Tuesday, 25 March 2014

My first academic conference

“Good morning everyone,” I say, “and thank you all for being here. My name is Rude Boy Abroad, I'm a fourth year Philosophy student, and I just spent last year studying abroad to Japan, where I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to not only study some Philosophy in Japanese, but also some Japanese Philosophy, as well. And today, I'd like to share with you a little bit of what I learned.”

I'm about to present at an annual academic conference, a challenge I decided to take for the noble and sophisticated reason that it might look good on a resumee or grad school application, though being able to tell people that I was “presenting at a conference” was a nice bonus. The turnout isn't great, but about what I expected given the time of morning. I'm wearing my brand new suit – a $400 black check – with a blue-striped silk tie and a pair of work shoes that I bought when I was hired at the grocery store seven years ago and which were until recently flecked with fish entrails.

I'd considered a moral defence of authoritarianism, but ended up going with a little introduction to Japanese Philosophy just on the off-chance that this might impress old Saburou in Finance or whatever. Plus, all kinds of people might know Republic or even Buddhism better than me, but nobody in the room was likely to have a firmer grasp of Japanese Philosophy in particular, so at least I wouldn't get shredded.

As the fated date drew near, my encroaching presentation rapidly came to dominate my thoughts. I was constantly revising and editing, scrutinizing just what would make it into the scant 15 minutes I'd been given, and in what order. How much background was necessary? Could I safely assume that the audience would know anything about Japan or Philosophy? And should I go for depth, or breadth? I spent many late nights lying awake in the dark, rehearsing in my mind, refining my phrasing, spicing up the slow parts, thinking of what jokes I might use.

Ideally, I wanted to be on the first day of presentations, but before lunch – giving me enough time to get acclimated, but still strike hard and fast. When the programme was finally published, I was dismayed to see that my session was grouped among the very first, bright and early at 9:00 sharp. But then again, this would free me up to enjoy the rest of the conference without distraction, and, you know, give people more of a chance to come up and gush, get my autograph, sexually proposition me, etc.

And quelle surprise, the committee actually managed to put me with another couple of Asia-related presentations. Given the gross underrepresentation of Eastern teachings in the formal study of Philosophy – which was another reason for my choice of topic – I'd expected to get tossed into one of the “miscellaneous” sessions, but they'd actually managed to find a common thread between three of us. Good show. The first presentation of the session was about yoga and misconceptions committed by the West in its appropriation of it, and the second tackled 60s counterculture and the Beatles' disillusionment with Indian spirituality when they actually travelled to India. Now it's my turn.

I plant my feet, place my hands on the lectern, and rock the house.

I feel eminently confident and knowledgeable. Words spill fluidly from my face. People seem to like it. The Study Abroad coordinator will say that she's seen over 50 presenters at this conference over the years, and that I was “by far one of the best.” I do the entire thing from memory, which is kinda my thing, allowing me to speak naturally and maintain eye contact with the audience, and this rumour spreads over the next two days. And at no point do I forget what I'm talking about or find that I've accidentally inserted pornography into any of my slides.

Following this, we form a panel and invite questions. The very first one is, “Given that all of these religions offer such tranquility, why haven't we achieved world peace?” So much for gradual introduction. The whole thing spirals into increasingly abstract and complex territory from there, but yields a really interesting discussion about faith, inclusiveness, and the modern world.

And with that, I'm cut loose. I spend the next two days communing with randoms (some presenters, some not) and attending others' sessions. The most compelling presentation, to me, is about self-concept and female masturbation, of which I harbour a deep fascination. I notice that while about 98.7% of ordinary conversations on campus open with a declaration of how drunk the speaker was last night, which is great, casual encounters in this environment quickly turn to phrases like “Well, considering the socioeconomic factors ingrained in that paradigm...” My new suit garners good reviews. President thinks I'm “spiffy as fuck.” A guy friend tells me I “look like a sexy businessman.” 

The first day concludes with a Wine and Cheese but I'm driving, so I give the bartender my free drink tickets and tell her the next two are on me. I happen to strike up a conversation with one of the committee members, and when I tell him I'd like to go to the banquet tomorrow but lack the cash, he quietly hooks me up with a ticket. Great guy.

When the second day's presentations end, I drive President back to her house and we hang out in her room for a while as I watch her do her makeup, which is goddamn fascinating.

“I missed you so much,” I tell her. Earlier this week we'd stopped by the campus pub and had a few beers, which definitely made class more interesting after, but more to the point it was the first chance she and I'd had to really sit down and hang out in a year and a half. Back in the cowboy days when it was just the two of us trying to run a student club with next to no help, we saw each other constantly. These days I barely know what's going on in her life. So it's really, powerfully good to spend some quality time with her for once, and now as much as ever.

At the hotel banquet hall, the food is good, the atmosphere is jovial, the music is...ok, although the DJ takes a little too long to cotton on that college-educated partiers don't take well to Blurred Lines. The keynote is about epistemical injustice, and President wonders what the waitresses think of us as we sit and listen, riveted.

Also, the drinks flow freely. I'm driving, but President is having fun imbibing, which is the important thing, and I'm certainly still enjoying the night so whatever. President gets pretty trashed but doesn't show it much, which is disappointing. The profs get it on it a little too. Actually, the profs take it to new levels. We dance for like four hours. Female flesh is everywhere, arms and chests and shoulders and legs, all swaying sexily.

Some guy wanders in from stage left. He doesn't seem terribly out of place, but readily admits that he's not part of the conference, and just came in when he saw the party. This would be fine, honestly...except that he starts making the girls uncomfortable. In the course of about five minutes, he tells me that President is “super into” him, me, one of the committee members, one of the out-of-towners, some guy across the room, everybody, really. What a slut. He promises to hook me up with whatever girl I want so I try to turn it back on him, but he tells me that he's in Trades and “the girls in this crowd want a guy with an IQ higher than a hundred.”

President shuts him down pretty capably but he doesn't take the hint, so when she goes back to dance she has me watch her drink. Within moments of her leaving he tries to take it from me, but I'm too quick and manage to keep it out of his grasp. I glare at him and point aggressively in his chest and ask what the fuck he's doing, and he laughs, says something I can't hear, and walks off to bother somebody else.

I sidebar with a waitress, who doesn't see the danger but says they're watching him. He sits by himself and gives me the evil eye from across the room, and when we finally leave at 1 am two waitresses are talking to him. My main fear was that he'd try to follow us out, but we make good our escape and head for President's house, carting two of her friends and a guy that one of them has been all over all night. Frustratingly, nothing comes of that.

Legally, my Class 7 only allows me to carry one passenger, meaning I don't have much practise carrying this much weight in the car, which starkly affects my acceleration and braking. We're pushing over 3000 revs just to keep from standing still. The fuel gauge needle plummets at an alarming rate. We run by somebody's house to grab more alcohol and when we try to set off again, the combined influence of a hill, ice, four passengers, and four tires in the trunk proves too much for my mighty four-cylinder, 20-year-old Toyota Camry to overcome, and two people have to get out for a minute just so we can get turned around. It's kind of embarrassing.

At President's, the others have drunkenness to keep them going, so I just lie down on the couch and listen to them chatter. I think back to the banquet hall, where President and I sat together and reflected on our relationship. We've known each other for an extremely eventful four years now. We recall some of the formative moments: me convincing a half-Japanese girl to make out with her; me convincing a Japanese girl to make out with her; her coming back from the bathroom at a bar to find me making out with a Japanese girl; me then convincing that Japanese girl to make out with her; all kinds of stuff. I can't help but smile. After so much time, I'd almost forgotten how much I love her.

A few months later we'll have another, very interesting, adventure, but that's another story.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I want to ride my bicycle

Mother Russia caught a bad break within a week of arriving in Japan: After heading downtown and spending a couple of hours shopping, she returned to where she'd parked her bicycle only to find it gone. Uncharacteristically, she burst into tears. A young Japanese chap, spotting a winsome hottie in distress, swooped in, ascertained the cause of the problem, and assured her that he would search for it on her behalf. When she came home and related this story to me, I pictured him delving into seedy bars throughout Sanjou-Shijou like Rorschach in Watchmen, demanding information, cracking skulls when he failed to get the reception he desired, tirelessly striving to repatriate the errant machine.

In reality, he probably asked around at the local police huts, perhaps on nearby Kiyamachi. Bicycle theft, though a popular activity when the opportunity presents itself, is quite difficult in Japan due to a lock placed on the rear wheel of every unit. More likely, hers had been collected because she'd parked it illegally, not a big deal throughout much of the city but a potentially serious nuisance in the downtown area. They take them away in big trucks, hoisting them up through sheer muscular fortitude. At bigger stores, it's also somebody's job to go outside and redress the ranks every so often, to conserve space; once again, the locks leave them no choice but to pick them up and heave them to their new resting spot.

In return for a modest fine, her bicycle was returned to her with no further complications, and as if that wasn't enough, the guy lent her his bicycle in the meantime, claiming that he lived and worked close enough that it didn't really matter. In fact he tried to just give it to her, and it was she who demanded his contact information so that she could return it later. The following weekend she went to a barbecue at his house, so I'm not entirely convinced he wasn't making a play, but if he wasn't, well isn't that just Japanese kindness for you!

Had this helpful stranger not appeared, she would have been in a bit of a jam, because bicycle is by far one of the most common methods of transportation in Japan. Coming from Canada, I have a lot of trouble thinking of it as anything other than a child's toy, but in Japan, there is absolutely nothing undignified or stupid-looking about it. Schoolgirls ride to school. Suited businessmen ride to work. Stylish young people ride between engagements. It's even common to carry a passenger, regardless of whether or not your particular model was built to carry a passenger, their feet flapping in the wind, seemingly ever in danger of toppling straight off onto the cement but somehow never doing so.

Now you might want to wax poetic and spew speculation as to why Japan's unique culture has driven it to adopt the bicycle as such a prevalent means of transportation (and maybe throw in something about how the trains are so quiet, which you will believe to eternity unless you're avant-garde enough to venture anywhere outside Kantou). Actually though, we sort of know the answer. As I had it explained to me in my Japanese Foreign Policy class, the first few economic movements of postwar Japan can be examined by their top three most desirable commodities:

The early years, 1945-1950, and the Korean boom, 1950-1953: radio, bicycle, sewing machine
Jinmu boom, 1954-1957: refrigerator, washing machine, television set
Izanagi boom, 1965-1970: aircon, car, colour TV

You can see how this reflects changing markets and a gradual return to prosperity, as we progress from basic mechanical necessities to modern luxuries. But for our purposes here, you can see how the bicycle was established early on as a must-have item. Still is today.

(Another historical footnote for you: My mother tells me that when she was a ryuugakusei herself (completely coincidental to my own Japanese aspirations), it was quite usual to buy a dilapidated bike, ditch it at the train station, and grab another abandoned one when you arrived at your destination station. When you were finished whatever you'd come to do, you would toss your new friend, train back to your original station, and then grab a bicycle with which to head home, possibly even the same one you'd bought. This sounds like a very interesting system with startling implications for the principles of Touka Koukan, but unfortunately I can neither confirm nor deny it, as I have never lived in Toukyou during the 1980s.)

So despite my protestations, bicycles are pretty entrenched into the daily reality of Japan, where they are not just discreetly convenient but actually own the sidewalk. As you will discover if you spend more than two minutes in the country, Japanese bicycles are all equipped with a bell, whose distinctive cry carries over the roiling chaos of life to seize attention and scatter crowds. It's a pretty demanding little sound, in fact, of which cyclists are unafraid to make liberal use, and it was some time before I was able to start interpreting it as “Excuse me, pardon me,” rather than “Hey, dumbass, out of the way!”

Though it helps that nobody in Japan wears helmets (as there is no law mandating it), I can't quite shake the impression that a bicycle automatically makes any rider look like a ponce. I never did give in, partially also because I secretly find them kind of terrifying, so instead I preferred to ride the train, which is much more fun and interesting anyway. However, nearly everyone else at my dorm bought one as soon as they could. They rode them to Cologne's mom's house. They rode them to Sanjou-Shijou. They even rode them to class, which always puzzled me, because the university was so close it seemed to save no time whatsoever. I would often depart at the same time as a rider began fiddling with locks and navigating bike-unfriendly paths, be overtaken halfway through, and then once more assume the lead in the final stretch as they stood waiting to cross the road to the bicycle parking lot, or searched feverishly for a vacant spot.

That said, I wasn't completely left bereft of two-wheeled temptation. I always thought that Sorachi Hideaki gave Gintama protagonist Gintoki a scooter because they're so unconscionably goofy, but then I arrived and found out that no, that is just considered a legitimate form of transportation here, especially among starving students. At my university, they even had their own parking lot, filled with rows upon rows upon rows of the little machines; when fourth block ended, their owners would leap astride them and take off in roaring crowds of a hundred at a time.  And, lacking a car, I came to badly want one of my own. Because, you know, I was too cool to ride a bicycle, but there's real dignity in a scooter.