Thursday, May 29, 2014

Will Miss #54 - harsh no smoking rules (reflection)

As I mentioned in the original post, Japan used to be a smoker's paradise, but they cracked down pretty hard and now you aren't even allowed to smoke in the streets. I figured that, while there are fewer smokers in the U.S., there are no restrictions on smoking outside so it would be worse here.

Since I'm living in California now, and smoking is not allowed in restaurants where I'm at, I don't have to worry about that at all. The question is whether or not I have to put up with it in the streets or other public spaces. Fortunately, generally speaking, it's uncommon to run across anyone smoking... except apparently around my no-smoking apartment complex at which people seem to smoke very far from my apartment, but I smell it anyway.

I think if I lived in a place where there were more smokers walking on the streets, I'd miss the restrictions in Japan against walking and smoking more. As it is, it seems the number of smokers in my area is low enough that it's not really an issue most of the time. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Random Memories #75 - the last weeks in Japan - part 7

My previous posts about goodbyes with students may lead my readers to believe that every student loved me to pieces and sobbed herself into a state of apoplexy at my impending departure. In fact, the reason for my focusing on those people in my initial posts about goodbyes was more about what left the biggest impression on me than an attempt to self-aggrandize or paint myself as someone who left an indelible impression on everyone who crossed her path. No small number of people simply did not care when I left, and one of those was a student who I taught for quite some time, went away for a year or so, and circled back into my life three months before I left.

When I first starting getting private students via a referral service, they sent me one student at a time. After I collected a few who gave me very positive reviews, I started getting offered more people more often. Anyone who knows the private tutoring game in Japan knows that building a stable of private students is difficult, but more profitable than teaching in a conversation school on an hourly basis.

Because of various health problems, I wanted to get as many students as possible to help build up an income that I could generate from my apartment. Due to my limits, I accepted nearly anybody who was sent my way regardless of their level. This was not only to pad my coffers, but also because I wanted to agency to believe that I would not arbitrarily reject anyone based on idiosyncratic preferences.

After about six months, I was offered my fifth private student and the oldest person I had taught to date. This student, who I often referred to as "little old man" ("LOM") to my husband, was 74 years old and had worked at NTT for his entire life. His life was a classic example of that of a middle class Japanese man. He started at the bottom, rose through management, and remained at the same company for his entire life. He made more money over time and did less work, and very likely was nearly useless by the time the door failed to hit his ass on the way out.

When retirement came around (at around age 65 for him, I believe), NTT did something which is very common in Japanese companies. They told him that he could keep working there doing the same job, but for about half of the salary he had been receiving. LOM decided he'd rather spend his days golfing and puttering around his house than put in a day's work at NTT for less scratch. He had a son and a wife, but neither of them factored much into his retirement plans or activities. Like many men of his generation, his family was something he had to fulfill specific needs and expectations, and he conducted much of his life separately from them.

In his lessons, LOM rarely talked about his wife or son other than to mention an occasional visit to his son's out-of-town home. When I asked about his wife, he essentially said the same thing so many older men do about their wives - they were more like siblings and stayed out of each other's way for the most part or they would argue too much. Even when they traveled together, they didn't tend to stick together unless logistics dictated that it be so.

There were a lot of things that LOM preferred to talk about and I spent lessons hearing a lot about golf and the tiniest details of his daily life. In one lesson, he announced that he wanted to tell me about how he brushed his teeth and meticulously described how he'd brush each part of his dental structures and in what order. "First I brush my top teeth on the left side, then I brush the top teeth on the right side. Then, I brush the front teeth." It was scintillating stuff.

He was much more interested in talking about what he did than how he interacted with anyone and the more detailed the talk about his mundane activities, the better. The only excitement that he ever talked about with me was when he had all of his luggage, wallet, and passport stolen from a rented vehicle during a vacation to Hawaii. They were stolen, in part, because he left his car unlocked, but he did so because he subscribed to the all-too-familiar notion that Hawaii is a part of Japan and not the United States. It's an easy enough mistake to make when the tourist areas cater so lavishly to Japanese interests, including providing Japanese language services.

It was my job to be the teacher that he wanted me to be, and he asked me initially to teach him English "from the beginning" and I tried to do as he instructed by starting with a low level English book. It's important to note that his English was not high level and he had a lot of grammar and pronunciation problems. His issues were the sort of dyed deep in the wool variety that is so common among older learners who never studied long or hard nor lived abroad. Though he asked me to teach him from the beginning, he soon grew impatient with the process and that's when he started planning his own lessons and talking about things like how he cleaned his house step-by-step using a floor sweeping thing which has a big roll of weak tape on the end (these are popular in Japan for picking up small particles on floors, but are usually used as lint removers in the U.S.) and how he conducted his dental hygiene routine.

LOM needed to run the show, even when he told me he wanted me to do it. On several occasions, he'd tell me he wanted a particular type of lesson and I'd comply only to have him change course shortly thereafter. First it was starting with a textbook from basics, then it was practicing various grammatical structures, then it was talking about everyday things, and so on. He knew what he needed or wanted to learn, but he didn't know what it would entail to actually do it so he kept rearranging the lesson structure and focus. I did the dance he asked for awhile, until he asked me to do a different one.

For most of the years that I steadily taught him, there was one thing which always made him happy and that was talking about golf. Much of his desire to learn English was based in his hobby. He had done a homestay in Florida at one point and met some nice folks there, but he did it not to meet those people, but rather to gain access to the golf courses at the retirement community there. Note that he did this homestay after retirement. While the image of the typical homestay person is that of a student who goes to school, it is possible for old folks to do homestays as well (often with other older folks). He needed to keep his English level where it was if he had any hope of communicating with these people and gaining access to their compound and accompanying golf greens.

LOM's lessons were very boring for me for a variety of reasons. One was that he wanted to talk about such mundane things. Another was that his English level was so low. Yet another was that he wasn't making much headway no matter what I did. This was in part due to his age and entrenched problems, but also because he never stuck with any plan that addressed his weak points. Since he had no compelling reason to improve (such as getting a TOEIC score or needing English for work), I never counseled him about how his inconsistent and idiosyncratic approach was derailing improvement. I think he already knew it, but he chose autonomy over better skill. Based on his demeanor and whimsical approach to study, I'm pretty sure that he would have stopped taking lessons if I pointed out that he'd never improve if he kept going as he did.

The biggest reason that the lessons were tedious was that LOM was the most self-centered person that I had ever known in Japan. He rarely missed a lesson, so I had nearly 300 lessons with him and he never once even asked a perfunctory "how are you?" He never asked me a question about myself or my life and it was clear from his focus that he had no interest in talking about his family or friends. It was always about him - every little detail was about him.

However, it was not a student's responsibility to amuse me or show interest in my life and I always knew this and kept it in mind. It was my job to give them the type of lesson they wanted and to show interest in them. That is what I diligently did for LOM until his interests changed and he decided to stop studying English in favor of his new passion. After years of learning English because he loved golf, he decided that he liked social dancing more than improving his swing or score. With a loss of his need to make annual pilgrimages to Florida, he stopped studying English except for contacting me once or twice a year to help him understand and reply to the occasional letter from his former homestay family.

In January 2012, shortly before my departure in March 2012, I got an e-mail from LOM asking about studying with me again. I told him that I would soon be leaving Japan and would no longer be available to teach him. The response he gave me was... nothing. He didn't wish me well in America. He didn't say, "thank you for your reply, can you recommend another teacher?" He didn't even say, "I'm glad you're going. You suck!" I was greeted with nothing but silence.

The truth was that I was a tool for him to use and he paid me for the privilege so I have no complaints or criticisms. For some students, that is what the teachers are, and he not only didn't shed a tear at the news of my departure, but didn't bother to put in a socially appropriate word. I was something useful that he picked up when he needed and put it down when he didn't. Now, that tool was going to be out of reach so he'd have to find a different one and that was all there as to it. (to be continued)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Won't Miss #542 - simplistic and ineffective therapy

Recently, I watched a video lecture about a mental health issue in which an international audience was present. After the presentation, members of the audience were allowed to ask questions or make comments. When it was the turn for a Japanese audience member to speak, his comment about the fact that optimists suffered less degradation in their bodies than pessimists was, 'so you're saying we should just smile all of the time.' He said this without irony and it was clear that he felt this was a correct conclusion to reach. This overly simplistic conclusion coming from a Japanese person in mental health did not surprise me in the least.

While I was in Japan, I learned a bit about various mental health entities there and their methods of treatment. The national health system generally allows people to only have sessions that are 20 minutes in length which doesn't allow much time for treatment. Of course, they probably don't need much more than that because, in many cases, the first line of assistance for people who have contacted someone who is a qualified professional is to be told to take a walk, look at pretty flowers, and smile more. These things are not a bad idea, but "just cheer up and get out" is not the sort of advice that I would want to get if I was in a sufficiently bad state to make the effort of going to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Considering the high suicide rate, you'd think Japan would have a large task force figuring out the best way to help people with their issues, but there are still no small number of people who think that it's just a matter of turning that frown upside down, taking the time to smell the roses, or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It's no shock to me that one of my coworkers was away from the office for an entire year with depression considering the shockingly ineffectual manner in which mental health is sometimes managed in Japan. I don't miss the stupidly simplistic (and potentially damaging) way in which "therapy" is carried out. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Will Miss #541 - genkatsu

Some people like an enormous hunk of meat that they can sink their teeth into. I'm not one of them. The truth is that my bite is uneven and my mouth is also small. I have difficulty tearing things off and chewing well. If my parents hadn't been so poor, I guess I would have had some orthodontic work done and I'd be able to bite off a hunk of animal flesh with the best of them. At any rate, due to my issues, I prefer things that are softer and easier to manage.

I didn't actually count them. I took their word for it.

Genkatsu is a pork cutlet restaurant that has a special way of making their tonkatus. They don't take a slab of dead pig. No, they layer 25 thin sheets of ex-swine and bread and fry it for eight minutes for your enjoyment. The result is very tender, juicy, and flavorful. I don't know if those layers add to the flavor profile or not, but they seem to give the tongue more of a chance to linger on the meat - of course, that may just be my experience because I'm probably swallowing things without chewing them as well as I might and releasing their juices.

Beyond this specialty way of offering tonkatsu, they give you choices of side dishes, miso soup type, and sauces in a way which is not especially common for set meals. They let me choose yuzu koshoo sauce so, you know, I'm going to love them.

I miss genkatsu and their lovely customizable sets and easy to manage multi-layered pork cutlets.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Won't Miss #54 - washing my trash (reflection)

Times have changed since I lived in the U.S. and I'm also living in a different area. I grew up in a rural area and the way we handled our garbage tended to be to either burn it in a trash pile some distance from our house or to haul it to the local dump. I never thought about who owned/managed the town dump, but I'm guessing our taxes rented the space for everyone to leave their unwanted junk. The benefits of our system was that getting rid of trash was easy. The down side was that there were rats in our trash pile in warmer times.

Japan, as everyone has heard, has a highly diversified recycling system and I had to keep seven different trash receptacles in my tiny apartment in Tokyo. That was hassle enough, but we were also required to wash everything well before getting rid of it. This was no small hassle, especially given my limited kitchen space and how long it takes something like a milk carton to dry once it has been washed.

In the area that I'm in now, there is what is called "single stream" recycling. That means I don't have to have an elaborate array of separate receptacles, but I do have to separate what can be recycled and what cannot. We don't have to wash things, but I have read that it is encouraged. It's my guess that it may become mandatory at one point, but the local governments are taking this recycling thing one step at a time. First, they have to get people to separate trash, then they'll worry about washing it.

I'm somewhat torn about the trash washing now. I know America's handling of recycling is sloppy and substandard, but the Japanese way was enormously complex and troublesome. In the end though, I'm the type of person who will opt for the good of the many over my own good. I'd trade having to meticulously separate and wash my trash again for a better and more thorough recycling system in the U.S. despite the hassle for me personally.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Will Miss #53 - getting around by bike (reflection)

America is well-known as a country in which car use is the norm. A lot of people criticize this as wasteful, indulgent, and selfish. However, it's important to know how geography and history dictate how people get from place to place. In New York City, for example, many people don't have or use cars because there is adequate public transportation and high population density. The rest of America doesn't have cars because they want them so much as they live in circumstances which offer them little reasonable option. That is, they either have no or terrible public transport and/or things are too spread out. Americans didn't plan things this way. It has to do with how our history unfolded.

In my current situation, I'm in between the "must have a car" and "can live without a car" life. There is some public transport, though it is expensive, inconvenient, not particularly reliable, and painfully infrequent. It is, surprisingly, pretty good about trying to accommodate cyclists. Many roads have lanes for cyclists and motorists are supposed to share lanes with them. For a suburb, it's probably more cyclist friendly than other areas.

Unfortunately, all of this really isn't "enough". This is mainly due to geography. Everything is still pretty far apart and riding even in bicycle lanes is not easy. There have been many cases where cyclists have had to move with the flow of traffic in a way that makes me nervous as a passenger in a car and I couldn't imagine feeling comfortable with as a cyclist. The irony is that, in CA, it's illegal to ride on sidewalks, but there are very few pedestrians and wider areas in which to negotiate a bike. There is every reason to allow cycles on sidewalks, yet you have to be in the street.

In Japan, I felt a lot more comfortable with the prospect of cycling and I still miss having that particular atmosphere and those riding conditions despite the drawbacks of limited parking and sometimes crowded sidewalks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Random Memories #74 - the last weeks in Japan - part 6

The red bag has my name embroidered on the other side. It's from a well-known maker, or so I was told. K. also gave me a picture frame and rusks. It was quite a generous pile of gifts considering she hadn't seen me for a very long time.

Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, human babies are born essentially premature and quite helpless. A calf will be up and walking soon after it is born, but a human baby takes between nine and twelve months to accomplish a similar feat. This is one of the many things that separates us from animals, and what may appear to be a big mistake on the part of mother nature is actually a means of accommodating an enormous advantage.

Humans have big brains compared to other animals. This is so because they have a highly developed prefrontal cortex. This is the part which essentially separates humans from animals and requires that our mothers give birth to us early. If we were more developed, our enormous heads wouldn't fit through the birth canal, so we are born in a more helpless state and take longer to mature than other animals. It's also speculated that this big brain is what allows humans to possess a certain consciousness. It is theorized that that is what has us talking to ourselves, speculating about the past and the future rather than living in the moment or acting only on current needs, and what allows us to weave complex philosophies of life.

I've spent a good deal of my life knitting, crocheting, and embroidering life philosophies. I'm not claiming that I have all of the answers. In fact, I'm not claiming that I have any answers at all - at least not for anyone other than myself. In the end, that's all any of us have and I do my best to respect that other people aren't going to share in my worldview or weave the same philosophical and, yes, spiritual cloth that I am choosing to wear. To each their own. I won't push my views on you, though if you're reading this, you're sort of asking for it to some extent, and I'd appreciate it if you don't force yours on me.

That being said, I can't talk about some of my parting experiences in Japan without mentioning a particular philosophical bent that I possess. My big human brain (which is no bigger than other human brains - they're all big) compels me to look for patterns and to find meaning, even if neither actually exists. One of the patterns that it has discovered and, in one of the conversations with myself that my unconscious has revealed, is that we are all in some way connected to one another. The longer and more strongly we associate, the stronger the bonds between us.

I tend to think this  has to do with energy and the way atoms and molecules communicate with each other beyond human sensory capacity to detect. If I feel linked to someone, I think that my molecules have formed some sort of atomic-level relationship. You can frame it any way you want, or reject the concept entirely as utter poppycock or new age drivel. However, I can say that, as my days in Japan dwindled, several of the chickens that had flown the coop came home to roost. That's my colorful way of saying that students who had stopped taking private lessons with me years before suddenly started popping up again near the very end. The timing was very peculiar, and the truth is that I hadn't actually "lost" that many students anyway. Only one that I had a long-term  (more than six months) relationship with didn't come back or remain with me throughout the 6 years that I was doing private lessons in my apartment.

One of them contacted me a few weeks before we left. That one was the biggest shock. For simplicity's sake, I'll refer to her as "K." She was someone who I had taught for about a year - an accountant for a French insurance firm who studied English for her job - and I hadn't had contact with her for at least two years. To my husband, I often referred to her as "the sad sack". She rarely smiled and every week when I started the lesson by saying, "how are you?" She'd reply with "not good".

K. was in her 40's, a little older than me, and lived with her father and brother. She wasn't particularly happy with them as they tended to be lazy and her father was prone to not doing any housework. The house she lived in was old and dirty, but she wasn't sufficiently unhappy to move out into her own place. It was bad, but not that bad.

When I first started teaching her, K. worked for a Japanese insurance company in the accounting division. She was often worn out and had little time of her own. Occasionally, she'd complain about her bosses or coworkers. She was the student who first introduced me to the concept of "amae", or someone who depends on others selfishly. In her office, she had a coworker who she said often behaved in that fashion and she resented this behavior, yet still indulged it as a means of keeping harmony within the office.

The truth about my feelings regarding K. was that I felt bad for her. She seemed to work hard and to not be appreciated for her less tangible qualities and had a low estimation of her own worth. Though she had a Master's degree and accounting certifications, she was unhappy in her career and talked often about changing jobs.

I think a lot of her sense of her lack of value stemmed from her physical appearance. Her teeth were bad, worse than even the somewhat average Japanese badness because some of hers were brownish and looked like they were decaying. I never asked her about her teeth, but she did occasionally mention trips to the dentist and how she had problems and toothaches. She also talked about her dental hygiene habits and I was certain that her issues were genetic and not based on a lack of personal care.

Besides her teeth, K. was slightly thick-bodied. For a Japanese, she may have been considered overweight, but she simply was not slender or petite. If she had extra body weight, it was minimal, but she wore clothes that constantly made her look older and frumpier. When she arrived at my apartment wearing pieces which I found attractive, as she sometimes dressed up to meet former classmates or colleagues after our Sunday morning lesson, I always complimented her on her choices. It seemed she got very little in the way of affirmation of her value, so I gave her what I could when I sincerely felt it.

K.'s English lessons were often more tiring than those of other students. It wasn't that she was incapable or didn't try hard, but I think she was often taxed in her energies before she even showed up at my door. She'd progressively rush through repetitions or words and not focus. Her problems were persistent and intractable. I don't know if I was helping her at all to progress. She possessed a high level of vocabulary already, but she often pretended to understand when she didn't and her pronunciation problems seemed set in stone.

I also found her negative outlook and energy exhausting at times. Though I wasn't pouring energy into pepping her up, it was hard at times to not be drawn into the grayness of her worldview. She felt trapped and unhappy, though she did actually get a new job at a French insurance company after some time. That helped her escape her old work environment for one at a foreign company that would follow a different working culture. I was very happy for her when she changed jobs, especially since she seemed to work a lot of overtime and weekends. After awhile, K. decided that she needed to invest much more energy in preparation for certain types of accounting qualification exams than English and she said she'd study English independently. I understood, and I was slightly relieved as it often felt as if she walked in with a storm cloud over her head that colored my day as well.

K. was with me for going on two years and, once she left, I never expected to see her again. I was shocked when, quite suddenly, she sent me a message asking if she could friend me on Facebook. When I replied, I told her that I was leaving Japan very soon. Much to my surprise, K. asked if she could come and see me to say goodbye in person.

I never felt especially close to her, but the day before I left, she showed up bearing gifts. While K. looked very much like herself when she came to my apartment, the cloud she'd carried with her seemed to be gone. Her face looked brighter, and her hair, clothes and make-up were done better. I told her that she looked great and she replied that she was making an effort to "look more beautiful". Her pictures on Facebook reveal that she challenges her body with weight training and she's going to parties and socializing more. I was so happy for her that she seemed to be doing better.

During her visit, the sisters that I'd said goodbye to earlier came around for another "goodbye" because they'd forgotten to bring their gifts when we met for dinner. It was a little weird having them all there, but handy in getting pictures taken since I could pose with one person/party while the other took the shot. The strangest part was that the sisters started crying when I talked to them which caused K., who I hadn't seen in ages, to also start to cry even though she didn't have nearly as long or intimate a relationship with me.

The fact that K. made the effort to come over and say goodbye to me personally as well as arrange for personalized gifts was a real testimonial to how generous the Japanese can be. It also reflected how much they value and nurture the connections they make with others. Her kindness in the 11th hour of my time in Japan is something I will never forget.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Won't Miss #541 - gaijin baiting

A long time ago, when print newspapers were still relevant, I subscribed to a paper called "The Daily Yomiuri." This was the English equivalent of the far more popular "Yomiuri Shimbun". I chose this paper not because it was the best, but because it was the cheapest and news in English was hard to come by in the pre-internet days.

One of the things that started happening in this magazine was that they started printing letters and editorials by someone who went by the name "Roy MacGregor Hastings" (or "Hasty" - my memory is a little fuzzy). I'm pretty sure this was a fake name and that the articles and letters were just as fake. Each one was full of nasty, bizarre stereotypes about Americans. One of the more memorable ones talked about how they'd weep into the vegetarian dish cloths while eating their brown rice or some such odd talk. These days, I'm sure that this creature would write about being fat, owning guns, and eating junk food.

At any rate, this was my introduction to something that I saw the English press in Japan do on occasion which irritated me greatly. That's okay because their intention was to piss me and other readers off. I think that some of them intentionally baited the foreign community to get them more engaged with these small circulation publications in an effort to improve sales or, at the very least, inspire enough passion to get more letters. While my most memorable experience with this was with the Daily Yomiuri (and I got so sick of it happening that I canceled my subscription and swapped to "The Asahi Evening News"), I saw it happening in other publications as well.

These days, it tends to happen more online than anywhere else. In fact, it happened to me with one of my former blogs in which a content aggregator (the bottom feeders of the blogging world) pitted something I wrote against a reply someone else wrote. The main problem was that they outright lied and distorted everything I said in my post to ramp up the potential conflict. A plethora of comments put me down while just one person who had actual reading comprehension said, "this is NOT what she said!"

I don't miss this way of baiting the foreign community by planting (almost certainly fake) incendiary stories in order to rile people up. It was and is a cheap way of getting readers and attention and it fractures a community that desperately needs to offer its members more support. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Will Miss #540 - toilet seat covers

When I was growing up, my grandmother's house seemed much better appointed than my family's. Our bathroom was old an crummy with some mismatched shag carpet fragment sitting outside of the tub. My mother was a lazy and poor housekeeper so that thing rarely saw the inside of a washing machine. My grandmother, on the other hand, had a matched deep pink set of items to adorn her bathroom. There was a fuzzy carpet around the base of the toilet with a custom-cut hole to fit around the base, a bath mat, and a fuzzy toilet seat cover that covered the lid.

My mother was a very "keep up with the Jones" type of person when it came to her relatives so she eventually picked up a shaggy mismatched toilet lid cover as well. The problem with it was that it was so thick that it kept falling down when the toilet seat was put up. After struggling with that thing for awhile and allowing it to acquire a mange level similar to the bath mat, we tossed it out. In the U.S., that is what I think of when I think of "toilet seat covers".

In Japan, the covers were not for the lid, but for the seat. You could buy these things which looked liked an enormous U-shaped sock or two sticky things which stuck to the seat. The sticky ones were even more impressive because they allowed you to wash them several times and still kept their adhesive qualities. What was more, unlike my granny's and mother's toilet lid covers, these were not aesthetic, but functional. The main purpose of them was to make the shock of sitting on a cold toilet seat in winter vanish. In fact, I never understood the need for the mechanical warmers when these covers did the job more ecologically and just as well, and you could toss them in the wash when you wanted to clean them.

I miss those simple and functional ways of keeping the toilet seat warm.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Random Memories #73 - the last weeks in Japan - part 5

S's goodbye gift to me – a beautiful, colorful shawl and her lovely note which said, “It's very sad that you leave Japan. But is already decided with your husband. I understand because a Master wonderful to you is in a side. On Thursday, I remember, and miss you every week. Thank you for the great time. Please, don't worry, and don't hesitate. Everything OK!! Because it's you. I'm believe your future. I hope you and your family's happiness and health far from Japan. Keep in touch. See you again!”

At the start of my previous post, I mentioned that talking about my final weeks has been much more emotionally difficult than I expected. I feel that words are insufficient to convey the experience and that what I say may come across as overwrought and much ado about nothing, particularly to those who have not been in such charged situations. For an impassive people, my departure certainly brought out a lot of passion in those that knew me fairly well. Being on the receiving end of that over a compressed period of time was trying to say the least. Today, I'm going to talk about the hardest one.

One of my students was one of the best souls that I have ever known. For simplicity's sake, I will call her "S." S. is/was a nurse who was born in the countryside and came to Tokyo to work as a surgical assistant. She wasn't walking around taking temperatures, blood pressure measurements, and setting up bags of saline to go into I.V.s. She was setting up operating rooms, monitoring everything that happened and assisting, and cleaning up afterward. When a sponge was unaccounted for, she had to find out what happened and she had to do a ton of paperwork documenting everything that occurred. Sometimes, she'd do 8 operations in a single day. She also was called in for emergencies, not infrequently in the middle of the night. Her work was exhausting and required a high level of skill, ongoing training, and a lot of time on her feet.

S. had lessons with me in the evening after doing an early full shift at the hospital. On an "easy" day for her, she would assist with only three surgeries. Often, she would have the personality problems of her coworkers to contend with in addition to the rigors of the job itself. At the start of every lesson for each student, I sincerely asked about their week and how things went for them. For her, it always sounded exhausting, but she said it was okay. She said that she had chances to rest and spend time with her friends to help her relax. This often, but not always, included drinking and copious amounts of eating, though S. generally made up for the indulgences by eating little to nothing the next day and she only drank when she went out with people. She never drank alone.

When S. discussed her week, something which she had to prepare carefully to do as her English level when she started taking lessons with me was very low, I always expressed my admiration and sympathy for her. I was truly amazed at what she could do in a day, but even more impressed by her compassion for her patients. One case was when she told me that she recommended that an older gentlemen receive a particular pain killer injection because the more common type would be painful for him to receive. S. explained that old folks, with their thinner skin, couldn't tolerate conventional injections very well. The doctor on duty rejected her recommendation because that medication was more expensive than the conventional one. She told me she felt very bad when the man cried out in great pain when he received the shot.

I taught S. for about three years. She came on Thursday nights most of the time, and rarely missed a lesson. Despite her lack of English skill, I learned a great deal about her personally. She had a depth, warmth, and wisdom about her that was impressive for her young age - she was 26 when I started teaching her and I was in my mid 40's. I never had the sense that I was her "elder" in the lessons. Her energy and character were more mature than her age, even if she did have a tendency to wear clothes and make-up which were more akin to what you'd see in Harajuku like short shorts and tights and cat-eye eyeliner.

S's. limited English skills couldn't cover up the fact that she was clearly very bright. She was an expert on the abacus when she was younger and had won contests in which people did calculations on them. She carried a medical Japanese to English dictionary and used it to talk about her work and did her homework and improved markedly over the time that I taught her. Her progress was all on her. Unlike many students who expect to magically improve by sitting down for one hour a week with an English speaker and refuse to do anything else, S. put in the time at home, too.

Among the many things S. and I talked about were spiritual beliefs. I rarely talked about such things with students, and I didn't speak exhaustively about it with her. However, she had visited some psychics on occasion and I always asked her about what was said. Generally, she did it for fun, but sometimes she was told things which were on the nose or struck her as having a strong personal resonance. One of the things was that she was told when she was quite young that she'd be a nurse. This was no surprise to her as she told me that she had decided to be a nurse at the age of four, though she hadn't shared that information with the psychic. A few years into my lessons with her, she saw a psychic who told her that her soul was very old and that she'd been through at least 70 incarnations on this earth. Given her personality, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if that were true.

She had often struck me as an old soul in a young body. There was a peaceful acceptance and a calm warmth about her that was uncommon. That being said, she was not invincible and sometimes the pressure and difficulty of her day would break through in a lesson. We'd be practicing something and she'd burst into tears. The fatigue and psychological pressure of the day or week would just wear her down and she couldn't concentrate or focus on the lesson. I felt terrible when this happened, and she felt bad as well, but she also told me that she found studying English liberating and relaxing despite these (rare) breakdowns.

There was a bond between S. and I that built up through the time we had. It was one that she felt more acutely than me, though I was not aware of it until the end. During our last lesson, she told me that her time with me "saved" her. It was a beacon in her life that helped her get through the hardships. As she said goodbye, seemingly for the last time, at my apartment at the end of that last lesson, she cried and cried and I hugged her several times, but she could or would not leave. Standing there with nothing else to say, watching her sob and hold her hand on the door knob, all I could do was occasionally hug her, thank her, and tell her that everything would be okay. She would be okay without me.

It took ten minutes of emotion-packed talk and reassurances peppered with expressions of gratitude for what I'd done for her before she left. This was incredibly draining for me. It was a drawn-out process that came from a good place and displayed the meaning I'd had for her all too clearly. Dealing with that much emotion, and knowing that my decision to leave was taking something that she had found so profoundly important in her life, was extremely difficult for me to manage.

I'd like to say that that was the end of it and that that one exhausting goodbye was all there was, but she e-mailed me and asked to say goodbye the morning of our departure from Japan. I couldn't bear that on top of everything else that was to come on our last morning, so I told her that she could come by the evening before instead. I wasn't happy about this because things were so chaotic and difficult for us, but it was hard to refuse. Once more, I went through another emotionally exhausting goodbye with tears and talk of how important I was to her and how she could not have survived emotionally without me and my lesson to help her cope. It was an even longer and more difficult repeat of the first goodbye.

The truth was that, I did find her to be an extraordinary person full of strength, intelligence, and personality. Because she seemed so strong and capable of managing her life, I had no idea though that she would feel so strongly that I had "saved" her. She said "you saved me" so many times during those two wrenching goodbyes that her voice saying those words is etched in my memory. It was a compliment, to be sure, but it was also a burden.

This was a person who genuinely had a need for me above and beyond the trivial exchange of my teaching talent for increased English ability. What was more, she was a person who did an immense amount of good in the world and deserved support and kindness. She needed me more than I realized, and I was leaving her behind. The size of the hole in her life that I was leaving was made clearer by the need for the second incredibly difficult goodbye.

What was worse was that I knew that this was a relationship that had no future whatsoever at a distance. I wanted to keep in touch with her. I wanted even to continue to be a source of support, but I knew from experience that it takes an immense amount of effort and communicative capacity to conduct friendships by distance. After returning to the U.S., I tried to e-mail her and keep in touch, but her English messages were a word salad and I couldn't follow her much. I wrote to her, but I'm sure that she couldn't follow me well either. As bad as her English was, my Japanese was worse. It was pretty hopeless.

S. had talked many times in the last year - before she knew that I was leaving Japan - about moving out of Tokyo. It was clear that she wanted to advance her career and she felt her life's journey would be better served by moving on at some point. Because of this, I thought that I would lose her as a student long before she would lose me as a teacher and that telling her I was leaving would be easier because of her plans. She still cried and cried when I told her that I was leaving, but I didn't know that was just the beginning of her grieving process.

There was a truth about life in general that years of having and losing friends in Japan taught me. I was never happy about it, but I learned a long time ago that it is extremely rare to keep the same people in your life for the duration unless you stay stuck in one place and never move or grow. S. and my lives were never meant to travel along the same track indefinitely.They were meant to touch and we were to walk along together for awhile and learn and grow as we would, and then we were to separate again. I could understand this, and I think she understood it, too, but I think that she found the reality emotionally more difficult than I did. Part of that was that I had a significant other to travel on my separate path with, and she was spending much more of her journey alone. As the supported, it was harder for her to say goodbye than me as the supporter.

Many people think that English teachers are self-serving, greedy, and lazy people who reluctantly wile away the time in lessons and take the money from their students' pockets. I can say that I cared about every student who I taught. I cared about them as human beings and I approached how I managed them at all times with a regard not only for their English skills and their status as paying customers, but also as people who I had the privilege of impacting with my presence. When I asked about their lives, I did so with genuine interest. When I heard about their problems, I listened with genuine concern. I didn't realize this at the time, but this was a gift I gave those who needed this sort of presence in their lives - and many of them lacked such a presence.

The wrenching nature of no small number of goodbyes that I had with people who were generally composed and impassive illustrated this in a way that I could not ignore or dismiss. Much as I may desire to be humble (and much as others will desire to humble or degrade me), I mattered to people in Japan. I mattered in a way that I don't feel that I do in America because people treat others here as another disposable party in a conga line of people they can use and discard because it's so easy to find ears to forcibly bend in the U.S.

Since Japanese people don't impose themselves on people in general as it is not part of their cultural norm, my offering myself as I did was a rare opportunity. I didn't realize that then, but I do now. By and large, Americans don't wait for someone to make an offer to be there for them. They just impose upon you when they want something and make you wriggle free if you don't want to play that part for them. For reasons of culture or situation, my presence in the lives of my students was important in a way I expect I will never experience again, and nothing proved it better than the goodbye I had with S.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Won't Miss #52 - bicycle parking problems (reflection)

Bikes being taken away for illegal parking. To retrieve them, you had to wait several weeks and then pay $25-$30 to get your bike back.

For many years during my time in Japan, I suffered from severe back pain. I'm not talking about the type of thing where you exert yourself and your back hurts later. I'm talking about the thing where you wake up every morning, walk for a minute and agony sets in. If you walk or stand for too long, you suffer burning, agonizing pain during every moment that you are sitting. There was a time when I'd get up in the morning, go to work in pain, and sit there for 6 of my 8 hours in horrific pain. This ended in my taking two months off and working from home in bed.

During this time period, which lasted, oh, about 9 of my 12 years at the company I was at, using a bicycle was my salvation. I even rode the bike to work rather than endure the suffering of walking 15 minutes from the local train station to the office. Even forty minutes of sweating through the Tokyo summer (one-way) was better than the pain I endured. Unfortunately, my ability to use a bike to mitigate my pain was monumentally undercut by the increasingly limited and difficult bicycle parking situation. As I mentioned in my original post, it went from a situation in which I could park nearly anywhere for any length of time to nowhere for niggling amounts of time. Eventually, the parking situation became so hard that I took to struggling to walk the 9 minutes to the subway (stopping three times to rest to reduce some of the agony as it got worse the longer I walked).

I don't miss how owning a bicycle turned into a nearly useless thing because someone decided that having bicycles parked along the street in Tokyo was too troublesome or aesthetically displeasing to permit it. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Will Miss #51 - shoe removal culture (reflection)

One of my friends recently introduced me to the term "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" (aka the "frequency illusion"). This is when something is brought to your attention and then, coincidentally, something else of a similar nature occurs. For example, I was walking to a store recently and noticed that several cars parked along the street had solar-powered bobbing plastic flowers in pots. Later that same day, I was looking through my stash of (literally) thousands upon thousands of Japan photos (for pictures for this blog) and stumbled on a photo of exactly those plastic flowers as a prize in a UFO Catcher (claw game) machine.

In regards to this post's topic, I had a Baader-Meinhof experience that related to it within the last week or so. The number of this post for review came up shortly after an occasion in which someone had to come into my home, but refused to remove his shoes. Our apartment is strictly a "no shoes" zone because we want to keep the floors clean and not have our bare feet turn black when we walk on it (which is what happens in American apartments/homes in which you wear shoes).

In this case, an inspector was reviewing the apartments and a photographer was taking pictures of the interior of select places including ours. I was fine with them coming in, but the photographer claimed he was wearing orthopedic sneakers and couldn't walk on flat floors and refused to take off his shoes. Incidentally, I think this was a big, fat lie and he just didn't want to have to fuss for the short time he'd be walking around our apartment.

This incident made me think about how I appreciated the fact that it would not even be a question in Japan that the shoes would come off. In fact, refusing or putting up a fuss in any way would be considered an egregious lack of manners and respect. So, yes, I still have good reason to miss the shoe removal culture.