The best thing about traveling abroad is that it reminds us as Americans how great our country is and how much we love it. I'm not talking about the really important things like freedom and the constitution and the bill of rights and all that, but the more mundane things-like waitresses at diners with names like Sue.
I've spent a lot of time in Japan and one of my Japanese friends once tried to ask a waitress for some mayonnaise only to be told it wasn't available. "Do you have mayonnaise?" he asked her. "Oh yes," she replied. "Well, could you just put a little bit of it in a dish?" my friend asked. No deal she replied, that was against the rules and simply not possible.
On any number of occasions I've tried to substitute one vegetable for another in an entrée at a restaurant in Japan and only to be told that it was simply against the rules. Yes, they do have spinach, but replacing the broccoli in my meal with spinach is simply not possible. I don't even ask anymore.
On this trip, at a Starbucks I try to order gift certificates. "Of course," said the waitress when I asked. So I put down my credit card only to be told that I can't use a credit card, "Can I use a credit card for other things in the store?" I ask. "Oh yes," I'm told. Whatever. So, later I come back with cash and buy my six gift certificates, but this time I'm told of yet another odd regulation: "I'm sorry, but we will have to do six separate transactions, one for each gift certificate." Huh? She repeats herself. Just for fun I play along: "If I were to buy several donuts," I pointed to the pastry window, "would they all be separate transactions too?" I ask. "Oh, no," she replies, "only gift certificates." I didn't have the strength to pursue this insane line of thought so I just smiled, got my gift certificates and walked away. "Serenity now. Serenity now."
Later I drop by a Mister Donut to see if they have gift certificates. They do, but they don't sell them at their stores, but rather at their parent company, Duskin. Before they can even tell me where Duskin's are located, I am out the door. "Serenity now. Serenity now."
My Mother needs to cash a check and asks me to go with her to her Japanese bank about 30 minutes away. We walk in at around 11am and don't leave until after 2pm. First, she puts the check in front of the nice Japanese bank-lady who promptly goes to the back of the bank to consult with a nice Japanese bank-man about this most unusual of transactions. Checks never caught on in Japan, but being an international country and all, they at least have to pretend to be able to use them just to save face and not be thought of as a premodern country, so they do the next best thing: make it as inconvenient as possible for those who use them. Over the next three hours my Mother fills out forms, waits, fills out more forms, waits and waits. When we reach hour two, I briefly consider ordering a pizza and having it delivered to the bank and maybe even sharing pieces with the other employees hoping they'll get the message.
After three hours the transaction is finally complete-sort of. "When will the cash be in my account," my Mother asks. "In 30 days," the nice bank-man replies. Now I've had it and I let him have it in the most polite Japanese I know how to speak:
"Sir, we're living in a modern era with faxes and emails and telephones, why in the world would it take thirty days?" "Well, we have to confirm that the check is legitimate," he says. "OK, fair enough, but why does that take 30 days," I ask. "Because we send it to the U.S. bank for confirmation." "Why can't you fax it?" "Because they have to see the original," he says. "But it takes 3-5 days for a letter to reach the U.S," I remind him, to which he has no response.
He's just another victim of the collective Japanese love of regulation and red-tape and has no say in this matter, so I resort to what has become my standard line in these situations. "Will you do me a favor?" I ask. "Of course," he earnestly replies. "Would you give this message to your boss? We are living in the 21st century and this is what I would expect in a third world country-in fact I wouldn't complain at all if were in a third world country. But this is Japan-one of the great economic powers of the world and we're living in an era of modern communications. Can you please ask your boss to update the way you handle these transactions to reflect that?" He nods and returns a few minutes later with some toys with bank logos on it and gives them to my daughter. Nice touch.
Later, I call my bank to deposit a check of my own. My bank is slightly better because they say checks will take 15-30 days to cash...hey at least there's the possibility of 15 days, though the operator emphasizes that it may be 30. Then she drops a bombshell: I must bring the check in, in person and the headquarters is an hour away.
"Can I send it in the mail to you?" "Oh, no," the very nice lady replies on the phone. "It must be brought in, in person." "Why? Is there a reason you need to see my face as you look at the check?" "It's our policy." So, of course I resume my "can we bring Japan into the 21st century and will you tell your boss about my suggestion?," speech and she is polite and sympathetic, but rules are rules.
All of this is written with great appreciation and love for the wonderful nation of Japan. But it's also written with an even greater love and appreciation for the can-do American spirit that is responsive to customers' needs and usually remembers that rules are there for the benefit of people and not the other way around.
Asked during the 2000 campaign who his favorite "political philosopher" was, George W. Bush famously named Jesus Christ because He had "changed his heart." It was a fine answer to be sure, just an answer to a different question and served to obscure the contributions Christ has made to the political and social philosophy of our culture, like His notion that rules were there for the benefit of people and not the other way around. Scolded by Pharisees and Teachers of Jewish Law for not properly observing the Sabbath, Jesus asked whether it was OK to "work" on the Sabbath by helping an animal who had fallen into a very large hole, or breaking off grain of wheat in fields in order to feed people who were hungry or whether, more generally, a deed which technically could be described as "work" could be done on the Sabbath if it was for the purpose of doing good for somebody-like healing someone who was very sick.
President Obama may be right, America may not be a "Christian nation" exactly, but there's no doubt it's a Christ-influenced nation full of waitresses and bankers, telephone operators and repairman, some Christians, some not, who have so internalized His admonitions that we are living them out somewhat unconsciously in our lives, living by the rule of law to be sure, but remembering that the law should be our servant and not our master.