My favorite thing about international business travel is the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures and discover the common bonds that connect us in the human family. Either that, or the chance to drink their beer. Depends on the day, and what country I am in. (Belgium, Germany, Japan and UK = Beer. China, Thailand, Italy, Spain = Culture)
As a child of Generation X, one of the things that has amazed me is just how much pop culture we shared with European and Japanese kids in the 70’s and 80’s. I mean, at age 10 I was barely even aware of these places in the world. So to discover at age 40 that I was watching the same TV shows, and listening to the same music as kids in Belgium and Japan was kind of astounding. For instance, when I’m sitting in a meeting with my Flemish friend Dominique and he asks me to do something, I reply “Bede-Bede-Bede, OK Buck” and he cracks up laughing. Or when 99 Luftballoons comes on in a bar (trust me, this still happens in Belgium) we both sing along to the tune (me in English, him in German).
But it’s not just American cultural imperialism. I can’t count the number of rainy Saturday afternoons I spent watching Japanese “creature features” on UHF television. Godzilla vs. Rodan, Godzilla vs. Megatron, Godzilla vs. King Kong. And those were just the movies. There was a whole host of TV shows that came from our Japanese friends. In fact, the first TV show that I ever became religiously involved with wasn’t Sesame Street, or Mr. Rodgers. It was Ultraman!
When I was 4 Mom used to wheel the little portable TV cart into the front living room, and adjust the UHF antenna so that I could watch Ultraman battle various men in larger rubber suits, through the snowy static of the little Black & White 10 inch screen. Yes kids, there really was black and white TV. It looked just like an Amazon kindle as viewed through a pair of pantyhose.
What? Stop looking at me like that!
In the days before cable TV came to Batavia our afternoon routine consisted of racing home to turn on Ranger Bob on Channel 31. Every city had a show like this. Some local weatherman, or sexual predator would dress up like a cowboy, or space ranger, and put on little skits between reruns of old Tom & Jerry, and Woody Woodpecker cartoons. These were also interspersed with games of TV Pow!!! Where kids could call in and “play” a video game by shouting “POW!” into the phone line.
No I am not making this up. Look here if you don’t believe me:
But the greatest of all TV shows in my pre-teen world, was Star Blazers. This show was like catnip for tweenage boys. It followed the adventures of a team of space rangers, in a flying battleship, as they traversed the galaxy to do battle with some evil alien force bent on destroying life as we knew it. Each 30 minute episode ended with a cliff hanger, and the plot ran on for years. My friends and I would watch this show religiously, and build little Lego replica of the Spaceship version of the Battleship Yamamoto. I’m not sure if I stopped watching it because it went off the air, or because I hit puberty. But by 8th grade, TV cartoons had ceased to be cool, and the memories of Star Blazers slowly faded into the black and white static of my mind.
I don’t think I thought anymore about it until last year when I was in a bar in Japan with one of my Japanese colleagues, and we started talking about the TV shows we watched as kids. He mentioned a show called “Battleship Yamamoto”, and slowly the static in my memory began to clear, and the vertical hold adjusted itself, until I could see the flying Space Battleship from Star Blazers clearly in my mind. I asked him to describe the show, and he started humming the theme song. By the end of the conversation we were singing it in both English and Japanese.
When I was a 12 year old glued to the television on weekday afternoons watching cartoons, I never would have dreamed that someday, those cartoons would be the cultural bridge linking me to a Japanese kid a gazillion miles away. Behold the awesome power of Television! Is there anything it can’t do?