It was a time of first times. I was already in my late teens when we moved to Japan. All my life I’ve always dreamed of living in my ancestors’ home to recapture the essence of my samurai bloodline.
Well, we didn’t actually move to Okinawa where my dad was born, but to Sakae, a city in Nagoya where his work was located. And later I found out that having samurai blood was just something a lot of Japanese parents tell their kids to inflate their ancestral balls (at best, from what I’ve heard from relatives is that my great, great grandma was a mistress of a samurai who descended from the castle to go to Tangie town—yes, he did it for the nookie—so there ya go). But regardless, such things didn’t stop me from living in my world, in the way of the sword, while getting drunk from beer vending machines that ask for no ID, no bullshit.
Before all of this, however, I lived a princely lifestyle—the prince of meatballs—and never had to work a day in my life. It always bothered me that up till then I had been lacking any sort of challenges, any sort of real struggles, unlike the people I looked up to who at the time were Alexander the Great, Musashi, and Robocop. So I was pretty excited to finally experience what it was like being an adult and working.
On the first day of my first job I had to wear something like what Jessie and Mr. White wore, minus the gasmask. After going through a room where you have to get locked down and sprayed with disinfecting chemicals, my manager came up to me in a similar outfit and gave me my first assignment. I worked in a meat factory. And behind him was a giant silver-metal barrel which he rolled out of a freezer that was so cold it froze the air in your lungs the moment you inhaled. In it was a thick layer of frozen blood.
My manager said something, punctured the sheet of red ice with his hand, and pulled from it what looked like a prehistoric frozen penis. “Cow tongue,” he said. Then he proceeded to repeatedly smash the thing into a wall until it was tender and threw it in another container. “Now you do it,” he said. So I did as I was told and by lunch time, my white uniform was drenched in red.
I didn’t stay in that job for very long because, although the pay was unbelievably good, the crowd that you tend to keep was something less to be desired, especially for a teenager. So I worked in different places. I even worked at a McDonald’s where I met this Sri Lankan dude who knew the different prices for different services the prostitutes in our area offered (mostly Brazilian and Russian girls). Again I didn’t stay there too long since I got sick of being made to weigh lettuce on a tiny weighing scale. I figured my talents could be better utilized elsewhere.
Then one day my mom got a phone call.
It was from my dad’s work. There was an accident. It was serious. We had to go to the hospital right away. There, for the first time, I saw my dad laying in bed with tubes, bandages and bloody sheets. His arm had been mangled—red, purple and plastic-looking. He got caught in a conveyor belt. And just as it was by chance that the accident happened, it was also just by ironic luck that somehow someone managed to stop the machine just in time to save his life. For the first time I saw my mom in hysterics, as well as my little sister and my then-baby brother in despair. The man I saw as Superman was beaten in bed, and now for the first time our future—my future—was absolutely uncertain.
When I was in the first grade our teacher asked us to write five things we wanted to become when we grow up. I wrote:
At the time, the “Superhero” was needed but he was nowhere to be found. And then I realized for the first time that I was really just a boy. And if ever there was a time when I needed to grow up, it was right then and there. But of course it didn’t happen.
A day later we saw the planes hit the World Trade Center on TV.
A few months passed and I got a full-time gig as an English teacher for a small, private language school. How? Well I told them I was twenty-five and that I had a degree in English literature. Of course, every time they asked me for a copy of my degree I told them I’ve already put in the request and it should be coming any time soon. I’ve never taught a single soul in my life up till then, much less children, high school and college peeps prepping for entrance exams, and business people who were making deals overseas.
I was shitting myself the whole time, but I pulled it off like a pro. It was great.
One day, I had to substitute for one of the teachers. The session was for a one-on-one conversational English. The student was a high school girl—very smart and very pretty. When I came in the room she was already there, waiting for me.
“Nice to meet you, Roun-sensei,” she said demurely (or so I thought).
Usually, most people called me “Tamaki-sensei” which is proper and professional. On the other hand “Roun-sensei” is a little bit more informal, and the way she said it with her little mouth and her little smile made it too much to bear. Add to that her neatly pressed uniform with the skirt rising way above the knees; her reputation as a straight-A student; her ability to speak English very well; and finally her status as a ballet dancer who performed with this supposedly internationally-famous Russian Troupe. Immediately all the blood in my brain drained and went down south. I was a virgin then and didn’t know anything about women because I went to an all-boys’ Catholic school, and yet there I was face to face with a total dick-kryptonite.
But of course, being the professional that I am, I sat down and composed myself. I pulled her file, looked at the lesson plan and chucked it.
“So you’re a ballet dancer,” I said. “That means you can’t eat chocolate ’cause it’ll make you fat.”
By the end of the session I felt like a boss. It was the first time I’ve done anything like that and apparently I made an impression because then she made a little request.
“Roun-sensei,” she said. “I have a small favor to ask. I have this old disposable camera and I think it still has a few shots in it. I’ve had it for a long time and I really want to have the film developed. I was wondering if it’s ok to take a picture of you just to finish it?”
“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged very casually. I figured, who the fuck was I to deprive this girl of the shots she took? So I acquiesced. Meanwhile in my head Nelly’s singing: She only want me for my pimp juice! Ooooh-oooooh-hooooooh!
“Do you mind if I take it with you?”
“Yeah why not?”
I think I need to let it loose. Let her loose (let her loo-hooooose).
Suddenly she stood up, went around the table, sat on my lap and snapped away.
Pimp juice! Ooooh-ooooh-hoooooh!
After letting my swelling ego subside, I got her number and walked her to the train station. I bought a beer from the vending machine and chugged it down on the way back. Things were still shitty, but it was starting to look good.
I still wasn’t saving anybody and I was still running away, but for the first time it felt like I wasn’t lost anymore. For the first time it felt like I was starting to take control of my life, navigating through chaos. For the first time it felt like I was finally growing up.
“And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. I find it hard to tell you. I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it’s a very very…”
—Tears for Fears