Only one person on the crew spoke English, and this was the same person, a young woman named Akiko, who called herself a “production assistant,” with whom I’d been in communication to arrange this whole thing, over the last many months.
The crew was from Japan and they were filming a documentary on evolution. Someone who knew someone who knew someone had attended a talk I had given a couple of years earlier at the University in Tokyo, and the producers of this documentary thought it would be interesting to include me in their documentary. The initial contact had been by phone from Akiko, with numerous followups by email. The total time period from our first conversations to the present moment, the day of filming, was nearly a year.
The production crew consisted of a man I came to know as The Producer, a lighting technician, a sound man, a camera man, and Akiko. The Producer was really the director of the documentary, and in fact, gave detailed direction to all of the crew and to me (via Akiko, the only English speaker in the group) as we shot numerous scenes of me talking about human evolution. I held hominid skulls and talked about human evolution. I demonstrated what a number of different roots and tubers looked like, both uncooked and cooked, cutting them open and tasting them for the camera. And so on.
The setup for the shots was extensive and elaborate, especially the lighting. We did multiple takes of each shot. I got a lot of direction from The Producer, all translated by Akiko, who was clearly (along with the camera, sound and lighting guys) in a subservient position to him.
Finally, all the shots were taken, all the lab furniture, casts, bones, and other samples put away, all the lights taken down, the camera and sound equipment put away, and we were done. The Producer then approached me, along with Akiko, for what I assumed would be a simple “good bye, we’ll send you a copy when were done” sort of thing. The rest of the crew formed a vaguely defined semi-circle behind The Producer and Akiko.
And that is when Akiko produced the box. It was a small box held together with an elaborate ribbon. Ah, yes, I thought, the gift. Standard practice. Indeed, I learned all about this in detail when I worked at the Kennedy school and had the job of administering the Japanese Corporate Associates Program. The details of that are not important now, but I did assist in that capacity with the preparation of researchers and faculty going to Japan to meet up with their counterparts at major research institutions. The travelers would come by my office, and we’d work out a list of whom would receive gifts. We’d then get a set of gifts from the special gift closet. The gifts were pre-wrapped, but organized on labeled shelves so we would know what was inside the boxes (in theory), and thus we could chose properly for age, status, and gender each gift to be carried to Japan.
Later, when I went to Japan to give a few talks and visit colleagues, I brought carefully selected gifts for each person I’d meet, as well as a few extra gifts just in case. Standard procedure.
I assumed that the production company making this film was also set upfor sending its people off with gifts. I imagined the highly efficient and effective Akiko stopping by the Gift Closet on the way home to pack that night, picking up a gift for each of the three or four scholars they’d be filming on this Trip to America. And now, I was holding the gift in my hand, quite impressed with this origami style ribbon holding the simple box closed.
I indicated a thanks to The Producer, and looked at Akiko. “Shall I open it now?” I asked, an she vigorously nodded “Yes.”
So I looked at the box held in my hand, and I pulled on the ribbon, and the bow magically melted away but the ribbon stayed attached to bottom of the box somehow. Very cool. There was a flap, which I worked free, allowing me to hinge up the top of the cardboard container. The item inside was surrounded with tissue, which I gingerly removed. The gift was now exposed for all to see.
The producer was the closest of the men, leaning forward to observe the process as though caught in the first third of the way into a standard bow. As the gift became visible, I noticed him do a sort of reverse bow … he was quite literally taken aback by what he saw. At the same exact time, Akiko’s countenance changed in the most remarkable way. She stiffened, her skin suddenly seemed shrouded in a misty clammy frost the likes of which one sees on people who have been out a little too late on a windy lake in October. Two of the other members of the production staff, seeing what was in the box, simply stepped backwards and gave each other side long glances.
I actually noticed all of these reactions before I noticed the gift itself. So I looked down into the box expecting to see a live tarantula or a severed finger or something along those lines, and there I saw something quite unbelievable ….
… a cute little Hello Kitty alarm clock.
Clearly, Akiko had picked the wrong gift out of the gift closet on the way to the airport. A tiny Hello Kitty alarm clock was not a proper gift for an adult male professorial expert on whatever it was I was being an expert on.
I glanced at Akiko as her eyes raised above the box and began to search mine, perhaps looking for a reaction. And in her eyes, I saw a woman who might as well been on her way to the firing squad. I then glanced (oh, and this was all happening in slow motion, of course) at The Producer, and saw that he was staring at the hapless production assistant. Staring with a look that gave credence to Akiko’s palpable sense of dread.
Oh boy. Was she ever in trouble! The men in the outer circle were taking yet another step backwards as The Producer began to utter stern sounding words in Japanese directed at Akiko. Which I interrupted as though I had not heard them.
“Akiko,” I said to her, with a very serious voice. I had an idea, but for this to work I had to get iron’s undivided attention. Akiko was, of course, now focused on what I was about to say, but The Producer was not.
“Akiko,” I said again. This time I had The Producer’s attention, drawing his irksome look away from the woman and to my eyes. OK, now everyone was listening.
“How did you mange to remember?!” I said as a smile formed on my face.
Akiko tried to hide a questioning look, and The Producer shifted stiffly in his stance.
“…. that my daughter loves Hello Kitty! Ever since I brought her some similar items from my trip to Japan..”
Akiko is now searching her memory, indicated by the human universal signal of a glance to the upper left as though memories lived up there somewhere. The Producer is standing down from his Stance of Ire. The other members of the production staff continue to exchange glances.
“This is the absolutely perfect gift. No gift could be better. I am honored and very happy,” bowing, smiling, and holding the gift to my chest as though I loved it.
Akiko translated quickly, and the rapid fire Japanese coming from The Producer started up again, but this time with a distinctly different tone of voice. Akiko restored a perfectly inane expression to her face and gave me one last bow. And the five visiting film makers filed out of the room.
The alarm clock still sits in Julia’s room. It has, in fact, been her only alarm clock since that day many years ago. All we’ve had to do is change the batteries now and then. The producer will always know that Akiko had nailed the gift. And Akiko will always wonder, when exacly was that conversation about Hello Kitty, and when exactly Dr. Laden had even mentioned that he even had a daughter?
Akiko will always wonder, and so will you. Because I’m not telling.