Once upon a time there was a son who dreamed of taking a trip to Asia with his mother, who did not want to go. The argument went on for years. The mother had spent most of her long life in Houston, and for most of that life, Houston had been enough. Yes, she’d visited Europe a few times, but Europe had mostly served to remind her of how much she preferred Houston. The son shared his mother’s affection for their hometown, but not to the exclusion of every other place on earth, telling her that some people needed to expand their horizons, to which she replied that some people needed to just stay home. And there things stood for a long time, until a few months before the mother’s 75th birthday, when the son—armed with a new argument—proposed a vacation to Tokyo and Hong Kong.
“I don’t want to go to Asia,” protested his mother in a voice exhausted from repeating itself.
“That’s precisely why you need to go,” he replied. “Neuroplasticity. There are all these new studies saying that going out of your comfort zone improves brain function, creates all these, you know, synapses, does something to the amygdala—”
“—You’re more feeble-minded than I’ll ever be,” his mother snapped.
“You’ll come back a new person, I’ll bet.”
“Can’t I get neuroplastic in Ireland?”
“No. They look like you and speak English there.”
“Exactly. Plus, they drink.”
Eventually the mother gave in, which took her son completely by surprise. He had never expected this to go beyond the talking stage, and the prospect of an actual trip to Asia with his mother now terrified him. For one thing, she was a notoriously bad traveler. Indeed, during one stretch of his youth, the mere act of leaving town was enough to induce “a case of ptomaine” in his mother, and food-borne illnesses had been as much a feature of family summer vacations as sun and sand.
Beyond that, his mother seemed like a “poor fit” for Asia, now that he thought about it. He was a good fit, he imagined, having long been a casual student of Asian culture, as well as a smallish, naturally quiet person. His mother was a tall, loud woman whose hair—the exact shade of auburn she’d always been—would announce her tourist status at 50 paces.
“What are you trying to do, kill me?” she replied when he gently suggested she let herself go gray.
And while times had changed, he wondered how much his mother had changed with them, whether she had acquired the live-and-let-live broadmindedness that he himself had cultivated. This was a woman, after all, who still told Little Moron jokes, a woman who’d attended the University of Houston in the 1960s, when crowds at football games taunted their crosstown rivals with chants like this:
What comes out of a Chinaman’s ass? Rice! Rice! Rice!
That the trip had been a bad idea seemed confirmed by the pair’s first moments in Tokyo. On the train from Narita airport to the city, the mother wore an exhausted, angry expression, saying little besides “Jesus Christ, that was long” over and over. Indeed, she did not smile once until they’d emerged from the Shimbashi subway station, and that was only after spotting a Taco Bell. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in such an establishment back home, she emphasized, but there was something appealing about seeing those letters T-A-C-O B-E-L-L against a backdrop of Tokyo’s forbidding postmodern skyscrapers. Or maybe it was that they served beer.
“That’s the way Taco Bells should all be,” she said, gratefully sipping a plastic cup of Asahi draft. “Jesus Christ, that was long,” she said again.
Just then, mother and son were approached by a pigtailed Japanese teenager wearing a maid costume. Smiling shyly, the girl said she adored the mother’s hair and wondered if she’d pose for a picture. Unable to decide which shocked her more, the teen’s get-up or her request, the mother just looked at her.
“Sure, honey,” she finally mumbled, slowly standing up. The girl handed the beer to the son without so much as a glance. She put an arm around his mother, snapped a selfie, thanked her, bowed and departed.
“Long day,” said the son sadly, suddenly regretting the misery he’d put her through.
“I guess it’s like childbirth,” answered the mother, who no longer looked the least bit miserable. “As soon as it’s over, you forget how painful it was.” As they rolled their bags to the hotel, a fresh wind seemed to blow over her. “What do you think of these shoes?” she asked, laughing.
The son looked down. The impossibility of finding good walking shoes for her large feet had been one of his mother’s last objections to the trip. After a lengthy search, she’d settled on a pair of men’s shoes that could “pass.” The son said he thought they looked fine.
“I know they’re not the prettiest things in the world but I just love ’em,” she laughed again. “I have to have comfortable shoes or you can forget it.”
When they arrived at the Park Hotel Tokyo, which occupied the top 10 floors of a building near Tokyo’s Ginza district, the mother was deeply impressed by the legendary omotenashi of the hotel staff, every one of whom offered a deep bow as she passed. “That’s overkill,” she whispered, an observation belied, he thought, by the oddly balletic way she moved across the lobby. The son noted still more behavioral changes in his mother the next morning. A single day and night in Asia—albeit in a room that offered superb evening views of twinkly Tokyo Tower and intermittent morning glimpses of Mt. Fuji—had apparently been enough to set her axons firing, her amygdala astir.
“I wonder what impression I’m leaving on the staff,” she wondered dreamily at breakfast, her tone implying that she might have been mistaken for Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey if her shoes hadn’t given her away.
The attention lavished on her by the Park staff suggested that they hadn’t. Waiters poured tea and coffee almost before she flipped her cup, beamed when she marveled at the enormous spread, and politely looked the other way when she insisted on putting rice in her miso soup.
Over the following days, the son couldn’t decide if his mother was a neuroplastic prodigy or a changeling. Improbably immune to west-east jetlag—“that’s all in your mind”—she dragged him bleary-eyed to Tsukiji market at dawn, where a man named Katsuhiko joined them for what his website termed an “insider tour”—a trip through the world’s largest fish market before it opened to the general public. The trio glided past stall after stall, watching rapt as thousands of pounds of sea creatures large and small were auctioned, sorted, packed into Styrofoam crates and sent to the far corners of the earth. All the while, the mother canvassed the market like a general inspecting the troops, nodding approvingly at the fishermen of Tsukiji. Her son wasn’t sure which was more unsettling, the barrels of slithering eels, great tanks of blowfish, men in bloody jumpsuits carving up headless tuna carcasses—or the annoying changes in his mother. She and Katsuhiko enjoyed a sushi lunch without him.
After that, his mother devoured everything without fear or prejudice, not least because Tokyo’s restaurants received her like a visiting head of state. When she crept down a narrow flight of stairs for Ichiran’s legendary tonkotsu ramen, the hostess apologized for not having an elevator. When she entered the enormous food hall at Takashimaya, clerks fell over themselves for the chance to offer samples. Crowds parted for her at the Shibuya Scramble even as her son caromed through the intersection like a wayward pinball. And when she begged him to rent a private room at a Shinjuku karaoke bar—to his astonishment—curious types gathered like groupies on the other side of the door. Whoops of glee could be heard when the mother crooned “Oklahoma!”—microphone in one hand, Jack Daniel's-and-soda in the other—while the son’s rendition of “Love Yourself” was met with silence.
He couldn’t wait to leave for Hong Kong. Tokyo had not lived up to its reputation as a cutting-edge, happening city, as evidenced by its preference for his mother over him. Also, his mother was acting strangely. Also, he’d saved up money for months so they might stay at the Ritz-Carlton, which sat at the very top of the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong.
After a 5-hour flight, 20-minute train trip and 40-second elevator ride, mother and son arrived at the 103rd-floor lobby of the highest hotel in the world, where elegantly coiffed personnel in smart suits led the pair to a red velvet settee, relieving them of their bags. Amid the Ritz-Carlton sumptuousness, the son noticed his mother pointing a finger at the floor, an uneasy look on her face. Her big toe had burst through a hole in her right shoe. His laughter met stern resistance.
“Hurry up and check in,” she hissed, crossing her feet to hide the hole. “We look like the Beverly Hillbillies.”
Despite the almost unimaginably grand views of Victoria Harbor and the Hong Kong Island skyline, tensions increased when they reached their 108th-floor room. As his mother bid farewell to the bellboy like the ghost of Leona Helmsley, patting the man on the shoulder and thanking him effusively as she closed the door, the son sat devouring a welcome basket filled with chocolate and exotic cookies.
“Couldn’t you wait?” she shrieked as he chewed his salted caramel macaron. “This is Asia. They don’t act like trash here.”
“Who do you think you are?” he spat back violently, wondering whether science had considered neuroplasticity’s downsides. His mother gave him a wounded look and silently left the room.
Relations between the pair remained frosty until the next day, when, after lunch at an obscure Tsim Sha Tsui dumpling house, the son became violently ill. There was stomach pain, nausea, and loud moaning for God to take him.
“I’ll bet you’re glad now that I brought the Pepto,” said his mother, producing a bottle from her suitcase.
He was, enormously so. Not only did it soothe his stomach, it drew a thick, pink, sorely-needed line between past and present versions of his mother.
The son was still recuperating when his mother returned from a Hong Kong bus tour the following afternoon, recounting her adventures in tones that seemed to deliberately echo, at least to him, the voice she’d once used to tell him bedtime stories. When she spoke of taking the Mid-Levels Escalators to buy a new pair of shoes, he thought of the Otis ones at the old Foley’s downtown. Her haggling over a fake Fendi bag with a shopkeeper at the Ladies’ Market brought to mind an ancient dispute over a toaster at an S&H Green Stamps redemption center in Garden Oaks. Best of all was her story of a tram ride to Lantau Island, where she’d encountered an elderly Chinese man at the base of a giant bronze Buddha.
“He went to Hong Kong University while I was at U of H,” she reported.
“Did you tell him about your old college chant?” the son asked.
“He laughed his ass off.”
On their final evening in Hong Kong, the pair found themselves watching the city’s nightly Symphony of Lights spectacular from the Ritz-Carlton pool, 118 floors above the ground. “I don’t want to get my hair wet,” the mother said. It was the same thing she’d always said, but hearing it there—while bobbing and floating 1,200 feet up, enthralled by the searchlights and laser beams and skyscrapers at their feet—brought a strange comfort to the son. He smiled as he dogpaddled, and his mother looked at him quizzically.
“I was afraid you were gonna go back to Houston a totally new person,” he said, completely forgetting that that had been the point of the trip.
“I’d love to,” said his mother, “but everybody knows me there.”
She returned to her room to find that the son had arranged a surprise. There were balloons hanging everywhere and a happy birthday sign blocking the harbor view. On the windowsill sat a card that had apparently been signed by everyone who’d ever worked at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. There were thoughtful birthday wishes from strangers named Fiona and Wookie and Eric. Later that night, there was cake and singing when the pair dined at the hotel’s Tin Lung Heen, a Michelin two-star establishment. Chef Paul Lau offered his own best wishes, asking the mother if his universally acclaimed Iberian pork had been to her liking.
“It was divine,” she said.
After that, they went for a nightcap at the hotel’s Ozone bar. Toasting the trip, the son said that he had never heard her use the word divine before that night. She replied that she had indeed used it, he just hadn’t been there when she did.
And while there was general agreement that the mother had not acted herself on the trip, why she’d acted differently permitted no easy answers. The son would always contend that his mother’s brain had rewired itself in response to new surroundings, just as science had predicted it would. For her part, the mother maintained that time itself had changed her, that in reaching the age of 75, she had simply outlived herself.
The argument went on for years.