Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dinner with the President

A few months ago, I was invited to dine with the President. No, not that President. If I had had dinner with my boyfriend Barack Obama I would have bombarded the internet with stories and photos and creepy stalkeresque videos the second after it happened.

No, I had dinner with a different President. And it was a shameful and embarrassing experience. But it was also kind of funny.

The President in question was no ordinary in-control-of-a-country kind of President. The President in question was the President of Kyoto University, which makes him a rock star among presidents in these parts.

In education-obsessed Japan, the President of Kyoto University wields an incredible amount of power and influence. I say this not to elevate my status as someone who dines with important and powerful men but to give you a sense of the gravity of my idiotic behaviour.

Kyoto University and Tokyo University are the top two universities in Japan. They are the Japanese equivalent of Harvard and Yale. The academic standards at Tokyo University and Kyoto University are so impossibly high most Japanese high school students don't even bother to try to get in.

Unless you are prepared to spend your entire childhood studying your ass off, and unless your parents have the money to send you to cram school for an extra four hours every night, and unless you have the top grades required to get into a good private high school, and unless you graduate at the top of your class, and unless you ace the notoriously tough entrance exam, you don't stand a chance of getting into Kyoto University. (This has nothing to do with intelligence or social competence. But a degree from Kyoto University is a golden ticket to status and success in Japan.)

Drop the name "Kyoto University" in conversation with a Japanese person and you'll see what I mean. You will be treated with reverence. Like the time I was riding the train and my Japanese seatmate asked me what I was doing in Japan. I told her I was a research student at Kyoto University. Upon hearing this, she turned to her friends sitting across the aisle and told them where I was studying and they all burst into applause. And then they made me pose for pictures with them.

This celebrity treatment always makes me feel guilty and undeserving because the standards for foreign students are much less rigorous than they are for Japanese students (I mean, they let me in).

The point I'm trying to make is that Kyoto University is a big deal in Japan. And you don't get to be President of Kyoto University by being an intellectual lightweight. You get to be President of Kyoto University by being an outstanding scholar, by having a distinguished academic career, and by having a long list of awards and accolades from places like NASA behind your name.

This is the President I had dinner with. This is the President I embarrassed myself in front of.

The dinner was actually a thank you party for some work I had done for the President in the fall. I was part of a small support team contracted to do some writing for a science and technology conference in Kyoto. My job was to summarize notes from the conference, which would be compiled into a booklet for delegates. On the last day of the conference, the President was asked to give the closing speech and I was asked to help write it.

A week later, an email popped up in my in-box inviting me to a private party hosted by the President. He wanted to thank the support team for the work we had done during the conference.

There was no way I could say no. It was a huge honour and a great opportunity. But I'm not a big fan of Japanese parties. Mostly because "party" is a bit of a misnomer. It's more like a business meeting with alcohol. These so-called parties are structured events with all kinds of rules and procedures. Nothing says fun like enforced fun.

I arrived at the izakaya 10 minutes early (although, "10 minutes early" is technically "on time" by Japanese standards). The hostess ushered me upstairs into a private room where several men in suits were sitting quietly at a low table without chairs.

There were about 20 place settings at the table, which was strange because there were only four of us on the support team. We were joined by various professors and researchers, whose role in the conference is just as much of a mystery to me now as it was then.

Someone gestured for me to take a seat on the floor at the centre of the table. My friend Seema, who was also part of the support team, sat on my right and a whole bunch of Japanese people we had never met before sat across from us.

Everyone kept their eyes focused on their laps. No one spoke. No drinks would be poured and no food would be served until after the President had arrived. It was at this point I realized there was only one empty seat at the table and it was directly on my left. They had seated the President right beside me.

This filled me with both excitement and dread. Excitement because I was going to get one-on-one time with the President of the university. Dread because I had no idea what to say to the man.

Powerful people tend to have powerful personalities. They're more gregarious and friendly and confident than the average person. The President was no exception.

He walked into the room and immediately decided that the tatami floor was much too hard to sit on. He grabbed nine pillows from the corner of the room. Three for him, three for me and three for Seema. He demanded that we stretch our legs out under the table and get comfortable.

He filled my glass with beer for the first toast of the evening. So far, so good.

With the first speech out of the way, it was time for the self-introduction portion of the evening. I smiled and nodded as each person around the table introduced themselves but I didn't pay close attention to their names. What was the point? I wasn't going to see any of these people again. Besides, I'm terrible at remembering names. How was I supposed to learn 20 names in two minutes?

This was my first mistake of the night.

As soon as the introductions were over, the President turned to me and asked if I had heard everyone's name. I told him I had.

"Okay," he said, making a circular motion with his hand. "Go around the table once more and tell me everyone's name."

The entire table was silent. All eyes were on me.

I cursed myself for not having paid attention. But if I was going to humiliate myself in front of the group I might as well go down laughing.

"Well, this is Seema," I said. "And that's Kawa . . . Kawa . . . Kawa-something."

We went around the table like that, with the President waiting for me to butcher each person's name before correcting me. I masked my mortification with a smile.

We were about halfway around the table when I realized I had completely forgotten the President's name. If he asked me what his name was, I wouldn't be able to do it. I started to panic. There were only a few more people to go before we landed on him. I could handle the embarrassment of forgetting a few strangers' names but forgetting the name of the President would be social suicide. I would be shunned by the group and exposed as a fraud. They would probably revoke my scholarship. My heart sank when the one question I was dreading most finally came.

"And what's my name?" the President asked.

In a desperate attempt to charm my way out of a bad situation, I tilted my head, batted my eyelashes and said, "先生は京都大学の一番大切な人です!"

(This translates as, "You are the most important person at Kyoto University!" but it makes way more sense when you say it in Japanese because it's more respectful to call someone by their title, rather than their name.)

He laughed, and so did everyone else. But the President wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily.

He gave me a hint: "Matsu . . ."

"Hiro?" I guessed.


"You forgot my name?" he asked.

I hung my head in shame and admitted that, yes, I had forgotten his name. He made light of it for a bit and then turned away from me and started talking to the person on his left.

Everyone was looking at me with the same expression – one part amusement, two parts pity. I didn't feel judged, I felt dismissed. Dismissed as a frivolous, trifling person.

After 15 long minutes, the President finally stopped giving me the cold shoulder. Except, right at the exact moment he started talking to me again, I bit into a piece of fish and four bones got stuck in my mouth. I couldn't exactly pull the bones out of my mouth and stick them in a napkin while he was talking to me so I just smiled and nodded.

Except I was distracted the entire time. All I could think about was getting a fish bone stuck in my throat (it happened before and no amount of coughing and vomiting could dislodge it). I was terrified if I didn't pull the bones out soon I would swallow one and it would get stuck in my throat. I had to concentrate on not swallowing. But because I wasn't swallowing, a pool of saliva was building up in my mouth.

There were only two options: swallow and choke on a fish bone; or spit and offend one of the most important people in Japan.

Luckily, I didn't have to choose either option. The President, bored with our one-sided conversation, turned away again. The second he turned his back on me, I pulled the bones out of my mouth and swallowed. I also stayed away from the fish for the rest of the night.

My third attempt to make a good impression on him didn't go so well either. The conversation got off to an awkward start.

"Do you know what K-Y is?" he asked me.

I sort of blinked at him in disbelief. I wasn't sure I had heard him right so I asked him to repeat the question. So he did. Louder and more clearly this time.

"Do you know what K-Y is?"

Now, I know exactly what K-Y is but I also knew there was no way the President of Kyoto University was asking for my thoughts on personal lubricants. So I decided to play dumb.

He explained that K-Y was short for kuuki yomenai (which literally means "you can't read the air" and is slang for someone who is clueless). He said he has a soft spot for K-Ys and I think maybe he was trying to explain that he volunteers with mentally disabled children. Or maybe he was talking about me. It was hard to tell.

He speaks English fluently but he insisted on speaking Japanese with me. I can be charming and funny and (somewhat) intelligent in English. But in Japanese I come across as a bumbling half-wit. At best.

So instead of being able to ask him his thoughts on Japan's new Prime Minister or the economic crisis, my limited Japanese only allowed me to ask the really important questions -- like what his hobbies were. (Golf and magic tricks.)

I hadn't felt this socially awkward since high school. At least this time I was legally allowed to drink.

People were starting to switch seats so they could chat with someone new and I moved to the other side of the table to talk with a group of professors. I figured it would be better that way. If I wasn't talking to the President, then I wouldn't be able to embarrass myself further. I let Seema, who is effortlessly funny and clever in any language, charm the pants off the President.

Eventually, someone stood up and made a closing speech and we all clapped and, just like that, the party was over. And that was my disastrous dinner with the President. But I'm not beating myself up over it.

I know that if I had had dinner with my boyfriend Barack, it would have gone much, much better. I wouldn't have forgotten his name. And we probably would have eaten boneless chicken. And he wouldn't have made me speak Japanese. And talking about K-Y wouldn't have been awkward at all.

No comments: