Saturday, June 29, 2013

Junbi o shiteimasu (Getting ready)

There are two main types of privately run English schools in Japan, the eikaiwa and the juku.  The eikaiwa (literally English conversation) is popular among companies who need their employees to communicate internationally, the elderly looking for a hobby, and parents of young children who want their kids to be able to speak English.  The focus of an eikaiwa is first and foremost the ability to communicate in English.  The other kind of school is the juku, or cram school.  There are juku for any school subject you could imagine, and the focus of these kinds of schools are not communication of any kind, but the ability to pass the dreaded high school and college exams.  It is possible (and I've seen this first hand) for a student to truly excel at English juku, and not be able to have even the simplest of conversations. The Eikawa is also where you will find the majority of native English speaking teachers.  Most juku require their teachers to have certifications, where the eikaiwa only requires a four year university degree (in anything) and they only need that to get your working visa.

I had signed my teaching contract with a small company called ECS (English Communication Services), an eikaiwa.  There were six full time teachers, two secretaries, our manager, and the owner, Jerry.  Jerry was a trip.  He was a second generation Japanese American, but he tried to pretend that he was Japanese born and bred.  He said it was better for business.  He had several other companies that he ran, most of which were of a somewhat... mysterious nature.

                                                               River on the way to work

I met Lisa at the office in the early afternoon the day after my arrival in Japan, and she introduced me to the others that were there.  Lisa, I learned, was not actually our manager, though she had most of those responisbilities.  Instead, as a Japanese American, she was the liaison between the foreign and Japanese staff.  Being well acquainted with both cultures, she had the exciting job of smoothing ruffled feathers on either side, as well as teaching duties.  That afternoon she introduced me to the actual manager, Mimi.

"I don't like foreign people," Mimi said as she looked me up and down.  "Did you know that foreign people are responsible for the majority of traffic accidents here in Japan?  And foreigners are so unreliable.  You can never trust them to be anywhere on time."

".  .  ."

A million comments ran through my mind in moments, none of which were probably appropriate at the time, the most prominent being 'if you hate foreign people, aren't you in the wrong job?'  And I'm pretty sure that Japanese people cause the majority of traffic accidents in Japan, since foreign residents make up about 1.5% of the population.  Ah, racism.  Little did I know at the time, but racism was about to become a constant companion. 

The six other teachers were from a rash of different places.  Lisa from Hawaii, Marissa from Canada/Ecuador, Mark from Michigan, and then the two Dea's.  Big Dea and Tall Dea... not only did they have the same name, but they even looked similar.  The craziest part was, even their last names were only two letters different.  Personality wise, however, they couldn't have been more different. Big Dea was from the same state as I was though from a different part, and Tall Dea was from Michigan, like Mark, but also from a different area.

                                                                      Fukuyama by Night

That afternoon, the only other teacher was Tall Dea.  We had what I have since come to call the Introduction Conversation.  It seems that anytime two foreign people come together in Japan, we always seem to have the exact same conversation that consists of the same five questions. 

Question 1: Where are you from?
Question 2: Why are you here?
Question 3: How long will you stay?
Question 4: What do you think of Japan?
Question 5: Do you like going out drinking?

After we had chatted for a while, he stood up to head off to his first lessons.  

"See you tommorrow, then," I said.

He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face me, a condescending smile on his face.  "No, probably not," he replied.  "That's not how it works here."  And with that, he swept out of the office, leaving me to wonder if I had really made a good decision to come to Japan in the first place.  Suddenly I felt very lonely.  

When she had a chance, Lisa came over and started explaining the schedule for the next day.  ECS's students were mostly company workers, and instead of coming to our school, the teachers would drive out to their companies.  That way, the workers could easily return to work after lessons were over.  (The fun life of a Japanese business man.  Work from 8 AM to 6 PM, have mandatory English lessons for an hour and a half, and then return to work until 10 or 11 PM before being forced by your boss to go out to dinner followed by drinks, allowing you to return home at about 3 AM, giving you about 3 hours to sleep before it all begins again.  No one needs more than 3 hours, right?!) "You and I are going to go to the company together.  Both of our lessons are at the same place."

                                                                  View from my apartment... can you find the castle?
Both of our lessons?  A sense of welling dread began in my chest.  "Wait... Aren't I observing your lessons?  I mean, when is my training?  I told you when I applied that I'm not an education major, I'm a theatre major... I don't know anything about teaching!"

"I hired you because you were a theatre major!" she said smiling.  "You're so expressive!  Don't worry, you'll be fine!"  The mantra for all work related worries.  You'll be fine.  And with that, she too left for her afternoon lessons.  I walked back to my very empty apartment through the beautiful October sunshine, slowly wondering what the HELL I was going to do.  When I got back, I stood out on the veranda for a while.  As I stood there, I realized that I could see the very top of the castle.  Funnily enough, that small thought was enough to make me start feeling a bit better.  I was going to be fine.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nihon e yokoso! (Welcome to Japan)

"You'll never see anyone in a kimono."  These were the words my mother left me with as I boarded the plane, on my way to Japan for the first time.  It was supposed to be a year long contract for teaching English, just a little adventure.  It was a way to see Japan, learn about a different culture, and try and figure out my next step.  Just one year.  And here it is, almost eight years later, still in Japan with a husband and a brand new baby.  Not only do I see a lady in a kimono almost every day, I have my own.  Every day is an adventure, but one thing is for sure, life in Japan isn't all wine and roses... or sake and cherry blossoms!

The morning I left, I headed out for the airport, nervous and excited. I had flown alone many times, but I had never been to Japan (I also couldn't speak Japanese, but I was overlooking that slight problem).  I had a quick one hour flight to San Francisco, and then a two and a half hour layover until the 12 hour slog to Osaka.  Ready to begin my tearful farewells to my family, I stepped up to the ticket counter.  

"We're sorry, but due to fog in San Francisco, your flight has been delayed."


"How long has it been delayed?"

"We're not sure yet.  When the fog lifts, San Francisco will let us know."

Well great.  This was a good way to start.  In the end, the flight was delayed for two hours, giving me only thirty minutes to get to the international terminal in SFO.  Which, if you've been there, you'll know is quite the undertaking.  I don't usually check baggage on international flights, which in this instance was good and bad.  Good because it would never have made it onto the flight to Osaka, leaving me to start my new life with whatever would fit in my computer case.  The bad?  Picture me, hauling down the international terminal, suitcase in hand as the intercom calls my name, warning me that if I don't get my booty on the plane, it will leave without me.  If you've never been the subject of a PA call telling you you're late for your flight before, trust me.  Not a good feeling.

I barely made it, and it couldn't be more clear that they had been waiting for me.  As soon as I was on board the flight staff made their final checks, and I walked the length of the plane with the glares of delayed passengers following me to my seat.  While I really didn't want to piss off the hundreds of others that I would spend the next 12 hours with, I was extremely happy to make the flight.  I was on my way to Japan.

That could probably be said to be the longest flight of my life.  It's a long flight under any circumstances, and such a major life change as this gave me plenty of time to rethink my decision to move across the ocean to a country I had never been to that spoke a language I had never studied.  Long before I was born my parents had lived in Japan, and my childhood had been full of Japanese things, photos, music.  It was because of that I had wanted to go to Japan in the first place, but now, the closer the plane got to our destination, the more nervous I became.  Finally, we landed at Kansai Internation Airport, outside of Osaka.  That, I knew was the easy part.  From here, I had two train rides ahead of me, plus navigating two train stations. 

The train from Kansai Airport was easier than I expected.  It took about an hour, and I found myself in Shin-Osaka station.  This was the hard one.  It's a huge (and I mean HUGE) station, including subways, local trains and bullet trains, and I had five minutes to get from where my train arrived to where my bullet train would depart.  Luckily for me, a very kind family, also from America, who lived in Osaka took pity on me and gave me great instructions on how to get to the platform I needed to go to.  Still, once again I found myself racing to catch my train with suitcase in tow... and again, I just made it.  From here, the only hard part was staying awake so as to not miss my stop.  I managed somehow, and before I knew it, I was off the train and standing in Fukuyama, my new home.  As I left the train, three ladies in kimono pushed their way past me.  So much for never seeing a kimono.  Realizing that everything I had ever heard about Japan was probably wrong, I followed the ladies down the escalator to meet my manager, Lisa, who was supposed to be waiting for me outside the ticket gates.  As I headed down, I realized that I didn't know what she looked like.  How, I wondered, would I know who she was?  But, there was no need to worry.  I may not have known what she looked like, but she knew my face from my resume (not to mention that I was the only non-Japanese person coming off the trains).  As I walked for the ticket gate, I could see her, waving at me.

 "You must be hungry!" she said as we walked towards the doors out of the station.  "Let's drop your stuff off at your apartment and then get something to eat.  We live close to each other, and it's not so far, so it won't take long to walk there."  We stepped out of the station, and directly in front of us was a giant (or so I thought) castle, lit up beautifully in the night.  It was amazing.

Just as Lisa had said, our apartments were fairly close, about a fifteen minute walk.  It was towards the end of October, which is a great season in Japan, and the weather was nice, making the walk rather pleasant.  My new apartment was larger than I had imagined, though completely empty of furniture except for a futon set borrowed from my company, an old TV set, and a low table called a kotatsu.

We had dinner at the neighborhood izakaya, which is a Japanese pub-ish kind of place, lots of emphasis on alcohol and food that matches it.  I asked Lisa to order for us, since I didn't know anything on the menu.

The first thing she ordered was "shishamon", little fish that are fried and served five to a plate.  Whole.  With their heads on and everything.  Pushing the plate towards me, Lisa smiled.  "Eat them while they're hot!" she said as she grabbed one for herself.  Gingerly I took one myself.  I figured if I just snarfed it headfirst, at least it would stop staring at me.  And the truth is, it was pretty delicious.  Lisa smiled again.

"Welcome to Japan!"