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Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Packaged tight with care


In the old days, Christmas used to come every few months.

For in my mailbox would be a note that a package had arrived from home.

To me, at the time a bachelor living in rural Kyushu in the pre-Internet, pre-video, pre-almost-anything past, such a note brought all-over activity to a halt. I would drop what I was doing and rush to the post office.

It wasn't exactly a "care package" like those sponsored by the CARE organization, but the gift from home was just as precious. The same thing happened with all other foreigners in town. We were only a handful then, a gaijin community to ourselves.

"I got Oreo cookies and malted milk balls! How about you?"

My lunch mate would push away his noodles and shake his head.

"My last package? Razor blades, soap, and socks."

He was a missionary and apparently one supporting church thought he was serving on a deserted island, not in downtown Kumamoto.

But in the end all that mattered was the link to home. All the goodies everyone shared. My friend got a tupper of Oreos and I got a crate of razor blades. As for the malted milk balls . . . they were mine, all mine.

That was then. And now?

Now. . . Who cares?

Not that my Stateside family has forgotten me. It's just that modern conveniences have made old-style care packages obsolete.

"Care" has been taken over by 7-11, Lawson's and all their other clones, in any one of which I can fill all my pockets with all the Snickers, M&Ms and Oreos that I wish. Funny, but such easily gained spoils don't taste nearly as sweet.

"Care" has been commandeered by McDonald's, KFC, Dominos and other food chains that once offered memories more than they did nutrition. The nutrition is still lacking, but the shops are almost too ubiquitous to ring of "back home" anymore. Not that anyone would stick a Big Mac in a care package, but the old parcels did have a "happy meal" resonance.

"Care" has been replaced by Costco. Whenever I return from their nearest mega-store, I think I need to hammer an extra room onto my house, some place to stash all the stuff I bought. And what stuff! The best junk that money can buy! And at junk appropriate prices. It's like going home, minus the cost of an air ticket.

"Care" has been usurped by Amazon.com. There is no need to dream and drool over goods only sold across the sea. No necessity to pen that snail mail letter to Mom saying, "Hey, could you send me. . ." I can surf the shopping world right from my desktop, while sitting in my underwear and munching Fritos (purchased at Costco's). Anything I might want is there. And in return for a credit card number and a click, it will move from there to here, often in just days.

Nowadays, to ask anyone to send me anything is presenting them with a burden. I can do it easier myself and Japan is not the distant land it once was.

Yet, I miss those old care packages. Not that I would turn back the clock. For the good old days were not that good. Still, that heart-leap of surprise and rush of joy cannot be produced by 7-11, Pizza Hut, Costco or Amazon. Those are products they do not sell.

"A proper 'care' package must come from home. The difference between then and now is that your home has changed."

The speaker is my wife who argues that the rise of modern convenience means nothing.

"We send stuff to our own son, right? Do you think he can't find Japanese instant noodles? In L.A.? No, our package of Japanese junk is our sign that he's still ours. And he will be until he plants himself in one spot to stay."

"Meanwhile you have planted yourself in Japan. You don't need care packages anymore. You're no longer theirs. You're mine."

But I must have that "care package" look in my eye for she continues with . . .

"So what do you want then? Malted milk balls? Razors and soap? Do you want me to wrap your breakfast each day and place it in the post box?"

Now wouldn't that be fun! But I suppose the neighbors would think we're nuts.

"And they'd be right."

No, I tell her. I don't need care packages anymore. Nothing she could make could match the quality of my memories, which are packaged tight in my heart with care as bright and shiny as any Christmas wrapping.

Besides, I just found malted milk balls on Amazon.



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