Ward: Of cell phones and empty orchestras

AS THOSE of you who read me every two weeks... you already know I'm an American who has lived outside his own culture since 1972. I haven't called myself an ex-pat for many years as that title applies more to one who intends "to return home" one day to settle. Me, I'm settled, thank you.

Home to me all these years have been wherever I hung my hat... that's the fascination I have with different cultures. I wasn't much of a student but Social Studies and Geography were always my forte. Over these years in Asia... surely have seen a lot of "firsts."

In the early '70s in a Kowloon bar in Hong Kong, I remember when a guy sat down and slammed a monster mobile phone on the countertop! As big as walkie talkies and quite expensive to boot. He proceeded to call someone and have a loud chat in Cantonese. I remember thinking "whoa, these things are pretty antisocial; hope they never catch on." Three of you guys no doubt just stopped reading to check your phones (I saw that).

Fast forward to the late '70s in Japan. My boss at the time, an Irishman from Phillie, and I stopped in at a favorite watering hole after sales calls. Yeah, you see a trend here... it was considered a very regular thing to unwind over drinks in those days. Expected even. In those days, I was a "Scotch & Water" guy which was the salaryman's favorite choice back in the day. (Who remembers Old Parr?)

Anyhow, a drunken Japanese salaryman (not a rare sight) was holding a mic and singing "If You Think I'm Sexy" by Rod Stewart to the rapture of the pretty Mama San behind the bar. What the Hell? When he staggered home, we asked Mama what this strange thing was all about. She explained it is called Karao (means empty) oke (means orchestra) in Japanese. Bet you didn't know that? Hiromi, the petite 5 ft 2 in mama was thrilled to be one of the first bars to install it. Geez, Hiromi, haven't thought of her for ages, but I digress.

Again I thought, like with the cell phone, hope this "empty orchestra" thing never catches on. Well, now we live with the consequences.

Next column I will continue with more stories on being a "Stranger in a Strange Land" with tales on... Al Capone or Michael Jordan... awkward returns home... winter and vodka in Mongolia... fistfights in Jakarta... and more.

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