If Tokyo in reality were anything like the ways it’s portrayed in Seijun Suzuki’s films, here’s what I’d expect:  1) yakuza gun battles on every street corner; 2) betraying, murderous and ultimately doomed nymphomaniacs; 3) non-stop go-go dancing teenagers; and 4) nightclub singers who only know one song.

But if that’s the image we get of Japan from watching films alone, then I dread to imagine what Japan thinks of the US based on our films.  Though, really, there’s no need to imagine:  in Toyko Drifter, Suzuki sets a rollicking set piece in a bar (“The Western”) frequented by American servicemen.  And — true to form for a Western — there’s a mad brawl:  broken bottles, abuse of innocent wooden furniture, inebriated sailors lining up to get conked on the head by gleeful bar girls.  Is this how the Japanese see Americans — militaristic, drunken, boorish?

This reflexiveness is inescapable when you’re in a foreign country:  how do people see me?  How do I see them?  How do I see myself? When I went to Vietnam in 1998, I had a run-in at a Saigon gay bar.  After a round of vigorous dancing, my friends and I retreated to the second level.  Below us, the gay Vietnamese gathered around the white Westerners, who were outnumbered ten to one.  It reminded me of the children who came up to tourist buses, divvying up passengers, clinging to their target, selling soft drinks or knick-knacks or, if need be, begging and crying.  Foreigners are encouraged to tell them đi, đi (“go, go”), but they are not easily shaken off.  They have to be tenacious—it’s their livelihood.

Two Frenchmen stood somewhat apart from the dance floor.  They mouthed to each other:  “Lui?”  “Non.”  “Lui?”  “Non.”  They pointed out boys, casually deciding which one to take home, as if window-shopping.

As I watched, an older man in white seersucker put his arm around my shoulder.

“I very much like your dancing,” he said.  His accent sounded Dutch.

“I try my best.”

He seemed surprised.  “You speak English very well.”

“Thank you,” I said, but I sensed grudging anger from the other Vietnamese in their looks.  The Vietnamese have word for it:  liếc.  It’s dismissive and disdaining at the same time.

When my friends and I left Sam Son, we had planned to go to another bar in Lam Son Square.  As we passed the fountain of algae-green water, the round, modern sculpture of a mother and child, a motorcycle rumbled behind us.  I thought nothing of it, but then, someone screamed, “Stay away from my boyfriend!” and I turned in time to see a guy swinging his belt.  The buckle clipped my collarbone.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, but my friends closed ranks around me and hustled me away.

“Tell him to watch out,” my assaulter said, in Vietnamese.  He pointed at me.  His mouth twisted, as if his words were getting tangled.  “Make sure he knows,” he said, driving off.

I had a small bruise for the next few days.  I can only imagine how large the bruise would have been if he had used a real Versace belt.

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