Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Random Memories #53

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: 12345678910, 11.

After my final "permanent" coworker flew the coop, I spent most of the time as the sole instructor at the company. It was just me and my Aussie manager/boss, D. Fortunately, D. and I got along well and were both hard workers. Unfortunately, D. didn't always have the best of luck with temporary teacher applications. This was especially the case in the "early" years when there were more jobs in Japan and we didn't pay particularly well or offer the same sort of job security as other companies. Sometimes, he had no choice but to take whoever applied, and this could create some problems.

As a brief reminder, I'll say that my company had a "busy season" during the winter. It varied in length, but it tended to last from some time in November to the end of March. During that time, we hired extra instructors to teach telephone lessons and correct the reports the students turned in. The work tended to be pretty oppressive at the beginning of the week and level off by the end. Temporary instructors needed to get up to speed after about a week of training and many of them struggled to manage the workload in terms of the reports at the beginning. Most eventually got better by the end, but that wasn't always the case.

There were a lot of memorable temps, and I can't go into a complete profile of all of them nor do I think it would be especially interesting if I did. I will, however, focus on a few of the outstanding ones. The best ones, of course, were converted into permanent workers who stayed on with me (Scott and Amelia) up until we no longer needed them. The manager, D., and I breathed a sigh of relief when the worst ones finally hit the road.

It should be noted that, due to visa issues, it was easiest for a company that didn't provide sponsorship to people who were from countries that allowed for working holiday visas. Since a company can only sponsor if you're on a contract of a certain duration, a place that needs you for three or four months needs employees who walk in with a visa already in their passports. That meant we saw a disproportionate number of Canadians, Australians, and people who were married to Japanese spouses. The first two groups qualified for working holiday visas and did not need a visa sponsor. The latter had spouse visas.

I mention this because it may appear that we had our worst experiences with one group in particular, and that statistically did seem to be so. However, I think this reflected, at least in part, the distribution of visas more than any nationality-based problems. The fact that some of the most dismal workers were Australian was something that D. often said embarrassed him, but when you have a bureaucratic situation that means you get more particularly young people from a certain place, it's not surprising that you'll see more problematic employees from that country.

There were two Australians in particular who were incredibly disruptive to the workplace. The first one was a woman named Vanessa. Vanessa was married to a Japanese man who had once had a good job and had been stationed in various countries around the world. She said that she and her husband had lived in New York City for a time, and it was through her that I learned that, as bad as the roaches could be in Tokyo, they were very much worse in New York. She said that the place they stayed in was absolutely infested and that she was shocked one day to find that the entire underside of her kitchen table was covered in them one day. To me, this sounded like something out of a horror movie.

Though I hit it off pretty well with Vanessa at first, there was one thing that I knew from the start about her. That was the fact that she had lied on her job application about having a university degree. Though our company didn't need to sponsor her, and that was the usual reason to require a degree, they required one because they promised their clients that their instructors were educated to a certain level.

I didn't "know" that Vanessa had lied based on intelligence, but rather based on behavior. I do not believe that people who have gotten university degrees are necessarily smarter than those who do not. However, there are those four extra years of discipline that they go through which creates a personality change in most (but not all) people. I would hesitate to call it "maturity", but I think that it may come across as being that aspect. There should be a special word for this quality, but there is not. Whatever it was, I knew Vanessa had never spent years applying herself to achieving various goals and come out the other side accomplishing them.

At first, Vanessa seemed to be doing okay with the job. She wasn't stellar at it, but she muddled through on the reports as many people do initially. I talked to her some about her family life, and she was only too keen to tell me how troubled it was. Her husband had lost his regular job and now was doing work for a delivery company. They had intense arguments that sometimes resulted in them hitting each other. What was worse than this was that they had a son who witnessed all of this and would often beg his parents not to fight or be mean to each other. Neither she nor her husband seemed to have much emotional control and, while she felt bad about subjecting her son to this instability, she felt that she could not stop participating in these verbal and physical altercations.

I tried to be supportive of Vanessa. In fact, we even had telephone calls in which we seemed to be building a friendship. I even tried to help her deal with her recalcitrant iMac when it kept crashing or disconnecting. She had a habit of just turning it on and off all of the time rather than using proper shutdown techniques and I advised her to stop doing this as I was sure it was not helping things. During one of these calls, she spontaneously confessed what I'd already figured out - she had lied on her resume about a university degree. She not only didn't have one. She had never attended university at all. I started to feel a bit close to her and then some very strange things happened.

After a few weeks, Vanessa simply did not show up one day. The following two  days, she also failed to make an appearance at the office. D. and I wondered if she'd simply flown the coop and failed to give notice. On the fourth day, she returned and was unapologetic about her unexplained and unannounced absence. In fact, she was belligerent and hostile at the fact that some of the work that was set aside for her to do in terms of reports had started to pile up while she was gone.

As the days went by, she did less and less of her report correction and the pile got bigger. D. had put me in charge of the report sorting and I always balanced the workload equally among all of the instructors. There were three levels of difficulty and the highest level reports (level three) were very time-consuming to correct so it was incredibly important that each teacher be given a fair number of each level.

Vanessa did not do all of her level three reports each day. In fact, she accumulated an increasingly large stack and got very pissed off at me for giving her more each day. I was giving her the same as everyone else. The rest of us were just getting our work done and she was not. She expected that, if she slacked, we'd all do more work to cover for her. D. explicitly told me not to permit this as it would be unfair to everyone, but Vanessa "blamed" me for this pile of unfinished work that she felt increasingly  frustrated by.

In the end, Vanessa did as so many people who couldn't manage the job did. She just walked away without so much as a word and we scrambled to cover for her. A few months after she vanished, she called me at home. She was completely drunk and disoriented and apologized for being so bitchy with me. She said that she didn't know what happened because we had been getting along so well before and it all seemed to fall apart. Most of what she said was incoherent, and I felt sorry for her, but I never contacted her nor did she contact me again. I think I may have tried to call her at one point in time a month or so later, but the number was disconnected.

My experience with Vanessa put me in touch with a side of life in Japan that I rarely had access to. That was the part in which there is domestic violence, economic hardship, and family dysfunction. I'd had more than a little experience with foreigners who had bugged out on jobs because they'd found better offers or just decided they wanted to move or or go home, but I'd never worked with someone who had her personal life fall apart.

I strongly believe that the three days that Vanessa vanished were due to alcoholism and her domestic situation. They may have been the equivalent of a "Lost Weekend", or it may simply have been that her life was so stressful that she couldn't face the job during those days and had no wherewithal to manage it when she returned.

The veneer to life in Japan is often slick, smooth, and polished, but I think that if you pick up one of these indistinct pebbles and turn it over, there is sometimes a pretty ugly scene underneath it all. In Vanessa's case, everything was complicated by the way in which she was powerless to leave her husband. She told me that she was fearful that, if she tried to leave him, he'd get custody of their son and she'd never see him again. She also did not have the money to just pick up and leave. I imagine she also doubted her capacity to find a job in Australia such that she could support herself and her son if she did leave.

All too often, we hear stories about foreigners who seem to behave poorly in jobs in Japan and they are judged for being disloyal, bad workers, or for simply not taking life in Japan seriously because it's not their home country and they don't fear the consequences. What Vanessa's situation illustrated was that sometimes the bad behavior of a foreign employee isn't brought on by a casual disregard for the country or the culture, but because his or her life situation is painful or difficult. What makes it worse is that it really is harder to walk away when one is in a situation such as hers. It's not so simple as someone being a disrespectful or selfish employee, though my next story will show that sometimes it is actually just that. (to be continued)


  1. What a poignantly sad story! V's inability to cope with her life with her husband, etc was a reflection of her alcoholism. Her drinking was out of control. So was the rest of her life. If/when she could ever get sober, she might have been able to deal with the other elements which were so problematic.

    1. I shouldn't conclude that she was an alcoholic based on so little evidence, but I do very much suspect that was the case. I can't remember her last name, so I can't even try to track her down (well, that's not exactly true - I think I remember her married last name), but my guess is that things did not end well, especially for her poor son who I'm sure was caught in the middle of his parents destructive relationship.

      I think there's more of this type of thing out there than people realize, especially for people with families who are not in a position to easily leave.

    2. I realized after I posted my comment that I had forgotten to note the impact that the situation was probably having on V's son. Having seen/worked with many kids and teens who lived thru that I know from first hand experience that this aspect of it is very tragic indeed. It is one thing to put oneself thru such torment.Another, altogether, to affect one's child in the process as well.

      Estimates by the World Health Organization are that 1 in 10 people struggle with alcohol abuse. So, there is A LOT more of this out there in the world than most of us realize!!

  2. Wow that honestly made me feel so sad. And thankful that my coping skills have not turned me to Lost Weekends.... though the thoughts have crossed my mind. I have read in more than one blog a woman's fear of leaving her Japanese husband for fear of losing custody/access to their child. I assume something similar is happening to my husbands family member who lives in Japan. I assume there is fear in losing custody of Japanese born children and fear of having to make it on their own in a foreign place. I can see how people can turn to drink when they don't have a good support network for themselves. Poor Vanessa, I hope things got better for her.


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