The Tsu City Foreigner Bar

August 24, 2009

Feeling homesick seems near impossible when American culture pervades as much as it does in Japan. Disney characters cover every sort of product imaginable at the local 100 yen store. I can get to two McDonalds by walking 15 minutes. American pop music plays from plenty of stores and restaurants – Taylor Swift, Drake and Kelly Clarkson appear plenty. They even show MLB games once a week on TV here (though you best be a fan of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners or Cubs – teams I either don’t care about or hate, hate, hate as much as one can hate the idea of a sports franchise without becoming a lunatic). I can replicate life in America pretty well, especially if a grab a Big Mac the same night they show American movies on the television while wearing a pair of Crocs (available at any department store).

Finding a facsimile of American culture isn’t hard, but finding the American experience is a whole new challenge. The Japanese import plenty of what America has to offer, but those things are very clearly “Made in the U.S.A.” American pop serves mostly as a decoration to show how “hip” an establishment is – everywhere else blasts J-Pop. A friend of mine here said how Disney characters don’t channel nostalgia in Japan like they do in the U.S. – they act more like Hello Kitty, a cute character more representative of a lifestyle (whatever that might be) than something personally important to the person. This explains why the female kitten from The Aristocats is so popular – who the hell feels any emotional connection to the freakin’ Aristocats? Even Japan’s infatuation with MLB appears to be built on trendiness, though this one is built on national pride; I’ll let you guess what names appear on all the New York, Boston and Seattle jerseys on sale here. Another friend, who has been in Japan for a few years now, says a lot of companies make t-shirts with English phrases on them that don’t make sense, just because it appears “more fancy” to have English on the clothes. You aren’t really feeling the culture if you’re just wearing it as a hat.

You can find the “American experience” scattered around Japan, though, as I did when I went to a “foreign club” the other night.
All new Mie ALTs attended an orientation held in Tsu, the capital of the prefecture, this week. Tsu boasts the biggest population in the region, but walking around the city in muggy heat on my lunch break didn’t seem to confirm this fact. Sure, Tsu’s got really tall buildings and a Baskin-Robbins, but most of what I saw was just drab concrete buildings adjacent to people-scarce sidewalks bordering overflowing roads. It reminded me of pretty but ultimately soulless cities in Florida, like Gainesville or Davie – this would probably be a nice place to spend the colder months, but you’d feel pretty empty while doing it.

Anyway, the first night there the organizers of the orientation held a party for us new folks at Tsu’s premier foreign bar called (wait for it) The Melting Pot. It’s a nice, cozy little place off to the side of a main road in the town. The big draw, at least for us foreign type, is that the staff speaks English – a quality I’m appreciating more and more with each passing day of awkwardly pointing to pictures and smiling like a doofus.

The joints got some strange Japanese flourishes – mainly, what appeared to be “World’s Funniest Puppy and Kitty Videos” on loop on every TV – but mostly came off as an honest-to-God American bar. The majority of the decor was American. The signs were in English. And the music was most definitely appropriate for an American club – they don’t just spin (double-click?) current American hits, but rather make a mix full of the usual songs that get drunk people to lose their shit. I’m talking “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Daft Punk, “Toxic” and all those tunes I’m not sure if people like ironically or genuinely like (Spice Girls, “I’m On Boat” and “Don’t Stop Believin'”). They also have a stripper pole in the middle of the dance floor, something I equate with the American Dream ever since I saw the episode of CRIBS where they went to Big Boi’s house.

Most thrillingly, they sell American drinks and food! I could actually order a Jack and Coke or a Corona here, and most people seemed excited at this opportunity. And the snack selection! All the unhealthy staples – nachos! Buffalo wings! Heaven! A friend and I ordered French fries (a surprisingly rare food here, though I have had tater tots…), and I might just be overreacting based on eating mostly raw fish for the past two weeks, but they tasted divine. I even put ketchup on them, and I hate ketchup.

The general attitude in the bar also seemed different. It might be because everyone is getting to know everyone else better and thus more likely to open up, but people seemed to act a bit more loosely at The Melting Pot. We are constantly told how we are “ambassadors of our home country” and not to give our nation’s a bad name, so it’s a bit of a relief to be surrounded mostly by other foreigners. People talked about lives in their respective homes, chugged beers super fast and recalled past college glory. Someone even said the party had become “a total dick-fest,” which is the type of colorful description only an American can create. People seemed more natural, and everything seemed similar to an American bar…in America, that is.

(It should be noted that I also acted as I naturally do in said setting – I felt super awkward and talked to a few people while taking small sips from a Jack and Coke. Right on cue, I eventually decided to try dancing, but realized half way through the first song I’m too self-conscious for this and I hate all the music and oh god what have I done. This resulted in one girl on the floor saying I “was much more classy than the man-slut over there,” to which accused man-slut said “yeah, but he’s got no chicks around him.” Which was extremely true. But I digress…)

I didn’t discover some micro-America at the bar, but I did find the real American experience (at least in one way that I perceive) and it was comforting. Both because it showed it isn’t that tough to indulge in American life if I want, and also because it reminded me that a lot of American culture can suck at times and being engulfed in a completely alien world isn’t a bad thing. As long as they sell nachos.

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