August 04, 2003

Remembering Mario

No, this isn't some reminiscing about my old Nintendo that came with Super Mario Brothers, so if you came here looking for tips on how to beat Bowser on the last level, I suggest you go elsewhere.

My senior year of high school spent in Tokyo was a jarring wake-up call to the real world. Far removed from the sheltered environment of Harmony, Minnesota and my class of 43 students, my Tokyo class consisted of over 100 students from 46 nations around the world. Japan offered enough of a culture shock; experiencing the cultures of 46 countries at once was a rude awakening.

To say I was homesick that first month (and even beyond) would be a severe understatement. Nothing, NOTHING, made sense. Even though the students at St. Mary's International School were supposed to speak only English on school grounds, practically everyone just glommed together in their own cliques and chattered away in whatever language suited them. It wasn't uncommon to hear a mix of Japanese, English, Korean, German and Arabic coming from the same conversation. I couldn't just jump into a conversation that interested me, because I couldn't understand what the hell anyone was talking about.

Beyond the language barrier were the athleticism and intellectual barriers. Here in the U.S., we put a lot of emphasis on athletics, with academics seemingly taking a secondary roll. At St. Mary's, the reverse was true. My classmates were some of the softest wussies (albeit incredibly intelligent soft wussies) you could ever imagine. Here in the U.S., I was a really good wrestler. In Tokyo, I was unbeatable. In the U.S., I was the third ranking academic kid in my class. In Tokyo. . . well, let's just say there was a long line ahead of me in the grade department. There were students who would ace their exams and get all the extra credit to boot, resulting in, and I'm not kidding here, a grade point average of 4.5. Unreal.

I was absorbing all this newness, and I was pretty much resigned to the reality that friendships would come hard, and I was also pondering a plane ticket home (where things made sense), when I almost had a nervous breakdown, in band of all places. I played trumpet, and I played fairly well. However, band in Tokyo was radically different than band in Harmony. As I sat there, sweating through sheet music that everyone seemed to know but me, the instructor, Mrs. Webster, started quizzing students on something called music theory. I didn't have a fucking clue what music theory was, but everyone else seemed to be having no trouble whatsoever answering the questions. And she was getting closer and closer to calling on me. When she did eventually call on me, I was a wreck. I just started throwing out answers in the hope that one would be correct. "A Sharp?" "B Flat?" "C Major?" "D Minor" "Major Major?" "Sergeant Major?" "Lieutenant Sergeant Major B Minor First Class?"

Finally, Mrs. Webster moved on, leaving me clinging to my last shred of sanity, like a tornado that ripped through a trailer park. I was shattered, and I remember shaking uncontrollably. In retrospect, it was no big deal, and was really quite funny. But, as a 17 year old drastically out of his element, it was a morbidly humiliating experience. At the end of class, I was determined to just walk out of the school and just retreat back to the apartment and never come out again.

"Hey! Hey, Ryan, wait up!" called a voice behind me as I walked absentmindedly out the door after class.

I turned around to see a fellow trumpet player, Mario Arias, running to catch up with me. I knew him only by his face, but I also knew he was one of the more popular guys in my class.

"Listen, man, she took a lot of us by surprise with all that music theory shit," he said, and I realized then just how transparent my anguish must have been. "Don't sweat it, okay. This place takes awhile. It's pretty fucked up."

First off, it was nice to actually talk to someone who was speaking just English. Second of all, it was super nice talking to someone who knew how to swear, and swear really well. Just that brief back-and-forth gave me the strength to get through the rest of the school day, and over the next couple of days, Mario and I talked more and more.

I'm not sure why Mario reached out to me. He was one of the more popular kids in the class, from what I could tell, and he had no shortage of friends. I think he saw a lot of the difficulties he endured when he first came to St. Mary's a couple of years ahead of me. Whatever the case, he became a friend at the moment I most dearly needed one.

Mario claimed dual nationalities; American and Malaysian, if I recall correctly. His father was an ambassador in Tokyo and he lived in the ambassadorial complex in the nightlife capital of Tokyo, Roppongi. Through Mario, I became friends with a couple of Canadians, Jeff Wilson and Tyler Finch, a big Swedish kid, and fellow wrestler, Jens Larson (who was also the most dominating wrestler I'd ever seen), another wrestler, Hashi Riegler, and several others.

Mario, though, was the best friend I had there, and I never appreciated how valuable of a friend he was until years later when I happened to leaf through my old yearbook. I remembered when we last spoke, just hours before my plane whisked me back to Minnesota. It was a hot June day, and we had just stopped at a local convenience store for a pop. I was so eager to get on my plane, it didn't really register that I would probably never see Mario again, the guy who, many many months before, had literally saved me from insanity.

We shook hands, Mario and I, and then I caught the walk light and crossed the street. The last I saw of Mario was him giving a quick wave from the curb before turning around and walking the other way.

Posted by Ryan at August 4, 2003 11:10 AM
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