The original title of this post was going to be “Back to Life, Back to Reality.” It was supposed to be a reference to the post-election withdrawal I’m sure every American has been experiencing since the moment it was announced that there would once again be young children in the White House. Recent events have shifted the focus of this entry somewhat but I suppose the overall message is the same: the smoke has cleared and the enormous task of repairing the country has begun. In the meantime, life has gone back to normal. I no longer have an excuse to put off studying for the JLPT, or even put off doing the dishes, for that matter. My head is flooded with plans for my winter trip back home, as well as the Southeast Asian tour I’ll take once I finish my contract. And then I’m trying to decide what my future will hold after I leave Japan. It’s a lot to think about.
But then, my head wanders. It’s only been 2 days, after all. I’m still awash with pride and hope. I’m still beaming to think of a President Elect who has vowed to listen to every voice, “especially when we don’t agree.” And I’m also the owner of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. It’s chilling in my sparsely stocked refrigerator.
But, Liv! you cry. You only drink happoshu and chu hi. You liken spending large amounts of cash to the pain of childbirth. What are you, of all people, doing with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot chilling in your sparsely stocked refrigerator?
Well, you can all relax. Change is coming but it’s not starting with my spending habits; you’re all getting 630 yen mugen edamame keychains for Christmas. I bought one for myself the other day and, trust me, you’ll love it. Obviously, the Veuve Clicquot was a gift and I think you can guess that it came from Nakata-san; my ultra opinionated, ultra wealthy private student. If I wasn’t quite a hostess before, I think it’s safe to say that my transformation is now complete.
I must admit, I’ve been enjoying classes with Nakata-san lately, if mainly because the Presidential Election has given us a lot to talk about. And, obviously, because he just gave me a 7000 yen bottle of champagne.
For fun, Nakata-san’s thoughts on John McCain:
“Too old! Grandpa. He should not drive. Boring!”
Nakata-san’s thoughts on Sarah Palin:
“Hah! She can see Russia!”
Nakata-san’s thoughts on what I should tell misbehaving students:
“Shaddap, you son of a bitch!”
Last week, before our lesson came to a close, I said: “By next week, everything will be different … or exactly the same. You will know by my face.”
Of course, Nakata-san didn’t need to wait to see my face before he heard the results. When I walked into the classroom today, he stood and offered his hand.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You have President Obama!”
“Thank you,” I said happily. He was only the most recent person in an ever-growing line of non-American acquaintances who’d already extended their congratulations but it still felt good.
He gave me the usual pick from his conbini bag of teas and sodas and when we’d both settled at the table, we began to discuss Obama’s election night speech.
“One of the things I love,” I said, “is that he’ll be a President who I feel represents so many different kinds of Americans. He’s the child of immigrants and is multi-cultural. He grew up on food stamps but he had huge aspirations and managed to make them happen. He’s religious but he’s also open-minded enough to allow for freedom of thought. He’s passionate, he’s eloquent and, yes, while of course I would feel better if he had more executive experience, he’s been grooming himself for this job his entire adult life.”
“And he is not 70!” cackled Nakata-san.
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “his age was never the issue for me. I liked McCain before this election. What he suffered in Vietnam was unreal and I think he ran good campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Even though I’ve never agreed with him politically, I can see why people in his party respected him. But he completely transformed in this election; he ran a ruthless campaign based on fear and manipulative division. It was Bush all over again. There was fake America and there was real America. There were Christians and there were non-Christians. There were socialists and there were terrorists.”
“McCarthy!” bellowed Nakata-san.
“Exactly!” I cried. “It was so disappointing; he’d seemed to have so much more character than that. Compare that to Obama’s campaign, which was about hope and unity. What he said about being a President even for people who didn’t vote for him …”
I felt my eyes well with tears. Nakata-san caught my emotion and laughed understandingly.
“Anyway,” I said, composing myself. “I’m just so happy.”
“The world is happy, too,” he said.
We’d been talking American politics for over an hour and I felt a bit embarrassed by my brief descent into girliness, so I changed the topic to Fall. The Japanese are crazy for the Four Seasons and Fall brings a lot of exciting things to the table. Exquisitely tiny red maple leaves, steaming tureens of nabe, silvery sanma and smoky chestnuts, to name just a few.
“Also, matake,” volunteered Nakata-san.
“Matake?” I asked.
“You don’t know matake?” he said. “It’s a mushroom. Very, very expensive. I eat maybe two times a season. You don’t know?”
“I don’t think I know it.” I admitted.
“We have some time?” he said, glancing at the clock to see how much of the 2 and a half hour lesson remained. “We can go see.”
Nakata-san often asks the staff to use their internet connection so he can show me something online; just another one of his wealthy businessman perks. Imagine my surprise when he informed the staff that we would be heading out to the nearby K’ntetsu Department Store. Until now I hadn’t thought “permission to take teachers on field trips during school hours” was included in the definition of “special student” but the staff was nodding cheerfully, offering to hold my green tea bottle while I was out.
The K’ntetsu market was perhaps 3 minutes away on foot but, for me, since I wasn’t entirely relaxed about this special field trip, they were 240 seconds that felt endless. I chattered nervously, asking as many questions about matake as I could think of. Facts: matake are emblematic of fall, have a distinctive odor, and are so expensive to grow in Japan that department stores will usually sell American-farmed varieties. Nakata-san’s wife grills them. No oil. Just some soy sauce and vinegar.
Department store gourmet markets are vibrant places, stocked full of unaffordable delicacies that are displayed like candies in an extremely appealing variety of booths. When we arrived, the market was humming with activity as usual. Crabs are in season, and long lines of housewives snaked past the seafood counters, fisting spiky orange crab legs. I followed Nakata-san’s giant figure as he weaved between tempura and shabu shabu counters, dodging baskets of 13,000 yen melons. The matake were giant, cradled 2 to a styrofoam pack, each pair priced at 3500 yen. He passed me a package so that I could smell their characteristic odor and I inhaled, taking in what smelled to me like a pleasant mix of mushrooms and red wine. He pointed out the kanji to show me that the “take” of mushroom was different from the “take” of bamboo. As we turned to head back to school, I finally started to relax. Back through the Christmas cake displays and okonomiyaki griddles, back through the rows of sales staff bleating, “Irrasshaimasse!” at each shopper who passed through the doors.
The exit happened to be in the alcohol section, which was when Nakata-san asked if I liked champagne. Well, sure, I did.
“I would like to buy you a bottle of champagne to celebrate Barack Obama,” he said.
It was, to say the least, a surprising announcement. Of course, my immediate reaction should have been delight; how thoughtful! As it is, I’ve always felt strangely embarrassed whenever someone wants to give me a gift. Mild embarrassment is reserved for close friends and family; what I experienced at Nakata-san’s announcement was a full-fledged mortification coupled with uncertainty. Curiously, I never experience any sort of embarrassment when young children want to give me snacks. Call it a glitch. As for Nakata-san, he was a student; was it even appropriate to accept extravagant gifts? But he was a “special” student; if I didn’t accept the gift, would it reflect badly on me or the school? And, wait; Nakata-san is Japanese. If I refused would it be a grievous cultural slight as well as a bad business move? Clearly, I had to accept, even if my face had gone scarlet to match my blouse and I could smell my Lady Speedstick. 5 times. I’d politely pretend to refuse 5 times and … oh man, he was going for the Veuve Clicquot.
When we arrived back at school, Nakata-san excused himself to take a bathroom break and the secretaries swarmed me.
“Did he buy you a present?” they asked.
“Yes!” I yelped, finally exhaling the breath I’d been holding ever since he uttered the word “champagne.” “He bought me this …” I shyly lifted the yellow bag.
“Sugoi!!” applauded the secretaries. “It is okay. You can accept. Nakata-san is special student. It is good.”
All right. So, business-wise, I’d made the right choice. I realized I was shaking as well as sweating, but once I was sure the gift was school-sanctioned, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in what was an extremely generous gift. Veuve Clicquot! How about that? Finally, my hostessing was paying off. I’ve never had it before … and what better occasion than to toast President Elect Obama?
Sean is unimpressed; and perhaps a little angry.
“Who does he think he is, like?” he demanded when I told him the story. “What’s he trying to do, buying you a 7000 yen bottle of champagne? He can’t just do whatever the hell he wants. I don’t care if he has money.”
I began to feel my color rise again, as it did in the department store.
“He was just being nice,” I said. “It’s about America getting respect from the outside world at last. I don’t think he meant anything nasty by it. Let’s invite Bob over tomorrow night and enjoy it, the three of us.”
“I still don’t like it,” muttered Sean.
When he puts it like that, I’m not sure if I do, either. But, ultimately, I don’t see it that way. Nakata-san is rich; a 7000 yen bottle of Veuve Clicquot is nothing to him. The bottle was a present to celebrate the election of Barack Obama and the end of the disastrous Bush administration. While it may take years to repair the economy – if he can at all – I can’t help but feel as if the act of electing a man like Obama has already begun to improve the rest of the world’s view of America. Case in point: no one ever, ever congratulated me on our collective good sense when Bush was elected. It’s been two days since Obama’s election made history and already I have a string of handshakes and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to show for it.
I am full of hope that in time, we will all be able to say that we have benefited from the Obama presidency.