Issue 122 |
Winter 2013-14

Unreliable Tour Guide: A Plan B Essay


In the Plan B essay series, writers discuss their contingency plans, extraliterary passions, and the roads not traveled.


As a student in Tokyo in the 1980s I would often go to the local Shinto shrine just to listen to the quiet. Small and undistinguished, a gap between concrete commercial buildings, the shrine was reached by an alleyway lined with red torii, or ritual gates. Off to one side was a structure no bigger than a phone booth, all steeply pitched roof and closed doors, bound by a heavy length of sacred rope: the place where the spirit, the kami, lived.

I believed I could feel the presence of the kami in the narrow alley and weird little space between buildings, and in the sudden inexplicable quiet amid the noise of the city. It was the same sense of mystery I felt everywhere in Japan, just a little clearer, a little easier to locate. And so it was while standing there, at the shrine, that I decided I was going to write a novel as soon as I got back to America, because novels are shrines too, sacred spaces where you can feel the presence of things too deep to name.

Back in New York City a year later, I bought a typewriter and got ready to write that novel. The problem was that I also needed a job. At the age of 23, my work experience was limited to teaching English conversation to a group of Buddhist priests in the Shitamachi, an older area of Tokyo. They had quickly introduced me to an Edo period drinking game called Tosenkyo, in which players try to knock down a little target by sailing an outspread fan across the room, much as if it were a paper airplane. Scoring was complex and fanciful, requiring a fairly detailed knowledge of the eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji. Not a lot of English conversation got done, which was fine with everyone.

So when I sat down to consider my marketable skills, I identified just three: I was good at trading raunchy jokes with drunken clergy; I knew how to make an open fan swoop and glide across a room; and I could speak Japanese.

And then one day, I was walking downtown, avoiding the novel I didn’t know how to start, when I saw a tight formation of camera-toting Japanese in front of the World Trade Center, led by a woman carrying a little red flag. I watched them climb single file into a gigantic bus and lumber off.

Tour guide. I could be a tour guide.

What could be easier than walking around with a little flag, showing people the sights? It would require no commitment, no thought, and would leave my mind free for the novel that was even then, I believed, forming in my unconscious.

I called up one of the bigger companies and got an interview for the very next day. The man who would become my boss interviewed me standing up in a hallway, too busy to sit down. He was cadaverously thin, with big dark circles around his eyes—haunted-looking, as if the thought of losing a busload of tourists in the Bronx, clicking away at their cameras, made it impossible to sleep at night.

“Tell me,” he asked in Japanese, “what do you think makes a successful tour guide?”

I hadn’t given it a thought. “Well, my Japanese, while miserable and painful to listen to, is not completely impossible to understand,” all of which was a very Japanese way of implying that since my command of the language was good enough for Tokyo University, it would be good enough for a busload of rice farmers from Niigata on their first trip abroad.

“No, that’s not it,” he said. “It’s not just the ability to communicate. A good tour guide is someone who wants to make people happy.” He looked at me with great hopeful earnestness. “Do you like making people happy, Robaato-san?”

“Of course I do,” I said, trying to smile like someone who might actually feel that way.

He didn’t seem completely convinced, but a couple of days later I was at JFK, holding up the sign he’d handed me.

And then the doors slid open and they began to walk toward me, blinking uncertainly: a seemingly endless line of elderly Japanese in golf hats, thick glasses, and crepe-soled shoes. As they drew close, I could see them glance from my sign to my face, then look past me for someone else, the real tour guide.

In Japan back then, this kind of invisibility was the foreigner’s constant dilemma, so it was a situation I understood well. I bowed extra low. “O-tsukare ni narimashita,” I said: This has been tiring for you.

“You speak Japanese,” said one. “What a relief.”

“But you’re not Japanese, are you?” said another.

While living in Tokyo, I’d gotten used to people simply not believing that I could speak the language, even as I was speaking it to them. They would look from me to the Japanese person standing next to me, assuming that the words were coming from that other person’s mouth through some extraordinary act of ventriloquism. What I felt was not sorrow or anger but a strange sort of tenderness. “Please accept my deepest apologies for not being Japanese,” I said, bowing again. “It’s true that I’m only an American, but I will nevertheless try my best.”

Those closest to me bowed in return. Someone said, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

I got the group onto the bus and took it straight from JFK into a city tour that is a little blurry all these years later: Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Chinatown, Battery Park, Wall Street—they were all in there. I rode up front, the microphone in my hand. The guide I’d shadowed the day before on my one-and-only training run had kept up a steady stream of patter about the size, height, and cost of just about everything we’d passed, but somehow I hadn’t thought to prepare anything of my own. Wasn’t I born here? Hadn’t I lived most of my life here? I’d just assumed that I could wing it, but as we rumbled on, I became aware that my pauses were getting longer and longer, the tourists watching me with concern.

So I began making stuff up.

Passing the Central Park Zoo, I mentioned the escaped tiger they were still trying to capture—how the park was safe during the day when it slept in its hiding place, but dangerous at night when it hunted. “You must absolutely stay out of the park at night,” I told them.

“What does it eat then?” somebody asked.

“The rat problem is much better now.”

Turning the corner on 72nd Street, I noted the big brown bulk of the Dakota House. “To our right you see the place where internationally famed musician John Lennon was killed by a crazed fan. See that dark spot there? That’s his blood. It’s been left there as a tribute. The city doesn’t wash this sidewalk anymore.”

“I don’t see any dark spot,” somebody said.

“By the entrance. You have to look closely.” Mercifully, traffic was moving pretty briskly. “The Dakota House is, by the way, the most expensive apartment building in the world, with apartments selling for tens of millions of dollars. The biggest spans the entire top floor and costs one hundred million dollars. The master bathroom is made of solid gold.”

“Solid gold? Can’t be.”

“But it is.”

Apparently nobody complained about my loose hold on the facts, because my boss began giving me customized assignments. I took two slightly raffish executives of the Japan Motorboat Racing Association up and down the East Coast on a tour of racetracks and casinos. I went to a series of fashion events with the Pearl Princess, who, as winner of the Pearl Princess Beauty Pageant and official face of the Japanese pearl industry, was required to wear a ceremonial kimono and a big pearl tiara at all appearances, though clearly hating every minute of it. I rode around town in the back of a stretch limo with a famous calligrapher who was something like the Keith Richards of the art form, in black turtleneck and sunglasses (I still have the piece he made for me). I spent two weeks at a golf resort in Florida with a rich elderly couple, serving as interpreter, caddy, and surrogate son, dressed up in the golf clothes they picked out for me in the pro shop.

There was something fascinating about the sudden false intimacy of those connections, spending all day with a stranger in airports and hotels, taking his or her smallest, most fragile wishes and translating them into a language he or she could not understand (“He says he wants starch on the front of the shirt, but not on the back…”). Often, it made me feel like Sancho Panza, humoring the madness of Don Quixote, but it also made me feel useful and therefore a little less existentially lost. And then, too, there was a strange, almost abstract quality of loneliness to the enterprise, because once the trip was finished and there was nothing left to translate, the people also disappeared.

But I think the real reason that I continued as long as I did (three years, incredibly) was that it allowed me to speak Japanese all day. Wrapping myself in those long, intricate sentences, so different from anything possible in English, let me feel as if I hadn’t ever really left Japan and therefore didn’t need to begin figuring out the next phase of my life. It didn’t matter that writing fiction was a lot harder than I’d ever thought, and that my novel was getting nowhere. Working as a tour guide, time itself seemed to have stopped moving forward, and I was safe from the future and whatever it might require of me.

I don’t know how long I would have continued in the job, left uninterrupted; most probably I would have pulled myself together at some point. As it happened, the end came with an interpreting assignment for a guy representing his village’s pearl cooperative; he had come to negotiate a deal with an American wholesaler located in the Diamond District, and so we took a cab from his hotel to that neighborhood full of Hasidic men in black hats and long beards, carrying little paper bags full of precious gems. The firm we visited was Hasidic too, the owner a distinguished rabbi who sat behind a big desk in a room filled with heavy leather books in Hebrew.

“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, feeling some trepidation. All the care and study in my life had gone into learning Japanese; I couldn’t pass an impromptu Hebrew test, had never opened a volume of Talmud.

“Do you think they’re going to help you when you’re in trouble?” he asked.

“Who’s they?” But of course I already understood. He had constructed a quick little story around me, in which I was trying to hide or deny my true identity—trying to get myself adopted by the Japanese as a sort of mascot. It was ridiculous, but it also hit home. My hands began shaking.

“I don’t need any help,” I said, barely squeezing the words out.

It was just a moment. He looked at me and frowned; we all went back to our discussion of pearls. At the end of the day, I dropped my client off at his hotel, took the train home, and lay on my bed, replaying the exchange over and over again in my memory, excavating every layer of hurt.

The rabbi was both right and wrong, I knew. He was right in that I had a choice to make, but he was wrong in that the choice wasn’t between the Japanese and the Jews. It was between then and now, and between now and the future, and between safety and risk, and between translating other people’s desires and describing the world as I saw it, an enterprise by its very nature saturated with desire. It was between being a tour guide and telling the true story of the city I kept glimpsing out of the tour bus window: the story of the world I grew up in.

I got out of bed, went to the window, and pulled open the curtains. Darkness had fallen, and the quiet street in Brooklyn where I lived was almost empty. Someone was walking a dog, someone else carrying home groceries. Someone on rollerblades sped toward Prospect Park.



Robert Anthony Siegel’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, The Oxford American, Tablet, The Los Angeles Times Online, Story, The Harvard Review, Pushcart Prize 2012, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed (MacAdam/Cage, 2007), and All the Money in the World (Random House, 1997). He is currently a Fulbright Fellow at Tunghai University in Taiwan.