman again, and at this point I was married to my second wife. We still traded emails from time to time until she got engaged. Her fiance found out about me and somehow felt threatened by our platonic friendship and wrote to me, asking me to stop emailing her. I figured if she found someone and she was happy, I was happy for her.
I was determined to find a job in Tokyo and move there. I called headhunters like crazy. I sent my resume everywhere. Nothing. Not even a nibble.
And then 5 months later, someone pointed out to me that the company I was working for had an opening in their Hong Kong office. The job requirements fit me to a “t” – they wanted a Principal Consultant who was also an architect. As near as I could tell, I was the only person to apply for the job. I think I was the only Principal Consultant in the company who was single and free to make that kind of move. Plus the Hong Kong office remembered how well my Tokyo gig had gone for them.
I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not Tokyo, but it’s closer to Tokyo than New York.” I told my company that I’d never been to Hong Kong, I wasn’t sure if I would like it, and would they fly me out there for a week so I could check it out and see if I really wanted to move there. They agreed.
So in February 1995 I made my first trip to Hong Kong. I felt comfortable from the minute I landed at Kai Tak. I knew no one in Hong Kong, but someone in my office in New York had a friend there. He gave me his number and wrote to the guy to tell him I’d be coming. My first night in Hong Kong, that guy brought me to Wanchai. At Rick’s Cafe, he ran into a girl he knew, and she was there with a friend. That friend and I hit it off pretty well. My friend dragged me to more bars until finally I told him, “I’m still thinking about that girl at Rick’s. I’m gonna go back and see if she’s still there.”
She was still there. We drank and talked some more. She was a television producer from Manila, visiting Hong Kong on a business trip. We went to the MTR to head back to our respective hotels. On the train she turned to me and said, “I’d invite you back to my hotel but I’m sharing my room with someone.” To be honest, I’m not sure that the meaning of that sentence really registered with me. Without stopping to think, I replied, “I’ve got my own hotel room.” And she said, “Okay.” And came back to my hotel with me.
So now my first day in Hong Kong is over. I’m thinking that I’ve lived in New York for decades and can’t meet a woman to save my life; I’m in Hong Kong one day, I know no one, and I’m getting laid. Yes, I can live here.
Of course I wasn’t going to tell them that in the office. I wanted to let the entire week go by before announcing my decision. My future boss decided to play tour guide and show me some of the other benefits of Hong Kong. One day we were walking around Aberdeen. He suggested we should go to Lamma for seafood. We just missed the ferry so he suggested that we get a sampan. We found one, got in, and the woman took us out of the harbor. Then she put on her coat, rubbed cream on her hands, handed me the tiller, pointed out into the fog and lay down and went to sleep. So now I’m driving a sampan through one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world and it’s so foggy I can’t see where I’m going let alone what’s around me. Somehow we made it to Lamma. We had to wake the woman up because we couldn’t figure out how to cut the engine. She asked if she should wait to give us a ride back. “What, you’re gonna want another nap?” I asked.
I’d made a little list of ten things to do to see if I could survive in Hong Kong on my own. One thing on the list was to have a dim sum lunch by myself. I walked around Causeway Bay and Wanchai and couldn’t figure out which restaurants served dim sum or would even speak English. Finally I passed a restaurant that had a “Welcome” carpet in front. “English! I’ll try here!” I went upstairs and waited. I saw other people coming in and getting seated by the hostess. I thought to myself, “Jeez, is this like Tokyo, they don’t want to deal with foreigners?” I went up to the hostess and said, “What about me?” “I thought you were waiting for other people,” she replied in perfect English. Of course. Because who goes for a dim sum lunch alone? She seated me at a big round table already occupied by a couple in their 70s. They saw how clueless I was and helped me order and showed me how to eat, even sharing some of their food with me. Yes indeed, I could live in Hong Kong.
So that was it. Back to New York and two months to get ready for the move. I got rid of a lot of stuff and put almost everything else into long term storage. I arrived in Hong Kong in April 1995 with just two suitcases, ready to start my new life.