Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Global Circus, Part II: Caine

Japan’s a strange place! Pick-up any old travel brochure for the tiny country and there seems to be a major emphasis on formality; it’s all Geisha’s serving tea and the carefully manicured gardens in temples on Mt Fuji. Likewise, pictures of Tokyo all feature men in dark suits rushing for trains, and elegantly dressed, beautifully manicured women in sparkling jewellery and evening gowns. It’s as if the whole country is marketed as a place to go for perfect lines, order and neatness.

The traditional aspect of Japan gets a real pounding, too. Back in the ‘80s, when the Yen was going gang-busters and Australians had decided that “the Japs” were OK now, especially seeing as though they’d developed a love-affair with our coastlines and were willing to throw their hearty wallets into the experience, every kid with near-sighted, socially-climbing parents was forced to learn Japanese at school and pushed into a career in tourism. Consequently, literature and movies about Japan began to emerge, and in each one of them we were exposed to a culture characterised by formality and unquestioning respect for one’s elders (especially for one’s father). We learned that Japanese families were held together by tradition, and that honour and order were qualities to be highly prized.

As Japanese Corporations continued to rise and dominate international business, we also came to learn about a corporate culture in which young Japanese would compete for graduate positions, and once established in a corporation, would remain there, wearing there neatly-pressed, plain business suits, working 20 hour days with only a fortnight’s holidays each year, for the rest of their working life. Loyalty and respect to the Corporation was highly valued, as was anonymity and conformity, and it all contributed to the economic super power that was 1980s Japan.

Consequently, as outsiders, we came to recognise the Japanese as being a well- and sensibly-dressed, perfectly groomed, impeccably mannered and … well … stuffy race of people, and indeed that was my idea of them when I landed on the shores of Samoa in the late ‘90s; a volunteer with a limited world view and looking for adventure.

I found it in the bosom of the large, and eclectic volunteer community which comprised we seven, fairly young Australians, all out looking for a good time; three ancient, cantankerous, life-bitter Kiwis; about fifty small-town, ultra-right Christian, US Peace Corps; a handful of stand-offish, well heeled, superior UN volunteers; and twenty of the most whacked-out, extreme, 24-hour party-people from Japan.

It wasn’t long before I discovered where the Japanese hung-out by day; a squat, three-story fibro apartment block in the centre of town which looked more like an American College frat house than a Corporation office (the Japanese volunteer program refers to itself as a corporation). Any day of the week, hard-core metal would be blaring from the massive speakers mounted on the balcony (Sony, of course), and young Japanese would be lounging around in various states of undress on ripped sofas that had been ejected from the building onto the front lawn. A thick, pall of cigarette smoke would surround the seedy-looking, chain-smoking youngsters, no doubt recovering from the massive party they’d thrown on Monday night.

But despite the loud, relaxed, celebratory scene at Corporation Headquarters on any given day, it was at night that these young, hipsters really went nuts. It wasn’t difficult to get to know the Japanese volunteers; they’d be present, en masse, at any party going, on any given night. And there was certainly no missing them. Far from dressing in the staid, pressed, formal suits I’d been led to expect of the most formally attired race in the world, the Japanese volunteers generally wore some pretty out-there threads; for the guys it was generally ripped, studded, graffitied denim, tatty, fraying t-shirts and thongs, while the girls sported tartan micro-minis with decoration safety pins, garish, slashed stockings and provocatively ripped, cropped t-shirts.

Punk certainly wasn’t dead amongst the Japanese volunteers, as attested not only by their clothes, but also by their avante guarde approach to grooming. Gone were the neatly parted, short backs-and-sides, and clean-shaven mugs of the Corporate gents; these lads had dirty, matted hair reaching three quarters of the way down their backs, and long, scruffy beards that any 1970s martial arts movie grand master’d be proud of. And the girls had forsaken the shiny, long, black, straight hair of the office for bright pinks, blues, greens, oranges and beaded braids. And amongst the whole ensemble, whether male or female, was a collection of metal the likes of which could sink an ocean liner – these guys had piercings on just about every appendage and orifice going. How they managed international air travel is beyond me – I am just glad I never got stuck behind one of them at the metal detectors.

And it wasn’t just their appearance which distinguished our Japanese colleagues from the rest of the volunteers, it was they way they partied! It wouldn’t matter how long the party had been going for, the Japanese volunteers would always be completely wired on booze and fags, and going nuts on the dance floor to the heavy beats. They’d be yelling, screaming, laughing and smiling – they really knew how to have a great time.

So how could I have been so wrong about Japan and its people? How could I have thought it was all conformity, commitment and commerce, when I had these … animals in front of me, partying like it was their last night on earth?

Well as it happens, another great quality of the Japanese volunteers was that they were very open and friendly, so before long I came to understand a bit more about them. Each and every one of them did, in fact, belong to a corporation in Japan, having joined after college and having put in the long hours, day after day, wearing the pressed suits and parting their hair in order to be promoted up the ladder to a level at which the Corporation agreed to sponsor them for one or two years as a volunteer in a developing country. Many of them saw the opportunity as their last great “hoorah”, before returning to Japan, and really knuckling-down to work, marriage, family, a mortgage, crowded trains and dark suits … and they were all committed to giving the experience an almighty nudge while they still could.

As the years went by, I came to recognise these traits in many young Japanese abroad, not only volunteers. Out on The Trail, I met many Japanese back-packers who had decided to take a year off from the corporate grind in order to see the world, and almost always, the girls wore bright, funky clothes and smoked like chimneys, and the guys grew their hair and beards long. While the girls often travelled in twos and threes, and could generally be found dancing in bars to loud music, I noticed that the guys would often travel alone, and would assume an air of quiet dignity. I eventually came to recognise this persona in many of these young men, with their matted hair, long beards and John Lennon glasses, as they attempted to pass themselves off as wizened, travelling sages on some kind of wandering, spiritual journey in search of the truth of life.

At first I was sucked-in by the stories of these higher-planed enigmas, such as the young man who, in order to save money on entry permits, risked imprisonment in a Chinese labour camp by hiding in the woods to skirt around border crossings, or the guy who shaved his head and face to pass himself off as a Tibetan monk as he spent three years studying in a mountain monastery (I now know this to be a centuries old story of the first foreigner to study Buddhism in Tibet). But eventually, I came to understand a little more about Japan; about the safe, privileged family environment, and the rigid corporate culture that these young men had come from, and I came to realise that, far from being the spiritually enlightened and centred souls that they portrayed, they were just as insecure and out-to-impress as the rest of us.

Over the years, I met many of these young Japanese men who claimed to be wandering the world on a spiritual quest for the answers to life’s mysteries, but there was one that I met which really hit home to me just how ridiculous this invented persona really is, and I would like to introduce you to him as the main attraction in the Global Circus Big Top today.

It was the 29th December, 1999. I was holidaying in a budget, beach-side resort with the future Mrs Donkey, and a fluffy-haired friend of mine, and we were naturally gearing-up for the big party that would herald the meltdown of all the machines and computers in the world. For three days we’d joined about fifteen other, like-minded young people in a beer- and music-fuelled binge which was definitely gaining momentum.

During this time, through all the raucous laughter, dancing and singing, I’d noticed a young, wild-haired, bearded Japanese man sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room. He had not spoken to another soul in three days, but instead simply watched-on as we got louder and drunker, and from time to time, nodded knowingly to himself.

So by this day, I was suitably drunk enough to have few remaining inhibitions, so I staggered over to engage with this young fellow. He spoke and answered my questions haltingly, with short, three word statements, annoyingly punctuated with pauses which I assume he felt added weight and mystery to his persona.

After a while, my fluffy-haired friend staggered over to join us, just as this enigma was telling me about himself,

“I have been travelling [pause] for many months”, he informed us.

“Cool”, says I, “I love travelling”.

Ignoring me, he continues, “I travel [pause] alone”.

Fluffy drunkenly pipes-up, “You’re like Caine, that guy from the TV show, Kung Fu. He wanders the world alone … can you do Kung Fu?”, and with that, Fluffy leaps into a flying kick before hitting the deck in a drunken crash to hoots of laughter from everyone present … except Caine.

“I do not [pause] approve of violence”, he replies, “I am searching for [pause] truths”.

“Huh?”, Fluffy and I grunt in unison.

“I am writing [pause] a story”, he says.

“Oh yeah? Cool”, says I, “What kind of story?”.

Caine fixes me in his weighty gaze “I am writing [pause] a Millennium story”.

Just then, the future Mrs Donkey sends out a sharp, high-pitched scream as Fluffy, having been in the act of taking a sip of beer, suddenly sprays her in a golden mist of laughter, “Well you’d better get on with it, Mate, you’ve only got two days”, and then turns to me, “What a twat!”.

Caine says nothing. He rises, and wanders off into the trees.

To this day, we are none the wiser as to whether Caine’s Millennium [pause] story was ever written, but no doubt the long hours of data entry in a poorly-lit, open-plan office alongside an army of well groomed, dark-suited, fellow data entry clerks on his return home to Japan may have proved an insurmountable barrier to the development of this truly remarkable breakthrough in modern literature.

Given a scowl, some odd garments an air of self assuredness, any insecure youngster can travel the world pretending to find the truth to life’s mysteries, just like Kwai Chang Caine. Pic:

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Movember in Jaipur

Movember my ass! Now these guys have really got it goin’ on this November. Pic:

I recently spent a few days with an old friend who’s reaching the point in her life where her father is doing all he can to set her up with a nice, prosperous young man from the homeland. Sanjita was sitting back in a fancy bar in one of the city’s more stylish precincts, a glass of sauvignon blanc in one, slender hand, and a smouldering cigarillo, dangling glamorously from the other, as she discussed her predicament.

“Oh Donkey,” she pouts provocatively, “Bapa’s finding me one, skinny, high-panted young executive after another. Most of them are nice enough … one or two have even been quite charming, but I just don’t think I could ever get past those bloody, twitching moustaches! Kissing them must be like eating a mouldy mango! Why do these deluded fools think they look so attractive with those tufts of black fuzz on their lips?”.

Movember is over for another year – hoo-bloody-ray!

I shall be spared (at least for another eleven months) from having to listen to the boys from IT swanning around the office, rattling their tins for donations, banging-on about the wispy growth on their upper lips, showing off to the women in the office by stroking their manliness (am talking about their moustaches, here) while at the same time emphasizing their sensitive, new age sides by contributing to what they consider to be a worthwhile cause.

They are like a bunch of strutting peacocks, these men who have fallen into the Movember fad. They stand around the water cooler comparing the size of their droops, secretly (and often, not-so-secretly) fancying themselves as ‘70s porno-stars, something they surmise to be quite endearing to your average, modern, professional woman.

Well, lads, on behalf of those of us who don’t mind getting a bit of work done every now and then, I have a little message for you…

First of all, that pathetic, tufty protuberance below your schnoz isn’t making you the apple of every woman’s eye. You gotta understand that it was never the moustache that made Long Dong Silver and Johnny Holmes famous - it just happened to be the ‘70s when they were doing their thing, a decade synonymous with T-shades and the mo. So just ‘cause you work in IT, and therefore watch a fair bit of porn on the company’s time, that doesn’t necessarily make you a super stud in the sack.

And secondly, it’s pretty obvious that most women with any sort of taste don’t really go for moustaches these days, otherwise every bloke’d have one, or every gal would be married to a cop, dig?

So finally, with the end of a long, slow Movember now upon us, I can breathe a sigh of relief from all the grief and abuse I receive for being a Donkey who hasn’t decided to let himself go in the preening department this November.

It seems that, just because these selfish dudes who are doing something for charity for the first time in their lives (and let’s face it, the reality is that they’re not shaving for a month, which actually means they’re doing less!), they think it’s OK to judge those of us who choose to maintain minimal facial follicularity, and accuse us publically of not contributing to “the cause”; after all, they’re the ones growing the mo, so the least I could do is sling ‘em a donation.

“The cause”, hey? - and this is where Movember really gives me the shits. Usually, when someone does something for a cause, they tend to know something about that cause, but ask any of these judging bogans what the cause is, and they’ll tell you the stock, standard line,

“We’re raising funds and awareness about men’s health issues”, they parrot the Movember website.

“Oh really? That’s interesting…” offers Doubting Donkey, all smarmy and patronising, while at the same time, oozing sophistication, “and what health issues would they be?”.

“Um … men’s health issues”.

“Right”, says I, rapidly losing all patience and suave, “Now take you’re fucking ugly caterpillar lip, complete with crumbs from the Lunchtime Seafood Special, and get the fuck out of here!”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good cause, and I really should be proud that one has come along that even selfish people who are only interested in silicon- and computer-enhanced women and football (and not necessarily in that order) can get into. But the thing about Movember is that no one really knows who or what they are raising money for, and the level of awareness of the “men’s health issues” that they’re raising awareness about, for the most part, seems to be remarkably absent.

I’m from the old school of alms-giving. If you want my cash, you gotta perform. Dress a monkey up in a vest and fez, and have him dance on a wire in front of my balcony while I drink chilled French champagne, and here’s a tenner. Have a young girl kidnapped at birth and sent to the circus to have ribs and vertebrae removed so she can perform all manner of contortions in front of myself and my fellows, and I’ll gladly sling her a fiver. Have an armless and legless man write an essay on pre-war European existentialism using only his mouth and blunt pencil, and I’ll shout “Bravo” while I shower him with loose change, or simply be able to tell me why you’re growing that ridiculous fungus on your upper lip, and I’ll gladly provide you with a modest, tax deductable donation. Anything less, my lazy, young, bogan, IT friends, and you can move your rattling tin on past ol’ Donkey.

That is of course, unless you can grow a real moustache like my two Rajasthani camel-riding friends (pictured above) in a single month. Now that’s manhood, and that, not the embarrassing wisps you’re sporting in this office, is what’ll drive the ladies wild with desire. Right girls?

Monday, December 01, 2008

What the parents don't know...

Ma and Pa Donkey and I have a bit of an unspoken understanding – they don’t ask me what I do, so I don’t have to lie to them. It’s a pretty good system, ‘cause although they know I am out there saving the world from horrible, nasty things, and can bandy-about down at The Club that their little baby and his Missus are kind of … um … “modern-day missionaries”, they may not be very happy to learn about what it is I am doing to make the world a better place, some of which may not go down too well over a few stiff, mid-afternoon gins and a couple of rounds of bridge.

It’s a bit of an odd conundrum, I guess. On the one hand they know that I am doing good stuff, and they are clearly proud of it (even though I think they’d secretly prefer to be able to stick-it to Lord and Lady Wexford-Southerby-Smith by boasting that their son is clearing six figures a month), and yet on the other hand, if The Club ladies actually knew what I talk to people about all day long, and what I teach others to do, Ma’s reception at the first-Tuesday cake stall would be frostier than the top of Mrs Whitaker’s prize-winning lemon sponge.

Basically, the problem comes down to values. Y’see, Ma and Pa Donkey are strict Catholics, and I was brought up in the full traditions of the Church; Sunday mass, weekly confessions, love and respect for one’s neighbour, faith, hope and charity and, of course, not to touch oneself.

(With that knowledge finally out in the open, no doubt many of you will be nodding in satisfaction as the penny finally drops regarding why I am such an emotional and sexual cripple).

I was a pretty good religious sponge, too. I took on-board all of the various rules and teachings of the Mother Church, and like so many others, never questioned a thing. Unfortunately, the whole dogma of the Catholic Church is flawed, because to be “a good, young Catholic gentleman”, and to adhere to all the teachings, one ended up contradicting oneself.

The case in point was the one about providing charity, love and support to all those in need, or, to quote the Ten Commandments, that whole “do unto others as you’d have them do to you” thing. At about the time that I was struggling to do everything right, and trying to follow all that religious gaff to the letter, there was something going on in the world which was really throwing the cat among the religious zealots … that thing was called AIDS.

All of a sudden, from about 1984, there was this thing out there called AIDS that was killing everyone. It didn’t seem to matter whether it was wealthy tycoons in New York, movie stars in Europe or poor, peasant farmers in Zimbabwe – the pictures were the same; emaciated bodies, no hair and horrible pain.

Our Catholic upbringing went into overdrive to do something about all this – to help the poor, the afflicted, the helpless, and indeed there was a distinct half of the media who were urging us to do something. But oddly enough, in support of the other half, who were telling us to leave these poor wretches well alone, were our very own clergymen, and of course, head amongst them, none other than his Holiness, The Pope. Because, despite a couple of typically misguided reports from tabloid current affairs media that the disease was carried and spread by household cats, it soon became apparent that AIDS was getting around thanks to a world which had “suddenly” gone crazy for sex!

While thousands of gay men and drug users were dropping like flies, we, the Faithful remained firm; singing our hymns and saying our Rosaries. When AIDS moved-on from the streets of San Francisco and took hold in Africa, we looked-on and prayed for the souls of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. As the pictures on TV and in magazines got more graphic and the stories more personable and real, our spiritual leaders stood firm on their condemnation of condoms, and even began to spread lies about them.

By this time, however, some of us had snapped-out of the secure daze of ignorance. By this time, some of us had realized that to be a good Catholic was impossible, because you couldn’t just stand by and watch innocents suffer and die when something could clearly be done to prevent it –put simply, you couldn’t obey all the rules about sex and condoms AND help those who were in need. The two were incompatible.

So, poor, ol’ misguided Donkey had finally realized that there were more important things amongst the religious teachings than just a set of rules to be followed. He realized that humanity needed to be valued above the dictates of a faceless following; that a human life was worth saving from suffering, regardless of what the person had done or continues to do. In coming to this realization, I realized that the Catholic rules about sex and condoms were ridiculous – they were simply rules to be obeyed, and absolutely nothing to do with caring for people.

So nowadays I devote my time to preventing the transmission of HIV (which causes AIDS) and other nasties created by an individual inserting their dick into someone’s bum, vagina or other orifice, of which one or both of the owners are infected, or a used, infected syringe into an arm. I go out into the world, ramming condoms down people’s throats (not literally), and I tell them to use these all the time. I ask detailed questions of men who stick their dicks into each others arses, of young girls who sell sex for money or new clothes and of young men who sell their bums for money to buy drugs which they shoot into their arms with (hopefully, but not often enough) sterile needles. I work solidly to try to ensure that the people who are the least likely to be invited to Ma Donkey’s bridge games, namely sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men can have the knowledge and resources they need to live for as long as they should, with minimal pain and suffering.

While some who sit along the pew from Ma and Pa every Sunday morning would not approve of the offspring of two of their number peddling the sinful, depraved wares of Asia’s latex manufacturers on a daily basis, I am convinced (and I think, deep down, so are Ma and Pa) that the Big Bloke Upstairs is nodding in approval at what some of us are trying to do, even if we are breaking a few of “his” rules.

It’s World AIDS Day again. Please go out and buy a red ribbon, and wear it proudly to commemorate all those who have died from, or who are living with AIDS. But most importantly, try to find out about the organization from whom you are buying that red ribbon – no doubt they’ll be the ones who are out there doing all the things that Ma and Pa Donkey’s Club friends would disapprove of, and that’s definitely an organization worth supporting.