It was a day late when I missed my bus from the Tokyo Airport back to the base where I was stationed during the unforgettable summer of 1996. Standing there, realizing that my flight had been booked incorrectly, which brought me from LAX, literally now in panic mode. I only had about 1,000 Yen in my pocket, which certainly wouldn’t be enough for me to catch an overnight train all the way from Tokyo to the most Northern tip of Honshu – which was where I needed to be by the next morning before my official leave expired. I felt like the ultimate tourist, but worse. A stranger in a strange land. There were literally thousands of neon signs in “Kanji” – the Japanese language pointing towards an exit to somewhere. But, where? What train did I need to exit to? This had not been in my plan, nor did I have an interpreter. It felt like a one way express ticket to hell at this point, with people pushing and shoving through an exit point in every direction. No American tourists in sight, and no possible safety net. For the first time in my life, I finally realized what it must have felt like for someone being on “the other side” – entering the United States of America and not having any clue where to go or any relief in sight. Not to mention a language barrier which I couldn’t seem to now get past or the difficult task of having to figure out how I was going to travel almost 10 hours north with little more than enough money to catch a few trains. Then that would be it. I would be stuck and broke. Maybe I could find a police station and try to communicate my issue. With all of the train terminals closing at 1:00 AM, I would need to find a solution or I would be out in the streets.
There were no cellphones in 1996, so there was no calling someone at the base to tell them what had happened to me. After two train stops, and another connection, I was stranded. I had no clue where I was at this point; faraway from the airport. After a look of hopelessness overcame me, in what seemed like an eternity, two women approached me. One appeared to be in her mid 60s, the other very young; her daughter perhaps? Neither of them could speak English that well, but they could tell that I was down on my luck. I tried explaining to them what had happened and for awhile it seemed they misunderstood what I needed to do. They kept trying to take me over to the police, but the younger girl was saying something to the older lady. It didn’t seem like going to the authorities was the best idea for a foreigner. After a few minutes both of them took me to a ticket counter. They purchased a ticket for me to ride the overnight train, then proceeded to escort me to the proper entry for me to catch my train. They gave me my ticket, and left me their contact information. “You can pay later” – the old woman said, and gave me a hug. So did the younger girl and they rushed off, as if by getting wrapped up in my mess they were late for some important appointment. As I boarded the train, a huge sigh of relief overcame me as the train conductor called out the name of the destination we were heading, in only nine more hours… Misawa. I would be heading home, and wouldn’t be AWOL after all. As this story relates to one of Adam Alter’s passages in Drunk Tank Pink, the chapter on Culture:
“While names, symbols, and social interactions soak up some mental energy, we move from one cultural environment to another even as our attention is drawn elsewhere. We can’t help but live in a particular country, interact with a particular group of people, or pursue a particular set of interests, and the experience shapes us until we no longer recognize that our worldview is a combination of these diverse and distinct cultural norms.”
All my adult life, I’ve mostly lived abroad, among different cultures, and immersed in a life that was open to the possibilities of what those cultures might have offered. But nothing was more universal or overwhelmingly distinct than the act of human kindness that befell upon me that day in the summer of 1996 while needing money for a train.
Alter, Adam Drunk Tank Pink New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.