Dark Coloured Track Suits and Plain Black Shoes

I wrote this whilst living in Aomori City, Japan

Sometimes before the salsa class that I have been going to recently, I pop into the game centre a couple of floors down and have a go on the taiko drum game. A few times there I have noticed a boy of twenty or so, hanging around on his own. He is skinny with pale skin and short, sensibly cut hair; his mouth is slightly down-turned, making him look kind of serious. Whenever I have seen him, he is wearing a nondescript, dark coloured tracksuit and plain black shoes.

The last time I was there, he was standing with a group of boys of around the same age, who were playing a game which involved racing miniature plastic horses. The boys he was with kept doing something wrong – I think one or two of them were sitting on a part of the machine – so the centre attendant kept coming over to tell them off unsuccessfully.

Although a cursory glance might have lead one to believe that the boy in the tracksuit was a part of the other boys’ group, I thought otherwise: partly because I had seen him there alone before; also because none of them seemed to be acknowledging his presence. Mainly however, it was the differences in his and their appearances that gave the game away. His clothes and hairstyle looked like they had been chosen for him by somebody else, with practicality and value-for-money in mind. They on the other hand, wore brightly coloured sweat pants and parka jackets made from PVC fabric, their hair grown long, styled and dyed various brassy shades of caramel. He wore his clothes to protect himself from the elements. They wore theirs for this purpose too, but also as a means to engage in Rebellion™; to make a statement about who they were and how they wished to be seen by others.

So, it seemed that he was standing next to them, but not actually with them: close in physical proximity yet distant in all other measures. At one point one of the boys – maybe in a deliberate attempt to get rid of him – came and stood with his back turned right in front of him, blocking him off from the others. For an instant the boy looked put-out and angered by this, as if his rightful place in the group had been stolen. Yet seemingly he took the hint, as the next time I looked around from the taiko game he had moved and was standing a few metres behind me, once again on his own.

I finished the game, and headed off towards the escalator to go up to salsa. As I was leaving, one of the boys broke off from the group and ran up behind me, keitai in hand.

“Excuse me,” he said in Japanese. “Can I take a photo with you?”

“No,” I replied in English, turning away and walking off toward the escalator.

Two Days in Kathmandu

From the airport we travelled by taxi through the city, along  pothole-filled roads crammed with red-brick houses on either side. Some were plastered and painted bright colours and covered in verdant green plants, high walls enclosing their neat, cool courtyards. Others were crumbling, half-up half-down, about to topple. In the background, massive, concrete-grey apartment buildings loomed half-built; skeletal structures pointing to a hoped-for future. Stray dogs slept here and there on the side of the road.

I remember the colours of the clothes that the women wore – pink, burgundy, turquoise, electric blue, greens and golds – carefully hand-washed, their vibrancy undiluted.

The word REVOLT was painted toweringly on the side of the wall. A billboard for a cellular network leant precariously from a rooftop, displaying a group of young, attractive people using mobile phones and looking pleased with themselves. Revolutionary socialism and consumerism both jostling to offer a form of escape; both coming off as somewhat incongruous with the surroundings.

In the mid-afternoon on our second day we went up a tower in the centre of the city, built 200 years before and opened recently to the public. From the narrow balcony at the top, we looked out on many rows of tall, narrow, higgledy-piggledy houses, and little matchstick figures playing football and cricket on the yellow-thirsty grass of the parks and sports fields. The faint silhouette of the surrounding mountains seemed to fade almost imperceptibly into the hazy grey low-hanging sky; the constant honking and beeping of the crowded streets was audible, yet distant. A father and a son were pointing somewhere and discussing something in good-natured contention, most likely the location of a certain place.

Later on we were sitting in a bar in the tourist area when a white man in his thirties or so stood in the middle of the street outside, alone. He held a transistor radio, and looking up towards the sky, he began singing something softly yet imploringly in a North American accent. Cars honked at him to get out of the way, yet no noise seemed to penetrate the trance-like state he was in. Two or three Nepalis watched from a nearby shop doorway, smiling curiously.

As we sat in the waiting room for the jeep that would take us out of the city, there was a toddler in a bright fuchsia dress with puff sleeves, her eyes coated with thick black make-up, ears pierced with thick gold rings. An empty wrapper of instant noodles had blown in from somewhere and she laughed happily to herself as she chased it, pitter-pattering across the grey concrete floor.

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu