Spring 1998: Molly is participating in a student-exchange program, and she is spending three weeks in Narita, Japan with a host family. On her first night in Japan, she finds herself in the bathroom trying to figure out how to flush the toilet. It is an intimidating-looking instrument, with a control panel filled with buttons and flashing lights; all of the labels are in Japanese. Uncertainly, Molly presses a couple of buttons on the control panel and hopes for the best. Suddenly, a tiny white rod appears, extending from the underside of the rim on the back of the toilet bowl. Molly leans in to investigate this device. A jet of water shoots out of a spigot in the rod and hits her point-blank in the face. Spluttering, she cups her hand over the stream and frantically presses more buttons until it stops and the tube retracts.
After drying her face, Molly happens to notice that on the side of the toilet is a normal metal handle for manual flushing.
Winter, 2008: Molly is scraping the ice off of her car windshield on a chilly morning in North Carolina. Realizing that a spray of windshield-wiper fluid might make the job a little easier, she opens the driver’s side door of the car and, still standing beside the car, pushes the lever behind the steering wheel which releases a jet of said fluid, which hits her point blank in the face. Fortunately, Molly is wearing glasses at the time, the lenses of which are now extremely water-resistant.
I can’t wait to see what I manage to spray myself in the face with in 2018. What scares me is that the liquids in question appear to be growing increasingly more toxic with each event. This does not look promising. I should probably invest in Face Insurance. After all, my looks are all I have!
(I reworked this one some since I last posted it a few days ago.)
As a child who spent most of the 80s sitting six inches away from the TV, my world was populated with many exotic and fascinating creatures, thanks to cereal and snack-food commercials. The myths and legends of Toucan Sam and the Quik Bunny were as real to me as any bedtime story.
Mind you, I had nothing against books—I enjoyed being read to—it was just that the beings I saw on television encouraged me to eat marshmallows for breakfast, something none of the characters in The Wind in the Willows ever did. And can you name a single fairy-tale inspired breakfast cereal? Show me Little Red Riding Hood Flakes, and I’ll show you a cereal that no child ever threw a tantrum in a supermarket aisle to make her parents buy. I’ll bet it wouldn’t have chocolate-covered Grandmother’s houses, let alone marshmallow wolves.
Snack-food mascots usually fell into one of two categories: they were anthropomorphic animals with crippling snack obsessions (Trix Rabbit, you poor bastard), or vaguely creepy people with questionable back-stories and crippling snack obsessions. (There was something off about dead-eyed Lucky the Leprechan. I can’t imagine any of the other cartoon mascots ever wanting to hang out with him outside of work). They sometimes had some sort of magical power—although often it was just the power of being chronically able or unable to obtain the object of their snack obsessions. Not the most enviable or inspiring power.
Having grown up with these rather petty food-related archetypes, I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Japan for three weeks in high school. There I was introduced to Anapanman, Japan ‘s most popular superhero. He has a giant round head, a big red nose, and small, kind eyes. “His name means ‘Bread Man’.” My host student, Mariko, explained. “His head is made of bread filled with bean-paste. He goes around rescuing hungry people by letting them eat his head. Then a new one is baked for him by his creator.” This was certainly a new spin on things.
The only remotely edible characters that come to mind from my childhood are the California Raisins. Even so, I can’t imagine them, as hip as they were, ever taking off their shades and letting themselves be gnawed on, even by the hungry. You didn’t mess with the California Raisins. Their success as spokes-food was also dubious; they didn’t make you want to eat raisins as much as they made you want to be a Motown singing raisin with tiny arms and legs and a slamming hat. Which is not beneficial to the raisin industry, although it is beneficial to my imagination.
It seemed that Anpanman’s premise was not to promote bean-paste filled bread, but to feed and empower the hungry. It was strange and exhilarating for me to see a food-related entity with its own liberal, humanitarian agenda. Rather than endorsing greed and selfishness, as the characters of my youth did; encouraging children to obsess over food and even withhold it from their others(those Trix commercials clearly scarred me), Anpanman gives up part of himself for the good and nourishment of those in need. Deep stuff for a cartoon superhero whose posse is made up of creatures with giant food for heads. (I particularly like his companion Tendonman, whose head is a bowl of rice with shrimp Tempura sticking out of it). And Anpanman’s lack of affiliation with any sort of brand name or sponsorship is a vital part of his appeal. A regenerating loaf-man who feeds the hungry? That really is magically delicious.
I have never in my life been so glad I had a boyfriend as I was during my three week visit to Japan. Not because of the specific boyfriend– it didn’t matter who he was, nor did it matter that ours was a relationship forged upon mutual convenience and desperation, your average highschool romance. In fact, I broke up with him a few weeks after I returned to the United States. He had served his purpose, which was allowing me to answer in the affirmative the first question on the lips of every Japanese girl my age I was introduced to: “Do you have…boyfriend?” It was clearly important to have boyfriend.
I was the only one in our exchange student group who DID have a boyfriend at the time, and since I had no particular fondness for any of the five other girls I was traveling with, that was fine by me. Actually, it was great by me, especially when I got to hear the others have to awkwardly explain, in as clear and concise English as their interrogators could understand, why they didn’t in fact have boyfriends. Since we went to a girls’ school back home, no one expected us to ever have boyfriends, and thus it was not a question we were prepared to handle. Questions like, “Do you have…grasp of Heathcliff’s motivations in Wuthering Heights?” or “Do you have…inordinate crush on your gay science teacher because he’s the only attractive male you see on a regular basis?”; now those we could have gladly expounded upon.
I would have needed far more than three weeks in Japan to even begin to understand the relationships between the teenage girls and boys there. Certainly there was a lot going on below the surface that I missed, and above it, which I also missed. What I did pick up on fairly quickly was the predator-prey dynamic.
“They like blonde boys here,” Karen, a British foreign exchange student told me. “The whole light-haired, blue-eyed, All-American thing. It’s really big with the girls.” She had been living in Japan for over six months, attending the same highschool that I accompanied my host student to. Karen was tall and pretty, with a strong jaw and a blonde pixie cut. “I get mistaken for a boy all the time, because of my short hair,” she said. “Japanese girls come right up to me and ask me out all the time– they’re very aggressive about it.” It would have been difficult to believe her, had I not had a chance to study this phenomenon up close.
After only a few days spent following my host student around her highschool, I came to the following conclusion: all preferences for foreign blondes aside, it appeared Japanese boys had to do very little when it came to the dating game. In fact, the only game it remotely resembled was Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Perhaps I should give credit where it is due, however. I suppose in their own way, these boys did work tirelessly and with an admirable determination– their unifying goal being the pursuit of awesome hair. In Japan teenage boys tended to carry hand-mirrors in their pockets, whipping them out automatically and without a trace of self-consciousness at every stop on the train to make sure nothing was out of place. At school their jeans were ironed into deadly sharp creases, their jackets worn with devastatingly cool casualness. They stood waiting for the bus, posed against brick buildings like they were shooting an album cover. They were clearly meant to be appraised, admired, and cunningly pursued within an inch of their hip lives. And against their steely-eyed, knee-socked female pursuers, they didn’t stand a chance. They were like delicate fawns with stylish glasses, tripping shyly through the forests of highschool in really cool sneakers.
That girls were the aggressors most of the time was as strange to me as it was compelling. The myth of the quiet, submissive Japanese schoolgirl was put to rest for good the day my host-student Mariko and I stalked a group of boys from Wisconsin for an entire afternoon at Tokyo Disneyland. “There they are!” we’d say in excited whispers, clutching each other, then strolling past them for the tenth time, whistling casually. There were half a dozen of them, all blonde and wholesome and clearly unnerved enough already. It’s no small feat to enjoy yourself at Disneyland in your native country; let alone in Tokyo where a giant costumed Mickey Mouse can come up behind you at any time and yell at you in Japanese. We didn’t leave those poor doomed boys alone until that evening, when we finally got up the courage to approach them and ask innocently if they would to pose for a picture with us. It was too dark for the picture to come out very well, but the glint of triumph in Mariko’s eyes was unmistakable. I was mostly amused by the whole thing. Amused, and slightly terrified. Don’t think I am ungrateful; I certainly enjoyed my time in Japan and still value the lessons I learned from the (female) friends I made there, but it was nice to return home to dynamics between the sexes that I more or less understood, and to boys who didn’t scatter like quail at the slam of a locker door.