Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Random Memories #51

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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: 12345678, 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)


  1. "touch them inappropriately in public as happened to me and many other foreign women that I met." - How did you deal with such things when they happened?

    1. It happened in my first few years there and I thought at first that I was standing in the wrong spot (it was on an escalator) or that I was mistaken. I walked away not realizing the guy was trying to grab my ass until later.

      One of my former coworkers, a British woman, was groped on a train. She bashed the hell out of the guy with her umbrella for putting his hand in her crotch. I liked her approach. ;-)

    2. Oh wow. I've heard of the 'train pervert' situation, but assumed it was mainly exaggerated fantasies for AV scenarios and such. Is it something that happens commonly or is it just something certain perverts feel emboldened to do to foreign women specifically?

    3. I think the fact that there are "women only" cars for commute hours indicates that it's not an exaggeration. When the society decides that women need to be segregated away from the men on crowded trains to protect them from "busy hands", there's a pretty big problem. It really is a big deal, and it's not specifically foreign women. It's all women in Japan.

      I think it is getting better because such men are actually being charged for their behavior now and the police take it at least a little seriously (at least sometimes). One of my students was groped and dragged the man to the police (literally - she grabbed his arm and pulled him there after he groped her). The women are also more likely to stand up for themselves. In the past, they didn't do it so much. One of my other students told me that, when she was a schoolgirl, she was group-groped on trains by 4-5 men who would just surround her and touch her. It's appalling, but not as bad as it used to be.

  2. For women, I think it's hard being judged by a set of criteria you don't accept.

    I didn't experience harassment during the year I lived in Tokyo, but perhaps that was because I was usually accompanied by 2 young children.

    I did, however feel very judged. I was doing a reasonable job mothering (I think) within a Western cultural context, but I was being judged by Japanese standards, which are very different (and with which I disagreed, so wasn't going to assimilate).

    1. Being with children or with a male companion will generally mean you will not be harassed. I think that being with kids means that they won't embarrass you in front of your children, but also that you are de-sexualized.

      I didn't have the experience of being a parent (in Japan or otherwise), but I do know that women had a heavy burden in this regard. It was actually strange because women would allow their very young kids to run around willy-nilly in pretty dangerous places (like train platforms or streets with cars), but they judged the bento you made or the time you put into various activities. The standards were very idiosyncratic.

      Would you care to share the ways in which you felt judged? I would be curious to know.

  3. Thanks for a very empathetic post on another former colleague. Sounds like you and Amelia shared much in common together.

    Even in this age of relatively easier communication with email, skype, and texting I, too, have had colleagues who have not reciprocated my wish to remain in contact once we stop working together. It has saddened me on more than one occasion to realize that not all people wish to sustain a relationship in the manner which I do. Such is life, I guess.

    1. I've found that it's actually harder with the easy communication to get people to really communicate well. Things are more convenient and people are more "disposable" than ever. If you need to talk, you can find someone somewhere some time. The quality of connection isn't good, but most people can't tell the difference between such connections because they have too little experience with real intimacy and can't tell the difference. This is a big topic for me, and not really in the scope of this blog, but I may find a way to shoehorn it in at some time.

      For me, the distance thing has always been a part of my adult life (actually, before). Both my husband and I are "good" at corresponding and find most people not so great at it. We don't blame them, but it is sad when you lose touch with people you care about because they keep dropping the ball.

      Thanks for your comment. :-)

    2. Yes, I see most young people spending lots of time sending text messages or tweeting but they cannot really engage in ongoing conversations of any real depth. Many, if not most adults cannot/do not know how to sustain ongoing intimacy via correspondence any longer. They are 'too busy' trying to keep up with their lives via all their gadgets to take the time needed for true sharing with someone else. How many families actually sit at a table and eat a meal together without a cell phone going off or watching TV? Very few!!

      All this does not bode well for our future as a social my humble opinion.

    3. I absolutely am right there with you on this. I do believe that T.V. is a huge issue for many people. I decided a long time ago to sit at a table and eat meals (at least most of the time...) without any distractions, even if I'm alone. It helps that I don't have a T.V., I guess, but I just think we need to stop being distracted and having our attention divided all of the time. I've noticed that the habit of having your attention scattered or jumping from distraction to distraction has an overall poor effect on people's ability to have conversations and focus on what is going on. They expect to jump from one flashy interest to the next, and get bored too quickly.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Previous to teaching in Japan, I had taught EFL in other countries, and one thing that always stuck out about the EFL scene in Japan is the relative lack of women. The numbers were generally equal in other countries, but in my town in Japan, most language schools considered themselves lucky if a fourth of their teaching staff consisted of women. From a distance, it didn't make sense--Japan's beautiful, the salary is pretty good, most of the students were nice.

    I think the reason for the relative dearth of women relates a lot to what you mentioned above, but what drove me to leave (aside from the eventual dissolution of the reason I went there: my relationship) was the lack of community support I felt for problems that were often female-specific. There weren't many women to talk to in the first place, and many (NOT ALL) of the men there were quite dismissive of "female issues."

    In a way, I get it--I, too, avoided people who had nothing but bad things to say about Japan. But when I had genuine problems, it would have been nice to have a shoulder to lean on, instead of just being told to stop being "difficult."

    The event that did me in was when I was dealing with a stalker. I'd had a few over the years, but learned to avoid them by varying my routine. One, though, was pretty determined, to the point where he was calling my work on a weekly basis to request one-on-one classes with me in addition to hanging around outside the building to talk to me. For whatever reason, he was deemed harmless enough by my sympathetic bosses (who didn't allow him to take lessons) and most of my Japanese girlfriends; my ex also didn't see what the big deal was.

    The kicker, however, was how my colleagues rolled their eyes at this ordeal. And when their friend told me to calm down because, "It's a good thing you're American! Imagine if you were a Japanese girl..." I knew I was done.

    For me, every place comes with its trials, including my homeland. PLENTY of trials here. My issue was much less with living in Japan than the fact that it was hard to find a true community there.

    1. You hit on an extremely important point about having difficulty in Japan - there is little in the way of a support system. There really isn't much in the way of support and people can be incredibly dismissive of your feelings and experiences. I was once called a "drama queen" because I was very upset when a man crossed the street intentionally and tried to shove me off of my bicycle while angrily yelling at me. Apparently, I was supposed to be able to shrug off a minor assault by a stranger and not make a big deal out of it.

      There are plenty of trials in ones home country, but the difference is that people aren't belittling you for being affected by them and there are people you can go to for sympathy and empathy. In Japan, the foreign community is not only so competitive that they aren't supportive of one another, but it is dominated by men who don't have to handle the same issues as women.

      I'm so sorry to hear about your stalker situation. You are not the first, last or only foreign person who I've communicated with who has had experience with a stalker who did exactly as yours did - requested private lessons as a way of getting what he or she wanted. Men generally are not troubled by stalkers the same way women are, it seems. They're flattered for the most part. I always think of Lindsay Hawker when I hear stories like yours. It has to be taken seriously.

      The only recourse for foreigners, and few seem to even know it exists, is TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline), but that's really not much to get by with. It's not always staffed around the clock and is just a telephone call. What is needed, as you said, is a true community.

      Thanks for your comment.


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