They were young when we boarded Singapore Airlines at LAX, bound for Tokyo. 22 men and women, flight attendants, smooth skinned, well mannered, and slim, women with hair pulled back wearing Sarong Kebaya. Graceful, smiling, polite, they maneuvered in and out of the aisles, pushing carts, pouring tea.
The flight left on time and touched down in Tokyo as silently and softly as a Kleenex falling on a pillow.
The airports were dazzling, slick, architectural and inviting: Tokyo Narita, Singapore Changi, and KLIA. Customs officials in every nation were polite, well-spoken, welcoming. Everything they are not in Los Angeles.
The skyscrapers were young, newly built, tall, dropped into every corner of Kuala Lumpur: Icon Mount Kiara, Charigali Tower, 60 floors tall, St. Regis Hotel, 80 stories tall, Menara Tradewinds, Warisan Merdeka (118 Floors Tall!), KL Tower (Menara Kuala Lumpur) 1,381 feet tall, Ilham Baru Tower (62 floors). They were clearing out jungles, paving over valleys, erecting vast suburban housing and vertical towers in Cyberjaya, Shah Alam, Bangsar, Petaling Jaya. Soon, a high-speed train will connect Singapore, KL and Bangkok.
The land was young, landfill on the west side of Melaka, thousands of acres of new commercial buildings lined up like soldiers in a future army of retail, uninhabited infants. Old classical mansions that once stood on the shore were abandoned and empty, their contents stolen, their memories wiped clean.
The KL malls were new, full of shoppers, hordes of black haired boys and girls in bright scarves and long dresses, eyes glued in their smart phones, moving through vast air-conditioned, bright spaces. The Pavilion! KLCC Suria! Star Hill Gallery!
The Malaysian highways were new, and along the new landscaped lanes, billboards shouted advertising with smiling faces, multi-cultural Malay and Chinese faces beaming in Samsung, Jasmine Rice, Panasonic, Thai Airways, Telekom Malaysia, Air Asia, Hyundai.
The Malaysian born bride was young, effervescent, intelligent, ambitious, and well connected. She owned a condo, a house (under remodel) worked for a bank and travelled to Singapore, Bali, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and Melbourne. She had a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of generosity and much love around her. She was the future, for just this moment, of a region where education and money are exploding exponentially.
And the trains in Tokyo, the intersections of Shibuya, Shimokitazawa, Ginza, Shinjuku, they were young, overwhelmingly so, populated with hundreds of thousands of post 1985 human beings pouring off the modern perfectly run trains, into stores and shops and cafes, hurrying everywhere, acquiring purses, shoes, makeup, perfume, suits, electronics.
Inside the endless shops of Tokyo Station, the bowing and the smiling, the serving and the selling, a furious, unabated, exhausting and exhilarating controlled carnival of commerce, this was Japan.
And everywhere, in every corner, the spirit, the energy, the optimism, the faith in tomorrow and the future, a region poised to take over the world, relentless in its work, socialized to harmonize, grouped en masse into money-making and modernism, this was young Asia.
I went here on holiday, for three weeks, to attend a wedding in Kuala Lumpur, to vacation in Phuket, Thailand and stop off in Tokyo for four days.
I came back to Los Angeles in culture shock. For what I saw back there made the Golden State seem dyspeptic, backward, self-congratulatory– without merit. Our new international airport had dirty windows; the customs people were fat and shouted angrily at passport holders. The bus was late and the driver made jokes (“This bus isn’t going to Van Nuys. Long Beach! Just kidding!”) that delayed our trip.
And the news was that the government was shut down. I thought of that on the 405 bus ride home, having just seen, 10 hours earlier, postal workers at work at Tokyo Station, on Sunday afternoon.
America is no longer young, in outlook or output, and I wonder if we even have any dreams left in our national imagination.