Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Random Memories #55

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. The other parts are here: 123456789101112, 13.

Given the parade of temps, there are going to be a lot of people who I won't write about in detail, but I do recall a fair bit about certain ones and would like to note what I remember here briefly. This forum is for me to tell people about life in Japan for some people, but it is also about my keeping a record of my experiences for myself. Each of these people left an imprint on me for one reason or another. They told me something about the human condition and how various people respond to circumstances. In no particular order, here are the remaining temporary workers who I had a significant impact on me:

Natasha and Lisa - These two women don't actually belong together in any way except for the fact that they served together. It's important to note that the manager, D., preferred to hire women as they tended to be less troublesome and better workers on the whole. This wasn't always the case, but it often was so it wasn't unusual for there to be only female temps when it was possible to hire women.

Natasha was a common breed in Japan, but very uncommon in our working situation. She was the only expat that ever worked at our company. That is, she was the privileged wife of an American man who was stationed in Japan as part of his job in the finance industry. They lived in the Azabu area and had all of their needs lavishly looked after, at least by the standards of those of us who had to do things the hard way (i.e., for ourselves and with limited or minimal support).

From the very beginning, it was clear that Natasha had no idea what she was getting into. She was both intimidated by the situation in which she felt like a fish out of water and displayed a sense that she was better than the job. On more than one occasion, she overtly stated multiple statements to the effect that the work was beneath her, but she was not going to break the contract anyway.

I don't think Natasha was a bad person because she betrayed a certain level of snobbery. In fact, I think that attitude was a defense against the alien environment in which she found herself. She worked with my husband, D., me, and Lisa and all of us had been in Japan for awhile and knew the score. She had just come along and was in a pampered environment that felt like complete hardship. I think she rejected the job because she was scared and the atmosphere was one in which it seemed we belonged, but she did not. She helped me see that sometimes an attitude of superiority is actually a manifestation of internal terror.

Fortunately for her, Lisa was on the same shift as her and she was the sweetest person one might ever know. I'm still in contact with Lisa on Facebook so I know that things in her life have been a bit of a roller coaster, but she's done her best to ride it along. When I worked with her in Japan, she was an ardent fan of Kevin Spacey. These days, she's even more into Stephen Colbert. Her preoccupation with an American celebrity, charming as he is, is curious since she's British and probably doesn't have much of a vested interest in the political humor that he uses.

Lisa came over to our place for dinner several times and she and my husband would go to Costco together on occasion during the years when my back was too screwed up to travel much at all. She was also into various small rock bands and would travel across the world at times following a group I'd never heard of called "Gene". At the time that we were both in Tokyo, Lisa was married to a British man, but it turned out that she wanted to go home and he did not. Their marriage could not stand the stresses of their divergent lifestyles and they divorced. She returned to England and continued to teach English there (I believe she had proper ESL qualifications).

The interesting thing about the Lisa/Natasha pairing was how their morning shift had such a different dynamic than the Brant/weasel one that I spoke of in last week's post. Brant made things worse for everyone by complaining and demanding. Lisa made things better by offering a balanced perspective and a grounding in a gentle and kind perspective. The temporary workers, when they worked a different shift together, formed their own little cultures based on the person who had the most personality power. It could end up a disaster that threatened to destabilize the whole group of instructors, or as a buoyant experience that made everyone happier to go to the office.

Lola - Lola worked with Scott before he stayed on as our final "permanent" worker (besides me). She was an older woman, or at least she was older than everyone except D. She was in her early 40's at a time when I was in my early 30's. From the start, Lola practically vibrated with anxiety. She also had the misfortune of arriving at a difficult time for me when I was prone to complaining about the illegal and unfair practices at the company.

I didn't realize that telling her about how we were often fired after three years for no reason and were not given our legally allotted vacation time was going to create so much stress for her. She was another person who was there with her husband, though he was an (American) academic and not a coddled expat, and she had no plans to stay on after the busy season work was over. I'm not sure why she should care about the conditions there so much, but one day she flipped out and started crying and speaking with agitation in an uncontrolled fashion about a variety of things which were upsetting her.

One of the strangest things which she was worked up about was how D. and I teased Scott. As I said in my previous post, Scott was a goofy fellow in the nicest possible way and we ribbed him a lot. He seemed to take it well, but Lola had concluded that we were mercilessly attacking him. When she fell apart and started ranting about how horrible we were to him, Scott was just as shocked as D. and I were. We made it clear, as did he, that this was all in good fun and no one was hurting anyone or feeling hurt.

Lola had a lot of health issues including a disease which caused her internal organs to slowly degrade and her fingers to lose circulation and grow incredibly cold and numb. I think that the stresses of her health issues and the difficulty of life in Japan were creating pressure in her that she vented out at an inappropriate time and place. That being said, I certainly learned that people often do not hear what you're saying, but rather receive a message that you do not intend.

The way in which someone wears their own colored glasses and filters everything through them came through loud and clear with Lola. She saw us as hurting Scott. She saw our long-term work situation as one that she had a vested interest in when there was no rational reason to believe that was the case. Neither of these were true, but that was the filter she passed everything through. After this situation, I became much more cautious about what I said and who I said it to. Her outburst and emotionalism was such an unexpected shock and I learned something about perspectives and how the internal workings of other people could be vastly different from mine.

Marnie - Marnie was a major "wild card" among temporary workers in that she was not only a temp, but a part-time one. She was this incredibly sunny person who fulfilled the stereotypical image most Japanese folks had of "friendly" Americans. She lived with her Japanese boyfriend and seemed to be in a bit of a holding pattern with the direction of her life at that point in time.

It was very easy to get along with Marnie and she and her boyfriend came to dinner at our apartment once. During that visit, she talked about how he, a "100% Japanese" person was often mislabeled as being some other flavor of Asian. She and he both told us that he was mistaken for being a Filipino based on his skin color and eye shape or some such thing.

I couldn't see it, but then I never was able to point at one person with typically Asian features and say he or she was Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc. It wasn't that they all looked alike or anything as offensive as that. I just didn't think that there were particular physical features that distinguished them. There were behavioral ones, of course. I could tell by demeanor quite often if someone was or was not Japanese, but not by scrutinizing the shape of their eyes, height of the bridge of their nose, etc.

Marnie's boyfriend was the first Japanese person I'd ever known who faced some discrimination based on his appearance. He wasn't getting much of it, but occasionally his true lineage was questioned because of how he looked. I'm guessing that people who look rather remarkably different, but are Japanese nonetheless saw more of it than him. Prior to this experience, I assumed that the Japanese were all united as one big happy family by blood. It was a silly thing to conclude, but not quite so ridiculous when you consider how many times I heard the words "we Japanese" uttered as if they were a monolithic entity united in thought and purpose as well as language and culture.

Ultimately, my experience with Marnie also confirmed something about women that many men already know and that was that they sometimes got pregnant in order to force a man's hand. She told us about how she had to get her birth control pills from America because it was so hard to get them in Japan. That let me know that she was in charge of the protection. She also had stress in her life over her visa because she had difficulty finding sponsored work.

She wanted her boyfriend to marry her for a number of reasons. He said he wanted to anyway, but was sitting on the fence and refusing to get off. She expressed frustration with his indecision on more than one occasion. Getting pregnant (surprise!) fixed her issues across the board. Her boyfriend finally agreed to marry her. She got her visa and didn't have to worry about how she'd remain in Japan.

While it is possible that the pregnancy was truly accidental, I have my doubts considering the circumstances. Japanese men are notorious for "taking responsibility" after getting their significant others pregnant by marrying them. Unlike American men, the idea that a man should be married to the mother of his child is still common there. Marnie was the first foreign woman who got a ring on her finger when she got a bun in the oven, but wasn't the first or last woman who I knew in Japan who got a marriage license when she got pregnant.

Looking back over the parade of people who I worked with, I can more clearly see what I learned from the experiences with those people. My maturation process was accelerated by knowing them. While many people look at working in Japan, and especially working in anything to do with English, as a static process in which one parties at night, works an unimportant and stunted job during the day, and rakes in the cash, I had a very different experience. I learned a lot not only from the foreigners, of course, but also from the Japanese. (to be continued)

1 comment:

  1. THANKS for 'rounding out the picture' of the many people you worked with. Besides making for fascinating reading, it triggered some of my own memories of different foreigners I worked with when I was in Japan as well. As with you, there was a wide cross section of people from all over the English speaking world. I think that by getting to know them I learned as much about their homelands as I did about Japan.

    Yes, one can learn a lot about Japan, its culture, and oneself by thinking about how different individuals experience their time there.

    Thanks again!


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