Sunday, May 24, 2009

What to believe: the spread of H1N1 .... or empty hysteria?

My friend Keisuke reassured me tonight that most Japanese people share my frustration at the inability to grasp Tokyo. The longer I stay here, the more daunting and mesmerizing it becomes as each day offers insights and information that I have no idea of how to process. It's the ultimate postmodernist conglomeration of surfaces reflecting off surfaces, no matter how contradictory, or incompatibile.

The daily irreconcilabilities are everywhere: take the baffling hysteria around Swine Flu. The conference I was scheduled to attend in Tokyo was cancelled due to Swine Flu. Daily, schools and universities are closing across the country. The government continues to issue warnings as the pandemic supposedly spreads. And yet, there is not a single sign of this panic in the streets. True, there are people with masks - but aren't there always? I watched one of the sushi chefs sneeze tonight, and though he did it away from the counter, he turned right back round and continued making maki. Someone coughed irregularly on the subway this morning and no one around him batted an eye. Clearly no one on that train was concerned about catching swine flu, and neither were the other diners in the restuarant. As a result, I remain suspicious of the government's assiduous effort to deter movement and tourissm. Perhaps it's the people on the street who I should treat with suspicion? The dilemna of who and what to believe.

Then again, maybe I need to take what I see and hear at face value instead of diving into suspicion. Tonight, my mother and I ended up in a restaurant on the basis of the design of the calligraphic sign out the front. I asked the woman at the door if she had a menu, to which her reply was a simple "we serve chicken." Of course, I immediately assumed that her English was poor and she didn't know any other words. Afterall, what restaurant serves just chicken? That would be absurd. So mother and I propped ourselves at the bar, were lavished with pickles and some kind of radish mash with a raw egg in the middle, water, tea, empty bowls and plates. The glass counter in front of us was filled with rows and rows of skewers each with different meats (or so we thought). Dutifully, feeling like locals, but definitely not looking like them, we pointed to the safest option - chicken. I got adventurous and pointed to another with what looked like meat balls - it was chicken. When the man next to me had what I thought was shrimp, I asked for one of those - it was chicken. Mother joined in the adventure and pointed to what looked like lamb - it was chicken. We ordered soup - chicken, and by the time I glanced down to the other end of the counter to see eggs, I knew who had produced them. Why did I not believe the woman in the first place? Because like the swine flu, something about it didn't gel with my cultural conditioning.

However, given my mother's reaction when I suggested we ask the couple next to us if they could tell us what they were eating, as they were obviously not Japanese, I can't even be certain it's cultural conditioning - I certainly don't get my healthy dose of suspicion from her. She looked at me in horror - as though I had suggested she walk to the top of Mt Fuji: "hell no, they might be Mexican!"

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