I rose from the ice and flames of hell


On the morning of my flight back to Tokyo, I sat in the waiting area of Incheon airport and thawed out my frozen body. Little did I know there was a ghoulish hell waiting for me upon my return.


My feet had received the worst of the cold. Winter in Tokyo is usually very mild. According to my Google search, the average high is ten degrees Celsius, and the average low is two degrees. While two degrees is cold, it's not quite freezing. In Seoul and Cleveland, the average temperature in January is a high of one degree Celsius and a low of minus five, six, or seven degrees Celsius. Those few lower degrees make a big difference. Although it took time, the feeling in my feet and toes eventually returned. Had the temperature been a few degrees lower or my time in the elements a little longer, I might have lost my toes or even my feet.


Inside the walls, I was safe. I don't remember how many hours it would be from the airport's opening until my flight's departure. It couldn't have been too many hours because I had gotten the cheapest flight available, which meant I would be departing early in the morning. While I was waiting, I thought about the offer the Korean mobsters had made. Was it possible that I missed a great opportunity? $2000 was a lot of money back then. It would have kept me well-fed for two months or so if I rationed it properly. In Seoul, many street vendors sell a wide variety of things. It made sense that they would want me to purchase items from the US military. They could get something that the average Korean might find exotic and sell it at a premium without paying a large amount of money for customs taxes. It's possible the men were not mobsters at all. Maybe they were opportunist's taking advantage of a situation. Of course, when in doubt, one should always apply one of life's greatest maxims; if it's too good to be true, it probably is.


Over the loudspeakers of the airport, I heard my flight number being called. I felt a sense of relief and a sense of dread. The relief, of course, came from a feeling of heading back to familiar territory. Japanese and Korean were equally incomprehensible to me, but I had gotten used to the Japanese language's staccato rhythms. Comprehensible speech patterns were beginning to emerge from the chaotic wall of sound. Textbooks help too. I had a couple in my backpack. I planned to use my free time to learn more Japanese vocabulary.


I decided to put more effort into learning Japanese after getting lost in Ryosuke's neighborhood. Someone had come to visit me one day. I walked with that person to a farther train station. On my way back, I got terribly lost. Scientists call it topographical agnosia. In plain language, it means of crippling lack of directional sense. According to Wikipedia, it's the result of some sort of brain damage. Maybe that same brain damage that caused me to come to a foreign country on a whim.


I wandered the neighborhood for a very long time, searching for the way back from the station. I tried to ask for directions, but I couldn't speak the language. Although every Japanese citizen studies English from junior high school through their senior year of high school, I was astonished by the fact that no one could understand me. I explained that I live next door to a sports University and that I was lost. In that neighborhood, there was only one sports University, and it was quite famous. Still, no one would help me. After what felt like hours, I finally came across another American. He immediately knew where I needed to go and set me on the right path. After that episode, I was determined to learn some basic Japanese. I needed it for survival.


I started my lessons by memorizing the phrase "Sumimasen, michi ni maiota. Kokushikan daigaku ha doko desuka", which means "Excuse me, I've lost my way. Where is Kokushikan University?" It took a while for me to get the accident to a level of understandability. When I felt somewhat confident, I went outside and randomly stopped people to ask even though I wasn't actually lost. I needed to get used to hearing their response. Over time, I could decipher speech patterns. The same words appeared over and over again: masugu (straight), migi (right), hidari (left), shingo (traffic light), ma de (until). By watching the body language of the speaker, I could deduce meaning. Eventually, I could understand things "like go straight until you get to the traffic signal then turn right".


The first thing we learn when learning a foreign language is that it never sounds the way it does in our heads when reading a text. Spoken language is incomprehensible until the brain has time to get used to it. No matter how many books on Japanese vocabulary I study, nothing prepared me for understanding spoken Japanese like being 'submerged in the language.


It took 2 1/2 hours to fly from Seoul to Tokyo. When the plane landed, I felt a slight relief as the tires bounced on the runway. Although you're supposed to remain seated until the seatbelt sign has been turned off, no one in Japan ever does. As soon as the plane stops rolling, everyone starts to move. I remember the flight being slightly crowded. I didn't have any bags to check in because I only stayed for two days. I just had a backpack with books, a toothbrush, and other stuff. In the immigration line, the officers looked unenthusiastic as usual.


When it was my turn to step up to the window and present my passport, the guy looked at the pages then stared for a few seconds. He began to ask me some questions in Japanese, but I couldn't understand what he was saying. Eventually, he said in broken English, "Why you come to Japan?" I told him I was there to visit friends from school and learn the Japanese language. His facial expression didn't change. "Why you come BACK to Japan?" I didn't know how to answer that question. I had chosen to fight one more round instead of going back to my hometown defeated. I couldn't tell him that. He would never have understood. Instead, I answered, "There's still more to see and more to learn." That answer was not satisfactory. He asked to see my return ticket. I honestly didn't understand what he meant at the time. I showed him the boarding pass from Seoul to Tokyo. I no longer had a return ticket from Tokyo to Cleveland. It expired on the day that I left for Seoul. I'd give it up for one more fighting chance. If I had flown back to America and then returned to Japan, the cost would have been unbearable, and I probably would not have come back. For $200, I could have another go if I went to Seoul.


The immigration officer asked how much money I had. In my pocket was ¥2000, which I kept to get a train back to the apartment I was staying in. I didn't have a credit card. He asked how much money I had in the bank. The answer was zero. He then got on the phone and told me to wait. Within a few minutes, airport police came and escorted me to a small room.


Once the doors were closed, the officers began screaming at me as if I had done something wrong. They brought in a really bright light and shined it in my face. It was the kind you see in old movies when someone is being interrogated. "Why are you here !" They took turns screaming that question at me again and again. No matter what I said, their response was always the same. "You're lying! Why are you here!" They gave me a piece of paper to fill out. As I was writing it with shaking hands, one of the officers violently snatched it from me, crumple it into a ball, and throw it in my face. "Why are you here!" They went through my backpack and dumped everything out, then threw the items across the room. Although I had a Japanese textbook in my bag, they would not accept that I was there to learn the language. In truth, it was a lie. That's not why I was there. I wanted to stubbornly follow through on a choice I had made. There was also a calling, one that I cannot explain. I was compelled to come to Japan by forces I don't understand. Even now, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, I don't know what the purpose was.


The officers asked me again about money. When I told him I didn't have any, they became angrier. They began throwing things at me from my backpack. I wanted to stop their verbal and physical abuse. Suddenly, I remembered Ryosuke's father. He was vice president of a gigantic corporation. Surely, I could use his name to get out of my predicament. I produced Mr. Shimizu's business card from my wallet and asked the officers to call the number. Unfortunately, he was not in Japan at that time, and they refused to make an overseas phone call even though it would have only been late in the evening in America. "It's America! Useless!!" Showing them his business card wasn't a total waste. I notice that they had paused long enough to at least consider calling him, so I started to think of anyone else I could have them contact in Japan. Yumi, the first Japanese exchange student I become close friends with, was a few years older than me. After she graduated, she got a job working for Kyodo News Service. I gave them the card and asked them to call her to verify my story.


The officer looked at Yumi's card reluctantly, then called her on the phone in front of me. Of course, I didn't understand a word of the conversation, but I could slowly see his mood changing. He hung up the phone then said something to the other guards in the room. They shouted "hai!" then began to gather up all the papers and books they had scattered. They put them in a neat pile on the desk then gently returned them to my backpack. After that, they all bowed and apologized in Japanese. The leading officer looked at me and said, "You can go now."


One of the guards escorted me to the customs area at baggage claim. There was one last checkpoint to clear. The customs guard went through my stuff. My hands were still shaking from my ordeal. He looked at me very curiously as if to say, "are you OK". Then he zipped up my backpack and told me I was free to go. I walked through the exit doors and breathed a deep sigh of relief. I felt like I had been baptized in flames. I was ready for the fight ahead.

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