Play the Part

Chaos in Print

Just forget the words and sing along – “Weird Al” Yankovic

Japan has this form of entertainment known as the hostess bar. At the outset, it seems like a regular bar, but there is something different. After you sit at your table, you are joined by an (usually) attractive young woman, who is, in reality, an employee of the bar. This is your hostess. Throughout the evening, she will entertain you with stale jokes, shower you with false compliments, and get you to spend more money at the bar by buying more drinks for yourself, and her. Once she starts getting inebriated, she’ll go to the back room to sleep it off, and you’ll be joined by a different young woman. And so the evening goes, until you are hammered and broke.

Now, for the visitor like me, this is one of those uniquely Japanese things that inspires a lot of curiosity. And, for some reason, it inspired even more curiosity to one of my female coworkers. One night, I was hanging out with her and two of her friends and, after they were nicely wasted, they got it in their head to go check out a hostess bar. Normally, this is where I’d take the cue to make a discreet exit, but, according to their drunken logic, three women walking into a hostess bar would probably be weird. They needed a token man along so they could say, “Oh, we’re just here with him.” They asked me to go with them. They begged me to go with them. They pleaded me to go with them. And since for most of my jobs in my short life, my boss has been female, this has cursed me with the inability to say no to a woman. We were off to a hostess bar. Kumagaya has more than its fair share, and my co-worker, in her inebriated state, led us to one.

We paid the cover charge (besides drinks, hostess bars also charge by the hour) and our waiter led us to our table. We sat down…and the waiter joined us. We were soon joined by another waiter. And another. Three strange men were now at our table. My three drunken female friends were already in fine form. “Oh, yeah,” they were already slurring. “He just always wanted to check out one of these places, so we’re just here with him.” So, all these men were trying to play cute with me. They were pouring me drinks (I don’t drink), offering me cigarettes (I don’t smoke), and, committing one of the seven deadly sins of Markworld, playing with my hat. Every muscle in my body grew tense as I tried to cope with the situation.

They all left after a while, and that’s when I finally had to ask the question. “OK, so where are the women?” My three female companions, being wonderfully drunk, hadn’t really noticed yet, so the only Japanese speaker in our group asked one of the waiters, and that’s when things were made clear. This wasn’t a hostess bar. This was a host bar. Same concept, only with the gender roles reversed. My discomfort level quadrupled as I suddenly realized the gravity of the situation. Why they were fawning over me…”Oh, we’re just here because he wanted to come”…my God.

My discomfort was at such a level now that it was visible to my companions, even in their state. I wanted to get out now. My co-worker who led us here pulled me aside and had harsh words for me. “Mark, you’re embarrassing us,” she said. “Just play the part.”

Play the part. Those were words that came back to haunt me this week, only now it was in a place where my life depended on it. Well, my academic life. As part of my return to school, I had to take a course called “Team Skills.” The broadcasting faculty prefers to teach this as a two day event. Now, having been in the real world for a while now, I’ve been through a few of these team building seminars. Having been the geek-outsider for most of my adolescent/teen/young adult life, I tend to look at these with a certain amount of cynicism. My attitude is, “Oh, so NOW you want me in your little clique.” And the teaching of them doesn’t help much, either. Usually, the instructors strike me as being phys ed teachers, struggling to figure out how to teach the concepts of being in a team without making us play basketball. Which, in the case of my Team Skills course, the instructors finally broke down and did. And volleyball, too, for good measure.

I won’t lie. I did not want to be there. If given the choice, I would have gone and saw a movie. But, it was a requirement of the Radio program, and if I want to pass…. I figured I had to play the part. So I sat there. I feigned interest as they told us those wonderful corporate motivational slogans, “No I in team,” and such. (But if you rearrange the letters, you do find “me,” but I digress.) The split us into teams and has us discuss what it means to be in a team, or what we look for in a leader. They had us play volleyball, basketball, run obstacle courses, build Lego men, and I just nodded. “Uh huh. Uh huh.” I am not a leader. I’ve known that for a while and accepted it. Although, there are times I wish I had spoke up more. Being more skilled in aspects of engineering, I should have taken a more active role in the construction of the Lego man. I should have protested a little more when we came up with the name of our team: the Jellyfish. But, they did like the demented jellyfish I drew for our logo. I wasn’t there to lead. I was just playing the part. And it was strange. After a while, I found my discomfort gave way to…indifference. Indifference made the rest of the two days much more tolerable. It ended, and I guess I’m a certified team player now. There was heartbreak, though. Apparently, my personality style is more in line with being the accountant back at the station than a DJ on the front line.

I guess we all have parts to play in life. Often, we find that they are thrust upon us, and we find that they are uncomfortable. But we have to do it. In time, the discomfort will give way to indifference, and, in very rare circumstances, we might find pleasure in the role. Does it feel weird? Of course. Do the rewards match the discomfort? Usually not. But we must. We must play the part. Yes, it’s hollow, callow, and maybe even a little manipulative. But look at that person on your left. You might be uncomfortable, but they’re having the time of their life. We must play the part for them.

As I did that night in the host bar. We stayed there for about another half-an-hour, as we were slowly running out of money and it became an unaffordable endeavour. But, my discomfort did give way to indifference. I began sharing this quite openly with hosts, as I told them stories about the things we do for women. I went home that night, with a little residual discomfort, but happy nonetheless. I had played the part, and I played it well.

And I was never as uncomfortable as my female co-worker was on Monday morning, when the hosts she drunkenly promised free English lessons to came looking for their freebie.

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