25 July 2008

Misdo: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Japan

About six weeks ago we had a near-Biblical flood after several days and nights of rain. And the day of the flood was the day I had to commute an hour.

I rode to the station in knee-deep water and it was still raining, so I wasn't sure what I'd be going to-- work, or to a terrifying nightmare of floods, mudslides, emergency helicopters and mostly likely Jihadists, based on alarmist terrorism posters that the train stations have been suddenly plastered with:


I hesitated. The train that arrives just before mine was, for the record, three hours late. Mine was on time, but I still couldn't get in contact for any sort of authority figure to find out of schools are cancelled when there's a threat of a natural disaster like today (--they aren't). I wasn't going to get on that train until I knew for sure I could, so I ended up having a breakfast of waxy doughnuts and sugary, milky café au lait at the American-founded but so so Japanese chain, Mister Donut, affectionately called Misdo. In Canada we have doughnuts with exciting names like "Maple Dip", or "Sour Cream Plain" -- and in Japan, they have names like "Maron Whip" and "Old Fashion Maccha Choko". It's bizarre and wonderful, because it was originally an American chain, and in the same way you wouldn't want to go to a sushi restaurant in your home town and see a menu of English translations, in Japan, restaurants with Western-style food will have a lot of English on the menu, but shamelessly mixed in with untranslated Japanese nouns. It has a similar kitsch appeal to bilingual packaging in Canada with brands like Cap'n Crunch being famously rendered in French as Capitaine Crounche -- not quite a literal translation, but this strange middle ground.


I was exhausted by the time I made to the station through the floodwater, so I was sitting there drinking my coffee in a haze. I hadn't put my change away, so it was lazily sitting there on the tray. I got a refill of coffee, which was somewhere just below boiling, and burning my mouth when I took a big gulp, I left in disgust, having forgotten about my change. A pretty sizable 600 yen.

Having made an ass of myself, I decided never to go back there again. There is NO tipping in Japan so it wouldn't have been misinterpreted as a friendly gesture. Just pure gaijin stupidity.


Finally, one day last week I bit the bullet because I was jonesing for that coffee. As far as coffee goes, it's just as bad as Timmy's back home, if not worse, and the heavy cigarette smoke somehow adds to the appeal. How often do you come out of a coffee shop stinking of nicotine in Canada? I rest my case.

So, I got to the counter and there was a bit of a rumbling. One of the ladies was taking a long hard look at me and said something inaudible to her coworker and I thought, "Awee shit. They're thinking, 'That's that guy! Thanks for the change, you idiot foreigner!'" Instead, she comes up to me with a baggie with my change in it! At least a month later. Every last yen was kept behind the counter, waiting for my return. In kind of a Grinch-like moment, my general feeling of alienation that's slowly been building as a foreigner in Japan disappeared and I gave probably the most sincere thank you I've have since coming here. I was absolutely amazed, and something this simple really shows just how civil this society can be. Thoughtfulness (omoriyari) is a sign of adulthood in Japan and is promoted constantly. But human nature, no matter what country, can be pretty selfish -- I really wouldn't have been surprised or even angry for minimum wage workers at a doughnut shop to pocket the change. But, this really opened my eyes to a cultural difference that I can't quite put my finger on. Something prompted the woman to see my money, not take it, inform the other staff members and have it kept for me. This is sort of thing that really only exists in Canada in small towns amongst particularly well-raised people, but having this at a train station with thousands of people passing through a day-- really impressive.


No longer will I make fun of your silly Engrish, Misdo! No longer will I mock your wax-covered doughnuts and burnt milky coffee. From now on, you have a special place in my heart, and will remain an shining example of everything that's good about Japan.