Thursday, October 31, 2013

Will Miss #38 - free Krispy Kreme donuts in line (reflection)

While waiting in long lines at Krispy Kreme in Japan, someone would often come out and hand a free fresh donut to folks in line. I thought that was pretty cool in Japan because it was not common to receive things for free. I didn't know that, in America, getting things for free is far more common and that what you can get is much, much bigger.

Since coming back, I've discovered that you can get a ton of things for free from full-size products to magazine subscriptions. It goes without saying that free samples are extremely easy to come by. It's also the case that a plethora of freebies can be had at fast food places, coffee shops, and, yes, good old Krispy Kreme. Several times a year, you can score a donut or a dozen from them during the holidays or just plain because they seem to feel like it.

Given how much more freely American companies offer freebies, the free donut in line at Krispy Kreme Japan takes on a quaint nature as a rare example of corporate largesse, but it does pale in comparison to the freebies you can get in America. It turns out that I actually don't miss this point, because it's only a rare thing within the context of Japanese culture.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Random Memories #53

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 12345678910, 11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Won't Miss #528 - monaka

There are chestnuts on the package. I'd probably consider this even though it is monaka.

"Monaka" is often described as filling, usually sweetened beans, inside of a "wafer". I don't know about you, but when I think of a wafer, I envision sugar wafers with their light crispy blandness providing texture to evil creamy filling. I don't think of something which resembles thin Styrofoam packing material.

Though I didn't hate monaka, I always felt like it was one of the least appealing containers for Japanese sweets. The texture was always a bit on the chewy side and it really was like a stale cake cone. Perhaps freshly made ones were better and the shelf stable things I bought and consumed on occasion were victims of moisture absorption that could not be staved off no matter how many little packets of oxygen absorbents were put in them. I don't miss monaka.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Will Miss #527 - it's okay to be average

There are some aspects to life in Japan which are hard to capture with words, and this is going to be one of them. They are nuanced, but there are a lot of them and the aggregate effect creates a profound difference in behavior and quality of life.

Children growing up in America are often told that they can do anything, be anybody, and make anything of their lives if they try hard enough. The whole "you can grow up to be president" line is part of our cultural mantra. The truth is that, by and large, you can't grow up to be anything, anybody, or make anything of your life by sheer force of will, hard work, and making the "correct" choices (this is the "just world" fantasy). For most people, no matter how hard they try, an ordinary life with varying degrees of comfort, success, and status is the best that they can hope for.

The unfortunate byproduct of the message of self-determination and exquisite potential is that people often grow up feeling special when they are not. They feel entitled to greatness for nothing more than being essentially average. When they don't acquire it, they feel robbed, cheated, or unrecognized. This entire situation carries with it an attitude which reflects out at everyone that people interact with on a daily basis and it is not pretty.

You can see it in people screaming obscenities in traffic at people who don't do what they feel they should do as quickly as they believe it should be done. You see it in people who treat service people like dirt and service people who treat customers like burdens. You see it in men who call women "bitches" for not believing they're hot enough to date and women who call men "assholes" for the same reason. The message is "I deserve better" because they believe on some level that they are "better". Inside, we're all little rock stars having tantrums because someone told us while we were growing up that we were "special" and could do anything.

In Japan, people aren't generally raised with the idea that they are special and can do anything. They tend to believe they're average in most respects. Sure, there are some people who feel they are entitled or are better than others, but they are the exception, not the rule. This not only creates the humble mentality that most Japanese people display, but also a more egalitarian and empathetic outlook in daily life. They don't feel entitled. They don't feel special. They just feel average, and their culture says, "that's really okay". It's not a failure to be average!

I love the fact that Japanese culture tends to send the message to people that it's okay to be normal, average, and generally to just have an unremarkable life. And, you know what? It doesn't in any way stop average people from being remarkable in their own unique ways. In fact, it seems to grant them a freedom to  be so because they can do it in small, achievable ways rather than worrying about being "great".

I miss this mentality which keeps people grounded more in the reality of what it is to be human.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Random Thoughts: Confirmation Bias

The presence of this gun and military shop in Tokyo indicates that the Japanese are violent people who love guns and implements of destruction, right? We can judge people by the items in stores, correct? If they didn't sell, such shops wouldn't exist! Is this not logical thinking? Perhaps not... Whether you believe this or not depends on your confirmation bias regarding Japanese people.

I'm stepping away from my ongoing memories of working at a Japanese office to talk about something that has been stuck in my head as of late. I'll be returning to my stories next week. I've found that if I don't get an idea out while it's lodged in the front of my mind, it'll get shuffled to the back and lost. My apologies to anyone who was looking forward to another story.

One of my husbands teachers at graduate school posted an article to Facebook recently about how you should clean your washing machine before you put clothes in it to kill germs. She posted with a comment which said that "this country" was obsessed with germs. This woman, who is an excellent teacher who is well-liked, intelligent, and highly capable, is British and when she was talking about "this country", she was referring to America.

I'll be honest and say that the way in which she presented the information immediately annoyed me because when people say "this" or "that", it is generally in a negative way that expresses exasperation and disapproval. You see and hear this sort of talk many times and it's rarely meant in a positive or neutral fashion. For example, a person who has a neighbor with a tendency to allow her dog to defecate on his lawn may utter with anger, "That woman!" when he inadvertently steps in a pile of doggy doo.

The first thing I did was read the article. The second thing I did was consider the source. The article was on Yahoo. That's not a good place for starters since most of the news outlets of that type structure content to promote advertising. In this case, it was even more egregious as the "advice" in the article was issued by an entity comprised of cleaning product manufacturers. This was no more than fear-mongering advice to try and promote the sales of that entity's products.

The teacher who used this article as "evidence" that Americans are germ-phobic in a manner which is atypical and strange compared to the rest of the, supposedly more sensible world, didn't look carefully at the source. She only found something that supported her bias and stopped right there. Being triumphant in locating such a tidbit of information, she thrust it out for the world to see and show that Americans are defective in this fashion.

I discussed this article with my sister-in-law and my frustration that someone who teaches courses at a graduate school level would not scratch the surface and see if what she was promoting as support for a negative view of Americans was from a valid source - never mind that it was not research or empirical data - which she should be looking for. My sister-in-law said that she felt that the article was correct and that Americans were obsessed with germs. As evidence of this, she said there was a plethora of anti-bacterial products in every store.

It's very important to look under the hood of everything you experience and not reach hasty conclusions and even the fact that there are a ton of anti-bacterial products isn't evidence that Americans are obsessed with germs. I had an experience in Japan which illustrates this well, and it had nothing to do with germs but everything to do with understanding that what consumers are offered isn't necessarily what they want or would prefer to choose.

This is a situation which I've mentioned somewhere in the well over 1000 posts I've made, so some of you will remember it, but it bears repeating in this context. Most of the video shops in Japan during my 23 years there carried an enormous selection of American-made content. From movies to music to T.V. shows, the number of American titles eclipsed the Japanese ones by a large amount. For years, I assumed that Japanese people liked American entertainment more than the native stuff and others concluded the Japanese must be obsessed with all things American. That was not the reason why the shops were loaded with such titles.

The real reason that video shops stocked so many American titles was simply that it was cheaper. American studios were willing to cut a favorable deal with the shops. They allowed them to pay for the titles by giving a cut of the rental fees collected instead of buying the title and taking ownership of it outright. Japanese studios required a full cash outlay for the price of the content. So, a shop had very low risk on American titles and very high risk on Japanese ones. If they shelled out 10,000 yen for a Japanese movie and found that it wasn't popular enough, they could lose money. If they agreed to stock American titles, all they had to do was fork over the piece of every rental fee. A poorly rented title wasn't a risk under such terms.

Undoubtedly, given such access to American entertainment, Japanese folks developed a taste for it. After all, we like what is familiar and we consume what is at hand. This is a fact. It's why we love the food we grew up with and screw up our noses at some exotic food that is served regularly in other countries. Numerous studies support the idea that we like what we're accustomed to and desire relatively small amounts of novelty. However, this is not a "chicken and the egg" question. The videos came first. The interest in American entertainment followed.

So, now I turn back to the whole "germ obsession" business and anti-bacterial products. Japanese people rented American entertainment because it was largely what they were offered.* I went to a supermarket within the last month to find an all-purpose cleaning product. I was looking for something that I used to have in Japan called "Simple Green" and could not find it. I explicitly did not want anything which was promoted as "anti-bacterial" because I believe using such products makes more "super bugs" that are resistant to germs. I'm also just not that paranoid about common germs.

Despite being in a store with a very large collection of products, I could not find anything which was not promoted as being "anti-bacterial". I simply had no choice but to buy a product that had such properties because they all had them. Now, I'm sure that if I went to other stores, ordered online, or searched out an outlet which has a wider selection of products, I'd find something which was not promising to squash germs dead. The truth was that I just wanted to get something and go home. I didn't want to go on an all-out quest to locate something which lacked this "feature" so I bought a damn bottle of general purpose anti-bacterial "Mr. Clean" and went home. It wasn't what I wanted, but it would do.

I told my sister-in-law about this and said that I felt that it wasn't that Americans were obsessed with germ-killing products, but that we seem to have no choice these days in many cases but to consume such products - just as the Japanese had few options but to rent American entertainment for many years. I believe that the "anti-bacterial" claim is feature-creep. That is, one company did it and, all things (price, quantity, functionality) being equal, consumers chose that product because killing germs is a good thing, right? They didn't have to really desire the feature so much as simply see it as added value.

My guess is that, aside from situations in which germs are a strong concern such as dealing with sick people or babies, most people don't care about germocidal applications. It's just words on a bottle that seem to say this product does more. Once one product says it, all cleaning product producers feel obliged to include it to compete with the casual way in which people buy goods without thinking deeply about them. The thinking is that, if that product has three features and this one has four, I'll take the one with four. They aren't deeply pondering the necessity of any given feature.

How do I know that Americans don't care about anti-bacterial features and germs? Well, I don't know for certain, but I do know a few things which make them appear, shall we say, less than fastidious about such things. Let's start with the ubiquitous application of and talk about the "five-second rule". That is the "rule" which says it's okay to eat food that has fallen to the ground if you scoop it up fast enough because germs, apparently, are quite sluggish and can't be bothered to mosey on over and hop on all that quickly. It's not like germs are transferred instantly by contact or anything.

I didn't even know this "rule" existed until I came back to America. I've since learned that it is mentioned frequently in entertainment and I've personally observed it being used by at least three people, including someone who ate a face-planted pie in an area which is similar to a porch (that is, a very dirty place). People eat food that drops on the floor shockingly often. Does this sound like a nation obsessed with germs and cleanliness?

Beyond this dubious practice which would betray utter indifference to germs, there is also the fact that most Americans wear their shoes inside. This brings more than 300,000 bacteria into their homes. These germs are then ground into carpeting, spread onto furniture, and enter the air when people step on the floor and invisible particles are propelled from the carpet into breathing space. Would germ-obsessed people habitually wear shoes in their homes? And lets not even get started on how disgusting public toilets can be (yet we still use them in that state and tolerate them routinely in that condition) and how many people routinely do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. You can't criticize American habits for being dirty and disgusting on the one hand and call them "germ-obsessed" on the other.

I think Americans have been conditioned by advertising to think that products with germ-killing properties are desirable, but, in their daily lives, they don't live in fear of dirt or bacteria. Their habits when choosing products do not necessarily reflect any sort of wishfulness or deep thought on their parts in terms of how they regard germs. If you were to judge them by how goods are promoted or what is on the shelves, you may conclude otherwise. You would especially be inclined to do so if you had a bias against Americans and wanted to paint them as being neurotic or strange. Cherry-picking and endorsing information that supports your bias is what is called "confirmation bias."

All people are prone to confirmation bias and seeing what supports their views and ignoring or not even noticing what does not. While I lived in Japan, I tried hard not to give in to my confirmation bias and to avoid anything which fit the stereotypes of Japanese people that you often see portrayed online, especially the "weird Japan" nonsense that continues to be spread around by people who have never actually lived there.

It's important not to look at something superficially and decide it means something about a people or a culture and to dig deep into the source of that information as well as look for behavior that demonstrates that people do not live in accord with suggested values based on media, consumer goods, or advertising. Just because someone is selling us something and we are buying it, it does not mean we necessarily embrace the values that would seem to underlie such concerns. It may simply mean we have no choice or we haven't thought much about it at all.

*Note: This has been changing as Japanese studios are changing their policies because they simply can't compete, especially with Korean titles coming so strongly into the mix. By the time I'd left, there were far more Japanese titles than I used to see. This change seemed to occur gradually over the last 5 years, but I can't say I was paying close attention. According to the manager from a major movie studio (which I will not name for his sake, but everyone would recognize it if I said it) who was in charge of their DVD and digital content distribution who I learned so much about this from, it was quite recently the case that the Japanese studios decided they had to change their policies.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Will Miss #36 - Japanese peaches

Ozzy Osbourne once talked about how he didn't understand the need for lavish Christmases with lots of gifts. He said that, when he was a kid, they got a stocking with an orange and a few walnuts in it. Those of us who grew up in a global age (or close to the coming of it) may see a child who receives such things as one step removed from getting a lump of coal. The truth is that, in the past, people didn't have access to fresh fruit in the winter and an orange was seen as a lavish treat. We take for granted the availability of produce nearly year-round, but it was not always so. To us, seasonal fruit is cheaper, but it doesn't mean it's totally unavailable for most of the year.

I grew up in a rural area in the 70's and our situation wasn't quite as limited as Ozzy's, but it was close. Because of this, I'm surprised at the plethora of options I've found since coming to California including the type of white peaches that I didn't expect to find here. That being said, I've noticed two things about all peaches I've encountered here. One - they are rarely, if ever, sold in a ripened state. Two -they are actually more expensive than those I had in Tokyo! So, while I can get white peaches here, I miss the cheaper ones that were sold closer to a state in which I could actually eat them that I could get in Japan.

Note: I made a mistake with last week's posts and made two "won't miss" posts so this week I'll be making two "will miss" posts to get my balance back. ;-)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Won't Miss #35 - not having a proper oven (reflection)

My "old" oven in Tokyo when it was brand new. I gave it to a student when I left and now she uses it.

Since coming back to the U.S., I have tried not to take the advantages that I have living here for granted, but this one, having a "proper" oven, is one that I've so eased into that I'd forgotten that things were once quite different. You'd think that every time I make a big clay pot chicken that wouldn't fit in my Japanese oven that I'd remember what I once couldn't manage. But, no. Having two racks upon which to bake? I've totally taken that for granted already.

One of the values of reflecting back on my old posts is that I can consider whether I feel the way I thought I'd feel after I was no longer living in Japan, but this is one that makes me appreciate what I have now a bit more. Being able to bake essentially without limits is something I really do appreciate and I truly do not miss my tiny oven in Japan.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Random Memories #52

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 12345678910.

As the company's fortunes continued to decline, the necessity of having a third full-time employee started to diminish. When Amelia left, my final permanent (as opposed to temporary, not as in actually there "forever") co-worker was hired. This final fellow was another Nova language school (eikaiwa) refugee.

Scott was a very affable fellow who did not take himself or the job too seriously, mostly the former. That is in no way an indication that he didn't do the work. He did what was put in front of him without complaint, but he rarely got too worked up about all of the office antics and ridiculousness that went on around him.

The fact that Scott didn't take work too seriously in terms of how he approached it was revealed in what he told me about his time at Nova. Like many new teachers, he was scheduled to work on the weekends and hated working on Sundays in particular. When he didn't want to work, he'd simply call the head office on that morning and say he was sick. Of course, he wasn't sick. He just didn't want to work on Sunday. This happened so often that the people in the office came to expect his calls and recognize his voice. They'd say, "oh, hi, Scott", and anticipate what was coming.

When Scott did this, he wasn't paid the wages for that day of work, but this was before the days when Nova initiated economic penalties on teachers for short-notice calling in sick. I'm sure that people like Scott were a part of their rationale for instituting policies in which they'd dock teachers several hours of pay for being marginally late and requiring proof in the form of a doctor's note when a teacher claimed to be ill. I wouldn't be surprised, given how reactive the Japanese management could be, if Scott single-handedly didn't motivate this policy. After all, Draconian responses to single incidents were hardly uncommon in my experience.

Fortunately for us, Scott didn't hate working so much that he'd call in sick on a regular basis with us. The truth was that he appreciated the job as much as I did for the lack of face to face content. However, that didn't stop Scott from toying with the students at times, but not in the same mean-spirited and condescending way that John had. He mainly messed with them at his own expense by continually changing his personal data to elicit new and different questions.

On his profile sheet, Scott stated that his hobbies included watching movies, listening to music, and dance. When the students asked him questions about what sorts of these things he enjoyed, he kept things interesting for himself by giving different answers. Sometimes, he said he like Ska music, even though he didn't know what it was. He said his favorite actor was Harvey Keitel, but he didn't know enough about him to say which movies he'd been in and he at one point said he liked ballet even though he had zero interest in it.

Scott was someone who seemed to just fall into whatever he ended up doing. When I asked him about his former work, he said that he was a sports commentator for basketball for a local entity as well as a sports writer for awhile. We're not talking someone who was a Howard Cosell or even a Jack Buck. He was more like a glorified emcee at a high school basketball game. The odd thing was that he didn't even like basketball, but this was a job he could do so he did it.

Scott's real passion was writing. In fact, during his tenure at my former company, he worked on a novel by the name of "The Man With the Golden Penis". I had a tendency to make fun of Scott for his goofy demeanor and speech habits, so that was one that I couldn't pass up and I'm sorry to say that I perhaps had a little too much fun with this easy target. He allowed D. (the manager) to read it, but understandably had no interest in allowing me to take a gander at it. I wasn't exactly offended by this and D. pronounced the work decidedly odd.

I don't know if Scott ever finished this work and published it online or through a personal publishing house, but I can say that someone with his name has done some baseball writing. I can also say that I'm too afraid of the search results if I use the words "golden penis" to see if his novel ever made it online.

In terms of his telephone relationship with students, Scott dealt with them relatively respectfully and he didn't take the job too lightly, though he did have some ways of talking about the students which were unique and apt. One of the problems that all of us instructors struggled with when we did phone calls was that they would insist on calling us by "Mr." or "Ms." plus our first names.

Time and time again, I would hear Scott wrestling with a student who would call and ask to speak to "Mr. Scott". He's say, "just 'Scott', no "Mister". He's say this two or three times and give up. On one occasion, the student, after saying, "Mr. Scott" several times and hearing "just Scott" in response, finally said, "just Scott!" At least it was better than "Mr. Scott". After such episodes, Scott would say that sometimes talking to the students was "like talking to a dog". They just seemed to lack the ability to comprehend what was being said, even when their textbooks and pre-telephone lesson training materials primed them to do the right thing.

Scott lived with his Chinese girlfriend who worked as a dental hygienist and one of the weirdest misunderstandings that I ever had with him occurred over a discussion that related more to Jolene's situation and that of other coworkers I'd known that his. D. and I were discussing the hardships of cross-cultural relationships and how they presented particular challenges that must make life difficult for those involved in them. At one point, Scott said with great agitation, "now that's enough!" Apparently, he thought that we were trying to send him a message and he and his girlfriend weren't going to work out. The truth was that his situation was nowhere in our minds at all.

The president, who could be incredibly mercurial and unpredictable about how he regarded the foreign employees, liked Scott quite a lot. I'm not sure if it was his affability, his goofiness, or the fact that he was tall, but Mr. O. liked him and let him do things he wouldn't allow other teachers to get away with. One day, Scott sat in his booth and surreptitiously tried to eat a banana because he was hungry. The president noticed his attempts to hide his eating and said, "Eat, eat!" This was in stark contrast to what the big cheese said to another teacher who he docked 10 minutes of pay from for having the audacity to eat in his cubicle.

I can't recall exactly how long Scott was with us, but I think it was either a year or between a year and two years. He decided to head back home to Michigan and try his luck at finding a career there. This created a bit of an issue for him because his girlfriend had a great deal of difficulty going to the U.S. with him. He got in touch with us about a year after he left and told us that, even if he married, she wouldn't have been allowed into the country because the doors were not open wide for Chinese immigrants. I have no idea what became of their relationship, but I did feel bad that two people in a legitimate relationship were being kept apart by immigration laws.

Scott actually returned to Japan to visit and popped by our office. He used to wear glasses, but had lasik surgery, so he came back with two fewer eyes than when I last saw him. I think he might have liked to return to the company and work again, but it had shrunk in size sufficiently that they no longer needed more than my presence as a permanent instructor. The last I saw of a now glasses-less Scott was at our old office as he bid us goodbye and headed out back into the city. Like all of my former coworkers, even the ones who hated me, I attempted to track him down, but have not had any luck yet. I'd like to think he married his girlfriend and found a career suited to his particular talents and nature. The world needs more affable goofs and they deserve to be rewarded. (to be continued)

Update: I contacted Scott via Facebook and he did marry his girlfriend and essentially has lived happily ever after with a 12-year-old daughter and is running his own business along with his wife. I'm always pleased when someone who deserves a happy ending gets one!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Won't Miss #527 - international one-upmanship

As many readers of this blog may know, I am not a fan of talk of "better" or "worse". It is my opinion that all positive aspects of a culture carry a companion negative aspect. To speak of one culture as "better" than another is to betray an ignorance of the culture as a whole. The structure and predictability of Japanese culture which brings a sense of stability, continuity, and comforting predictability also brings a lack of adaptability, fluidity, and a stifling of spontaneity which can not only smother people, but leave them ill-equipped to act quickly in times of crisis. It's not about "better" or "worse", but about the bitterness you're willing to swallow along with the sweetness of a particular aspect. And, in the end, we are usually acculturated to prefer what we prefer so it doesn't even come down to making an informed and free choice.

One of the things I disliked about speaking to people was the need to "compete" in this regard. Getting anyone to understand the subtlety that I'm speaking of was nearly impossible as most people are unable, unwilling, or incapable of comprehending that there is no cultural competition in which one gets to proclaim itself superior to the other. I don't miss these conversations which revealed a tendency toward international one-upmanship. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Will Miss #526 - no drug debate

Twenty-five years ago, I told my future husband that I objected to drug use. At that time, he thought I was being judgmental, moralistic, and small-minded because that's why most people have an issue with it. The truth is that my objection has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with what is often referred to as "presence". That is, when I am with people, I want them to be mentally "with" me 100%. I don't want them to be under the influence of any mind- or consciousness-altering substances. I want them to be fully themselves. If they can't manage that when I'm with them, then I don't want to be around them. 

In Japan, drug use is far less common than it is in the U.S. because the culture is much more reactive about it. While I don't believe the reefer-madness-like response to "soft" drugs, I generally think that a society is better off without so much drug use. The reasons for this stem beyond my desire not to be with people who are only half with me, but also relate to the fact that drug use tends to bring a whole host of other problems along with it. I also strongly believe that, if we turn to substances, we never truly manage to manage our inner lives because we run from our issues rather than face them.

Frankly, I'm tired of the debate with people in the U.S. who snarl like rabid dogs at the idea that drug use is anything but a great thing as long as we're talking about whatever drug(s) they happen to favor or use. I miss the fact that Japanese people in general didn't use drugs and saw their use as a far from positive thing.* There were certain arguments I never had there, and this was one of them.

*It is not lost on me that Japanese use alcohol in the way many people use drugs. The main difference is that I knew exactly how to avoid it, and most people experience drunkenness as a continuum - drug use tends to have more binary results - high or not high.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Random Memories #51

Click this picture to see a larger, more legible image.

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 12345678, 9.

After the three permanent workers who I talked about in the previous parts of this series moved along, the company kept only two "permanent" instructors on hand. I was, obviously one and there was a slowly revolving door of "others". Usually, we farmed for the permanent workers from the best of the temporary workers. This allowed the manager, D., to see how they managed the workload and got along with people in the office over the four-month busy season before signing them on for a full year.

When Doug flew the coop, he was replaced by another Canadian - only this time, it was a woman. Amelia was a rare kindred spirit to me because she was a married woman who was not married to a Japanese man yet somehow ended up in Japan. We didn't tend to see too many of those types of people because that type of person tended to live among the expats. That is, they were the type that were privileged enough to have expense accounts, lavish and large apartments in the expensive "gaijin ghetto" areas - that they complained about being "too small"- and a social life, status and circle that did not tend to see them straying into the pedestrian world of language instruction and basic employment.

Amelia's husband worked for a company that handled equipment for ice sports. In particular, he had something to do with zamboni, though I'm guessing that his repertoire was larger than just those machines. I don't know how many zamboni a country like Japan needs since they aren't exactly the capitol of hockey, ice skating, and curling, but it was likely a niche market which did not offer employees lavish payouts. That's probably why Amelia wasn't among the tony expat set and ended up working with me. I'm sure her husband was paid adequately, but it was unlikely that it was so generous that they couldn't do with her income as well.

The president said he liked Amelia because she spoke softly and gently to the students, though later he would go on to badger and criticize a temporary worker for exactly the same thing until she quit. He also mentioned her "creamy white skin" on a few occasions and I think that may have had a bit more to do with his fondness for her. The woman who he criticized for talking too softly and low until she walked away was African American and it was my feeling that there was more than a little prejudice at play. I don't think he hated black people so much as applied different standards to various employees based on his superficial appreciation of them.

Amelia was a nice person, but she wasn't "nice" in the bland sense. She didn't like living in Japan and did not hide her dissatisfaction with the way she was gawked at and treated like an alien. The weather was also not to her liking, but few who are not reptilian in their biology enjoy the weather in Tokyo since about five of the twelve months are hot, moist, and uncomfortable.

Fortunately, she, like me, could separate her discomfort with certain aspects of life in Japan from the students. She was unwavering in her professionalism both in terms of the paperwork and the telephone calls. However, she was responsible for one of the enduring and rather wicked jokes about one of our client companies, Omron. The students that we got from them were famously awful. She suggested that we transpose the first two letters of the company name to more accurately reflect their employees' capabilities.

One of the things about Amelia that was made clear was that she grudgingly kept one foot in Japan, but the other was planted firmly in Canada. She brought her lunch everyday, rarely partook in runs to buy snacks or drinks at breaks, and did not do much in the way of activities that explored Japan. When I asked her if she'd like something or other or to do some activity, she'd say that she didn't want to spend the money. If she went to a restaurant for lunch, it might cost her a curtain for her future intended home place in her native country. She wasn't concerned with extracting experience or culture from life in Japan. She was mainly concerned with extracting cash for the future.

Given that Amelia was there essentially under protest because her husband's work required it, I can't say that I blamed her for her attitude. A lot of foreigners are criticized for coming to Japan to milk the country for money and are shamed for not appreciating all that it has to offer culturally. There is an attitude which says that we have no right to be there if we don't worship at the feet of the Japanese way of life in some way or another and I've never agreed with that notion. Japan is not a lover that you have to adore and you're not a user if you take what it has to offer without affection.

People from other countries who are sent to the U.S. or choose to be there for work don't have to love it. In fact, many feel that they justifiably are entitled to hate it because America is such an awful place. I'm not sure why a different standard applies to foreigners who come to Japan, but I guess it's this bizarre Japanophile thing that sometimes comes into play. As an aside, I will mention that I believe that this is actually a very racist thing and comes as a result of feeling the Japanese are inferior and need protection whereas their home countries are strong enough not to require it. (If you're curious, this partially springs from a well that Freud called reaction formation. You can look it up if your'e so inclined, but it is a topic for a bigger post than this.)

At any rate, Amelia worked well and hard. She could keep up with me, which was saying something. Beyond our both being married to spouses native to our home countries, we were also both very happy with our spouses. She remarked lustily at times about her husband's swimmer's body and her disappointment that his formerly hairless physique was starting to sprout a few chest hairs while I told her of my satisfaction with hirsute men. Unlike Jolene, I didn't have to worry about her deciding to hate me for my happiness.

We tended to get along pretty well, though she, like most people, had her darker days, especially when life in Japan was starting to feel oppressive and her husband's contract got extended beyond the expected year. Sometimes, she'd simply come in in a bad mood because she hated being where she was and sometimes she just felt crummy in general as happens to all of us at times. I truly could empathize with her as I had those days as well, though I had passed through more of that phase of life as a foreigner than she had since I'd been there longer.

One thing which I'd noticed about life in Japan for foreign women was that they often suffered  far more than foreign men and were often pretty unhappy. My husband had an American coworker who was married to an American woman and, after a few years in Japan, she became clinically depressed. It got so bad that she became completely incapable of functioning and had to return to the U.S. I also endured a bout of clinical depression for about a year of my time in Japan and know how it can grind you down.

As far as I can locate, there are no studies on why women find life in Japan harder than men, but my speculation is that a piece of it is that the Japanese tend to act out more against foreign women than men. They will stare, molest, follow, or overtly speak about women because all women - both foreign and Japanese - are seen as harmless, inferior, and helpless. A foreign man might punch you in the face if you are clearly objectifying and belittling him. Women are not seen as being a risk in that regard.

Of course, there are other factors that might be in play and not just the overt sexism in Japan. Women tend to be more emotionally aware and sensitive. They may see actions directed at them more clearly and feel them more acutely. While men may feel like kids in a candy store because Japanese women will seek them out due to their exotic nature, foreign women are simply going to feel harassed when men come on to them - or worse, touch them inappropriately in public as happened to me and many other foreign women that I met.

They also tend to be paid less for the work they do and are offered jobs of lower status with fewer chances of advancement. The most common job offers for foreign women are ones that involve working with children, for instance. They are usually lower in pay, higher in stress, and less fulfilling than the types of work that deal with adults. The most lucrative teaching work, teaching company classes in which you deal with business people, tends to go to men.

One of the other things Amelia and I had in common is that neither of us was especially maternal and both of us were grateful to have escaped working with kids. We both spoke of having little interest in having children and babies in particular. The whole notion of an infant, which was like a smelly, noisy, demanding little doll that had needs but little personality, was one that Amelia possessed.

There was an insanely hot summer near the end of Amelia's first year at the company. She sweated it out and said there were times when she was walking around that she felt she might faint. I noticed at that point that she seemed to be picking up a little weight. She was always just a little bit chunky, though not really what you'd call "fat". It's not unusual for women who have had weight issues during childhood to experience such fluctuations, but D. told me that he suspected she was pregnant.

When D. suggested this, I said that I couldn't imagine that she'd want to have a baby after all we'd talked about in regards to that topic. She didn't want children, after all. When he saw her standing on a street corner in the sweltering sun in a pair of blue jean overalls, he said he was certain she was going to have a baby. It turned out that he was right.

Amelia, surprisingly, had used one of the oldest and least effective birth control methods in history - the rhythm method. She said that she and her husband used condoms when she felt they were at risk based on her monthly cycles and that they used nothing at all when she felt the coast was clear. Obviously, the coast was pretty cloudy last time she surveyed the landscape, but she missed that fact.

Getting pregnant was Amelia's ticket out of Japan. It gave her the leverage to push her husband to be transferred back to Canada as she simply refused to have her baby in Japan. The company went along with it, though, to her credit, Amelia stuck it out in the heat and in a place she hated until as late in her pregnancy as she could before heading home. She chose the time based on the latest safest time to be on a plane and was enormously pregnant before she bid us adieu.

I kept in touch with Amelia by letter - it was the pre-internet age - for a few years after she left. She told me that the birth went fine and that she was really looking forward to when her daughter was old enough to have a personality. Though we got along fine at work, we were never incredibly close so our communication faded and I lost touch with her. I like to think that she stayed happily married and her daughter grew up to be a pleasant and healthy individual, and that Amelia was never forced to come to Japan again. I wouldn't have minded working with her once more, but, for her sake, I don't think it was a place that she should be.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Will Miss #35 - being a "millionaire" (reflection)

My husband's old pay stub. Ah, those were the days... days when we had jobs.

If you think that the way you perceive money and numbers does not matter, start paying very close attention to the way prices are set in your home country. My current rent is $1395. It isn't that way because someone figured that it would just be too high if it were $1400, but rather because that's as close as they could get without having to manage $1 increments. That number was chosen because a rent starting with "13" feels significantly less than one starting with "14", even when there is a negligible different in 1395 and 1400.

There was a positive psychological impact that came along with seeing relatively enormous strings of numbers on our pay information sheets. I miss that, and I miss getting paid for the work I do. ;-)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Will Miss #35 - Japanese political advertisements (reflection)

MacArthur famously called Japan a nation of children. Over the years, this has been interpreted in various ways and one cannot know what he truly meant by this because MacArthur wasn't called on the carpet for this ethnocentric and possibly racist remark. He was around in the day when the press didn't dissect everything or grill the speaker for saying idiotic things.

I can see, to some extent, why someone may say such a thing, though I believe it's a gross misrepresentation of something which I observed in Japan. That is, there is a certain naivete which can be sweet or sour depending on how it manifests, which is a part of the culture in Japan. I think it's part of being a small country of people who perceive the rest of the world through a particular filter. It can make them look like unsophisticated dorks to outsiders because they don't possess the perspective that says it's not "cool" or "mature" to do a certain thing. It's actually a type of innocence and it sometimes results in things like the ridiculous political ad pictured above. These guys don't know they look silly, because they are lacking the sort of perspective that tells them that this is so contrived a pose that they look silly. Just as a kid deeply absorbed in a role play such as pretending to be a superhero or a cowboy may be oblivious to the way adults may find him amusing, sometimes Japanese politicians are unclear on how funny their presentation is.

I miss these political ads both because they are funny from my point of view and because they do reflect something which is rather unironic and, yes, even "innocent" about Japanese culture. In America, we're all so concerned about looking like enormous dorks that we examine our presentation and make fun of the way others offer themselves. Sometimes, I think we could do with a lot less of that and a little more of politicians goofily pointing at the sky as if they were looking to the future. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Random Memories #50

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 1234567, 8.

Reading through the stories of two of my former colleagues during my early years at my office job in Japan, it may seem that everyone I encountered was a problem. Fortunately, my other two coworkers were more amiable folk. Today, there will be no grim stories of bitchy jealousy or betrayal. I hope that doesn't disappoint anybody. Don't worry though, I still have a parade of temporary workers to talk about and some of them were just as bad, if not worse, than Jolene and John.

The third of the trio of "permanent" workers that I worked with was Doug. Doug was and is Canadian. That means he's a nice guy. Well, it doesn't have to mean he was a nice guy. I worked with an incredible jerk named Steve who was from Canada when I was at Nova conversation school. Steve was one of those Canadians with a chip on his shoulder about Americans. He walked around with a Canadian flag pin on his backpack as well as on his tie or shirt to make sure that no one mistook him for an American. He became hostile and angry if anyone implied his nationality was that of his neighbor to the South.

Doug, or Dougie, as both the manager D. and I came to call him, was a far cry from the "angry Canadian". He was amiable, funny, and creative and laughed off any attempts to label him as American. Of course, since he was of Chinese descent, he didn't have too much difficulty with this.

Doug spent his down time on the job drawing diagrams and pictures of his future dream dojo. When he returned to Canada, he wanted to open up his own aikido establishment and he spent time puzzling out how he'd like it to be. He'd ask me questions that I could not answer about what would be a better choice in terms of placing something or other here or there. If he were building a sumo training space, I might have been able to help him out with some informed advice, but, no, Doug wanted to remain a healthy weight and play with big sticks. Who wouldn't?

Doug and I also had some Star Trek geekery in common and I shared our library of VHS tapes (yes, folks, it was that long ago) with him. He told me that he loved the original series, but there were certain things he just didn't like. When I asked what he wanted to see, he said, "no mirror universe and no Mudd". I'm not sure what he had against "evil Spock" and Harry Mudd, but I edited appropriately. Later, we would critique and converse about Deep Space Nine as the episodes aired and I got them on video.

Doug was also the first person who I started to teach about using personal computers. At that time, I was a Macintosh zealot and tried to sell anyone who would listen on using a Mac. This was before everyone and his granny had a PC and they were very expensive. We had been using a Mac Classic for several years, and had upgraded to an LC III (I believe). Doug bought my Mac Classic and I helped him figure out how to use it. I recall that his main use was game playing. To his credit, he did buy some Japanese adventure game with the intention of learning a second language while trying to kick some digital ass. When we had he and his wife over for dinner, she complained about that fact and said that he was like "a little boy."

In terms of his work ethic, Doug put in the time and had a professional, but not uptight attitude. He got his work done and put in the hours. He was also far better at advocating for himself than I was. At the end of his first contract, he wrung a hefty raise out of our tight-fisted president. Of course, it helped that the sexist attitude in Japan that saw a married man as the bread-winner and a working married woman as a "helper" on the income front helped him and harmed me.

Doug was rare among my coworkers at every job I had in Japan in that he was married to a Japanese person, had specific plans to go home and do something else, and that he actually followed up on them. Many foreigners find Japan to be a gilded cage in which they willingly close the door on and trap themselves. They find that being treated like pampered pets by the Japanese along with making a decent income is hard to walk away from, especially when they face uncertainty back home. Most foreigners feel like mini celebrities in Japan. Of course, it may have been different for Doug. He didn't walk around Tokyo getting stared at because of his appearance. Chances are that no one realized he wasn't Japanese until he opened his mouth. Perhaps it's a little easier to leave when staying doesn't give you the sense of being a puffed up big fish in a little pond. Or, maybe, Dougie just had what it took to walk away when a lot of others did not.

I can't remember many direct quotes of my conversations with Doug - just that he laughed genuinely and was jovial when we talked. He did complain from time to time, as we all did, when he had an annoying student or a bad day. I recall more the drawing that was a part of interacting with him. It wasn't just the dojo plans.

Each teacher had a profile sheet that was sent to his or her collection of students. The sheet included birthplace, age, education, hobbies, and a photo booth head shot of the smiling teacher. When Doug announced that he was leaving, there was a plethora of profile sheets around that were never going to be used. They were being distributed as scrap paper so I turned one around and used liquid paper and a black pen to "edit" Doug's photo. I gave him an eye patch, cheek scar and a pirate hat and then showed my handiwork to him.

The concept lit a fire under him and he took his photo and made an entire sheet full of Dougie faces. He then proceeded to edit his own face in a wide variety of ways. For years, I had a copy of that sheet because what he'd done was both humorous and self-effacing. I could look at it and still smile or laugh at what he'd done, but I, unfortunately lost it. I do recall that he drew himself with dreadlocks and as a Klingon, among other "looks". I don't know many people who would copy their own face and do what he did, but I felt it said some positive things about his self-perception.

Though I'm thin on specifics, I do recall his last day very well. The company I worked at liked the teachers to complete all six of their telephone lessons with the same instructor and Doug had no small number of deadbeat students who had failed to make their calls. In order to cram as many in as possible, they did something they generally do not do. Instead of the usual three and a half hours of telephone calls, they crammed his day full of nearly six hours on the line.

As I mentioned before, the calls were scheduled in 15-minute blocks, alternating between a set of two calls and three calls of five minutes duration such that there was 25 minutes of call time every half hour. It was hard, but not impossible to dash away for a bathroom break, but it had to be a quick one. With Doug's schedule so full, he wasn't really in a position to get away much. I recall him standing there (he not infrequently stood instead of sitting during the calls), swaying a bit from side to side and, as he waited for his very last call ever on the job, he said, "I have to take a massive poop."

It may seem peculiar, but that stuck with me because the moment summed Doug's personality up. He was earthy and real, amusing and genuine, but he was also gentle. He didn't use an ugly word to talk about a bodily excretion, but the same one that children do. He didn't keep it to himself like some prim and proper adult. He shared it.

I'm happy to say that, at least in Doug's case, he was a nice guy who seemed to finish first. He went home to Canada, got a job at Taco Bell while going through graduate school, his wife had a baby son, he got a Master's degree in English, and then he went on to teach as well as work as an aikido instructor. I don't know if he ever got his own dojo, but, last I heard, he seemed to be about as close to his dreams as one could reasonably get. (to be continued)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Won't Miss #526 - mentaiko

Mentaiko sembei (rice crackers). I want to love you like so many others do. I really do. We are just incompatible.

I really am open-minded about food. I'll try nearly anything, and I'll even make a good faith effort to like things which I experience repeatedly. That being said, mentaiko, or spicy cod roe, and anything flavored with it was just not something I could come to like. The strange thing is that I can generally come to appreciate anything which is flavored with chili. Since I write a snack review blog, I've obviously sampled things which are mentaiko flavored. They always seemed to be "off" to me in some fashion. They either had a weird combination of spices or were just too "fishy".

Mentaiko is one of the most popular flavors in Japan and, unfortunately, I never came to like it and certainly do not miss it.