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)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Won't Miss #39 - walking to shops, the pain (reflection)

While living in Japan, I got used to schlepping around a heavy backpack when I went shopping. Things were generally pretty small, but there were times when I'd go to the local Utakaraya market and buy a small melon, a package of chicken, a liter of milk, a head of lettuce, and four bottles of soda and find that my pack suddenly weighed as much as what felt like a couple of bowling balls. Fortunately, the walk home was relatively brief so I could manage it.

Since coming home, I've still endeavored to walk to the shops, but it is very much harder here for a variety of reasons. One is that economies of scale, buying in bulk, and in quantity are much better. If I want to buy soda, it's much cheaper to buy a 24-pack than individual bottles. What I carried in Japan was nothing compared to attempting to carry such things here.

While I do recall having times when I felt like a weighed-down pack mule in Tokyo, I now find that the hard part seems a lot less difficult in comparison to trying to carry much of anything home from stores here. I'm sure that, if I returned, I'd once again recall what a hassle it was to try and fumble along with a large, heavy, or bulky package, but I've largely forgotten how troublesome it could be.