When I was younger, I used to be a party animal.
To be more precise: a sort of gerbil with a taste for hops.
Though I had entered college in a serious search for higher education, at the same time I also joined a fraternity, in order to learn about the things that books cannot teach. In other words . . . girls.
Most of my frat brothers, however, turned out to be spastic lushes much more interested in absorbing beer than any form of instruction. I could barely stand them and why those cavemen elected me their leader I’ll never know.
Anyway, while I did meet some girls, I also met a lot of bartenders. People who must have missed me when I graduated and then flew off to work in Japan.
Like most foreigners, I arrived with more than my share of anxiety. Could I learn Japanese? Would I be able to handle the food? And whatever would I do on Saturday nights?
Little did I realize I had sprung from one party pool to another, the second one more like an ocean than a pool.
For more than my clumsy efforts with language texts or rookie enthusiasm for my job, what sustained me most in my early months in this country was the camaraderie I found with my Japanese colleagues — who loved a good time even more than I did.
In Japan, the calendar percolates with excuses for getting together with friends. End-of-the-year parties, beginning-of-the-year parties, farewells, welcomes, flower-viewing, festivals, barbecues — the good times just keep on rolling.
For me, all this gala activity was compounded by the fact that I worked at a school. Each faculty committee had to have its own separate gathering to celebrate each aforementioned event. For example, there was a flower-viewing party for the English Committee, one for the International Programming Committee, one for the Student Discipline Committee and so on.
The punchline is that each of these committees comprised practically the same people. People who notched group solidarity above group sobriety — let alone family and health. The only worry seemed to be whether there would be more parties than days.
For a Nihon neophyte like me, these occasions offered keen opportunities for communication. Little matter that I could only put two Japanese words together if I used tape . . . and even less matter that my best English-speaking colleagues still needed subtitles.
After an exchange of sake cups — or perhaps two . . . or three . . . or four such exchanges — we all began to speak the international tongue of fellowship. Commonly known as “slurred speech.”
Bouncing about from nightspot to nightspot, I also received a thorough introduction to Japanese cuisine.
I would squint at some delicacy pinched between my chopsticks and toss questions at my Japanese buddies.
“Is this thing alive?” “It was until you bit it.” “Anyway,” I went on, after swallowing. “That other stuff in that jar over there . . . It’s just superb on raw fish. What do you call it?” “Sugar.”
Whatever, at least I never went hungry.
In fact, I gobbled down more food than anyone — as the other people instead clawed for turns at karaoke. As for me, once the crowd heard me sing, they insisted my silent participation was better, no matter how much I ate.
In town, I also made fast friends with a bunch of foreign vagabonds similar to myself, people who needed to justify partying the way fish need excuses to swim.
For instance, whenever a typhoon rolled over Kyushu, we held an End-of-the-World party. To be followed soon after by a We-Survived-the-End-of-the-World party. To be then followed by the We-Survived-the-End-of-the-World-Party party. And so on.
Thus, by my mid-20s I looked on Japanese life as one big shee-bang. And on Japanese mornings as one big hangover.
What changed this was a Japanese girl. Within a few months after a casual introduction and a handshake, I found myself foregoing nights out on the town to instead pen this girl letters, as she lived a four-hour drive away. Two years and 700 hundred letters later, we married.
I still feel life is a party, but have long since traded the garish glitz of banquet cheers and giggles for the richer laughs of hearth and home.
Nowadays I transform back into the party gerbil only when visiting old frat brothers. For 15 minutes we slobber about like there is no tomorrow. Then we each glance at our watches and realize our assessment was wrong.
For there is indeed a tomorrow. One that demands we sip our time together, not gulp it.
So we reminisce for a bit and then slowly slide back to wives and kids — not wiser men really, just ones with a finer sense of pace.
Meanwhile, parties at home are most fun when the children are out and my wife and I are alone.
Together on the sofa, we melt into each other’s eyes. We sigh. Then it comes . . . that whisper of intimate invitation:
“Tom, wouldn’t you like to . . . do the dishes?” “What!? Isn’t it your turn?”
We thus negotiate and in the end she washes and I dry. That way I get to snap her with the towel.
To which she squeals and skips away. Tagging me with a name that fits perfectly with my festive past.
What else could it be?