Lost in translation

We flew out of Wellington on Anzac Day, 1991. I think it was a Thursday, and I know that the weather was crappy. Because it was a holiday more people were able to come to see us off. KateB was there, with her mother. My sisters, maybe Oma and my aunt, and my mother’s ‘friend’ from polytech. I hadn’t been on an airplane since we’d moved back from Germany, apart from a jaunt to Nelson to see Alexis, so I was concentrating on being excited about that instead of all the other crap that had been going on for the past while.

It’d been a somewhat difficult couple of months. Mum didn’t want to move back to Japan, and she made sure that everyone knew that. One night we went out to dinner at Flanagan’s (now Sandwiches) and she and Neil fought so extensively that all I could do was sit there and cry while my sisters tried to comfort me by talking about how we could build igloos out of the potato ‘bricks’ that the menu had promised. I was saying in my head then “it’s alright for you, you get to stay”. I wished like fuck that I was in sixth form, or my first year of university instead of being ten. I wished that I was allowed to go to boarding school instead, even though I realised that boarding school probably wouldn’t be the fun and games that Enid Blyton’s Saint Clare’s books made it out to be. But it couldn’t be worse than Raroa, the school I’d never bothered to get heavily invested in because I knew all along that I’d be leaving.

And since I was leaving, I fought with Kate more than usual, blowing up at her during a lunchtime game of The Game of Life, running off to the bathroom to cry while my friends took turns trying to comfort me. When lunchtime was over and we were sitting in a circle on the mat, one of the boys asked Mrs. Petez, my sworn enemy, why I was crying, and she started on some spiel about how everyone needed to be more sensitive. I choked at what I saw as being her total and utter hypocracy, and so I got up and ran out of the room again. I sobbed hysterically in the bathroom for a while, as you do when your world is like, totally ending, and then tiny little Frances showed up and took me on a walk around the field where the cold Wellington air blew on my hot feverish cheeks in a way that I found to be very dramatic, and I was certain that a character in a Judy Blume novel would feel the same way. When I returned to class I was asked to go and see another teacher – one that I actually liked – to talk about it, and so I sat in a spinny chair in a library resource room and tried to explain how Mrs. Petez hated me and how Kate was like, totally insensitive, or whatever it was that was making me so angry. Of course Kate and I made up and I stayed at her house the day that the movers came to pack up our boxes. My mother made sure to leave my sisters almost nothing, as her way of saying “I am angry that you are not coming too”.

Of course, leaving had its benefits too. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to get my ears pierced until I was 12, but one day we were in Hataitai for some reason, buying flowerpot bread from a bakery that I think is now the Bellagio Cafe, and Mum said it would be a good idea for me to get my ears pierced then, so that they wouldn’t be too sore on the plane. I got little pink sparklers, of course, and studiously cleaned and rotated the posts, but even so a lot of my hair got caught up on them and my ear swelled up later in the hotel in Japan. Leaving also meant shopping sprees, and being allowed to buy not only Tiger Eyes but also Forever, Mum evidently having chosen to forget our discussion about the grammatical mistakes in that book about how they came when they were already there, and her incredibly awkward explanation about “whitey fluids”. Our flight to Auckland was all about hot stuffed crossaints since we were in business class, and I peered through the curtains at the plebs in economy with their packets of cheese and crackers and decided then and there that I never wanted to be one of them. Then we got a shuttle from our travelodge hotel into Newmarket and Mum spent up large on me. I watched The Simpsons (it may have been their first ever Halloween special) that night and talked to Karen and Anji on the phone – they already seemed so far away.

The Koru Lounge seemed really strange to me – I couldn’t understand why people would need the showers there, but the idea of free food was awesome. The plane was fitted out with a camera out the front, and onscreen maps about the distance to Tokyo. We were in business class again, so there was free champagne or orange juice while we were waiting to take off. I got to go up and see the cockpit later, and there were constant deliveries of peanuts and playing cards. It was pretty much my idea of heaven. I played around with the different radio stations and watched Home Alone and Fried Green Tomatoes. The three-course lunch had Tiramisu for dessert and to this day I often think it’s a Japanese thing, and for dinner there was John Dory in a champagne sauce. I’m not sure why these things are etched so firmly into my memory, but they are. I think the hard thing about being ten is that you’re still a kid, but you’re not really a child – especially not when you’ve had to leave your sisters behind. The flight attendents couldn’t just give me some stickers and a colouring book. Well, maybe they could have. I probably had a stuffed toy with me, although I’m not sure which one. Maybe Chi Chi the monkey.

It was of course nighttime when we got there after the eight plus hour flight, so I couldn’t see what Tokyo looked like. The Narita runway was picked out in green lights and it looked spooky. Our plane landed right after a flight from the Philipines, so customs was jammed. I’m not sure if Neil didn’t know then that our red diplomatic passports could have sped us through the line, or if he just didn’t want to be ostentatious about it, so we had to wait an eternity to get through. According to Mum’s diary, (and yes, I read it when I was twelve. I’m not proud), I was really good the whole time, even though I was probably about dead on my feet. I think a well-timed sugar hit from leftover airplane lollies might have helped. The bus to Shinjuku from the airport took another two hours. I may have dozed a little, but my eyes were just too big gobbling up all the signs in a language I couldn’t read, and Mum and Neil would have pointed out landmarks that they knew from the first time they were there.

The Keio Plaza hotel is two towers joined together at the base. The lobby was huge, and featured the biggest ’80s style chandalier I’d ever seen, all square-like and sparkling. I stared at it while we checked in, Neil probably fumbling to remember his Japanese while everyone from the front desk staff down to the bell boys in their green pillbox hats probably knew enough English to see us right anyway. The tallest tower is 47 floors, the other, in which we were staying on the 28th floor was 34. Always before whenever I’d stayed in hotels, I’d been in at least an interconnecting room with my parents. This time I was in a big room with two double beds all by myself. Over the next two weeks I would come to relish that space, and feel Very Very Grown-Up in there, but that night, despite knowing that my parents were just down the hall and only a phone call away, I was terrified.

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