Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read

When Home Is Another Planet

I like to think that no person is ever born stupid, but airports really test my patience for this idea.

There are big red lines at Tokyo immigration, when you get to the passport check— one person at a time, no one past the line unless indicated, lots of stern, serious faces — but some guy always steps over it.

Immigration officers resort to English with foreigners — whether you’re Chinese or Dansk, young or old — so it’s always, ‘No! Mister, no! NO!’, and an escalating tone of voice.

Whoever the guy is — I’ve never seen a woman do it — he always answers in his own language, as though everyone understands it. Like he has a perfectly good explanation for what he’s doing.

But immigration is lucky. They’re allowed to just say ‘No’ until you listen.

Language is funny like that.

At Hong Kong airport, I was impressed by a security guard whose only word of vocabulary was, ‘please.’ That was it. He never uttered another word.

And yet he got exactly what he wanted, whenever he wanted it.

The first time he wanted to look at passports. ‘Please,’ he said, motioning to the small books in our hands.

Later, he wanted everyone to hurry up and get on the plane. He would prod slow movers forward, saying, ‘Please. Please.’

In the midst of this an Indian woman started talking at him, but he had no idea what she was saying. He pointed at the desk by the boarding gates and he said, ‘Please?’

Sometimes, it’s not the words. It’s making them work for you. I know too many people who use too many words.

I might be one of them.

The guy next to me on the plane home to Adelaide was, too.

Five minutes into the air and I’d heard everything — the salt imports, the packaging deal in China, his son playing football and his wife moving house, the new sports stadium in the city, tax problems, divorce woes — it was like a flood I couldn’t stop.

A part of me drowned in those words and sentences.

“Hot cross buns! In January!” he said. “Can you believe it!? What are they thinking!?”

I wanted to put my headphones on and give him the look the security guard gave the Indian woman.

I wanted to say, ‘Please?

I thought about the way Aussies randomly strike up conversation — in line at the supermarket, at cafes and bars, sharing sob stories at the welfare office.

I wondered if this was why I’d run away, or why I was coming back.

I didn’t really know.

I’d clearly been away for too long, that much was certain. I didn’t know how anything worked. Everyone looked bigger than in Japan. Everyone talked louder. I couldn’t filter the signal from the noise.

In Japan, I have a convenient little switch marked, ‘concentration’. I flick that switch off, and Japanese becomes static — I’m left in a blissful semi-silence of not understanding a thing.

In Australia, I understood everything. Always. Even when I didn’t want to. People complained about gas prices. Berated their children. Made bad jokes. Shared sex stories on the bus. Talked hot cross buns. Again.

It was weird to realize the language was mine, but the country was foreign.

Home was a different planet, and I was the alien.

I went to the supermarket with my mother. Everything here was bigger, too. I bought bananas the size of dildos, a tub of ice cream I assumed was also a footstool, and bottled water because my mother said, “Don’t be disgusting and drink from the tap, okay?

At the register, I gave the girl my credit card.

My mother said, “You could payWave that.”

I said, “Uh… what’s payWave?”

The register girl stared at me with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Who was this alien speaking her language? How could anyone not know this thing that everyone knows? Was this not a universal concept? Had the sky fallen? Was this the end of times?

The lady behind us said, “Does he not know what payWave is?”

The man behind her said, “Did you just say he doesn’t know what payWave is?”

So while my mother made friends with incredulous locals, the register girl did the payWave thing for me.

“I just came out of a coma,” I said, “this is all very new to me.”

Later, at the local convenience store, I tried to pay by card again. The machine beeped when I swiped it. It was an angry beep. The small screen read, ‘Please use chip insert

It all seemed awfully science-fiction, suddenly. I tried to remember if I’d had a chip inserted recently. I began to sweat.

The kindly old lady behind the counter took the card from my hand, and placed it in a slot near the bottom of the machine.

She said, “It’s the chip insert, dear.”

The girl next to her looked perplexed. Here was a man who didn’t look like a vegetable, but acted like one.

Or perhaps it was that I wore a beanie, and it was summer.

You see, Japanese people do that, but Australians don’t.

They wear flip-flops in winter, instead.

The cultural rules were all mixed up. Lots of crossed wires.

It’s why I feel paranoid whenever I pass through immigration. Every time, I think, ‘This is it. This is the time I get arrested.

I imagine them taking me to a small room where a man in a suit sits with a small plastic bag of soil, and he says, “You know this is illegal, right?”

And I’ll look at the bag and I’ll think, ‘Why on earth did I pack a bag of soil again…?

And I just won’t know. I’ll look at the soil, and up at the angry man, and back again, but I won’t have an answer. And the man will slam his fist on the steel table and shout, “Answer me!”

And in that moment, I’ll think of how much I liked it better when immigration officers only ever said ‘No, mister, no.

It’s like, there are the rules you get taught, and the rules you’re just supposed to know. But between borders it all gets mixed up.

It gets murkier still when it’s not a rule, but simply a behavior accepted among a group of people.

I caught glimpses of this on planes as we prepared for landing.

On my flight to Hong Kong, Chinese people got up to get their hand-luggage before the plane had stopped moving. Before the seatbelt light was turned off. There was much shouting by staff, and much confusion among passengers.

On my flight to Adelaide, lots of Australians got up to get their hand luggage some twenty minutes before landing — they half-stuffed it under their seats, or straddled it to landing. I think maybe we just love to cheat the system like that.

On my flight to Japan, no-one did anything until the PA announcement said it was okay to do so — after which there was a smooth, mostly quiet, robotic orderliness. It felt something like home after all that time on another planet.

Culture is funny like that.

It twists and bends and warps, and it never seems quite right if you think about it too much, but we still wear it like a favorite old sweater. It’s full of holes, and it’s torn and patchy in places, but we tell people it just adds character.

And you know what? It probably does.

I guess what I realized with all this traveling is, you get jumbled up when you wear more than one sweater at a time.

It’s confusing, frustrating, and perplexing.

But perhaps at the same time, no-one is warmer to foreign cultures than the traveler with too many sweaters.

And these days, I think we should all probably have at least two.

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