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Last Dance

April 21, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games

On my last day in Japan:

It is glorious weather – cool, bright and breezy, smelling of new green life.

I am hungover from the previous night’s hot sake bomb marathon

It is a Good Japanese Day; I can conduct my final bank transfer with ease and ask appropriate questions at the Post Office

Bleary-eyed from said hangover, I blink through yet another passport photo for yet another official document

I have sushi for lunch, paired with a mug of hot green tea.

I finally buy a lipstick I’ve been eyeing for 2 years.

I’m thinking – how many gifts for my relatives can I fit in my already overstuffed suitcase before the airline crew refuses to let me on board?

I watch my final Japanese sunset from deep within the warm, watery embrace of an outdoor onsen at the infamous Spa World in Osaka. Trees and rocks shelter my soak; fat naked babies plump like Botticelli angels splash their mothers.

After learning that buttmunch Bob and buttmunch Sean didn’t wait for me to get back from Spa World before having dinner at my beloved CoCo curry, I stomp to the nearest location and have a plate of my own. I splash out and get the combination I’ve always wanted to try – ebi nikomi, spinach plus vegetables. 普通.

I hit the kyuu-kyuuen shop.

I take a walk with Sean down Dotombori and wave at the giant crab.

We head back to Bob’s under a slight mist.

The three of us watch episodes of South Park and The Office. We drink wine and beer. Bob and Sean argue over details. Bob steams us some sweet potatoes and we munch on them before Sean declares he is heading down to the Supa Tamade to pick up some crisps.


I am a planner – always have been. Little gives me more pleasure than creating a list and crossing the items off. However, my plans rarely go off without a hitch. Life forces me to compromise. I can’t have the 3-month vacation because of family obligations so I have to have the 3-week vacation. I can’t have the career I want in a country where I don’t yet speak the language. I can’t fulfill my dream of bringing mugen edamame to all of America’s citizens because my suitcase isn’t big enough. That’s life.

But my last day in Japan? Perfect. Exactly what I wanted – a mix of new experiences and the comforting hug of things I’ve loved since I arrived in 2007. The day began with the knowledge that my Japanese has advanced to the point where I can perform errands on my own and ended the way my life here began – with Bob and Sean.

The second day of my life in Japan, I decided to buy a new coat. My black trench, bought on Canal Street in 2003, was tattered to shreds, and since I still believed that I would have to wear suits every day at my new job, I was convinced that a new, more professional coat was necessary. I was also convinced that since I was now living in Japan, smaller-sized clothing would be far more readily available. The dawning of my Japanese clothing trauma was yet to come, though – as the winter sun beamed through my window, I wrapped myself in my trench and bounded down the stairs to find a shopping center. As the heels of my boots thundered throughout the cardboard apartment mansion, a voice floated upwards from the first floor. It was Bob, chatting with a delivery man.

I met Bob at the group interview in Toronto. He immediately impressed me with his teaching demonstration, drawing on his background as a musician to invent an on-the-spot song involving the target language of “Do you like [cookies]?” and a Cookie Monster puppet. He disappeared like all of the other applicants after the interview, and I hadn’t expected to see him again. And here he was – not just in my training group but in my building as well.

We stopped to chat. As we did, Bob’s next door neighbor peeked his head out of his apartment. It was Sean, just a couple of days fresh out of Cork, Ireland. He and Bob had become friends since moving in next to each other and their newfound chemistry was catching; I soon found myself chatting away more rapidly than I had expected to upon moving halfway across the world. To my surprise, we soon had made dinner plans. We met downstairs after I’d returned from the first of many, many failed shopping expeditions and headed to Dotombori – the Times Square of Osaka. It was my first time at an izakaya and I let them order, since they seemed to speak Japanese; fluently, it seemed. We shared gyoza, omuraisu, yakitori and edamame. Sean told us about his field of Mathematics. Bob and I compared stories of New York City. They taught me to order draft beer. We ordered. And ordered. By the time we arrived back at Sean’s, we were already pretty sauced.

Sean brought out the Jameson.

Sean brought out the shochu.

“Drink, drink up ye feckers!” he hollered. It was foolish, so sublimely foolish of me to get drunk with two men I had just met. If working at an Irish pub in New York City taught me anything, it was “Don’t get drunk with male strangers if you are a woman.” For the 4 years since ending my job there, I had kept my word to myself. But somehow, Bob and Sean instantly felt like old friends.

I woke up in my apartment with a blinding hangover, wearing Sean’s tie around my neck. And so our adventures began.

I still can’t explain it. Maybe we were all lonely and lost at the exact same time and so it was inevitable that we would form a bond. But I met many lost and lonely people in Japan; I never clicked with anyone as immediately as with those two. If at all. How to explain friendship? Why does the sakura bloom? Why is black the preferred color for sararimen? Things happen. Bonds happen.

To end, you must go back to the start – nothing is more satisfying. But as the time nears to board my plane, I can’t decide which I feel more strongly – satisfaction or anxiety.

Satisfaction today, anxiety tomorrow.

I have to go. It’s time to go. I’m leaving. And all I’ll say now, before my Cheshire Cat satisfaction melts into Japan sickness and despair, is that for a wild across-the-world gamble, it’s been an absolutely fantastic 2 years.

- リーブ から, 年2009月4日21

Spring Ahead, Fall Back

April 19, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Japanese Mix, spazarific, Things I Will Miss About Japan

It never quite feels like I’m really back in Japan until I hear my first shopkeeper scream, いらっしゃいませ!!!” We arrived at KIX at 10 in the morning and were at Bob’s apartment by noon. Bob, who very graciously held on to all of our wordly effects while we were away, had also offered to put us up while we await yet another flight. For the next few hours we alternated between chatting, subjecting Bob to a Malaysia and Viet Nam slideshow, napping, and drinking beer. At intervals, Bob strummed delicately on his guitar as a spring breeze blew through the tatami room. The cherry trees outside Bob’s apartment frame a large shrine. The night before Sean and I left for our trip, the three of us sat on the shrine’s steps, sipping beer under the moonlight. The sakura were in full bloom then, cradling our 10 p.m. beer and takoyaki snack.

These are the things you miss.

In the past 3 weeks, most of the sakura have dropped to the ground, replaced by vivid green shoots. A first for Sean and I; ordering a pizza. In New York you can have your breakfast delivered with a side of marijuana if you like but Japan sticks to a rotation of curry rice and pizza delivery. Sean and I never ventured into the pizza realm, daunted both by the expense of pizzas in Japan and by our fear of speaking Japanese over the phone. And then you get Bob, yapping away like a pro and suddenly we have a 30 dollar Domino’s pizza to eat with our beer. Delicious.

Last night, we belatedly celebrated Sean’s birthday with Bob and a couple of Sean’s friends from the dojo. Sizzling Okonomiyaki in Tennoji. Getting blitzed at our Old Usual yakitori place – the one Bob, Sean and I discovered the first week we were in Japan, the one we regrouped at constantly, the one where they came to know us well enough that if they glimpsed one of our faces, they brought out 3 beers. There were the usual orders of tako no kara age, gyu rosu, yaki onigiri and heart. We were six, clustered at a large table, a tangle of socks and legs. We stayed well past last train and ordered round after round of beer and hot sake, finally so drunk that we decided to buy a few extra beers at the conbini and park ourselves in the middle of the sidewalk. We’re leaving. We don’t care that we’re acting like crazy foreigners, sure to draw disapproving attention. Pass the dried squid. What kind of beer is this – “Green Aroma”? What does that even mean? We decide that if the cops come by, we’ll claim we’re having a Hanami. If they point out that there are no more cherry blossoms, or even any trees nearby, we’ll claim we’re too drunk to notice.

These are the things you miss.

I’ve been out of Japan for almost 3 weeks now and when I head to midtown to do errands, things around me seem brighter, fresher somehow. I feel slightly off kilter and even though the vast majority of our errands are done, I still feel a pressure bearing down on my back. I’ve had some time now to plan the Last Dance and am satisfied with my plan, even if I am unexpectedly emotional and dangerously close to showing it.

Outside, the weather is splendid. Locals are already complaining that it’s too summer-like for their tastes but I think it’s exquisite. The air is crisp and fresh, shaking out the green baby leaves. And, for me, the strange thing is that after 3 weeks in 32 degree weather, this Spring bliss no longer feels like Spring, but like Fall with its cool, gray light and somber mood; heralding the rapidly-approaching end of the sunshine.

Your 304-Word Vietnamese Mini Culture Lesson

April 16, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games

The traffic in Viet Nam never rests. Motorbikes rev their engines at the stoplights – so many they appear to be contestants in a grand prix. When the signal comes, they careen through the narrow streets from what seems like several directions at once. Cars and pedestrians exist only as obstacles for their frenetic racecourse. If there are traffic laws, they are impenetrable to the outsider. Horns pierce the air in a steady tattoo. The streets are not for the faint of heart. They are not for me. Even worse is the news that if I want to cross, I must do it slowly.

The guidebooks all agree – walk, don’t run. Start at the curb and wait for a reasonable space between yourself and the screeching traffic. Walk slowly and purposefully so the drivers can see you and plan to go around you. The guidebooks all insist that this works. Reading it, it seems like a fairy tale – Mogwai turn into Gremlins when wet, and frogs turn into princes. It’s absurd. Mad racers will stop for a slow-walking pedestrian? Craziness.

It really is one of those things you’ll have to experience to believe. Wait until the cars are gone and it’s just you, the motorbikes and the chickens. Take a step. Let them see you. Ignore the horns – in Viet Nam, horns are the driver’s Walk Slow maneuver; let everyone else know you’re coming so they can plan. Ignore the fact that no … one … seems … to … be … stopping ..!!! Take another step. Take another. Before you know it, the motorbikes swerve artfully. Your heart will begin beating again. You will count your limbs – all there. You will be at the other side of the street. Incredibly, you will remain in one piece.

It’s true. Honest. Like I said, you have to experience it to believe it.

Hoi An: An Old Town for You, a New Obsession for Me

April 14, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays, Looking

There’s too much. There’s just too much. We’ve been here in Hoi An, an old city in Central Viet Nam, for 2 days and my mind just teems with images, smells and sounds. How can I write, though, when there are white rose wontons wrapped in delicate rice paper to be eaten? When there are tropical fruits to be savored? When there are laps to swim in the pool? When there are divine art galleries to explore?

I included Hoi An on our itinerary based on the recommendation of Pepper and I must tell you, my friend, that your beloved city does not disappoint.

I rise at 8 and head down to breakfast. We are staying at a 5-story hotel with slanted, wooden rooms and large, white baths. There is a pool. There is a free breakfast. There are free bicycles. For breakfast, I ate beef pho yesterday and a red pepper omelette today. It is hot, so very hot, that I can barely focus on the gorgeous architecture and sumptuous crafts for the sweat streaming down my face, fogging up my sunglasses. After a lunch of white roses or noodles, I swim laps in the small, lagoon-like pool for the first time in years. There are brightly colored silk lanterns strung throughout the streets, at the crossroads, and the river shimmers with gleaming metallic statues of fish, dragons and flowers in a shimmering palette of yellow, reds, blues, greens and pinks. It is impossible to get a landscape shot without a fat tourist’s head peeking into the frame. Indeed, there are so many of us here that I feel like I’m in Epcot and the locals are actors hired to add charm to our dining experience.

The children shout, “Hello!” The shopkeepers hoot, “Buy something!” Each xe om driver offers a ride. Custom-made clothing tailor shops seem to tumble over each other, all with glorious dresses, suits and Chinese-style tops spilling out on mannequins.  There are art galleries here with framed images “painted” with dyed leaves or silken threads. Hoi An is not the place to come if you are in between residences, seeking to rid yourself of earthly trappings in preparation for The Next Big Thing. I want it all: wooden bowls painted in metallic turquoises, fuchsias and leaf greens; shimmering silk scarves; delicate pottery; custom-made dresses. How many souvenirs can a girl bring home in a tiny suitcase? I aim to find out.

Next door to our hotel, there is a wedding reception blaring rave music. Xe om horns flare every couple of seconds. Sean and I have come from a stroll on a nearby private beach; filthy from our bike ride through lush green countryside scattered with chickens and cows. It is time to hose myself off and head to Le Loi street for the final fitting of my latest custom-made creation.


April 12, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays

We arrived in Danang this afternoon; flight 4 of our 10-flight itinerary down. It’s only about 50 minutes from Hanoi to Danang but we soon discovered that the climate changed dramatically – cool and romantic in Hanoi; sultry in Danang. Upon feeling the first fat drops of sweat trickle down my nose, I steeled myself for more of Sean’s complaints. Another tip: don’t bring a cold-blooded Celtic boy to a tropical climate; they melt like green-faced witches. At least air-conditioned cabs would be relatively inexpensive to Hoi An from Danang airport.

As we hoisted our suitcases onto our rolling luggage cart, we were approached by a gentleman and a woman. I’d seen them on the plane; a middle-aged couple with matching sunburns and sensible shoes. Viet Nam and Malaysia aren’t like Japan, where the relative scarcity of non-Asian folk makes them gleam in a crowd like religious icons. Here, we’re surrounded by tourists of all shades but even so, we stand out suggestively. Look! More tourists, and they smell just as awful as I do. Maybe they know a good spot for dinner. Maybe they’ll know what to do about these bug bites. Maybe they’ll want to share a cab from the airport!

“Excuse me,” said the gentleman. Ah. Australian. “Are you headed to Hoi An? If so, would you want to share a cab?”

I had just been to the travel agent booth, armed with the knowledge that a sedan ran for $15 USD and a minivan ran for $18. Divided by four ways, the rate was irresistible. I don’t know how much cabs cost in Australia, but in Japan, a cab ride from the airport is an unimaginable luxury. How many times have Sean and I schlepped heavy bags through the subway stations, all in the interest of saving 10,000 yen?

“Of course,” we said delightedly. Naturally! And as soon as we had agreed, my Uncle Scrooge-like euphoria waned ever so slightly. After all, we had not only agreed to splitting a cab ride, but to being in a confined space with 2 strangers for 40 minutes. I dropped my eyelids ever so slightly as we headed to the Airport Taxi, attempting to sniff out any identifiers about the couple, just in case. The missus and I had fallen behind Sean and the gentleman and when I focused on the two men, I noticed, with a shock, that from behind, they looked almost like twins.

The most obvious common trait was, of course, the hair. Sean is blessed with an abundant crop of thick, red Irish curls which have, in the 2 years I’ve known him, become increasingly scattered with becoming strands of gray. He blames teaching. I’ve seen pictures of his father – gray at 30 – so I have a better idea of the real culprit. The older man’s hair was only slightly less red, slightly more gray but even at this stage of his life, abundant apart from a bald patch at the crown. I had glimpsed a pronounced paunch earlier but from behind, they were similar in build – tall and slight. They walked silently, dragging similar black backpacks and if I let my imagination run, I could imagine that they were father and son … or, even creepier, Present and Future Sean. I shuddered.

The missus gave her suitcase to the cabbie and planted herself firmly in the front. I was immediately jealous; I usually like to sit shotgun because I am almost always carsick. Amazingly, I’ve been all right so far this trip so I decided to chance it and keep quiet. I sat in the middle, between Present and Future Sean, so wigged out that I could barely breathe. The engine started and we were off down a long, paved road flanked by roaring motorbikes and lush, green palm trees.

“You,” said the gentleman to Sean. “That’s an Irish accent I hear. Whereabouts are you from?”

“Cork City!” Sean beamed. One of his greatest joys since moving to Asia is the rare occasion that someone identifies his accent as Irish, rather than – god forbid – British.

“That’s our favorite place in Ireland,” said the gentleman. His accent reminded me of some of my Aussie ex-coworkers, but his voice itself was rather softspoken, like Sean’s.

“Excuse me!” said the missus. “Oh, no, no, no, this won’t do.”

“What’s the matter, love?” asked the gentleman.

“This fellow!” huffed the missus. “He’s trying to raise the price on me. Look here!” she shouted at the sheepish driver. “I have the ticket from the counter and it’s $18. $18 and no more. That’s the price I agreed on and that’s the price I will pay. Okay? Is it a deal?”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the cabbie, as shamed as a schoolboy. Beside me, Sean beamed even brighter. His greatest peeve since arriving in Viet Nam has been what he calls “cowboying” – Irish English for scamming.

“Brilliant!” he whispered to himself. On my other side, the gentleman shrugged at me with a wincing grin. I sensed he’d witnessed such tirades many times before.

We began to chat. The pair had been traveling since January – a round-the-world trip. I deduced their names through references to each other – Viola and Jack. They’d just come from Indonesia and planned to head to China after Viet Nam.

“Violet’s idea,” said Jack. “Two weeks was enough for me.” My heart had leapt in envy yet again when he mentioned the scope of their trip; 2 weeks is far too short for me but there are things to be done back in Japan and elsewhere. For Sean, on the other hand, 1 afternoon of cowboying was enough.

“I’ll tell you what!” said Violet. “These children? They ought to be in school, that’s what!” She was talking about the children on the side of the road, the ones who have been sent out by their parents to earn an income by selling postcards or clay whistles.

“I’ll tell you what I told them,” she said. “I tell them – ‘You go home right this instant and back to your mums! You ought to be in school!’” I felt Sean’s joy swell to the point of bursting. Watching all the motorcycles screech past us, I was starting to get a bit car sick after all. I focused on the horizon, catching glimpses of Violet’s feet in their sandals. I caught sight of her inflamed, twisted bunions – doubtless caused by a lifetime spent tottering around in high heels. I love high heels; am crazy about high heels. A slight Napoleon complex led me to wear them every day from the age of 14 until the age of 24, when a leg injury forced me to cut back to several times a week. Was Violet Future Liv? I tried to imagine Sean and I traveling the world together in 30 years’ time – Sean passive and partly bald; me lecturing cowboy cabbies and wearing shoes with bunion cut-outs.

Our hotel was first.

“Goodbye!” said Jack and Violet. “It’s a small town; we’re sure we’ll see you around!”

“Goodbye!” we said. As the cab turned the dusty corner, parting the crowds of chickens on the road, I saw Violet shaking her fare ticket at the cabbie again.

“Well now!” said Sean. “That was a lovely couple, wasn’t it? He was rather soft-spoken. And the woman – what a character! I like outspoken women like that. They balance each other well, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I said, glancing at his thick red curls to make sure they covered all parts of his scalp – a scalp I’m sure is freckled under all that hair just like Jack’s.

A Cab Ride in Hanoi

April 11, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, spazarific

It takes us maybe 20 minutes to get tired of the  Ho Chih Minh museum. Sean was done the second an official back at the Mausoleum asked us where we’re from. I, on the other hand, was fine with the security checks, fine with the questions (“Obama!” said the official when I answered), and intrigued by the embalmed body. I started feeling tripped out by the art exhibits designed to symbolize some aspect of the late leader’s life. It was the 3-D sculpture of giant fruit on a table that finally did it for me – why? Because the man liked to eat? – and we leave, dodging an old man’s angry glare. It’s drizzling as we exit and my flip flops start to skid. We stroll through the manicured green lawns, pass the souvenir booths selling ice cream and conical hats. It’s been our plan to head to the Temple of Literature but by the time we reach the corner, the rain has started to come down in sheets. The dampness has crept up the hems of my jeans and my feet are encrusted in dirt. Sean left his umbrella at the hotel so we pass mine between us but we’re both cold and soaked within minutes. The motorbikes scream past us and the car horns shriek angrily. We realize we’re back where we started; we must have passed the Temple but were too distracted by the buckets of rain to notice it. Drenched and miserable, we decide that there’s just no point sightseeing in weather like this. We hail a cab.

Xin Chào,” I gobble at the cab driver in greeting. As I step in, he smirks at me; I’m not sure if it’s because I look like a drowned rat or because I’ve butchered the pronunciation. Sean shows him the address of the hotel.

“How much?” we ask. The cabbie flashes us a 100,000 dong bill. We’re still not sure how the exchange rates calculate in  yen but we paid 50,000 to get to the Mausoleum this morning so we’re annoyed. Sean holds up 5 fingers. The cabbie shakes his head and wiggles his fingers to mimick the falling rain. I take this to mean either “It’s a harder drive in this weather” or, “You’ll die of hypothermia without me.” Outside the warm, dry car, we can barely see through the deluge. We wearily agree to the price.

I’ve learned by now to at least try to ignore the traffic here in Hanoi. They’ve got their own laws, their own order; it doesn’t matter if 50 motorbikes are careening across the intersection from 3 different directons. They know the system, they’ll be fine. There’s no need for me to jump each time a horn blares. I alternate between screwing my eyes shut – I can’t look! – to squinting them open – I’ll only be here for 2 days; I have to look! When I dare peek, I see cyclists wearing plastic ponchos and groups of young people huddling in cafes, drinking black coffee. Gone are the fruit and fish vendors from my morning walk, gone are the motorbike peddlers and gone are the groups of shopkeepers huddled on the sidewalk, cutting raw chicken or fiddling with greens. Everything is gray and slick, and the pastel colors of the French colonial buildings seem to blur together, like the flowers in a Monet painting. This morning’s breakfast of beef pho sloshes in my leaping stomach as yet another car horn flares in my ear.

We arrive at the hotel in the Old Quarter and there are giant, filthy puddles waiting for us at the curb. We pay the cabbie and he grunts in thanks.

As we head back to our rooms, Sean is happier than I’ve seen him since last night, when he discovered 80 cent beers. Free now to dash up to his room and watch TV, he beams a winning grin at me through his new beard. We agree to meet for lunch in the neighborhood when the rain has dried up. We found some lovely places in our guide  book. Should it stop raining for good, I still envision a traffic-dodging stroll through the Old Quarter and, hopefully, a water puppet show tonight. Sighing, I head up to my room to wash my feet for the 600th time since arriving in South East Asia.

Gobble Gobble

April 11, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays, spazarific

We arrived in Hanoi last night; a four-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Our in-flight meal was the delicious nasi lemak rice dish and our in-flight entertainment was the little girl sitting in front of us who spent most of flight engaging us in peek-a-boo. Our hotel sent a taxi to pick us up and we spent the ride into the city wondering at the hordes of skinny brown cows on the side of the road. Motorcycles are everywhere. So are conical hats.

The English situation appears to be a bit less widespread than it was in Malaysia, so I’m back to the phrasebook. Lonely Planet deems Bahasa Melaya “one of Southeast Asia’s most approachable languages” and indeed it is so; no intense pronunciation craziness and relatively familiar grammar. Vietnamese, on the other hand, is one of the South East asian languages that involves tones. I stared aghast at the phrasebook’s diagram of the 6 tone pitches that can be found in Vietnamese vowels. What on earth does it mean to start low, go lower, and then sharlpy rise? I tried it myself, whispering quietly in the cab, practicing the phrase for “thank you” – “Cám ơn cô.” By the time the cab driver dropped us off in front of the hotel, I felt ready to give it a shot so I opened my mouth and gobbled  at the good man. He did not seem impressed.

Your 10-Word Mini Malaysian Culture Lesson

April 10, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games

In Malaysia, it is illegal to sell alcohol to Muslims.

Your 213-Word Mini Malaysian Culture Lesson

April 9, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games

As in Japan, Malaysian moviegoers must choose their seats before committing to buying their tickets. The cashier shows you a seating grid and you choose. Unlike Japan, a movie ticket costs just 9 ringgit; about 3 US dollars. Because Sean has never heard of it, I am able to convince him to watch He’s Just Not That Into You with me. I just watch relationship movies for the clothes and hair, folks. The clothes and the hair. Sean convinces me to load up on snacks – unthinkable luxuries in either Japan or the US. We order caramel popcorn, chicken nuggets, Coke, lemon iced tea, and mashed potatoes. Our snacks cash in at 2 dollars each.

The movie has both Bahasa Malay and Chinese subtitles. The f-bombs have been edited out and at the crucial moments, the film warps the tiniest bit to cover the offensive words. HJNTIY is classified as “Over 18″ even though there are only suggestions of sex; i half wonder which is more offensive, the sexual suggestions or the presence of alcohol? Sean is horrified once he discovers Jennifer Aniston is starring in the film but laughs his head off the entire time. When the film is over, he complains that it was “rubbish.” It kind of was – but at least we didn’t have to pay 1800 yen to see it.

Do Not Disturb – Out for Vacation

April 8, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, Holidays, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Looking, spazarific

A strange thing has happened to Sean and I since we’ve been on vacation. When someone speaks English to us, we answer back cheerfully. If we don’t know how to eat roti canal properly, we’re not embarrassed. If someone rushes to show us how to use an English language ticket machine, we’re grateful. All of these things would send us into blind rages in Japan.

In Japan, Sean and I are travelers; expatriates, people trying to be part of Japanese society. We moved there to learn about a new culture from the inside out with the intention of learning the language and as many of its customs as we could train our brains to accept. People who assume we haven’t bothered to learn Japanese insult us. Not knowing how to do something makes us feel like aliens.  When we’re treated like ignorant children, it reminds us that we’re not viewed as equals.

In Malaysia, we’re no longer travelers, but tourists. We’re not ashamed to be seen reading a map. I’m wearing a floppy straw hat, flip flops and am trying to convince myself that my badly chipped nail polish looks punk. Normally clean-shaven Sean has transformed into Captain Redbeard. . Our brains are shut off, tired of learning Japanese verbs and grammar – weary of following the rules of Japanese society – and we’ve become the very people who make expatriates’ lives so difficult in Japan. We’re tired. Our real life selves are on vacation. Speak to me in English, I don’t mind; even though I’ve picked up enough vacation Bahasa Malaya by now to get by. I’ll cover my arms. I won’t make a huge show of drinking in public. I’ll take my shoes off at a mosque. I’ll let my mind teem with questions that don’t necessarily need answering just yet – why are only half of the shops open? Is there any significance to the many variations of Muslim head coverings? Why do we never get knives with our table setting? Where are the darn rambutans already? Is English so widespread because it’s a good way for all of the ethnic groups who live here to communicate?

But that Do Not Disturb sign on my brain? Let it be.