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Bridging the Cultural Gap:  The Overseas-Asian Experience
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Me No Japan

Watching outsiders is interesting. There's an almost morbid kind of curiosity in scanning the face of the solitary figure moving among the crowded, definitively-taken tables of the high school cafeteria, or college dining hall, or subway franchise filled with nine-to-fivers stretching their lunch hours with incapacitating idle chatter. The hesitation in their here-then-there steps, their tray shaking slightly on top of their rickety hands and always, the evasive eyes searching like hungry squirrels for that one chair at the table separated from the parties of strangers by at least one other chair on each side; it's hard to watch. Hard, but interesting.

It's harder to see in giant cafeterias, giant crowded cafeterias where both you and your unwitting study are the only ones who speak the same language. Or at least that was the way it was late on that June night in Barcelona—a one like all Barcelona nights I imagine, that felt like it was just after dinner, though it was actually 11. Nights are like that in Spain. People, well-dressed and relaxed-looking, are everywhere at all hours of the night. They eat paella and watch street performers imitate statues and walk along the harbor side, along giant metal statues of shrimp and mix with the crowds of ubiquitous backpackers.

We were standing around, watching the crowd around what sounded like a Peruvian band—with guitars and sweet tenor flutes—on the Plaza de Catalunya. There were easily a hundred in the crowd, and having already danced, we were on the edges—the four of us—Dave, Julie, Sharon, and myself. I'm one of the whitest men ever to embarrass himself on a dance floor. Dave and Julie were two of the 31% of non-Hispanic whites who make up California. Sharon had a quiet cuteness about her and she was Asian-born in Hong Kong, lived there until she was eight. Since then she'd lived in South San Francisco. We'd all met traveling.

Wandering around the peripheries of the amorphous outdoor concert, one of us, Dave I think, was engaged by a tubby Indian man whose face was glimmering with a thin layer of sweat. Soon we all drifted into a polite conversation circle. He was one of Europe's omnipresent groundlings, hustlers, and bottom feeders. He wanted something, though he wasn't as direct or fluent as most hustlers, so it was never quite clear what exactly it might've been or why we should've given it to him. But he talked a good game. He talked about Barcelona—it was a beautiful city he said. He talked about his friend who worked in Italy—Naples, specifically, and he talked about where we were from.

""And you, where are you from?" he said, his inwardly-arcing nose thrusting towards Julie. "California," she replied. "Near San Francisco," Dave added, as the Indian moved his glance. He looked at me. "Oh, New York." "And you?" he said, now to Sharon. "You are obviously Japanese." "Um, no well...," she replied, but by the time she started explaining why she looked Osaka and sounded Oakland our new friend had moved on.

It was hard to say exactly what happened in those seconds of dialogue, but it had happened before. It wasn't a problem. Missing the connecting bus in Anterrio, back in Greece, had been a problem. So had arriving in Rome, at midnight, to find a stout Italian in an open shirt explaining why he had to give our hostel reservations away. Those were unnerving, edgy travel experiences. This was an issue. Old confused Korean women had approached Sharon before, asking for directions in a string of gibberish it looked to them like she would understand. Being so quiet, it was hard to tell what Sharon was thinking, but I wonder if she thought she should've understood, I wonder if she cared at all beyond the inconvenience. Chang did. Chang was about Sharon's age, maybe a little older, and had basically the same story. Born in Taiwan and pure Chinese until he was a year old, he'd spent most of his life in a suburb of LA. I'd met him in Venice while we were both looking for a cheap place to stay for the night, and stuck with him until I split for Barcelona. He had a thin nose and face and wire glasses just under a forehead of straight but unkempt black hair. He always carried his glass hash pipe everywhere with him though it was never obtrusive. Once, when we were having one of those timeless vacation conversations about 'back home,' he said he sometimes thought he was a banana (Asian on the outside but Causasian in mentality), but he seemed mostly cool with the duality.

He didn't take being mistaken for Japanese so well. In museums, he would occasionally find himself enveloped in a passing tour group of Japanese families and older couples. Immersed among their trademark floppy white sun hats, they'd start to chatter at him in quick syllables that were no more intelligible than the omnipresent Italian. It was just a little more natural I guess. To respond, he'd twist his face and try to correct their assumption in slow, hard English. Enough of this led him to the idea that he should print up a T-shirt for himself that read "Me No Japan!" in big red letters. When he jokingly mentioned this to me, I quickly fell for the idea and eventually we came up with a whole line of T-shirts with similar slogans—"Me No Korea!", "Me No Vietnam!", and the like. We planned logos and a web site (cleverly titled Chinq.com) and a whole line of merchandise we could make up cheap and then market to hip Chinese-American teenagers who had that kind of disaffected chic going on. That was our million dollar idea, and it held our attention for about an hour or two—or until dinner, I forget exactly.

Eventually Chang and I took separate paths back home—him going South to Naples and me going East to Barcelona. We got along well though—making extended forays around the Lido in search of good Gelato, waiting in the train station, just hanging. It wasn't a deep friendship by any means. About as close as it got was when I told him I had a thing for Asian women. "Damn, me too," he replied, shaking his head and thrusting his hands down in that post-verbal, universal exclamation point. It was cool. We talked about Lucy Liu and Ming-Na Wen. Then we talked about the dearth of female Asian celebrities.

We talked about ex-girlfriends too, and our families. That was in Florence, on a hot hazy day, in a cafe that had turned its lights off in a useless attempt to make it less hot or hazy. It was empty, except for the two of us. The place was a little too Italian to have trays, so we sat across from one another, over a set of stained cappuccino cups and chewed out pastry crusts. It was hot, everything was heavy, my limbs and eyelids especially. The cappuccino didn't help. And that's how we talked—easily and slowly, relating—in an empty restaurant, in a strange place, far from home.

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