Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Won't Miss #44 - filing 2 tax returns (reflection)

For the first decade plus in Japan, I didn't file any tax returns at all. I didn't do this in complete defiance of the law. It was an act of pure ignorance. It wasn't until one of my coworkers pointed out to me that it's written right there in my passport that I am obliged to file returns in the U.S. that I learned that I had to do so despite not making any money there. And I've already talked about filing returns in Japan and the confusion and complexity about whether or not I needed to do so there (sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't depending on whether the company did it for me or I had to do it myself).

Fortunately, the I.R.S. didn't get their undies in a wad over my husband and I missing filing returns for a long period of time because we didn't owe them any money anyway. We filed back returns for 3 or 4 years and then started filing regularly after that. Every year, it was "exempt" from all payments because we weren't rich enough to pay to both countries.

I truly do not miss having to file two tax returns, but the truth is that I have so much other paperwork in the U.S. (especially related to car ownership) that it feels as if I still had to do less in Japan. I think at this point that I had it easier there than here when it comes to bureaucracy, but it could really simply be a wash.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Will Miss #43 - liberal ideas on birth control (reflection)

I don't know if there are programs in Japan in which high schools distribute free condoms to teens to control unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease. I am pretty sure, though clearly I cannot be certain, that such programs would not be debated based on religious concerns if they were proposed. They almost certainly be pondered in terms of expense (who pays) and the potential embarrassment that would follow offering such private items to kids. In the U.S., some schools do offer condoms, but some do not because there is too much blowback from people who believe that it promotes promiscuity among the hormonally charged youngsters.

I continue to miss the fact that the Japanese have a more enlightened attitude toward birth control (though not necessarily sex itself, but that is a topic for another post) and make it relatively easy and morally acceptable to seek it out. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Random Memories: First Christmas Meal in Japan

I think this had to be our second Christmas in Tokyo. The T.V. was tiny so it had to be early on, but there were too many decorations for it to be the first one.  There were also too many videos in the cabinet for it to be within 7 months of our having moved there.

I will be returning next week to my "Tales From a Japanese Office" saga, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up to go back and explore some of my earliest Christmas memories from Japan.

When my husband and I moved to Japan in 1988, we took several books along to help us adapt to living there. One of those books was a book called "Food Buying in Japan" (linked book is newer than the version we used). This book endeavored to educate you such that you could go into a Japanese market and not be totally confused and overwhelmed. It may seem strange to people living there now to think that it could be so disorienting, but there were far fewer imported food items back then and far less English. It was the wild, wild East as far as figuring things out in supermarkets.

This guide, hard as it tried through pictures and English with Japanese and Chinese characters, did not really solve our problems. It didn't help that the book was in black and white and the pictures weren't the best, but the hardest thing was comparing squiggles in the book to squiggles in the store. We couldn't learn to read Japanese based on what the book presented.

The bottom line was that the book simply did not - and likely could not - cover all of the bases we would have wanted covered. It seemed to assume that we wanted to understand and prepare Japanese dishes for the most part so it focused on a lot explaining about what those things were. What we really wanted back in those early days was for it to mainly help us find Western food and avoid the "weird" Japanese stuff.

Most of the time, we resorted to visual assessment with the occasional tactile evaluation. Those round things that look like bread? We gave them a squeeze and they were hard as a rock. It wasn't until  many years later that I learned that they were wheat gluten.

Our very first Christmas meal in Japan.

Sometimes, our evaluations failed us. It looked like a duck, walked like a duck, but, man, it was not a duck. This was something which revealed itself to us during our first Christmas. No, we weren't trying to eat duck. We were looking to eat turkey.

We went to local markets and there was no joy on the turkey front. Even by the time we left Japan in 2013, it was very hard to locate such birds. Japanese people don't tend to eat them and they are too enormous to fit in most small Japanese ovens. We checked out KFC, and the answer to our needs appeared in the pictures on their menu. There was what looked like a large, roasted turkey leg. Hurrah!

We purchased the "turkey' and took it home for Christmas dinner. We also picked up a tiny Christmas cake (note the box behind the leg). After peeling back the foil and catching the aroma, something seemed very amiss. It didn't smell anything like turkey or even chicken for that matter. In fact, it smelled very much like ham. A taste showed that, despite all superficial appearances, we'd bought ourselves a bird-leg-shaped hunk of ham.

At that time in my life, I was not eating pork. The truth is that I still eat it rarely, but I was avoiding it entirely at that time so that meant I wouldn't partake of this repast. I do recall that, even if I had been forgiving of its porcine nature, I couldn't have bore the intensely sweet and smokey flavor. It was the most flavor-intense ham I'd ever tasted and I passed entirely.

The next year, we were so "scared" of buying the wrong thing that we completely gave up on anything resembling our own traditions. In order to be safe rather than sorry, we went for steak for my husband (as I don't eat beef) and a tiny little pizza for me. It ws somewhat deflating, but we had years ahead of us making the best of things rather than following our old family customs.

Over the years, one of our enduring difficulties was finding food which was appropriate for festive meals while living in Tokyo. When the Foreign Buyer's Club made turkey available, we often bought a turkey roll which they had available that was small enough for our oven (it was a de-boned turkey which had all of the rest of the bird intact - you'd be surprised how small it gets when you remove all of its supporting infrastructure). Now that we're back in the U.S., it seems almost too easy to get anything we want to eat. Of course, that applies only as long as "anything" isn't something Japanese. ;-)

Merry Christmas to all of my readers. I hope you have a lovely holiday.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Won't Miss #531 - being an observer (the bad)

I had a conversation with one of my friends recently in which she said that she had a problem with objectifying people. For those of you who see that as a somewhat ambiguous or too psychological term, I'll say that it has to do with dealing with people as if they were things for you to operate upon rather than people.

The truth is that I am also guilty of this, though I'm very aware of it every time that I do it. I first noticed it many years ago in Japan when I was going through my "I hate Japan" phase (part of the adaptation stages). My way of coping with the prejudice and racism was to simply frame the people around me who laughed, pointed, stared, and moved away when I came near as little more than animals. They objectified me, so I started to objectify them.

When this contempt passed as I moved along in the stages of adaptation, it was replaced by "the observer" persona that I held for years while I lived there. This had the benefit of allowing me not to be reactive, as I said in my last post, but it also meant I was not truly engaged with people. It was insulating and protective, but it was also isolating and carried the risk of making me feeling above the people who I was observing.

I don't miss this role and how I assumed it largely as an emotional survival tactic. It helped me stop being angry, but it also left me a little empty. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Will Miss #531 - being an observer (the good)

When I first came back to the U.S., I felt completely outside of the culture. When people around me spoke to me, I felt as if they were invading some invisible bubble of privacy that they should have detected and respected. I felt this way because, in Japan, I spent so many years being an outsider who was observing from a sense of separate space and a unique perspective that it felt odd to not be in that place anymore.

The truth was that being an observer granted me many things psychologically. It made me hyper-aware of my surroundings so that I sensed everything more acutely. It made me emotionally detached from what occurred in them such that I was much less rarely activated by things. It was insulating and made me feel protected. People were less likely to overhear my conversations and try to insinuate themselves into them. They were less likely to bother me at all.

After near one and a half years at home, I feel far too "integrated" with my surroundings. In some ways, this is good because I feel less alien in my home country, but in other ways, it is bad because I feel as though I'm sleep-walking and not heeding the details of life around me.

In many ways, I miss the benefits of being an observer in Japan. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Random Thoughts: How the other .2% lives

(please note that my series of memories from my former office job will continue next week)

Since returning to the U.S., I've been trying to reacquint myself with aspects of the American psyche via various outlets including magazines. This is one of the easiest ways to get an idea of how marketers perceive people as well as how information is organized and grouped for audiences who do not include those who primarily use the internet. I already know how my ilk are getting information and how they are being marketed to, but I don't know much about people who watch T.V. (as I don't have one and don't plan to get one) or those who pick up the plethora of magazines as they approach the supermarket check-out.

Since I can get so many subscriptions for free, I can look at many periodicals at my leisure that I would never pay for. One of these magazines is "Us", a rag devoted to celebrity news. The truth is that I don't know who most of the people featured in the  magazine are. However, I can see that the general theme of the magazine is taking celebrities and presenting how they are "just like us". They wash their dogs, buy fast food, exercise, and have bad hair days - just like us!

The whole thing is interesting because celebrities probably are, by and large, "just like us", but we assume they are not because they are rich, have their daily needs looked after by lackeys, and have more power to achieve what they want than average people. The magazine seems to be attempting to "normalize" celebrities so that others can relate to them and see that they are people, too. It's an interesting approach as it runs contrary to the type of celebrity marketing which hooks people in based on the idea that they are special in their talent, live a glamorous  life that others cannot achieve, and think and feel markedly different than others by virtue of these traits. One approach has to do with having people identify ("just like us") and the other has to do with have them live vicariously (like we want to be rather than like we are).

I've noticed that many people subscribe to the latter in terms of how they view the Japanese. That is, they conceptualize their lives as being somehow more ideal and less problematic than those of Americans (or perhaps other Western folks, but I can only talk about people around me). I've had people say that the Japanese work harder, better, are smarter, more attractive, eat more healthily, live longer, are kinder, politer, friendlier, cleaner, more law-abiding, etc.

From a subjective viewpoint, many of these are, generally true. The Japanese are cleaner, though that is not due to an intrinsic sense that is written into their genetic code. It's about how they view their environment reflects on them. It's about identifying with and feeling they are identified by how clean things are to a greater extent than some other cultures as well as a culture which traditionally sits, sleeps, and operates much closer to the floor. If you had to sleep on the floor, you'd also want to keep it clean.

At any rate, I'm talking less about the adjectives that surround the stereotypes of Japanese, and more about the sense that their lives are generally more idyllic than those led by people in the U.S. Most people think Japanese people are waking up every day, enjoying a full breakfast of fish, rice, and miso soup, getting on a train smartly dressed in a perfect suit and tie, peacefully enduring the packed train, laboring diligently throughout the day, eating a bento or a quick bowl of ramen before getting back to work, going home, enjoying dinner with family in a peaceable fashion, and tending their zen garden on the weekend or watching fall leaves or flowers over a cup of tea or sake.

This idealized vision of a kinder, gentler, healthier, more harmounious existence mirrors the same vision of celebrities as having easier, more glamorous, and more exciting lives. The reality is that there is just as much boredom, misery, and difficulty in the lives of the Japanese as there are in the lives of Americans.

I'd like to share a few stories which are part of an enormous amount of experience that I have had with folks in Japan who shared the intimate details of their lives. These are by no means "common", but they are also not uncommon. What is uncommon is for a foreigner who is outside of the immediate family of these folks to be told about such things.

One of my students, a lovely older lady with two grown sons and grandchildren, told me that she was suffering some stress lately due to a situation with her son. She told me that his wife, her daughter-in-law, had come to her in a state of pronounced anguish because her husband had gambled away so much money that they were at risk of losing their home.

She and her husband gave them five million yen ($50,000) to safeguard the future of their children. Her son prostrated himself in front of them and begged for forgiveness. It was a grueling and painful experience for everyone which undermined my student and her husband's financial security by carving out a big chunk of their savings and created a familial relationship problem that is likely to reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.

Another one of my students told me that, while she and her husband were still dating, he disappeared for nearly a year because he claimed that he needed to figure things out for himself. She had little contact with him during this time, but she patiently waited for him to return and marry. Eventually, he did come back, but he did not talk about what had happened during his absence.

For a time, their marriage was fine, but he never had a stable salaried job with regular benefits (retirement fund, guaranteed hours/terms). She is self-employed and makes more money than him and was able to get them by, but as they got older, she worried that they'd be in trouble in retirement because she also had no plan. They discussed it and he said he'd seek a "regular" job. He found a better job, but eventually quit it without telling her he did so. He hid his actions for a time and when they were finally revealed, he would not explain his choices to her. Eventually, they divorced.

An acquaintance of mine cosigned a loan for her brother so that he could buy a house. He had a good job that paid well and invested in improvements that should have enhanced the value of the home. After some time, it became clear that he had ceased to make mortgage payments and his add-ons created a debt which greatly exceeded the value of the home.

The debt fell on his sister since she co-signed the loan and, when all was said and done, her brother ended up in jail (for a non-related situation) and she ended up more than 10 million yen ($100,000) in the hole after the house was sold. Now, she will need to declare bankruptcy and may have to divorce her husband to protect their assets because, if she doesn't, their life savings and home will go down with her.

One of my students had an uncle who she said simply vanished. Without explanation, he disappeared and no one had any idea what became of him. His family, including his wife, were so ignorant of what was going on in his life that they had no clues as to what happened to him. Efforts to track him down yielded nothing.

Another acquaintance of mine, a lovely woman who had a great career which paid better than many mid-level managers at companies, is multilingual, attractive, and kind, was engaged to be married. Her future husband did what many Japanese people do when planning to marry and conducted a background investigation of her family. After doing it, he decided not to marry her because her father had organized crime roots (though no longer was involved with them). After this, it became clear that she was, despite her many advantages for a future mate, unmarriagable. She is the modern equivalent of "burakumin" - the untouchables who handled raw meat in Japan's past.

And, of course, there was my coworker Vanessa, whose life reflected a husband with career failure and domestic violence.

These stories are by no means all I've heard and I'm sure that I haven't heard anywhere near all of the difficulties and deep personal suffering of people who I've met. The fact that I was told the things that I have is pretty amazing in and of itself. The stories themselves aren't particularly "amazing" to me. I'm sure that such skeletons are residing in many closets in Japan, just as they are in those in America because, the Japanese, they're "just like us."

(The title refers to the fact that .2% is the portion of the planet that is Japanese.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Won't Miss #43 - girly mags everywhere (reflection)

I lived in an enormous city in Japan so take this observation with an appropriate quantity of salt, but I have not seen much in the way of porn in my environment since returning to the U.S. Keep in mind that I have walked around San Francisco - even some of the seedier areas - but I haven't perused any red light districts. It does not appear to be common here for men to openly read their girly magazines in public, at least not in my experience.

In Tokyo, I didn't have to go anywhere special to see men looking at naked women. They did it on the train while commuting. Such magazines were sold on the street, in book stores, and in newstands. While I really don't care what men look at to titillate themselves, I think that such behavior (like using the bathroom or having sex) should be private and I should not have been a non-volitional witness to their prurient interests.

I still don't miss seeing men looking at porn and such materials being sold everywhere as I did in Japan.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Will Miss #42 - fine bean cakes (reflection)

In terms of shopping for Japanese food, I actually landed in an area as close to "paradise" outside of Tokyo as one can get. It turns out that there are quite a few Asian markets within driving range of my current apartment and I can buy more things than I ever dreamed of. That is not to say that I can get anything I want or that I can score some of my favorites from Japan, but I can get far, far more than I anticipated.

That being said, the only type of bean cakes that I can get here are the sort which are the most shelf-stable. I can't get anything really fresh and many of the specialty items that I loved can't be had. I still miss those lovely, really fresh and delightful bean cakes. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Random Memories #58

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: 123456789101112131415, 16.

As I mentioned in the previous post, a former coworker of mine from Nova just so happened to move in when the new boss took over. This fellow, Steve, wasn't just "any" coworker, he was notorious for a variety of reasons. Beyond being one of the not tiny number of Canadians who was offended to the point of being angry if he was mistaken for a citizen of the United States, he also had temper tantrums on the job.

Steve and I worked morning shifts at Nova on Mondays and Fridays. We were the only two people who started at 10:00 a.m. on those days so there wasn't any slack if one of us was late. It's not like another teacher could cover so the students would have to cool their heels until the teacher made an appearance. I was always either early or on time and Steve started to habitually show up late on these days. He made it clear that he hated being on the early shift and wanted taken off of it. The obvious conclusion was that he was intentionally late to vex the staff until they capitulated to his request.

After the 4th or so time, the staff told him that he would be docked the hour's pay for being late. When told this, Steve had an absolute meltdown in the office. He started shouting and dropping F-bombs loudly enough for everyone to hear. Fortunately, most of our students didn't know what he was saying, but his anger and volume certainly conveyed the message quite well. The strange thing was that knowing he'd be penalized didn't stop him from being late again. He just had another fit the next time.

Beyond his temper tantrums and America-hating, Steve was also known for being extremely pathetic when it came to women. He wanted to date Japanese women, but couldn't really make headway with any of them. Since he wasn't a bad-looking guy (though he wasn't a great-looking one either), it had to all come down to personality. If you're a foreign guy and even Japanese women dislike you, something must be amiss as cultural differences tend to obfuscate most personality problems and allow foreign men to find a girl abroad when they can't get one at home.

Steve dealt with this issue in two ways. The first one was that he tended to enlist the high school girls to go on outings with him. I must make it perfectly clear that he wasn't trying to romance them in a creepy way, but rather just find some girls who were willing to spend time with him. Part of the reason for this was certainly that he wanted to hone his Japanese skills and the only way to get in practice was to find Japanese folks to socialize with.

The result of polishing his language skills in this way was that he talked like a Japanese schoolgirl. I was new to Japan and couldn't understand anything, but I was told that he used female language and childish phrasing. The Nova office ladies tittered at how he spoke and the other teachers who understood him because they had similar language capabilities snickered behind his back.

The other half of his acting out on his need for companionship was that he formed a crush on one of my coworkers. This (British) woman joined Nova at the same time as me and had come to Japan with her (also British) boyfriend. She and I bonded over our newness at the job and tended to spend our lunch time together and socialized outside of work. Steve mooned after her pathetically and she tried to politely rebuff his advances. His response to this was to hate me because I seemed to be monopolizing her lunch hours and cutting off his access. It didn't occur to him that she was more interested in talking to me than a 22-year-old with a temper problem and a social life that included a lot of trips to Tokyo Disneyland with high school girls.

As one might imagine, finding out that Steve was going to be working in a similar capacity as my boss and me was not exactly happy news. The truth was that I didn't exactly recognize him at first and he's the one who recognized me. He had changed a lot in the decade since I'd last seen him. He had quite a few more pounds on his frame and quite a bit less hair on his head. Fortunately, he seemed to have grown up quite a bit and pretty much did his job and kept to himself. This was an enormous relief because my past experiences had primed me for the worst when I learned that Steve was one of the new president's transfers.

Part of the reason he had to bring in his own people was that we were losing the head of our materials coordination. Mrs. O. had been threatening for years to retire and we had been doing everything short of sacrificing goats to get some deity or another to have her make good on that threat. She wasn't a bad person, but her notions were so idiosyncratic and outdated that our hands were constantly tied when it came to advancing the program. She held us back in the 1960's when she learned English and her husband held us back in the 1970's in terms of publishing technology. We got him to allow us to move along, but she was immovable. Fortunately, she left when the company was sold and we got a new guy, Hagihara. As old-fashioned and hidebound as she was, he was not. (to be continued)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Won't Miss #531 - dyed hair

When I was growing up, I didn't see my maternal grandmother with gray hair until the end of her life when she was too ill to leave the house to do anything except go to the hospital. I recall her as having extremely pale skin which got paler as she grew older and very black hair. Compared to my paternal grandmother, who let her natural aging process run its course, my mother's mother always seemed a little unearthly in appearance. Even as a child, I felt she never looked "right".

As we age, it is natural for things to go south as gravity drags us down and for things to get paler. This is because the number of cells which contain pigment is reduced and skin gets thinner. Seeing pale skin with dark hair is just weird-looking to me. Lighter hair, by virtue of graying, goes hand in hand with lighter skin. I'm sure that has been the natural order throughout the history of mammals with fur or hair. When older folks dye their hair black or a dark color, it just feels "wrong" and is one of the clearest indications that someone is rejecting their age rather than settling into it gracefully.

Like my granny, many Japanese women (and some men) dye their hair black or a very dark color as they age. Since the overwhelming majority of Japanese people have black hair and don't dye their hair lighter colors as they age to match their skin tone (an option which is more palatable to foreign people with their greater genetic diversity in skin, hair, and eye color), I constantly saw people (again, especially women) who rather obviously and sadly tried to hang on to their youth.

I don't miss seeing so many women with unnaturally black hair and pale skin and thinking about what it said about how they regarded themselves as they aged.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Will Miss #530 - male pattern baldness

OK, I realize this is going to be a weird one, but it does say something about Japan and America. In the U.S., I see an inordinate number of men with shaved heads. Why? Well, some of them actually look great with a smooth head - like Avery Brooks looked much better without hair than with it (and he actually had a full head of hair). Most of the men I see*, however, are trying to hide their male pattern baldness by shaving all of their hair off. I blame Bruce Willis for this trend, and I think it says something about rejecting your body and natural appearance not because you think you look better, but because you're embarrassed by your bad luck with genes. The ones who don't shave their heads tend to run around constantly with a baseball cap on and that really isn't a whole lot better.

In Japan, I saw plenty of men with male pattern baldness and I felt that they lived more with their natural state of being. Rather than try to cover it up in embarrassment by adopting a look which makes them look like everyone else, they looked their age. I miss this sense of people living with the cards they inherited rather than trying to hide them.

*I realize that I'm living in a particular part of the U.S. and other areas may have different styles. I'm in Silicon Valley, and I have very rarely seen a semi-bald pate here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Random Memories #57

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: 1234567891011121314, 15.

Before I went off on an extended tangent about my coworkers, I had mentioned that the company I had been working at, the darling of Mr. O., had been sold to someone who couldn't recognize a pig in a poke when one was wriggling around in front of him. I say that because business had been slowly tanking since I'd joined the company.

It was nearly a decade of solid decline in sales and a shrinking client list that caused Mr. O. to decide to put his baby on the market in the first place, but he sold it to a subsidiary of Nova ICI (the company famous for its owners disgrace and for treating the teachers at its conversation schools pretty shabbily) as an opportunity to gain our company's "know how".

Mr. G., which is what I will call the man who arranged to purchase our company, was interested in the materials and effort that went into creating a correspondence course that appealing to major companies. I don't know how Mr. O. danced around the fact that sales had been capsizing for a decade, but I'm sure there was a lot of selective showing of various books and name-dropping of major corporations. The idea that the company was being sold to a subsidiary of a major English conversation school struck terror in the hearts of all of the employees and my Aussie boss D. and I were no exception.

Our main concern was that Mr. G. would decide to replace all of the employees with staff that he knew from his office. Of secondary concern was the possibility that Nova's tricks to cheat employees out of wages and benefits would be imported. We were already getting screwed over on holidays as the president flagrantly broke the law and capped our vacation time at well below the legal first year mandated level of ten days and we imagined that this might mean we'd also be cheated out of part of our salaries as well.

It turned out that Mr. G did bring in his own staff, but he assured all of us that he wanted the entire old team to stay. In fact, he felt that he really needed us if he were to retain the very thing that convinced him to purchase the company in the first place - the "know how". He was more concerned about our quitting than we were about being fired and that was a relief to all.

Despite our worries, the new administrators swept a lot of the thornier aspects of our employment aside. When Mr. G. came in, he followed the law. He didn't change our salaries and both D. and I finally got the vacation time we were due. I went from being locked at five days off per year to receiving the full number that I was due - 20. What was more, no one was put out by the idea that I might actually take all of the days off that I was entitled to.

Beyond doing what was legal, Mr. G. ended up not being around very much. The president's office which oversaw our cubicles was now vacant much of the time and that eased up the well-heated summers that we had been enduring. With no president to dictate 84 degree heat blowing down on us in summer, we were free to set a more comfortable temperature.

There's an old saying about hitting yourself over the hammer. "Why do I hit myself over the head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when it stops." When Mr. G came in, I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a hammer for ten years and it felt so good now that it had finally stopped. The old president had been unfair, controlling, irrational, old-fashioned, and omnipresent. Having a president who did not micromanage, cheat, or watch us like a hawk felt like coming up for air after being held under water for a very long time. It wasn't that we were suddenly treated so well, but just that we stopped being treated so poorly.

Though these changes were refreshing and welcome, we still had to manage the personnel changes that were to come. Of greatest concern to D. and I was the foreign materials development person who was being imported. We were both concerned that he was going to slowly take over our work, but it turned out that was not going to be the case. The weird thing about it was that the two people who came in to work with us - one foreign and one Japanese - were not entirely new to me.

One of them was a teacher who I'd worked with at Nova before. His name was Steve and I mentioned him briefly in my first post in this series. No one was more surprised than me that he was still around in some capacity related to Nova, and his presence did nothing to inspire confidence in the rosy future of the company. (to be continued)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Won't Miss #42 - Disney Obsession (reflection)

It's hard to understand the aggregate effect of a trend or fad until you find yourself removed from it and encountering a relatively different one. In Japan, it was not the least bit uncommon for adults to festoon themselves with the vestiges of cuteness. From "Hello Kitty" to "Rilakkuma" (relax bear) to Minnie Mouse, you'd find women ages 20-40 with trinkets attached to their cell phones, images on their tote bags, or clothing bearing these icons. It often seemed utterly ridiculous, but now that I've been removed from it, I have a very different sense of what it meant.

The cumulatve effect of all of these people embracing Disneyana and other child-like trappings was one of making the atmosphere seem harmless, diminuitive, and inoffensive. In America, I don't see 30-year-old people walking around with Pluto key chains and Mickey T-shirts, but rather with enormous tattoos and T-shirts devoted to alcohol brands, rock bands, and nasty messages. The aggregate sense of these people is one of defensiveness, danger, and aggression.

While I though it was incredibly silly for adults to be so attached to something meant for children, I find now that I miss the atmosphere that surrounded such people in a manner that I could not anticipate. As reflections go, this one, surprisingly, has found me in a complete change of opinion.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Will Miss #41 - no tipping (reflection)

We don't think too carefully about it, but many things in life are about power. Why do people prefer to be attractive to being unattractive? It's not because of vanity in most cases, but rather because beauty gives them power over others. Why do we want money? It's not because a pocket full of cash is intrinsically satisfying. It's about the power to get what you want.

The whole point of tipping is to give the customer power. If your server was not good to you, you are empowered to "punish" him or her by not leaving a tip. In a country like Japan, in which the customer is supposedly king, you'd think that they'd give customers that power. They don't. However, that's because there is an assumption the moment you walk in the door that you have the power already. You don't need to prove it with leaving spare change on the table for the server.

Given how many business leave a tip jar on the counter in America - even in cases in which service is defined as handing you a donut in a paper bag after snatching a sad-looking one from the display case - I miss the fact that there was no tipping in Japan even more. Tipping has become less about empowering the customer and more about shaking her down as time has gone by and I could really do without it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Random Thoughts: On self-praise and the lack thereof

This is another brief step off the path of my tales from my former employment. They'll be back next week. Thanks for your patience and for reading!

One of my friends here in the U.S. believes she is great at counseling people. In fact, she is lacking in empathy and listening skills. She's competitive in all areas, but especially in terms of how she believes she has suffered more than anyone else. When talking to her about ones issues, she is sure she is always worse off and tends to cut off talk of other people's problems in order to insert her own woes and how much greater they are. She is lousy at counseling because the biggest part of that type of work is being good at listening and she would prefer to talk about herself.

Another person I know is sure he is a good writer, but his work is derivative and poorly paced. His writing style is fine, but his characterizations are unappealing. Instead of making me want characters to succeed, I want them to fail. While not a bad writer, he is not a particularly great one either.

And if you are reading this or there is a chance that you might be reading this because you know me, you can bet that I'm not talking about you. I'm not one of those people who tries to get messages across in a passive-aggressive manner or through some sort of back door hinting. I don't talk about people behind their backs in the hopes that they'll get a message that I'm unable to say to their faces. I'll say it to you or I won't, so if the previous paragraphs incited some insecure sense that you're being talked about or believe I'm talking about a particular person that we both know, rest assured that you are not. This is not my style. I only say such things when I'm 99.99% sure that they won't be read by the people of whom I'm speaking. I have no desire to harm people or to play games.

Even though I know people who know of my work and I'm speaking of them here, I know they won't be reading it. Why? Well, it is because the same thing that leads them to believe they are great at things which they are not great at keeps them from bothering to read my blogs. They are too self-involved and narcissistic to take the time to drop in on my work and see if there's anything there of value for them to hear. They love their voices more than anyone else's. I don't say any of these things because I need to insult people or even by way of a complaint, but rather because I reached a realization about society and humility recently which is interesting to ponder.

When I encounter people in America who are certain of their high level of skill in a particular area, I'm stressed listening to their assertions of high competence because I'm not certain of how to respond beyond a non-committal "oh" or "uh-huh" or a head nod. I can't be authentic and affirm what they are saying, but I absolutely do not want to be rude and disagree when they say or do something which cues that they want some sort of pat on the back from me or affirmation. After having enough of these experiences, I realized that dealing with people who have a high estimation of themselves which is unwarranted places a burden on the people listening to them.

When I was in Japan, I encountered the opposite situation in which people with high levels of ability and competence would profess that they were not good at things. Sometimes, I felt they were just showing appropriate modesty or humility. Most of the time, I believed that they truly did not think they were any great shakes. Often, they believed their English was poor when they were actually quite good. I knew they were not in a position to judge themselves because they didn't have the perspective that someone in my shoes - someone who'd had a wide range of experience with speaking abilities - possessed.

In the case I experienced in Japan, I would find myself reassuring people that they were good at things which they felt they were bad at rather than having to listen to people assert that they were great at things they were not especially good at. It did not stress me at all to provide that reassurance in Japan. It does stress me to withhold confirmation here because there is almost always some expectation on the part of the speaker that I will agree with their assertions. I feel bad for withholding that approval, but I cannot find it within myself to lie and offer it.

What I realized when pondering this is that narcissism, egotistic behavior, and the professing of ones superiority at a task exacts a social price whereas modesty and humility do not - or at least they do not cost as much. I realized how relatively often in the U.S. that I'm stressed deciding how to politely manage unwarranted self-praise. Perhaps one of the reasons that most people dislike immodest gas bags is that they get tired of an internal war between maintaining a sense of integrity and exercising civilized politeness. Such people make us uncomfortable by putting us in a position to carry out this balancing act.

In a much broader sense, there is another cost to society on the whole. I think that people with an inaccurate perception of their capability lose motivation to actually get good at what they are doing. If you're already a "master", why keep trying hard? Maybe humility also spurs one to improve. Perhaps the sense that the Japanese people have that they are rarely great at anything is what helps compel them to constantly do better. No matter how often I reassured students of their competence, they never wholeheartedly embraced my conclusions and maintained their position that they weren't especially good.

It is very simple to handle underestimation of oneself and ones capabilities because it allows me to be honest and authentic in how I regard the other party. I can feel warm and kind, while still telling the truth. In the other case, I feel stingy and mean and pressured to dissemble. I do believe that at least some (if not all) braggarts are motivated by the same forces as the irrepressibly modest - insecurity. They are looking for confirmation of what they believe, but the way they go about it creates a hardship - at least for someone like me who does not want to be inauthentic in my actions or words.

I don't know if Japanese culture values humility because it places less of a burden on others or because it is a Confucian principle or simply a happy coincidence, but I do see the value in it pretty clearly in terms of how it smooths relationships. I feel better dealing with modest people than immodest ones and it has nothing to do with any sort of notion that people shouldn't be proud of their achievements or should adhere to some arbitrary principle. The truth is that I'd rather be with people who appropriately estimate themselves as neither better nor worse than they are, but I also know that it is often hard to see yourself as you truly are in the eyes of others. The bottom line is that the Japanese tended to err on the side of too little and the Americans too much. The latter makes my life a lot harder than the former. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Won't Miss #530 - sublimating my opinions

During the many goodbye gatherings that I took part in as I was preparing to leave Japan, I went out to dinner with two of my students who are sisters. During this meal, one of them said to me that she realized that the teacher me wasn't the real me. It was only at this little goodbye that she realized there was a whole other person who she had no exposure to.

One of the things I decided when I came back to America was that I was finished with my "teacher" persona. That is, a persona that was utterly dedicated at every moment of interaction to meeting the needs of the other person and never fulfilled my needs. Most people who teach in Japan do not do this, but it was one of the reasons why I was such a popular and "good" teacher. When you do that, you sublimate your own desires to say what you want to say almost entirely and only make counter-points in the most gentle and roundabout way. This is a very effective way to manage Japanese people when you are a foreigner because they are already a little intimidated by dealing with you in a second language and by the fact that you're a foreigner.

The truth is that not expressing an opinion was not and has never been my true character. I learned a lot about self-control in Japan and was grateful for the mastery I obtained as a result of developing an appropriate manner for optimizing the learning experience for Japanese students. While I consider it valuable personal training and something that I can tap into when necessary here at home, I don't miss the almost total sublimation of my thoughts and opinions that were part of my regular work in Japan. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will Miss #529 - rule followers, rule enforcement

There are interesting contradictions in all cultures. One in Japan is that they expect people to follow "rules" even when they are not in writing or something that people are not contractually bound to do. At the station, personnel will be organizing people into lines, telling them where not to stand, and generally ensuring order even though nothing compels them to do so. Of course, people comply without question in 99% of cases.

In America, every rule has to be put in writing or in a contract or people won't even consider following it. The strange thing is that people will see a directive on a sign or sign a contract promising not to do something, but they'll do it anyway and protest when told that they are breaking a rule. There are many examples of this, but one of the easiest to spot are the people who go into express lanes that prohibit more than "X" number of items with far more than "X". They ignore the signs, but what is worse is that the store personnel do not enforce the laws. If they do, the person who breaks the rule sometimes gets belligerent. There is no consideration for others in either the rule breaking or the lack of enforcement.

I miss the way people in Japan generally had enough consideration to follow rules and, when they didn't, someone in a position to get them to comply actually enforced the rule. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Random Memories #56

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: 12345678910111213, 14.

It was much easier getting to know foreign coworkers than the Japanese ones for a variety of reasons. The primary one may seem to be language, but it was far from the most limiting one. The main issue was that we did not work much together and that we were on different schedules. The foreigners were on 11:00 AM-7:00 PM and the Japanese, ostensibly, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM. They had lunch while we were just getting started.

Since there was no natural way in which we could socialize with our Japanese coworkers, it took many years to get to know the ones who went the distance. While we hear a lot about Japanese workers loyalty, the truth was that only two male workers were there for the entire twelve years that I was at the company. In fact, the most senior people at the company to this day are those two men and my former manager, D., an Australian. If you measure time served as a function of devotion to the company, he's right up there with the hardiest of my former Japanese colleagues. As I've mentioned before, some of them moved on to greener pastures, but many of them "quit" in the best interests of the company (aka they were fired).

The first Japanese staff member that I spoke to was Mr. Saito. He was present at my interview and seemed to be trying to find ways not to get me hired. Every question he asked seemed designed to point out my lack of experience in critical areas such as not having directly worked with businessmen on a regular basis. I will never know if this was just his way of conducting a shrewd interview or if he really didn't want me there, but he was to become the Japanese staff person that I worked the most with and knew the best.

That last sentence in no way should indicate that Saito and I became friends. By virtue of the fact that he was the Japanese manager of the English materials section, he simply was the person D. and I had the most contact with. Saito was a classic example of a Japanese businessman in many ways. He wore the proper dark suits and ties. He was physically indistinct for a man of his era - a bit short with a petite physique. He rarely called in sick or took much in the way of vacation time, showed proper deference to the shacho (president) at all times, and worked late.

Saito was a nervous sort when it came to his job. He had ended up in a small company with few chances for advancement and had a skill set based almost entirely on serving that one particular company. This situation is one that is extremely common in Japan and a huge part of the reason why the labor force is greatly less mobile than that in the U.S. or other Western countries. While we hear lots of talk about "loyalty", a fundamental truth is that most workers are groomed specifically to deal with their companies and other businesses tend not to want them.

Saito was sure that, if he had to leave the company, he'd never get a job as good as the one he had so he did absolutely everything he was asked no matter how much he hated it or how unfair the request was. In fact, I later learned that Saito started off as a salesman and was transferred into the English materials development section against his wishes. He complied, and they asked him to do it because his English was better than any other person currently on staff who was not already in that section, but he didn't want to be writing text books, proofreading, and doing translations.

Saito knew that he wasn't qualified, but the company preferred to shuffle the players they already had around than to recruit new ones who were more capable. This, too, is common in Japan. They hire workers and move them around to various sections even when their skills lay in a particular area. Rather than build great text developers or fantastic salesmen, they'd rather breed a mediocre jack of all trades.

It wasn't just tiny companies like mine who did this, but major corporations like Honda and Sony do this as well. It promotes a certain amount of inefficiency, but insures "loyalty" by making employees good at being at their company rather than good at one particular thing. It keeps the labor market from seeking higher wages based on higher skills.

It wasn't that Saito loved sales so much as he lacked confidence in his abilities. He soldiered on, but he was relieved when the company's tanking fortunes shrunk the materials development section and he got transferred back into sales. Once he no longer worked with the foreign staff and felt he had to oversee us and fret over inconsequential details like whether or not our red pens had enough ink to make corrections look dark enough on student reports, he loosened up and I got to know him a bit better as a person.

Though Saito seemed like an enormous straight-laced dork, he was actually very much into rock and roll music. When he found out I had been an enore told me that he liked KISS's "simple rock music" and he played the keyboards at home. In fact, I gave him one of my old Macintosh computers when I retired it because he was into MIDI at the time and couldn't afford a computer that would let him work with it. This "donation" stunned him because he perceived it as incredibly generous, but the truth was that it was such an old thing that I couldn't sell it if I wanted to.

I should make it clear that Saito wasn't paid less than me - far from it. The difference was that he had bought a condominium and he and his wife, who worked part-time, were on a budget trying to get it paid off as quickly as possible. They didn't have any children, and in fact it was through him that I learned why a plastic storage box I had was called a DINKS* box, but I think he was all too well aware of the relative insecurity of working at our company. If he got laid off or forced to quit, he knew they'd be in enormous difficulty so he lived as simply as possible, including growing his own potatoes in a little garden that was a part of the condo deal.

When you look at most Japanese businessmen sitting on trains or walking in blue- and gray-suited masses in the more crowded areas, it's easy to reduce them to the worker drone stereotype. You imagine them being formal and professional, working late at night, and being deferential to bosses. It's easy not to assign them the thoughts and feelings of a normal person because they seem so polished and together on the surface - or at least they do if they aren't getting home from a bender and falling asleep on the train or upchucking on the platform.

Though Saito fit the stereotype of a normal Japanese businessman in every way, I got to see many of the little human cracks and quirks through time. This is no easy feat because most Japanese people hide who they really are when they're on the job and they push foreign workers in many cases to comply with rigid rules such that you start to feel they are no more than their jobs. Though they may not show it, many of them are just as real, possessing of complexity and depth, and afraid of bad things happening as you are. Saito didn't dye his hair yellow and hang out in Harajuku, but he did have his own personality. It was just usually hidden behind a mask when he was on the job. (to be continued)

*Double Income No Kids

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Won't Miss #40 - small refrigerator (reflection)

This was when the refrigerator was new. It didn't stay like this for long. Trust me.

I think that there are some things in life that you will always stretch to fit and then exceed the initial capacity. Closets are one of them. Blue jeans, unfortunately, are another. Refrigerators are as well.

In Japan, our refrigerator was quite small. Our first one was dorm-size-ish. Our second and third ones was about what you'd expect in a tiny New York studio apartment with a compact kitchen or a dwelling designed specifically for the needs of a single individual who rarely cooked. They were small. Since coming to the U.S., I've had access to enormous refrigerators with large freezers and somewhat smaller ones and it has always been the case that I fill the available space. 

Part of the reason that the bigger fridge isn't big enough in the U.S. is that the food is sold in bigger portions. Part of it is also that, the  more I have, the more I'll take. I don't miss my tiny refrigerator in Tokyo, especially because I cook all of my own meals and do need a lot of food on hand, but I have been surprised that bigger appliances didn't really solve my problem. The food just grew to fit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Will Miss #39 - dressing up for the girls (reflection)

Last weekend, my husband and I walked around a local mall and I made a conscious effort to not sleepwalk through the experience. When we first returned, I took note of people and what they did and how they looked because I was trying to acclimate to the culture again. Over time, I've come to do what most people do - tune everyone out.

I'm not sure why I decided to attend to what I was seeing, but it was fortuitous because I am reviewing this particular post this week and can say something about how different this particular cultural aspect is. In Japan, I always knew when my female students were meeting their girlfriends for shopping when they had lessons because they often dressed to the nines. They often dressed up more for the girls than for the boys in their lives.

In America, I have noticed that women do dress up, but not for each other. They tend to do it when they are with men or when they are doing something formal or public. Even then, the level of dress in public in the U.S. is decidedly lower than that in Japan. The people here just tend to dress down more often than not. There, they tend to dress up more often than not.

I do miss the way in which women took greater pride in their appearance, particularly when they were with other women. It says something about values in the U.S. when women dress well for men and not for other people. You can reach your own conclusions about that. 

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)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Won't Miss #529 - lack of diversity

Japan has a rich culture with a lot of variety and history. In fact, you could not really understand every nook and cranny of what it has to offer even if you had a lifetime to explore it. What is more, much of the culture has been adapted from other cultures - Chinese and European ones in particular - so there is a bit of a crazy quilt going on. That being said, it is one unified quilt and every square has been crafted in accord with what the Japanese find comfortable and secure.

In the U.S., at least where I am living now, there is cultural diversity everywhere. In my former apartment, my nearest neighbor was a a Chinese family. Now, the neighbors on either side of me are Indian, the property manager is Hispanic, and the downstairs neighbors are Chinese. There are even a few white people on the other side of our building and a few black ones in the building opposite ours.

The thing about being in America is that there is a lot of authentic diversity and you can, if you live in a relatively well-populated area, attend festivals and cultural events given by people who are a part of those cultures. Since returning, I've been to Japanese and Portuguese cultural events as well as taken part in a Dia de Los Muertos (day of the dead) procession. I'm hoping to locate a Diwali (Festival of Lights) event next year (I missed out this year). My point is that I can do these things because the cultural communities are strong here and well supported. In Japan, such things were much smaller, harder to find, and not well-attended. People of different cultures are discouraged from embracing their native cultures and celebrating them. They are pushed to be quiet and blend in.

I don't miss the lack of cultural diversity in Japan.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Will Miss #528 - the extra mile

I used to receive an actual newspaper when I was living in Tokyo. When it rained, the paper always was delivered in a plastic bag. This is not too far outside of the realm of reasonable service, but I found that there were other areas in which care was taken that I'm not noticing happening here in the U.S. In particular, when a parcel arrived damaged via the Japanese post office, they would put it in a plastic bag as well to make sure that the contents didn't fall out. Here in America, I've already received two empty padded mailers because the contents got lost. I never lost the contents of a package once in Japan, and I received a lot of packages.

In Japan, the focus on service in general often created a habit of going the extra mile without the customer even asking for it. I'm disappointed since returning to the U.S. to find that people only tend to do what they have to unless it is a particularly expensive service dealing with well-heeled customers. I miss the way the Japanese businesses looked out for their customer's interests even when they strictly did not have to do so.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Random Memories #54

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: 1234567891011, 12.

There are some people out there who have a reflexive response to explain away the bad behaviors of other people. If someone behaves rudely, they'll say, "oh, he's just had a bad day". There are others who never exercise empathy or understanding in the face of bad behavior. When they are treated badly, they say that such people are choosing to be rude and could be different if they tried.

The truth behind why people behave poorly is likely a moving point between these two sides. That is, sometimes people are jerks because they've had a bad time and their emotional and impulse control are compromised at present, but they may behave better on another day. Their ability to tolerate stress or consider the feelings of others is low so they just act out. Sometimes, they are oblivious to the fact that they are behaving badly or actually consciously choose to do so because they feel justified in some fashion.

My husband and I had an experience recently while going to a local donut shop which illustrated this. The shop has a sign at the register which instructs patrons to form a line at the back of the shop. Two people entered the shop before us and stood just inside the door instead of forming a line toward the back. We followed the proper instructions, but we weren't going to attempt to horn in on the people who got there first. I should note that they "beat us" by a hair and actually hurried to rush to the door when they saw us approaching to insure that they were able to cram in in front of us a few seconds before we arrived.

While we hung back enough to allow them to go first, the shop clerks told them to move to the line at the back. One of the two people, an older man, told my husband and I that we "had to move back" because he was there first. He could have politely said, "excuse me, but would you mind stepping back," but instead, he issued an order. This is the sort of person who I'm inclined to feel, based on the petty rush to get there before us and the language he chose to use, is probably just an asshole because he feels entitled. Some people are just like that.

One of the temporary teachers at more former job was also such a person. Unlike the temp. that I wrote about last week who had a very hard time in life, this guy was simply a swaggering, arrogant jerk. His name was Brant and he was Australian, and one of the younger people that we had employed at around 24 years of age.

During this particular busy season, the company's business was on an all-time low. There were only three temps, Brant and a weaselly little blond American guy whose name I've long forgotten were on the morning shift. My husband, the manager, D., and I were on the afternoon to evening shift. That meant that Brant and the weasel tended to socialize together since they shared phone cubicle time and breaks whereas my husband, D., and I were on a different schedule.

During this particular time period, I was having horrible back pain. I would get up in the morning and struggle through my agony to get to work. My company's office was located about a 15-minute walk from Shinjuku station and I couldn't make the journey all at once because of the pain I suffered after traversing a short distance. I'd struggle about a third of the way and have to sit and rest then force myself along for another third and finally make it there. Sitting, unfortunately, became nearly as unendurable as standing and I was spending the first five or six hours of my eight hours at the office with searing pain running along my lower back and legs. After awhile, it would abate, but easily two-thirds of my day was spent in terrible pain.

After enduring this for about a month, I finally went to a doctor and he said I almost certainly had a disc problem and had to stay in bed for at least two months and allow it to heal or risk permanent damage. That meant that I could not come in to the office, but I arranged to work from home. I corrected reports from my bed and received phone calls from there as well. During about one and a half months of the time Brant was there, I wasn't in the office and he took it as a cue that he was king of the cubicle we had briefly shared.

When I returned, he was incredibly rude and demanding toward me. Though my husband and I had been there for years before he ever graced our office, he acted as if he were the senior employee. He had moved around the documents and maps that were pinned to my cubicle for reference and put up his own personal pictures. When I took some of the magnets he'd appropriated for the items he was amusing himself with to put back the work-related reference documents he'd removed, he complained bitterly to D. that my husband was "stealing" them to mess with him.

He was too stupid to figure out that I was restoring my cubicle to its business-related state. He could only see what was happening as some sort of pissing contest in which his authority was being challenged. The fact that he, as a temporary teacher who was on a three-month contract and had no experience at the job felt he possessed any sort of authority was also a reflection of his particular personality type. In fact, he consistently acted to intimidate me by angrily and aggressively speaking to me about what he saw as unwarranted changes to "his" cubicle.

At one point, I remember this guy, who was easily 8 inches taller than me, standing in my way and blocking my access to the bathroom and yelling at me aggressively over one of the perceived challenges to his dominant position in the booth. I remember this experience well because it was the first time in my adult life that I had a "fight, flight, or freeze" reaction physically. I remember feeling so shocked at the aggressiveness of his behavior and actually feeling frozen to the spot. I wasn't afraid of that asshole, but my body had other ideas.

Brant's behavior was thoroughly inappropriate, but D. hated conflict with a passion and did not want to confront him. The swaggering idiot knew this and he provoked D. as well as a way of further trying to prove his alpha male status. Brant sat there at the correction table one day and told D. aggressively that he felt that his and the weasel's opinions were not taken as seriously as those of us on the later shift and that it was not fair. The notion that either he or his scrawny buddy knew enough about the job after a couple of months there to have an informed opinion was laughable, but D. wanted to be equitable about things.

D. asked him what sort of things he had ideas about that he felt were being ignored. After a pause - most likely in shock that he was being called on his nonsense- he finally managed to fabricate something which was appropriate to the job that he might remark upon. The huge bull moron said, "you know the fourth telephone call about the weather, I don't like that call." I'm sure that one can see just how informed that opinion was and how useful it was to us in terms of improving the programs we offered our students. D., who continued to be respectful and egalitarian, asked why he didn't like it. After another longish pause to allow his sluggish synapses to fire, he said, "it's boring." D. resisted the obvious response, which was that the calls didn't exist to amuse the instructors, but he did essentially shut Brant down at that point.

The truth was the Brant wasn't interested in anything other than being the top dog. He had no opinions about the actual job. He just wanted to consistently be given his way and to not do anything he didn't want to do. He took to sitting in the cubicle and reading the paper rather than doing his job and he made sure that everyone could see that he was doing what he wanted to do by flapping the pages loudly and unfolding it such that it was nearly a waving flag for all to see. Most people who read in their cubicles tried to body block anything not related to work. Brant filled the space around him with that paper and made as much noise as possible.

Oddly, the president, who usually had a tantrum when teachers did personal things during office hours, took no interest in Brant's flagrant disregard for the rules. When we weren't busy, we were supposed to at least pretend otherwise if we couldn't find actual work to do. Brant would read the paper when there were reports to mark and he did so from a cubicle right in front of the president's office. He simply had decided to do whatever the hell he wanted and the president didn't seem to mind in his case. It was my opinion that this was another one of the president's idiosyncratic preferences for an employee based on appearance. Brant was tall, young, and probably what many people would consider attractive - if you like your men to look like a Ken doll. He was not my type, but maybe he was the president's, so he let him carry on with his paper reading without protest.

D. blamed me to some extent for Brant's behavior because he felt my absence allowed him to believe he was entitled to be the big cheese. I think he felt that, had I remained, Brant may have respected me as the senior employee in our shared space, but I think that his need to show he had the largest penis in the office was going to be an issue whether I had been there in agonizing pain destroying my back or not. In the end, he was the biggest dick there, but not in the way he believed he was. (to be continued)