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This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
After the three permanent workers who I talked about in the previous parts of this series moved along, the company kept only two "permanent" instructors on hand. I was, obviously one and there was a slowly revolving door of "others". Usually, we farmed for the permanent workers from the best of the temporary workers. This allowed the manager, D., to see how they managed the workload and got along with people in the office over the four-month busy season before signing them on for a full year.
When Doug flew the coop, he was replaced by another Canadian - only this time, it was a woman. Amelia was a rare kindred spirit to me because she was a married woman who was not married to a Japanese man yet somehow ended up in Japan. We didn't tend to see too many of those types of people because that type of person tended to live among the expats. That is, they were the type that were privileged enough to have expense accounts, lavish and large apartments in the expensive "gaijin ghetto" areas - that they complained about being "too small"- and a social life, status and circle that did not tend to see them straying into the pedestrian world of language instruction and basic employment.
Amelia's husband worked for a company that handled equipment for ice sports. In particular, he had something to do with zamboni, though I'm guessing that his repertoire was larger than just those machines. I don't know how many zamboni a country like Japan needs since they aren't exactly the capitol of hockey, ice skating, and curling, but it was likely a niche market which did not offer employees lavish payouts. That's probably why Amelia wasn't among the tony expat set and ended up working with me. I'm sure her husband was paid adequately, but it was unlikely that it was so generous that they couldn't do with her income as well.
The president said he liked Amelia because she spoke softly and gently to the students, though later he would go on to badger and criticize a temporary worker for exactly the same thing until she quit. He also mentioned her "creamy white skin" on a few occasions and I think that may have had a bit more to do with his fondness for her. The woman who he criticized for talking too softly and low until she walked away was African American and it was my feeling that there was more than a little prejudice at play. I don't think he hated black people so much as applied different standards to various employees based on his superficial appreciation of them.
Amelia was a nice person, but she wasn't "nice" in the bland sense. She didn't like living in Japan and did not hide her dissatisfaction with the way she was gawked at and treated like an alien. The weather was also not to her liking, but few who are not reptilian in their biology enjoy the weather in Tokyo since about five of the twelve months are hot, moist, and uncomfortable.
Fortunately, she, like me, could separate her discomfort with certain aspects of life in Japan from the students. She was unwavering in her professionalism both in terms of the paperwork and the telephone calls. However, she was responsible for one of the enduring and rather wicked jokes about one of our client companies, Omron. The students that we got from them were famously awful. She suggested that we transpose the first two letters of the company name to more accurately reflect their employees' capabilities.
One of the things about Amelia that was made clear was that she grudgingly kept one foot in Japan, but the other was planted firmly in Canada. She brought her lunch everyday, rarely partook in runs to buy snacks or drinks at breaks, and did not do much in the way of activities that explored Japan. When I asked her if she'd like something or other or to do some activity, she'd say that she didn't want to spend the money. If she went to a restaurant for lunch, it might cost her a curtain for her future intended home place in her native country. She wasn't concerned with extracting experience or culture from life in Japan. She was mainly concerned with extracting cash for the future.
Given that Amelia was there essentially under protest because her husband's work required it, I can't say that I blamed her for her attitude. A lot of foreigners are criticized for coming to Japan to milk the country for money and are shamed for not appreciating all that it has to offer culturally. There is an attitude which says that we have no right to be there if we don't worship at the feet of the Japanese way of life in some way or another and I've never agreed with that notion. Japan is not a lover that you have to adore and you're not a user if you take what it has to offer without affection.
People from other countries who are sent to the U.S. or choose to be there for work don't have to love it. In fact, many feel that they justifiably are entitled to hate it because America is such an awful place. I'm not sure why a different standard applies to foreigners who come to Japan, but I guess it's this bizarre Japanophile thing that sometimes comes into play. As an aside, I will mention that I believe that this is actually a very racist thing and comes as a result of feeling the Japanese are inferior and need protection whereas their home countries are strong enough not to require it. (If you're curious, this partially springs from a well that Freud called reaction formation. You can look it up if your'e so inclined, but it is a topic for a bigger post than this.)
At any rate, Amelia worked well and hard. She could keep up with me, which was saying something. Beyond our both being married to spouses native to our home countries, we were also both very happy with our spouses. She remarked lustily at times about her husband's swimmer's body and her disappointment that his formerly hairless physique was starting to sprout a few chest hairs while I told her of my satisfaction with hirsute men. Unlike Jolene, I didn't have to worry about her deciding to hate me for my happiness.
We tended to get along pretty well, though she, like most people, had her darker days, especially when life in Japan was starting to feel oppressive and her husband's contract got extended beyond the expected year. Sometimes, she'd simply come in in a bad mood because she hated being where she was and sometimes she just felt crummy in general as happens to all of us at times. I truly could empathize with her as I had those days as well, though I had passed through more of that phase of life as a foreigner than she had since I'd been there longer.
One thing which I'd noticed about life in Japan for foreign women was that they often suffered far more than foreign men and were often pretty unhappy. My husband had an American coworker who was married to an American woman and, after a few years in Japan, she became clinically depressed. It got so bad that she became completely incapable of functioning and had to return to the U.S. I also endured a bout of clinical depression for about a year of my time in Japan and know how it can grind you down.
As far as I can locate, there are no studies on why women find life in Japan harder than men, but my speculation is that a piece of it is that the Japanese tend to act out more against foreign women than men. They will stare, molest, follow, or overtly speak about women because all women - both foreign and Japanese - are seen as harmless, inferior, and helpless. A foreign man might punch you in the face if you are clearly objectifying and belittling him. Women are not seen as being a risk in that regard.
Of course, there are other factors that might be in play and not just the overt sexism in Japan. Women tend to be more emotionally aware and sensitive. They may see actions directed at them more clearly and feel them more acutely. While men may feel like kids in a candy store because Japanese women will seek them out due to their exotic nature, foreign women are simply going to feel harassed when men come on to them - or worse, touch them inappropriately in public as happened to me and many other foreign women that I met.
They also tend to be paid less for the work they do and are offered jobs of lower status with fewer chances of advancement. The most common job offers for foreign women are ones that involve working with children, for instance. They are usually lower in pay, higher in stress, and less fulfilling than the types of work that deal with adults. The most lucrative teaching work, teaching company classes in which you deal with business people, tends to go to men.
One of the other things Amelia and I had in common is that neither of us was especially maternal and both of us were grateful to have escaped working with kids. We both spoke of having little interest in having children and babies in particular. The whole notion of an infant, which was like a smelly, noisy, demanding little doll that had needs but little personality, was one that Amelia possessed.
There was an insanely hot summer near the end of Amelia's first year at the company. She sweated it out and said there were times when she was walking around that she felt she might faint. I noticed at that point that she seemed to be picking up a little weight. She was always just a little bit chunky, though not really what you'd call "fat". It's not unusual for women who have had weight issues during childhood to experience such fluctuations, but D. told me that he suspected she was pregnant.
When D. suggested this, I said that I couldn't imagine that she'd want to have a baby after all we'd talked about in regards to that topic. She didn't want children, after all. When he saw her standing on a street corner in the sweltering sun in a pair of blue jean overalls, he said he was certain she was going to have a baby. It turned out that he was right.
Amelia, surprisingly, had used one of the oldest and least effective birth control methods in history - the rhythm method. She said that she and her husband used condoms when she felt they were at risk based on her monthly cycles and that they used nothing at all when she felt the coast was clear. Obviously, the coast was pretty cloudy last time she surveyed the landscape, but she missed that fact.
Getting pregnant was Amelia's ticket out of Japan. It gave her the leverage to push her husband to be transferred back to Canada as she simply refused to have her baby in Japan. The company went along with it, though, to her credit, Amelia stuck it out in the heat and in a place she hated until as late in her pregnancy as she could before heading home. She chose the time based on the latest safest time to be on a plane and was enormously pregnant before she bid us adieu.
I kept in touch with Amelia by letter - it was the pre-internet age - for a few years after she left. She told me that the birth went fine and that she was really looking forward to when her daughter was old enough to have a personality. Though we got along fine at work, we were never incredibly close so our communication faded and I lost touch with her. I like to think that she stayed happily married and her daughter grew up to be a pleasant and healthy individual, and that Amelia was never forced to come to Japan again. I wouldn't have minded working with her once more, but, for her sake, I don't think it was a place that she should be.
(to be continued)