Wanting a break from the heat and ‘beautiful people’ of Arizona State University, I took my financial aid money and some money donated to me by a well-to-do aunt and grandmother, and went on the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program in the Fall of 1999. It’s a program that puts 500 college kids from all over the country on an old cruise ship, adds to the mix some professors, who teach classes while at sea, and then sets sail around the world, stopping in ten different countries. Five hundred college kids, both sexes, in very close proximity, hormones pumping, booze swirling, with only the globe to stop you, no wonder this program has been slanged Semester at Sex, Mattress at Sea, The Booze Cruise, Slackers at Sea (you get the idea). I heard them all and went anyway.
And before you ask . . .no, I did not get to meet the Road Rules Semester at Sea people. I went a semester late for MTV. CNN was on my boat and did 10 shows that aired so late at night that only my mother, a pot of coffee in her shaking hand, would stay up to watch. The first part of the trip was a two week sail across the Pacific, from Vancouver BC to Kobe, Japan. Two weeks cooped with people we barely knew, weather not so great, learning about the beautiful, foreign culture of Japan. We hit the streets of Japan half-crazed. And did we flock to the beautiful Buddhist monasteries or the Kobe Tower or the museums?
No, the most popular thing in the first couple hours of dock time was the beer-vending machines. Japan, a beautiful, respectful culture, that trusts its youth to not buy the beer if they are not eighteen and its general populace to not get drunk in public. They, of course, hadn’t taken into account American college students. The majority of us huddled around these ‘wonder machines’ and plunged our foreign coinage into its guts. In return it gave us large cans of Asahi beer.
Drunk on beer, the foreign culture, and the fact that we were on dry land, we wandered around, in our individual small groups, looking for something that caught our eye. Something did. Down the street, we saw these Japanese teenagers beating the hell out of this inflatable penguin outside a donut shop. It looked like one of those blowup punching toys that kids own. The things with sand in the bottom, so when you hit them over, they pop right back up, and then you hit them down again, and so on and so forth. The entire two-week cruise across the Pacific, our professors preached to us that if you wanted to blend in, we should just watch the locals and do exactly as they do. When in Rome . . . .
So we ran over to them and started to punch the penguin. It bent backward, sideways, popped back up, plastic smile still plastered on its face, wanting more, not afraid of us Westerners. And the Japanese teens, two boys, four girls, loved it. They cheered us on and the boys joined right in, pummeling the inflatable penguin harder each time, trying to impress us or the girls that were with them.
After minutes of kicking the ass out of this inflatable penguin one of the boys stopped us and summoned up all the English he knew. He told us his name, his friend’s name, and that the cute girl next to him was his girlfriend and her name (all of the names I cannot pronounce, let alone spell). The girl put her head down and smiled.
During his broken speech, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that some of the donut shop employees were grouped up and looking in our direction, pointing and shrugging. I began to get the sneaking suspicion that something was wrong.
When choosing which locals to emulate, it might have been a better idea to not pick teenagers, who of which I was now starting to realize were drunk. All we had learned about Japanese culture being traditional and conservative, that youths have total respect for elders and the laws they produce, was starting to blur into bullshit.
If these teenagers had spoke English, they would be no different than any other kid you seeing kicking around outside of a American corner store. They were teenage boys, drunk on probably a beer or two, and were trying to impress teenage girls. I had traveled two weeks across the largest ocean to see this. Really, the big difference between this situation and one in the United States was that the donut store employees took a few minutes to summon up enough courage to tell us to beat it. One finally came out and spoke sternly to the Japanese teenagers, pointing at the happy, inflatable penguin multiple times. The penguin was not something to be beat on, but an advertising symbol.
The Japanese teens shrugged it off. They were maybe a little embarrassed, but nothing like I thought they would be. Not that Hollywood is a good source for anything at all, but movies always make it seem that the Japanese youth are so worried about bringing shame on their family that they rarely act out. A society that has always seemed so different to me before, seemed oddly familiar. I felt like I had been there before, a hundred different times in high school. Soon one of the girls pointed at her watch. Our broken translator turned to us and gestured toward the subway, that they must get going, otherwise their parents would be angry. To display angry to us, he growled and leered like a bear. And they were off. High-schoolers with an after-school curfew, not so different than what I was used to.
Alone with the penguin, its plastic eyes staring at us, we felt awkward and left.
Semester at Sea:
- Beating The Hell Out Of A Japanese Penguin
- Losing The Yak Race
- An American Dancing Fool In China
- The Time I Couldn’t Even Pay For a Handjob