Life and the like
I'm hungover and a little homesick, which is possibly not the best time to write a post. What a crazy, crazy week it's been. Hard to know where to begin. I'll start with trivia.
There was a man on the train yesterday with thick, shaggy eyebrows set close together, tectonic plates pushing together and forcing his nose outwards, a slow eruption. Another man stood next to me, sniffing, a salaryman. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him unwrap a wet tissue and then clean the entire train window, top to bottom, scrubbing hard at the dirty spots. Job done, he inspected the tissue and tut-tutted the dirt. Everyone watched him warily. Next, he peeled off a warning sticker, and then slapped it back on, bang, making us jump.
On Monday, I asked for a pay rise. I'd heard that some of the others at my kindergarten were getting an extra sen (1000 yen) per day simply because they asked for it. My dodgy employers like to believe that by labelling their employees as `Independent Contractors`, they make us all competing individuals and stave off any hint of communal sympathy or (surely not) even a union. That's bollocks. We bitch about them on a daily basis. My boss also likes to think that as individuals, we won't share information which benefits us personally. So when he gave J a raise, he suggested that it might be a good idea not to tell the other workers - it would be their little secret. Thankfully, J wasn't bought off so easily, and told me about it. So I did. I've never done it before, but it was easier to ask than I thought. I don't like or respect my boss, and I could easily get another job now I have experience, so I was able to be more forceful than if I was genuinely worried about irritating him. He was running late, doing ten things at once and quickly filled out a new three month contract. He finished, gave it to me and prepared to dash off to a meeting. I asked for the raise and he stopped in his tracks. "You've only been here two weeks" he said. True, I said, but I'm a good worker, the kids love me and your kindergarten has high staff turnover, which puts the parents off. We haggled for a while, and he compromised a bit. "Sign a contract for a month and then we'll see" he said. I accepted this, although in retrospect, I probably could have pushed it more by mentioning that I'd been offered a better paying job with his competitor (untrue). Leaving, I felt good for a while, but then doubt crept back in and I became angry. Another fucking month of terrible pay, and then only a possibility? So now I'm planning an elaborate (real) defection to his competitor. I thought I'd be working with the same kids, but I think I've been given the new ones, who will cry and shit a lot more. This is bad. But I do get to work with J, my favourite person here.
I was surprised at my ability to face up to my boss, though. It's strange - living here has given me a lot more confidence, because I care a lot less about the consequences. I've lifted myself by the seat of my pants out of my culture, my place and doing so has freed me from the invisible restraints of Australian society. What if someone I know sees me? What if I get fired? What will other people think? Now, it doesn't matter. Gaijin are expected not to conform to Japanese society, which gives rise to head shaking by the older generation but also a level of tolerance beyond that extended to, say, young Japanese. I really like the change in me though. I used to be terrified of getting in trouble - the certainty of people in authority scared me, the fear of consequences.
Anyway, I'm going to be poor a little longer. I've got another job to help me in the meantime, though. So I'll work at the kindergarten and then do three hours of conversational teaching. I'm going to be working a full forty hour week, compressed into four days. This is not exactly what I expected. I know I must be able to work smarter, not harder. But how?
The interview for the job was bizarre, as usual. Standing in the elevator, I saw a man walking towards me but a little far away to hold the door. So I closed it, took the lift up and found the bathroom. I was putting my tie on in preparation when I heard someone say - through the wall - "Doug, come in when you're ready". Of course, I'd managed to close the lift doors on my interviewer and also let him know I wasn't wearing a tie pre-bathroom. But regardless of these black marks, he gave me a job instantly. We talked for a little while to prove I could speak English and then he asked for my resume. Whipping out a pencil, he dissected it in front of me, advising me where to pad, what to include, that I should get a keitai (mobile) as soon as possible and that in future, to put him as a reference. "But you don't know me yet," I said. "Doesn't matter," he said, "I`m happy to lie for you." Nice. I asked him who his students were and he laughed. 90% are bored women, he said, bored housewives or office workers who can't have a career because they are female, and so they take up hobbies and interests. But they aren't really serious students, he said, they want it to be fun - make it edutainment. Teach naked if you want. I must have looked a bit surprised at this, and he laughed again, one of the long term gaijin. "Most English schools have rules against teachers sleeping with their students," he said. "I don't. Just make sure they don't leave the school, OK?" I was having trouble controlling my face. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'm married to one of my old students, it's fine. Flirting with the foreign teacher is one of the reasons the students come here," he said, and winked.
I worked three days this week on kids camps. It was like a military exercise. We had to marshall 200 kids, aged between 5 and 12 in preparation for boarding a packed train at Osaka station in rush hour. Next, buses appeared and shipped us off to a `Sports Island` with a camping area. Mind you, being Japan, the sports island and natural camping ground is situated in the middle of the craziness of Osaka Port; the trees and fountains contrast nicely with the tugs spouting diesel fumes and the distant thrum of cranes. The camp was good clean family fun, with the exception of the adventure playground. This playground was clearly designed by an ex-boot camp sergeant. It was lethal, in a Darwinian selection kinda way. Picture this: ropes perhaps two metres off the ground with buoys for kids to sit on. If they fall off, they'll be cushioned by a gentle concrete slab, carefully positioned so as to do as much damage as possible. I positioned myself under a steep steel ladder, designed to eradicate the clumsy or hasty - anyone who fell would be bisected by a couple of steel bars. It was carnage. After a frazzled hour, we gathered the survivors, counted the dead and sent short messages to their parents. `Sorry, your son didn`t survive. We suggest you try again and hope for a smarter/stronger one`. Seriously. Playground, my ass. Militarist training ground, more like. Don't they have lawsuits here? Between deaths, I whiled away the time talking to a fellow Australian. While her accent was oddly comforting, she talked and complained far too much and succeeded in eroding my patience. At the end of the day, she asked me if I knew many other gaijin, and I said no, I try to avoid them because I find I rarely like them. There was a pause. Does that include me, she asked, a little cautiously. No, no, if I didn't like you I wouldn't tell you, I said, and accompanied it with a large, vaguely reassuring grin.
The second two days were much better - the kids were wonderful. Although I was meant to be a sensei, my lack of Japanese and their fledgling English meant that I functioned much better as a large redheaded playmate. They taught me jan-ken-po (their version of scissors paper rock) and I taught them forty-forty. I started, and they told me that I was `oni`, which I thought meant `it`. Oni plays the same function in childrens games, but it translates as devil or demon, which is kinda cool. Oh - and crusts of bread are called panno no migi - ear of bread. One serious little girl noticed my complete lack of Nihongo and took it upon her self to be my translator. Her English was better than the others and she would tell me what they wanted, if she could. I'd also point to something and she'd tell me its Japanese name and correct my pronunciation solemnly. It's really quite good fun learning a new language while in the country - everything is readily useful and you can pick up words in other people's conversations as soon as you learn them. We stayed overnight in a hotel on the island (Japanese camping is more like log-cabin or hotel living) and I had my first sento (public bath). You strip and wash yourself before entering the tub. It was a little disconcerting at first to be naked with a bunch of other men, but only a little. We slept on futons, laid on tatami mats on the floor, six in a room. At night we had a bonfire and toasted mashmallows, before undertaking an English lesson en masse. What comes next, the leader would cry, twinkle twinkle little star...? and a roving microphone would descent on any child brave enough to raise their hand and it would be broadcast for all. During the days, we made hamburgers and did some simplified orienteering using English and trod the Playground of Death again. The foreign teachers were amazingly varied - Italians, Australians, Nigerians, Americans and Chileans. As usual, I resented the expectation that I would bond with them based on what colour our skins weren't, so I didn't mix with them much. This proved to be a blessing. At night, after the kids had been 'put to bed' (which meant having pillow fights but behind closed doors) Beers were downed and the Americans started grumbling, led by one guy, an African American, who was developing a flu because of the cold, hadn't been fed properly (he was huge) and hated the pay. We all nodded and bitched about our mutual employer. I thought that after a solid bitch session, everyone would feel relieved. Not so. There was a meeting scheduled for 10.30 pm and most of the foreign teachers turned up with beer in hand (bad manners), a bit drunk, exhausted after the day and spoiling for a fight. The Japanese head teacher rose and gave a brief speech in Nihongo. One of the African American teachers piped up with typical sass. "So, for those of us who don't speak Japanese, would you mind translating?" Another Japanese teacher translated rapidly - it was a good day, well done everyone, let's look forward to tomorrow. Then Juan, a suave man with fluent Nihongo and a sleek skivvy spoke up, clearly and slowly and said "That's not what she said at all. She said the foreign teachers needed to do better and they need to interact with the students much more." There was a collective intake of breath, and both Japanese teachers turned crimson. The meeting only went downhill from there. There was a concerted attempt to destroy the meeting, led by the African Americans, and joined shortly after by the white Americans. The Australians culturally cringed at their brashness and the Japanese teachers vainly tried to continue with the meeting. Admittedly, the meeting was largely pointless - it was reconfirming the next day's schedule, which we already had in paper form, and making one cosmetic change. But the rudeness from the foreigners was really, really embarassing to watch - a true culture clash. It's amazing that Japan and America can actually get along at all - a group culture versus the pioneers of heady individualism. Anyhow, the Americans left en masse and the rest of us tried to patch up the rift.
It's amazing the contrast between the African Americans and the Africans. The African-Americans were even brasher than the white Americans, a sassy insouciance perhaps born of their culture's final rise to popularity in white America after being leapfrogged in the socioeconomic stakes by every single other immigrant culture. The Africans - mostly Nigerians - were quieter, peacemakers, group-concious; large grins and good humoured. Oh, and there was a white American guy from Georgia who was unwittingly hilarious - he was like a parody of every televised Southern character (man, I got so drunk on shochu one time that I couldn't find my ass with both hands, he said). He had jowls you could keep a thousand acorns in, pouchy eyes, a failed marriage behind him (crazy, she was, she was cray-zee! she hit menopause and boom! she was gone. Now she's married again. She said she just didn't love me anymore. How can you stop lovin` someone?) and a new marriage here in Japan (she's cray-zee too, she wants children so bad that she throws plates at me. Man! I mean, can't we jest talk? Is it that urgent? She wants them Now Now Now). Whiling away an hour between activities, he told me about the dubious companies for whom he'd worked - apparently, ours was by no means the worst of them. "ABC English school - stay clear of that one," he said. "I had to threaten them with physical vio-lence." Really? "Sure! I told the head guy I'd punch his face clear through his head if he didn't pay me. He paid up, alright." This seemed to be a reoccuring theme: "As for Horizon English school, they're terrible too," he said. "Stay clear of them! They owed me a lot of money for a long time, and I had to threaten to plant my foot in his bee-hind before he paid up."
One night, I bought a beer from a vending machine and snuck out of the hotel to the sea. There was a forlorn stretch of palm trees and benches overlooking Osaka port and Osaka proper. I sat there for perhaps an hour, a gentle breeze lapping at me and I looked at Osaka and Osaka looked back at me, an alien city. At night, the big port buildings are outlined by eerie red lights at each corner. In the distance, the whoosh of traffic. Ships floated at anchor and Osaka city was lit up by a festival of light, the dim suburbs building to a climactic white explosion. I felt like I was on another planet and that this, this massive, inhuman thing was alive, alien, pulsing, something humans had built but no longer controlled.
At the end of the camp, we took the kids to a 3D Imax theatre and we donned daggy glasses and sat back and gaped. There was a preview of `Haunted Castle` which terrified many of my charges to tears before the real movie started - an all-American love-in celebrating the diversity of New York City in which a young boy walks the streets looking for his grandmother and he asks people from many different cultures and many try to help and he is given free food. Thankfully, a dose of realism comes in later and he gets mugged by a gang of boys, before finally finding his roots as an immigrant in the Great Melting Pot. There is also some unhealthy Statue of Liberty footage in which the camera lingeringly travels her body, freedom porn. The 3D gimmick really works, although it hurts your eyes. You actually feel like you are there. The kids had their hands out the entire time, trying to pluck an apple or grasp a gargoyle. I can't imagine what this will do for the porn and computer game industry if it ever takes off.
It's like musical chairs, Osaka at 8am. People rush frantically, barge around corners, jump between closing doors on the train - and then stop! suddenly it is 9 am and the music stops and everyone is in their seats in their offices and the day can begin for Osaka, the city can function fully.
I've met a couple of Japanese women in their thirties recently, and it proved almost impossible to have a conversation with them. Feminism never took root here and they are condemned to the house and the children or to be an OL (office lady). Things are changing, but only a little. One woman I talked to, M, loved travelling. She lived in Canada for a year, and if she'd had her way she'd still be there, but even in Canada she could only find work in a department store, a retail life. She was one of the so-called `parasite singles` - in her thirties, living at home with her parents. Married Japanese women can exact some revenge through nagging and controlling the house finances (salarymen often give their paychecks to their wives and receive back a living allowance), but still, that's no real solace.
Last night, Row and I hit the town to spend money we don't have. We went to bar Rock Rock, where last week Rowan carved up the dance floor, commanding people to dance and to imitate his moves and generally having a Wonderful Time. His night out was sponsored by one of his students, who shouted him a movie, karaoke, dinner, lots of drinks, club entry and a very expensive taxi home, all in an attempt to Get In His Pants. Row demurred, citing the teacher student thing, and (unspoken) the fact that she was 37 with a small child and hence very nearly double his age. Now he feels guilty that he didn't sleep with her after she spent so much on him and is trying to make up for it with free lessons. Rock Rock is maybe the Osakan equivalent of Cherry, although even smaller. The walls are populated with pictures of famous and imfamous rockers and metalheads who have graced the bar (Cannibal Corpse looked, well, more normal than I expected). Row and I smuggled in a small bottle of Japanese whiskey each which we bought at the convenience store for 250 yen (3 bucks) and topped up our purchased drinks with illicit moonshine. Before too long K arrived, my
teenage-style pash pardner of last week, this time with a friend. Rowan descended upon her friend and wooed her in breathtaking time (they were kissing within five minutes of meeting) before whirling away to rip up the dance floor and in the process kiss several other girls briefly. K and I exchanged halting Japlish before ditching that method of communication for another solid pash. The night was shaping up to be pleasingly decadent when her ex-boyfriend arrived, also a gaijin. He delivered me a look of Painful Death and K somehow disappeared from my arms and appeared at his side, tending his love wounds. I turned my attentions to the dancefloor and for the rest of the night, K and I had to meet illicitly, en route to the toilet or some such, and exchange wary greetings beneath the radar. Waiting in the bathroom queue was a Japanese guy, one of the cute ones - large eyes, a little winsome, and roaring drunk. He spotted me and immediately spilled his heart out. "You like Japanese girls," he said, nodding vigorously, "and they like you, they do. You are very lucky!" I tried to tell him it was only because I was foreign and hence exotic but he wouldn't listen, too caught up in his own tragedy. I managed to discover he was 27, and very single because he was very shy. Then his eyes lit up. "Ah! We should go and talk to Japanese girls together!" he said, clearly stoked at the possibility of capitalising on my supposed success. Then he disappeared somewhere in a whirl of people and the night moved onto the final stretch before morning. K left with her large and intimidating ex (they still live together, which may be a problem along the lines of Romeo and Juliet. He refuses to budge) and the dancefloor intensified. It was a wild dancefloor, full of people dancing freely, with abandon, panting a little. People, guys, girls beamed at us, danced in close, danced away, the DJ left the booth and came and danced, the barmen danced for us and our energy drained away by dawn and we had to leave before our ears exploded.
Outside, Row discovered that ichiman (about a hundred and twenty bucks) had been stolen from his wallet, although the thief had been considerate enough to leave the wallet. This was the last money he had left in the whole wide world, minus the possibility of drawing from the Bank of Mum and Dad and we cursed the fucker for a good while. Then we caught the first train and fell asleep and woke up in Kyoto and had to turn around and now my head hurts quite a lot.
I was feeling a bit bad about dating Japanese girls - so many gaijin seem to be here for that reason alone, and many of them leave a trail of broken hearts/pregnancies/STDs and so I swore I would be good but that didn't last. But! I will be respectful to my lovers and I will not be a girlhunter, or go out on `nanba` (girlhunts) and so that makes it ok, I think. I was also feeling guilty about the whole exotic thing, about finding a particular ethnicity more attractive, but that disappeared once I realised that exoticising was going on on both sides, that if she was in some sense a trophy then so was I.
I am thinking seriously of staying here longer. In six months, I'll only scratch the surface here. If I stay a year, I'll be able to speak Japanese, able to move around, able to understand Japan a bit better. This country has got me hooked, already. I am very, very glad that I have come. But being hooked makes me also a little sad, that my life in Australia is passing me by.