There are a lot of people in Washington DC, but it can be difficult to meet them. And when you do meet them, you might regret that you did. Four Courts is an Irish bar in Arlington, Virginia, one block away from the Courthouse Metro station and a quarter mile from the apartment complex I lived in while studying Japanese for the Navy. Arlington isn’t part of the city, but it’s close. It’s like Brooklyn if Brooklyn was made up of a bunch of white guys with white collars, each convinced that they had a more important job than the other.
I was a somewhat frequent patron of the bar, not as dedicated as my friend Gary (Callsign: Flamer) who was a fellow NFO in squadronVQ-3 in Oklahoma and who rotated to the DC area a few months ahead of me. Gary had a pewter mug with his name on it hanging on the wall of Four Courts and the bartenders knew his name. On Gary’s recommendation, I signed with the apartment complex just up the road from his. Throughout the year, we often hung out at Gary’s favorite establishment, which, over time, I grew fond of.
Gary is laid back, always amenable, and would greet me with an easy smile that either hid some stray thought he had about me or the secret of how he didn’t let anything get to him, and if he did, that he knew how not to show it. On this particular day, I sat next to Gary, Yuengling in hand, and he introduced me to an Ensign in the Navy that he knew, a skinny blonde guy like myself, the primary difference, besides our rank (I was a Lieutenant) that he seemed to have stamped on his forehead the sign Way Too Happy to be Here.
The first thing he said to me:
“My fiance’s dad is an Admiral at the Pentagon,” while shaking my hand.
I don’t care. But I played nice. “Yeah?” I said. “What kind of Admiral?”
His attention was divided between me and the variety of tap handles at the bar. What kind?” he asked.
“Yeah, one star, two star…”
He grabbed his beer, looked back, and smiled. “He’s an Admiral,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder and disappearing into the Happy Hour crowd of Polo Shirts and Button Ups.
Ensigns, I thought to myself, shaking my head. I furrowed my brow in the direction of Gary. Gary shrugged his shoulders back at me. I finished my Yuengling and went back to my apartment.
My interaction with this Ensign was a little unnerving, but not surprising. It’s a culture I had grown accustomed to after moving from Oklahoma City to the Washington DC. It’s a well-known stereotype that DC is a city inhabited that people who define themselves by what job they have and who they know. Like a lot of stereotypes, it’s not true for everyone but very true for some people. For this Ensign, the stereotype applied. I wanted to know what was up with him–I didn’t care about his connections– and it annoyed me that he would introduce himself to me in such a way. Maybe one reason I found it so annoying was because I saw more than just a physical resemblance of myself reflected in him. Maybe I felt that I acted towards other people the same way he acted towards me.
My path to Washington DC was the result of a deliberate attempt to leave Oklahoma. I had spent four years in Oklahoma, stationed on Tinker Air Force Base, and didn’t want to stay for my shore tour. Nice town. Not for me. Nice people. That’s not the point. After spending almost a year applying for a military foreign language scholarship called the Olmsted scholarship and not receiving it, my XO informed me of orders that seemed to be in the realm of the Olmsted scholarship, but in a country and with a language that was the opposite of what I had desired. I wanted French, German, or Spanish. The orders were for Japanese, and two years in Japan. Japan is different from Europe, but it wasn’t Oklahoma, and for that reason it was the same. I said yes.
I was initially told I was going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey Bay, California, and I was excited. Nice beaches. Always sunny. I was then told that my orders changed to DLI in Washington DC. I was less excited. I was from the east coast and I liked the east coast, and I had gone to school in Annapolis, just 30 miles from DC. But I didn’t have very fond memories of life as a Midshipman. Also, while I was there, I never really ventured into the city. I heard stories of my classmates going to Georgetown for weekend parties, but I was too busy with my own bubble to try to break into another one.
DC was a city of “Others.” A city with parties, but also with traffic, coffee, and stress. Politicians and political maneuvering. Politics is why I wanted out of Oklahoma–the politics of the squadron. Another reason I didn’t want to go to DC was that, on some level, maybe I was afraid that the adage “you can’t go home again” was true, and even though DC wasn’t home, it was in the vicinity, close enough to unwisely try to undermine unattributed quotations. Despite these fears, I’m happy to report that the world didn’t tilt on its axis when I arrived in DC. That shouldn’t have surprised me. What did, however, was how much the city appealed to me.
If the city was a good fit, I quickly learned that Japanese was not, or at least not the way it was taught to me. Or maybe the way I was learning. The class was one on one—just me and my language teacher—and I was scheduled to have class Monday thru Friday, 8 AM to 12 pm, for a year. A month in I was already exhausted. I would leave as late as possible from my apartment in Arlington to walk the twenty minutes down the hill to Rosslyn. After class was done, I would walk back up the hill to my apartment, and lie down on my couch, mentally and emotionally drained, leaving my apartment only to go for a run and grab some dinner. I was miserable. I’d often wake up early to do my homework in a rush before going to class, barely able to complete it, and even if I did, it wasn’t done well.
I was tired from waking up early. I was tired from the daily onslaught of class. And I was stressed: from learning a language, from sitting across another person for four hours a day having to talk to them in Japanese. And then having the whole day to myself. In both cases: the stress of being alone? In September, on my birthday, I walked to a local Japanese restaurant with the intent of ordering food in Japanese. On the walk over, I realized I wasn’t proficient enough in my abilities to do so, so I walked to a Chinese restaurant instead, ordered food in English, went home, and watched three straight episodes of the HBO series The Wire before going to bed, walking up early to do my Japanese homework, feeling guilty about not doing my homework the night before, and feeling stressed from the guilt.
Because of the stress, I wasn’t sleeping even though I was tired. I would sleep four hours one night, waking up at 3:30 in the morning and just lie there waiting for the day to arrive. When that happened, I spent class pounding coffee and too tired to contribute, and the afternoon after class back at my apartment on my couch, not able to sleep, but too tired to study, whiling away the hours with some combination of the internet and television, falling asleep at 9 pm and staying that away until my alarm went off at 7.
I was stuck in a cycle. Japanese wasn’t a good fit, but I couldn’t get out of it. And I couldn’t seem to find a way to enjoy the experience. I needed a change.I needed a schedule.
I needed to be social, actually. Instead of returning to my apartment after class, I started to go to a public place to study. Coffee shop. Café at the Portrait Gallery. I eventually found a backdoor way to use George Washington University library by becoming a member of the Foggy Bottom Association, of which I was a member only by association. I only wanted access to the library. Being around people made me feel included even though I was studying by myself. I would often eat lunch at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom and, before going to the library, hang out at the counter by the window afterwards, alternating between studying and observing the people walk by, feeling that we were all in this together. Sometimes it was more than a feeling. Several times, the person nearest me would look at the strange characters that I was reading and would start a conversation with me. When they asked me why I was studying Japanese and I told them about the Navy, they were impressed and I felt good.
One woman surprised me. She came at me like a karate chop.
“Kanji!” she exclaimed. I jumped in my seat before looking over to see a set of wide eyes and a smile to match. She was referencing the Japanese characters I was studying. I gave kind of half-smile. When she asked why I was studying Japanese, and I said for the Navy, her faced dropped, dismayed that my perceived interest was actually a sense of obligation.
The more I studied in public, the more I made an event of it, spreading out my textbooks and my notes, putting the countless index cards of Japanese characters on top and repeating Japanese words to myself at a register just above a whisper, loud enough for the patron nearest to me to hear what I was saying but soft enough that he or she wouldn’t think I was making a deliberate attempt to seek the attention of others.
One time, through this method, I met a woman named Carly at Bayou Bakery in Arlington, when she looked over at my textbooks and commented that she used to study Japanese, too. She had black hair and body language that communicated reluctance. I got her number and we met for beer on the rooftop of the Whitlow’s, a stream of mist raining down on us in an attempt to keep us cool in the late summer weather, while actually just putting a damper on our already sagging conversation. A couple months later, I ran into a woman that I thought was Carly at the Whole Foods in Arlington. No, it was her. I was certain of it.
“Oh, hey Carly,” I said to her. “How are you?”
She stared back at me, through my eyes and right into my soul. “I’m not the person you think I am,” she said, then turned to walk away.
After that, I continued to make a display of my studying, but it lost some of its luster. I had intrigued some people but had failed to connect with them. The last straw happened another time I was studying at Bayou Bakery. A Japanese couple with a baby was sitting next to me. I stopped what I was doing and told them in Japanese that their baby was “cute.” They were impressed by my proficiency and were further impressed when I told them, in Japanese, that I was in the Navy.
A few minutes later, before they got up to leave, another patron, a white male, went over to and told them, in Japanese, that he used to live in Japan. They were excited for him. I felt betrayed. By both of them. I was the one for whom other people should be excited. More than this other white guy, who used to live in Japan and didn’t anymore. More than any white guy in the entire 202. I had dibs. If I couldn’t connect to the language of Japanese, I could use the language to connect to other people. Even if that connection was a false one, it was one that was singular to me. He made me realize that what I was seeking—companionship, friendship, etc—was worthwhile, but the way I was seeking it was not. And I resented him for it.
I left the bakery and walked back to my apartment, lied down on my couch, and thought about the world. I needed something new. Something newer and better than the thing before.