From June 15-July 3, I joined 18 other MBA students on an Asian Field Study academic immersion program that visited Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Over the next few weeks, I will recount the best of those adventures here on Drink with Aloha. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed living them.
There is no gesture as fundamentally and uniquely American as the high five. The celebratory act of two individuals slapping the palms of their hands together in a cathartic release of exuberance exemplifies the brash, visceral, and in-your-face attitude of the United States (“That was awesome! Let’s hit each other!”).
Japan doesn’t roll like that. Japanese culture is much more reserved. (“That was awesome! Let’s celebrate independently in proud silence and ancestral reverence!”). The country is also significantly more germ conscious. Many people wear white masks when they walk around, which I assume is to either guard against an outbreak of SARS or to give the impression that everyone in Japan is a doctor. Needless to say, timid people wearing protective facial covering to guard against a potential future super-virus aren’t exactly excited about the prospect of swapping palm grease with loud, abrasive foreigners. Go figure.
High-fiving someone in Japan is the equivalent of getting to second base. It might happen if you’re lucky, but you probably need to take them out on a few dates first. Or at least get them drunk.
The high five becomes an inescapable force when intoxicated. When you see two people high five, you feel a strange internal desire compelling you to high five them, like a full contact yawn.
Other physical gestures do not work that way. If you see a guy run up and punch someone in the face, you don’t feel compelled to stroll up and whack em in the jaw. When you see a couple kissing, you don’t think to yourself, “Ooh, baby. I want in there after that guy finishes up.” Yet, when you see two people high five, a strange urge wells up inside you that makes you want to take part in the forceful palm ramming action. The high five is not to be denied.
The same principles applies in Japan, only more so. The combination of the high five’s natural infectious powers with the foreign tabboo of public physical contact, instigated by a staggering amount of alcohol, coalesce into a perfect storm of high-fiving.
No one high fives like a drunk Japanese guy. No one.
Our first night in Japan, CodeRed, Shack, Cash, Shimmer, and I went out looking for cheap drinks in Ginza, the neighborhood around our hotel. Those of you who know about Japan are laughing. For those of you that don’t know, Ginza is the old money district of Tokyo. It’s not uncommon for bars to charge $30 for cocktails and we were looking for dollar night. You’d have a better chance of finding a healthy vegan alternative at McDonald’s than a reasonably priced drink in Ginza.
After thirty minutes of fruitlessly wandering the streets of Ginza, we noticed a poster for a bar that appeared to be offering $3 drinks – I say appeared, because the sign was in kanji and none of us read Japanese. The poster did have the numeral three on it though. The dark doorway on which the sign was posted opened into a dimly lit spiral staircase that led to God knows where. But, what the hell, right? Three dollar drinks!
The staircase wrapped around a few times as it lead us to the basement of the building. As I approached the end of the staircase, I noticed two things: 1) we had entered the world’s smallest bar and 2) every pair of eyes in the place was staring right at us, with a look that suggested that we had just broke through a window and walked into their living room. We had inadvertently stumbled into the ramshackle Japanese version of Cheers, only nobody knew our names.
The “bar” – retrofitted basement would be more appropriate – was about twenty feet by thirty feet with a row of seven seats facing a bar along both outside walls. The seats on the right side were taken, but the left side conveniently had five open seats. The other two were occupied by two, old, disheveled Japanese men wearing suits, drinking straight alcohol out of large tumblers, and talking in the loud, unmistakable tones of drunkenness.
Our group was bunched up at the bottom of the stairs, looking around at each other nervously, wondering what we should do. But, it was too late to turn around without risking considerable embarrassment and we were already committed to the quest for cheap drinks come hell, high water, or a bizarre local bar filled with a group of strangers wondering why we had broke into their home to drink their alcohol. Channeling our spirit of adventure, we took a seat.
Of course, I got to sit next to the drunk guys.
At first, there was no bartender behind the bar and no one came over to help. After a few uncomfortable minutes passed, an older Japanese lady – who was either a bartender or just someone who felt bad for the group of hopelessly lost gaijin, I’m still not sure which – walked behind the bar, served us a few small bowls of the world’s largest cornnuts (the corn kernels would have given the President of Monsato a hard-on for weeks), and looked at us with the expectant look of someone who clearly doesn’t speak your language and is waiting for you to initiate some form of communication.
Shimmer: Go Birru? (Translation: Five beer?)
Bartender/Foreign sympathizer: Hai! (Translation: Yes!)
(The lesson here: When traveling to a foreign country, make sure you know the word for “beer” and how to count to ten. The rest of the details will work out on their own.)
The language barrier effectively breached, the lady turned and poured five mugs of ice cold beer to accompany our genetically engineered corn snack.
The sight of a beer in my hand was apparently enough to convince the drunk guys at the end of the bar that they should attempt to communicate with me. The combination of their severe intoxication, limited knowledge of the English language, and my complete inability to speak Japanese led to a series of bizarre, virtually unintelligible questions where I understood one of every three or four words they said.
I’m pretty sure they first asked me where we were from. After that, it seemed like they wanted to know something about my thumb, whether we enjoyed pouring beer on ourselves, and, finally, what sounded like an inquiry about my age or the length of our stay in Japan, but ended with them pointing to their crotch. Wanting to distance myself from the crotch question as fast as humanly possible, I pointed to their glass and asked “What are you drinking?”
Drunk Guy #1 (beaming with pride): Scotch!
Drunk Guy #2 (also beaming with pride): Suntory Scotch! Very good. You try some.
I have a few rules when I travel and not wanting to anger drunk Japanese guys who point to their crotch in a small bar with no easily available exits is an important one, so I waved over the bartender/foreign sympathizer and used a combination of words and gesticulations to signal that I wanted a glass of whatever Tweedle Drunk and Tweedle Drunker were having. She smiled, set down a short glass in front of me, and grabbed an ice pick.
Now, I don’t care how sweetly she smiles at you, it’s difficult to feel comfortable when sitting directly in front of a woman brandishing a sharp impaling instrument above her head. Magnify that feeling exponentially when the person brandishing said instrument is standing in a strange bar in a foreign country located in the basement of a dilapidated office building with one exit, which happens to be blocked by two extremely intoxicated men. Furthermore, there’s something wholly unsettling about getting the thought of getting stabbed by someone smiling.
The lady raised the ice pick high in the air. I made preparations to dive into Shack’s lap. With one rapid motion the woman brought the pick down. As I moved to dive out of the way, I saw her direct the pick onto a large block of ice located directly in front of her on the bar, chipping off a large chunk of clear, hand cut ice into my glass.
Don’t ever say the Japanese lack a flair for the dramatic.
She then poured a generous amount of brown liquid from a jet black bottle into my glass. The liquor cascaded slowly over the Mt. Fuji sized ice chunk in my glass. Realizing that I was in too deep to change my mind about drinking the mystery alcohol, I raised my glass towards my drunken Asian compatriots, prayed the beverage in my glass was potable, yelled an enthusiastic “KAMPAI!”, closed my eyes, and took a sip.
If you ever see Suntory Scotch in a jet black bottle, do yourself a favor and order a glass, doubly so if it’s poured over a giant ice cube cleaved by a random woman wielding a sharp object. The scotch was warming, strong, flavorful, smooth and lovely.
Score one for Japanese, American relations.
Inspired by the success of my scotch and the moment of cultural harmony, I turned to Shack and gave him a big high five. This simple gesture brought my drunk friend’s conversation to a screeching halt. Short of taking off my shirt to reveal a pair of lovely C-cup breasts, nothing else I could have done could possibly have captured the attention of the drunk gentlemen to my left more than smacking Shack’s hand.
I set my scotch back on the bar and turned to the left to see both drunk men staring, mouth’s agape, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what they had just witnessed. One of them turned his palms up and looked down at them, contemplating his hands powerful ability to share a moment of triumph with other hands. The other friend cracked a huge smile and thrust his hand in my direction, clearly signaling that he wanted in on the action.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I gave him a solid smack on the palm and flashed him a thumbs up. His smile grew wider as he clenched both hands into fists and thrust them into the air like Usain Bolt crossing the finish line. His buddy, caught up in the elation of the moment, popped out of his chair, ran up to me and gave me a rousing two-fisted hand slap while yelling “KAMPAI!” at the top of his lungs. In this moment, the look on his face suggested that he had just achieved high five nirvana. He was one with the five. Siddartha HighFiveA.
In that moment, no language barrier or culture differences could misconstrue our shared joy. Despite our differences, we were of one mind and one hand. We didn’t know each other. We will never see each other again. But, for that brief period, through the raw power of the high five, we were friends.
Caught up in the moment, me and my two new best friends raised our glasses and brought them together for one final toast, before simultaneously downing the contents of our cups in a salute to the glory of slapping hands.
Shortly thereafter, the pair wished us a fond farewell – I’m going to assume the jumbled of drunken sounds, smiles, and hand gestures was meant as such – and stumbled out of the bar, chattering excitedly to one another. I have no way of knowing, but I’d like to think they high-fived the whole way home.