Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tiki, Travels, and Taking a Job

Last Saturday, I graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY with a degree in Marine Engineering and Shipyard Management, as well as an Engineering Officer's License for ships of any size.The Saturday commencement was a capstone to three days of event, and late nights spent wishing farewells, rather than studying for a test. My greatest personal accomplishment was winning the Seabulk Tanker prize, earning a pair of binoculars and my name on a plaque in the Marine Transportation building, or Bowditch Hall.  

In addition to the pomp and circumstance, I had to make logistics happen to "leave no trace" upon my departure, asides from my name in Bowditch Hall. Since I had my own room for the last half of Senior Year at the Academy, I never felt that I had too much "stuff". Because Washington, DC, my home, is within driving distance of Kings Point, NY, I kept items that my farther-traveling classmates left behind: things like home accessories, Academy gym gear, class notes, and textbooks. This past week, I have been going through the plastic tubs to determine what I actually ought to keep with me for the future, what will stay at home, and what can be sent to Goodwill. The weekend came as a conclusion to this routine, and Mom treated me to lunch at a restaurant in the local Chinatown known as "Eat First". I couldn't help but notice the drink menu. It was a near facsimile of a 1960's tiki menu I had saved on my computer. Many of the drink names evoked a particular island, Oriental destination, or means of getting there: "Lava Mountain" for Hawaii, "Singapore Sling", "Mai Tai" for Polynesia, and "Navy Grog" are a few of the example.  That was a throwback, as well as an appetizer for my future career.

During my Sea Year at the Academy, I had the fortune to visit a handful of island ports: Saipan, Guam and Hawaii, all associated with the United States. Saipan was where I had spent considerable time among the locals, and got to try the local cuisine.
As for the Orient, I visited a small town in Korea, where the gastronomical specialty was meat roasted on a stick, accompanied by kimchee.  This was pretty similar to the Philippine-inspired dishes found in Saipan consisting of roast meat with rice or noodles. Indigenous dishes consisted of fish and roots. Of course, a proper tiki menu could be found at the major resorts that catered to tourists, most of whom traveled five hours by air from Japan and Taiwan. To better appeal to American tastes, tiki restaurants often used Chinese food to supplement a Polynesian menu. Tiki torches and lei are much more appealing to tourists than acknowledging the realities of working-class life in the Marianas.

"Eat First" in DC is not the only Chinese restaurant with an inclination for tropical drinks. The more upscale Elena's near Kings Point, NY does this as well, and I am sure that many other Asian restaurants keep a tropical theme, as well.  You can order a tropical drink and fantasize about the tranquility of tropical islands and the exoticism of the Orient. Sailors young and old have been, or will go, to these far-flung locales.
The difference between today and Tiki's heyday fifty years ago is the ease of travel by airplane, and the resorts that cater to travelers' material pleasures. So-called exotic islands are no longer the sole domain of sailors on merchant ships and the Navy's Seventh Fleet, or Marines who stormed the beaches during World War Two. The mystique is less mystifying.


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