The litter of embarkation cards and disembarkation cards that a person leaves behind as he travels about the world — sometimes I wonder where it will all end. Will the world presently be smothered by the heaps of cards as by an oyster population out of control?
I have left behind such a litter that I can pretty well fill out a card in a state between dreaming and waking. “Number of Passport: 106652. Date of Issue: May 19, 1958. Date of Expiration: Four years later. Place of Issue: Tokyo.” And so on.
There is only one entry that gives me pause: “Occupation.” I could say “writer,” I suppose, but that seems pretentious if not downright fraudulent, like calling yourself an archangel. I could say “hack,” but then out would come the dictionary, and the customs inspector would say, “You are not a horse let out for hire,” So generally I say “selfemployed,” and hurry on. I do not worry about the problem as much as I used to, for someone remarked not long ago that there must be a great many people who have the same trouble — Queen Elizabeth or the Pope, for example.
The crisis past, I go to sleep again for the rest of the card: “Port of Arrival: Bombay. Address while in India: Care of American Express. Currency: None. Business Acquaintances in India: None. Purpose of Visit: Tourism.” Although I greatly dislike the word “tourism,” which sounds like an ideology, I always use it, whatever the actual purpose of the visit. It is the least conspicuous answer, and so the smoothest, and a person who does any traveling soon learns the virtues of a little harmless fibbing. If he admits that he does, in fact, have a few odd coins from the last trip to India or that he does have a business acquaintance, a curio dealer in Delhi, he will probably have to post bond and make five special trips to Santacruz Airport, which is farther from Bombay than most airports are from most cities.
But I sometimes think how much fun it would be to put down the actual purpose of each trip, and watch the boggling.
For Manila and Bangkok it might be: “To look at the girls.” I would not mean, by so answering, that I meant to molest the girls, or act in any way deleterious to the public morals. I would mean simply what I said — that I wanted to look at them, as one might go to London and have a look at the Elgin marbles, or to Agra and have a look at the Taj Mahal, for they are among the supreme products of the human race.
Sometimes you see them in other places. Walking down a street in Honolulu, you become aware that a new focal point has come into the scene, to dominate it like the morning star; and there she is half a block away, a girl with a pair of great, soft, heavy-lashed Southeast Asian eyes. In Bangkok and Manila these girls are everywhere.
In Manila, again, and in Seoul, it might be: “To listen to the voices.” Whether the language is English or the native Tagalog, there is something singularly engaging about Filipino speech. As the sun goes down in a tropical explosion over Bataan across the bay, the hawkers up and down the Luneta seawall call out, “Balút, balút, balút,” and somehow the tropical colors are in the words. The wares are said to be very attractive too. I have lacked the courage to try them, however, and I have had Filipinos tell me that they are sold at sunset for good reason. Many people cannot stand to eat them except in darkness, which follows very quickly upon a tropical sunset. A balút is an unhatched chicken, still in the shell.
When the Filipinos use English their speech is just enough offbeat to be constantly lively and amusing. There are signs on the campus of the University of the Philippines which catch and crystallize the plaintive lilt in Filipino English: “Please do not pluck the flowers.”
In Korea it is the throaty l of the Korean language that pleases. It goes with the wild folk music of Korea, and the wild flinging dances. A person has to live in a country like Japan, where the l does not exist, to know how important it is.
I have a second answer ready for my Seoul landing cards: “To eat kimchi.” Kimchi is a fiery hot pickle that is a staple of the Korean diet.
I once heard a very touching story about the Korean War. Seoul was being abandoned for the second time, in the winter of 1950 and 1951, and a foreign correspondent found himself with some Korean girls on his hands who had been too close to the Americans not to be in danger when the Communists retook the city. After great exertions he managed to get a jeep hitched to one of the last trains south, but a very emphatic stipulation was that the girls had to travel light. Each of them showed up at the rendezvous struggling with an enormous pot of kimchi.
It will not be understood why I call this slight little story “touching.” So I will tell another story. Once when I was staying with an American couple in Seoul I remarked upon the more than pungent odor that attacked me at the head of the stairs each morning. “Yes,” said the wife, motioning toward the kitchen. “It’s their kimchi. They eat it raw the rest of the time, but they have to cook it for breakfast. There are three of them, and each happens to be from a different part of the country, and not one will touch anything except his own native kimchi. They have left home, you see, and their kimchi is what they have brought with them. The fumes in the morning are sometimes so powerful that you are afraid to light a match, but you get used to them.”
I am not as much of a connoisseur as those three Koreans in the kitchen. I devour the hundreds of kinds of kimchi indiscriminately. It is one of the two things — really good Japanese raw fish is the other — that I become intensely homesick for when I am away from the Orient. There is really nothing like it, roiling and surging in your mouth, while the great crags that surround Seoul like a crown stab into an unbelievably high, blue winter sky and a west wind blows in from China to freeze rice paddies and noses and ears. Kimchi is a major justification for President Truman’s decision to intervene in 1950. It was too important to let go.
Then there is an answer ready for Singapore and Hong Kong disembarkations: “To be done with it and move on again as soon as possible.” They are places to spend the night when something has gone wrong with the schedule beyond, or when burdened with a traveling companion who has never visited them.
Both are, of course, Chinese cities; there are not many soft Southeast Asian eyes in Singapore. I do not know why it is that the Chinese make me so nervous.
Perhaps it is the assumption of the Chinese that the whole world will presently come around to them, just as it was supposed to come around to the Central Kingdom in and before the nineteenth century. And their bustle and business and freedom from ethics make you suspect that they may be right. The world may not come around to them, exactly, but it could well be smothered by them, as by embarkation cards and disembarkation cards and an oyster population out of control. A coward essentially, I leave Singapore and Hong Kong with anxious backward glances.
An answer when disembarking on Okinawa: “To brood about the injustice of it all.” Okinawans are the sweetest, gentlest people in all the world. And what have they got for it? A good beating from everyone in sight, so violent the last time that the physical remains of their little toy kingdom were demolished and now they must live where there is room for life, among the jet bases. Sometimes a person wishes he could buy a plump little Latin-American republic for them, or maybe a minor archipelago in the Indies, where they could lie in the sun and wait for the bananas and coconuts to fall.
And finally an answer for Tokyo, waiting at the end of the trip: “To fret, and to live.” We of the Caucasian ghetto in Tokyo do a great deal of fretting about the crowds and the chaotic traffic and the stubborn refusal of the Japanese to cease being Japanese; but the outward pulls and the internal revulsions have so far not been strong enough to dislodge us. “To live” would be an answer acceptable even to a customs official, I suppose. Yet the verb is a complex one. It means both “to reside” and “to be alive.” That is why, despite the fretting, the trail of disembarkation cards always seems to end at Tokyo. It is a place — and there are not many — where you can simultaneously reside and be alive.