Yesterday, my company lowered the boom again and informed me that my trip to China to cover the Shanghai Auto Show has been cancelled. Though somewhat frustrated about having to spend the next year wondering what competitor is poised to spring out from behind the Bamboo Curtain and bite me on the left butt cheek, I am at the same time a little bit relieved. My wife is expected to deliver our third child around the time of the show and no matter how interesting or fun the Auto Show in Shanghai may be, I still do not relish the idea of spending over 18 hours in an airplane. Sticking me in an aerodynamic tin cylinder and combining a continuous intake of complimentary adult beverages with my own extraordinarily overactive imagination is just begging for that unfortunate aircraft to make an unscheduled stop somewhere in the Aleutian Islands. Then there is the fact that, if I can actually manage to avoid the Alaskan detour, once I land I still have to deal with Chinese customs officers who are rumored to be totally devoid of anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor. One ill-timed wisecrack and I am bent over the x-ray machine, enduring a level of anatomical invasion that is very unfamiliar to an unincarcerated heterosexual male with a healthy prostrate.
Still, I kind of miss Asia. I miss its culture, completely alien to our own. I miss its food. I miss its energetic environment that virtually assures that something worth recalling is going to happen nearly every time one steps foot onto its bustling streets. Just the simple act of leaving one’s hotel leads to an overwhelming bombardment of the senses that, when coupled with a truly viscous case of jet-lag, leads to a pre-hallucinogenic state of mind that is hard to come by through legal means. The television billboards and insanely manic flashing of every type of light-emitting device ever invented seems to cover every square inch of urban storefront, assaulting your vision and effortlessly turning nocturnal streets brighter than they were during the day. It makes one wonder whether the advertisers behind this luminescent blitzkrieg are actually trying to sell something or are just part of some devious conspiratorial experiment to induce grand mal epileptic seizures on a monumental scale. The background noise is no less impressive. The air is continuously erupting into an acoustic explosion consisting of automobile horns (which on the far side of the international dateline are often used in lieu of brakes), street venders hawking their wares at the top of their lungs, activists using bullhorns to out-shout the vendors, the blaring rhythm of European Techno-pop emanating from the nightclubs at a volume that could administer CPR and the ever-present cackle of dozens of teenaged girls swarming visiting foreigners while shouting out the Roppongi mating call, “Hi! I’m cheap!”
It is just a crazy place. Even eating is an adventure in itself. One time, while dining at a traditional establishment in Fukuoka Japan, I was literally attacked by an appetizer. The party next to us had ordered a dish that consisted of live shrimp that had to be extracted from the bowl (which is no small feat in case you have never had the opportunity to try and catch an easily excitable entrée with a pair of chopsticks), shelled alive and then dipped into one of several available sauces before being placed, still writhing, into the mouth of a hungry Fukuokan businessman. It was a morbidly entertaining spectacle to behold, at least until the meal was over and the dishes were being cleared. Apparently, one of the little bastards had made a break for it and made its way undetected into the stack of soiled flatware that an unsuspecting server had picked up to return to the kitchen.
Unfortunately, the restaurant was quite crowded and the wait staff slightly less attentive than is the norm in Japan. The waiter, his vision obscured by a full armload of dirty dishes, was headed right for me and, in order avoid receiving a face full of porcelain, I was forced to tilt my head to its side to prevent a collision. As the plates passed over my cheek, a moist morsel of food dropped from above and landed right in my ear.
At first, I was just mildly disgusted. I waited for the waiter to pass before trying to reach for a napkin to clean myself up with. Before I had that opportunity however, I felt ten little legs emerge from the morsel and in a very arachnid-esque fashion, start probing around my ear canal. Of course, I then panicked. In one swift, fluid motion I raised my right arm and batted my ear with the cupped palm of my hand. The trespassing crustacean was then sent flying across the table where it struck my companion, who was tragically seated directly across from me, square in the forehead before changing direction and performing an undetermined number of somersaults before landing just shy of my dinner plate, poised and ready to strike.
Now, I admit that shrimp do not look all that formidable when all you see is their tails hanging from the side of a margarita glass filled with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Seeing one whole however, especially immediately after you just barely prevented it from burrowing its way deep into your ear canal until it was free to wreak havoc upon your unprotected synapses, is a different matter altogether. They are primeval looking creatures with ten appendages tipped with miniature lobster claws that evolved through millions of years of natural selection into the ultimate tools for ripping flesh off of bone. They have long antennae, capable of picking up scents and vibrations deep underwater and, no doubt, the unmistakable stench of paralyzing terror in upscale Japanese dining establishments. They are armor plated, protected by a fearsome shell and have beady little eyes that, well, could only be accurately described by Quint, the salty old captain of the Orca in Speilberg’s classic maritime horror story, “Jaws.”
“lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and in spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.”
In the heat of the moment, when experiencing an unprovoked attack by a homicidally deranged menu item, all it takes is one quick look into those tiny demonic eyes for you to instantly realize you are fighting for your life.
That may seem like an over-the-top comment to the casual reader, but I’ll wager good money that the casual reader has never been suddenly assaulted by a killer crustacean either. To fully appreciate the urgency of the situation, you have to put yourself in the moment. One second, you are discussing the evening’s agenda with a drinking buddy. The next, you find yourself in a situation where some slimy sea spider is attempting to back down into your ear canal and burrow into your brain. You panic then, succumbing to your “fight-or-flee” instincts, bat the little bugger away only to have him bounce right back at you. With adrenaline pumping, you try to assess the situation but you realize that there is just no time for that. You do not know this creature’s capabilities. He may be within striking range but then again, he may not. You just do not know. All you see is your assailant before you, with its tail beneath its body, ready to catapult itself into the air and towards your dangerously unprotected eyes. You have to act. In the heat of the moment you launch your assault, your own personal “shock and awe” campaign. You clench your fist, raise it above your head and let out a battle cry that, to your ears, sounds like the screams you expect US Marines to make after they’ve fixed their bayonets and initiated their charge towards an enemy machine gun nest. Unfortunately, to your drinking buddies and the other occupants of the restaurant, it sounds more like the terrified whimper of a seven-year-old schoolgirl who has been scared dangerously close to the precipice of incontinence. Then, you bring your fist down with a thunderous calamity that, in addition to smiting the life out of escaped entrée, brings all conversation in the bustling dining room to a screeching halt. That is the very first indication you have that you may have been overreacting just a little bit.
Eventually, the conversations around you get going again but you realize that, though the restaurant is still filled beyond capacity, the American dining contingent is suddenly blessed with a lot more elbow room. People were giving us space and, I suspect, not out of a sense of gratitude for having eliminated the marauding menace that threatened us all. Bitter and disillusioned, I hurriedly finished my meal, paid up and left.
And that is just one of a million anecdotes that can be gained from traveling to the Far East. So, even though I dread the act of actually commuting there, I still am saddened about the experiences I will be missing by not going.
Oh well, there’s always next year.