Everyone keeps asking whether the culture shock has set in. The question is delivered with a gleam in the eye and an eagerness in the tone that I can’t quite pin down; I hope my friends aren’t running about thinking, Won’t it be fun when Sean encounters some sassy-rude salesperson and just totally cracks? I make a practice of not cracking, thank you very much. And the adjustments I’ve had to make so far have mostly been pleasant ones.
I do somewhat miss the Japanese cleanliness fetish. Back offices and kitchens and hospital rooms may be as grimy as they are anywhere else, but rare is the office or shop in Japan that doesn’t work overtime to ensure that no customer has to deal with so much as a dust mote. Grittiness on the street in New York is welcome and invigorating; grittiness in the produce section is less so. I also got my hair cut in New York for the first time in a decade today. It wasn’t a particularly exclusive place, but it wasn’t a dump, either. And yet, there was stray hair everywhere (including stuck inside the lid of the jar from which my cutter guy retrieved a good six cc’s of hair goop and plunked it on my crown before I had the chance to protest. New York moves quickly).
On the other hand, the City, with its old brick buildings and stone and concrete detailing, has a much more earthy built environment. It feels like a place built by people for people. Tokyo’s steel-and-glass, its tiles, its molded HDP, give it a moon-colony quality that can be a lot of fun; but it can also be draining to navigate through, especially in the rain or snow.
And of course, New York is noisy. We’re Americans, and we’re boisterous. I grooved to Tokyo’s brittle, reined-in, well-behaved hum, but of course the flip side is that people need to explode, forcefully, when they’re off the chain. You get used to being surrounded by people so drunk as to be near alcohol poisoning: hanging from straps on the train, roly-poly-ing down the sidewalk, tenderly placed face-down over storm grates by friends (who perch jauntily on a nearby curb and chat) so they don’t drown in their own vomit. No one will ever accuse New York of not drinking, but after-work life doesn’t feel like a 180-degree change from the business day.
People do start drinking here earlier, though. In Tokyo, it’s still kind of a sign that you’re not important if you actually get out of the office at 5:00 or not much after. I’m not going to an office at the moment, of course, but everyone I know is, and I don’t think I’ve gone to an after-work gathering that started after 6:00 in the two weeks I’ve been back.
Speaking of things that go down the hatch: there’s no point in my repeating in its entirety my rant about American food portions, but sheesh! You know things are cockeyed when even your flippin’ arugula salad is too big to finish. Arugula salad! Who gorges on that?
Last night a friend asked me to go to the symphony at Carnegie Hall, and it turned out to be a charming confluence of things Philadelphia, Tokyo, and New York. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra doing its annual series, and last night’s piece was Mahler’s Eighth. (The Tokyo tie-in is that the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is known for its Mahler performances.) Much classical music in Asia is very good, but there’s something nice about sitting in a Western audience, which shouts cheers and goes a bit over the edge when genuinely moved by a performance. The Philadelphia Sound had been put to good use.