Thursday, February 03, 2011

Super Bowl redux

In honor of this Sunday's mega-game: some trans-cultural musings on my time at last year's Super Bowl, and a place we call 'home.'

A Home of One’s Own

When I depart Japan for the US, I usually target the American coasts. My flights out of Narita are bound for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle, and many of my fellow passengers are Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Singaporean, with a smattering of other Southeast Asians. As a half-Japanese American, I am surrounded by my ilk—people who look and behave approximately like me. Most of my fellow passengers have dark hair, slender builds and tawny skin. We use chopsticks and drink tea. We grin subtly. With few exceptions, we speak sotto voce.

The same holds true when I fly west from Tokyo to London or Amsterdam, with a smaller contingent of Middle Eastern passengers. Many Asians trek as tourists or businesspeople to flagship European cities, and numerous flights from the Asian continent connect through Narita. So while I am officially leaving Japan when I board my flights, I remain surrounded by reassuring remnants of Japanese culture as I make the multi-hour transition from East to West.

But around this time last year, I took a slightly different route. And that, to paraphrase American poet Robert Frost, made all the difference.

For several years, my younger sister has worked in the marketing department of the National Football League (NFL), the premiere sports corporation behind America’s most popular and media-friendly national sport: American football. For many of those several years, she has invited me to attend, free of charge, the final championship game of the season—a week-long extravaganza that is called “The Super Bowl,” rife with American bravado.

I grew up in the US. I played American football with friends in backyards and on beaches, and watched professional games with my father soon after I learned to stand up. While ice hockey and soccer remain my favorite sports, American football, like sumo wrestling for some Japanese, is woven into my cultural matrix. I know it intimately, whatever I choose to think about it.

Last year marked the first time I could attend the Super Bowl. The festival and game took place in Miami, Florida, a city of palms and Cuban sandwiches, and a playground for the casually moneyed. I’d endured a busy and tumultuous winter in Tokyo and New York. Miami and its beaches and parties sounded very attractive.

But it’s impossible to fly straight from Tokyo to Miami. You need to change planes somewhere in the US. I chose Dallas-Fort Worth airport in Texas—smack in the middle of landlocked America—hoping to avoid winter storms in northern regions.

The ramifications of my choice became apparent to me as I approached my gate at Narita. The amassed passengers were tall, lanky, sometimes rotund, and largely Caucasian and African American. Their voices soared through the airport on a plane of guttural vowels. They were speaking English all right, loudly and languidly.

When I stepped off the automated walkway, I felt that I had entered America several hours too soon. All around me, the bland visual chamber of Japan clawed at me to stay. Vending machines sold bottled water and ocha adorned with kanji symbols. Omiyage stands bore their neatly stacked and wrapped boxes. Clerks bowed and whispered.

But at my gate, the air was harsh and direct and more viscously fluid at once. Some passengers wore American football jerseys and gesticulated aggressively. Others stood slack and laid back, arms akimbo, hands curved on thighs, oblivious to their surroundings. I was still in Japan, but this flight would be bound for a very American destination.

As an American, I should have been comforted, right? In a way, I was. I recognized these specimens, their gestures and guffaws. I knew them, felt them in my DNA. But familiarity is not the same as comfort.

I was still in Japan-mode, still sensitive to myself in a Japanese context and expectant of all that might mean. To be tossed into the world of American sensibilities before flying to America felt unforgiving, like being asked to perform on opening night before you’d finished rehearsing.

English author Samuel Johnson famously wrote: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.” I’ve often puzzled over this. Did he mean that all of your endeavors are undertaken to achieve some kind of final peace in the place you began—which for all of us is the womb? Or is ‘home’ a metaphor for where you choose to reside when you die?

I boarded the plane with my fellow American-types and suppressed my anxieties. When I landed in Miami and took my car from the airport to my first hotel in Fort Lauderdale, the driver asked me the usual questions: Where did I fly in from? How long would I stay? Who was I?

I tried to answer decently and articulately, despite the brutal jet lag. I’d arrived from Tokyo via Dallas, I said, and was there for the week’s happenings related to the Super Bowl. I was a half-Japanese American from New York and Tokyo. And I was really tired.

I loved every moment of my time amid America’s most festive sports event, but I won’t pretend that I felt ‘happy at home.’ What I felt was numb, the sheer stupidity of being everywhere and nowhere at once.

I strolled the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, attended parties starring pop stars whose names I can’t remember (Snoop Dogg & Rhianna were there) but whose faces I won’t soon forget. I ate a big American pancake breakfast while eyeing the subtropical Atlantic seas. And, of course, I watched the big game itself, surrounded by people both bigger and louder than I can ever be.

I now think that Johnson meant ‘to be happy at home’ as a kind of tease. Or at least it feels that way to me. For ‘home’ is not a verifiable place, but rather the house I will inhabit till death—made of my organs, skin, blood and bones. To be happy at home would mean owning a happiness that both exceeds and encompasses my mortal self.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

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