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Arts and Culture

Americanface, Episodes 25-28

All this week's episodes in one.

By Andrew Struthers 4 Dec 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.

25: Innocence

Paul, Ganden and Jack were the tip of the iceberg. The Guest House was a nexus of outliers: Jack's long-suffering wife Mary; their friend Jeff, a fellow artist and Canuck; his Japanese girlfriend Hiroko, who loved to shock newcomers by pretending Jeff had taught her to swear like a sailor; Kris, a proto-filmmaker from Toronto; Erik, who let me hypnotize him one night and thought he was Neil Young for an hour; Victoria, Trigg, Matt and Barry, who like Erik were all future American writers; Gregg, with whom I shared a birthday so long as we were on opposite sides of the International Dateline; Jeff and Lois, Australians who arrived via the Tran-Siberian Express; Mike, a former marine; Josh, the karate kid; Jocelyn, voted most likely to be mistaken for a Skipper doll; Bill, who moonlighted as a model; Kate and Nicole, whose love dared not speak its name but could be heard through the paper walls; and Jurgen, a hulking teuton who bagged a work visa at the border by mistake, and now taught Japanese school kids English with an accent thick as linzertorte.

One night Josh brought Jack and Jurgen home drunk, with their heads split open. As they stood in the entrance with blood dripping from their chins like British football hooligans, Josh explained that they had "found" some beer and started "playing" with a crane in a nearby construction site, and "one thing led to another."

I blamed our host country. Nothing in Japan was locked, and beer was delivered to restaurants at three in the morning and left on the pavement outside. It just didn't work with our post-edenic mindsets.

We propped Jack and Jurgen up on chairs in the washroom until the ambulance arrived. The attendants rushed up to the Guest House door, doffed their boots, ran down the hall, put on the special rubber bathroom slippers, loaded the gaijin onto stretchers and repeated the whole process on the way out. This compulsive disorder is often misinterpreted by the West as manners.

Next day Jack came back from the hospital wearing a head bandage that made him look like Gumby. We spent the week smoking and playing chess while our wives went TESOL, and if I got in a good move, he would mirror his fingertips and intone, like the commandant of a POW camp, "I'm thinking of having you shot."

It was moments like that that endeared Jack to me. Also, he loaned me cash. A true friend. Who could have known it would all end so badly?

26: Taming Power of the Great

In Kyoto all foreigners, or gaijin, are required to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Case in point: the electric bath.

Japanese love nothing more than spending all day in the bath. And who can gainsay that? Clearly they have evolved.

Home facilities are often humble, but every neighbourhood has a public bath house called a sento. The one next to the Guest House was still co-ed, with just a shoulder-high wall separating the sexes. You could look over the wall but no one did. It was against the rules. So why even have a wall? In fact, the wall was forced upon them by General MacArthur, who was horrified by Japan's pre-edenic mindset.

The sento had every kind of bath. Hot, hotter, sperm-killingly hot (used as birth control), ice water, and over in the corner, the electric bath. That just seemed wrong. Radio-in-the-bathtub wrong. I had to give it a try.

The rubber mat on the tiles sported that red thunderbolt which says in every language:

COME ON IN -- THE WATER'S VOLTY!

I tested it with my toe. Nothing. I slid in up to my waist. Still nothing. I lowered myself until my fingertips touched the surface at the same moment. ZAP!

I tried dipping my hands in one at a time. No shock. I shimmied in neck-deep then my throat began to flicker and clench. That was enough electricity for me. I clambered out, three weathered obasans watching surreptitiously from a long wooden bench, giggling.

Culture shock, electric shock, the imp in my head whispering, "See! Everyone has been lying to you. Water and electricity do mix. And if you got that wrong, what else are you missing?"

27: Providing Nourishment

Q: How many zen monks does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Two. One to change the light bulb, and one not to change the light bulb.

28: Greatness

Stephen Hawking once wrote, or beeped, "Whenever I hear the words 'Schrodinger's Cat' I reach for my gun." Understandably. Without the math it comes off kind like some crazy "Get Out Of Mechanistic World-View Free" card.

Also, what works for a set of infinitesimal wave/particle thingies might not apply to something as big as a cat.

Lastly, Hawking is barely capable of dribbling on his sweater vest, let alone reaching for a gun. It's a metaphor -- like Schrodinger's Cat.

Jokes are also metaphors, in that they refer to something outside themselves, and this is also their Achilles' heel because what's outside will probably change with time. Some jokes fare well, like this relative of the zen lightbulb joke:

A zen monk walks up to a hot dog vendor: "Can you make me one with everything?"

That's because our cultural misunderstanding of zen has not changed since the '80s. Unlike our misunderstanding of AIDS, which in the '80s seemed confined to the gay and Haitian communities, giving rise to:

Q: What's the hardest thing about getting AIDS?

A: Convincing your mom you're from Haiti.

No longer flies. Speaking of flying:

Q: Why did Andropov shoot down that Korean passenger jet?

A: He wanted to impress Jodi Foster.

Even worse. A joke cannot endure if it's about someone our culture has completely forgotten, thanks to that terrible movie, Contact. As for Andropov -- the poor guy's seminal moment came while he was the ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 revolution, watching through the embassy windows as a mob hanged members of the Hungarian secret police from the lampposts outside. No wonder he ended up as a hard-liner. But today, does anyone even remember his brief and paranoid reign at the helm of the Evil Empire?

Not me. I stopped following Eastern Bloc politics when I realized that Chowcheskou from the radio and Ceaucescu from the newspaper were actually the same guy -- proof that they were all in it together.  [Tyee]

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