Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Dementor's Kiss

You know your life is on a downward spiral when coffee becomes part of your routine. Not a refreshing mochachino after a leisurely game of tennis or an espresso with a dessert of rich chocolate and strawberries... black coffee, bitter coffee, recycled coffee, coffee that can only be made at 8:30 in the morning in the hellish depths of a ten-year-old machine containing a glass pot stained brown with the grounds of so many Mondays. Take a sip of that to survive, and you have given in to complacency, to the nature of the corporate world.

The corporate world of Japan... just what is it like over here? Well, it's just like home. Except there are all these Japanese people. And Japanese signs. And more trains. Aside from that, salarymen tend to work much later than you'd expect in other countries, despite the fact that Japan's worker productivity isn't remarkably high by global standards; although American workers, for example, may not all be putting in 14-hour days, they do put in the 8-5, and remain more focused on what they are trying to do in attempts to go home, relax, and spend time with their families. In Japan, this hasn't really caught on, despite governmental influence (trying to raise the low fertility rate): Japanese men are still, for the most part, expected to be the breadwinners, and to put in the hours accordingly. Even if these overtime hours are spent doing nothing but playing solitaire, it's all about maintaining the facade: you are here late, you are a good, hard worker, an asset to the company. Add the grounds to the filter.

As a result of this mentality, many Japanese are not expected to spend time at home or take long vacations (durations usually less than one week).

This is the world I have entered into willingly as part of the experience of living and working abroad. Although I am living in a foreign country, interacting with Japanese nationals, and enjoying Japanese cuisine on a daily basis, I'm still swallowing my pride, giving up a huge part of my adventurous spirit every morning, subjugating myself to conditions I had promised I would never endure at home. Open up the plastic flap, add the water.

Honestly, I'm torn - I want to be traveling abroad, experiencing a foreign culture, but to do so... I thought I was willing to take whatever employment was available to me, a job that would allow me the opportunities to explore on the weekends and receive a small stipend for my troubles... but I'm not.

By taking a job in any major corporation in Japan (or anywhere, really), you are slowly destroying yourself. If you are working right now and believe this to be untrue, I would argue you have forgotten what it means to be a traveler, a free spirit. Day after day of answering emails, finding coworker rapport slowly becoming more comedic, noticing your legs don't cramp up quite so much after ten hours of sitting, offering to do the most trivial tasks for your manager just for a slight change of pace, listening to the hum of the computers, adjusting to the grey and white surroundings and the splattered light from flourescent bulbs... these things lead to complacency. Turn the brewer on.

But perhaps the biggest mockery of all is the beauty of the world, seeing it every day from the window of an office building. Taking five minutes to get a breath of fresh air when in fact you should be breathing free every moment of your life. Going outside is not a treat. Seeing the sun slowly brighten and extinguish from the same place indoors is not a miracle.

Yes, there is the issue of money. But there's also the issue of you. Would you have been happier to have been born a millionaire, without ever having needed to work or strive for anything? To have everything turned to leisure, nothing essential to living? Would you rather get something new, or experience something new?

Now imagine yourself poor. Earning your existence through nothing but perseverance. Traveling abroad and living on the goodwill of others and the few dollars you gained through blood and sweat. In the end, that sounds more meaningful to me than living at a Privet Drive, buying a $6 cafe latte, and spending a majority of your waking hours doing something that makes you wish you were elsewhere.

Pour it into a cup and take a sip.

How's that taste?


wim said...

Damn, your story makes me wanting to pack my bags and explore the beauty over the world again.
Had those silly dreams when I was a young puppy and tasting the coffee now it tastes a bit bitter.

Shari said...

Any job which isn't what you dream of or enjoy doing is going to eventually turn into a soul-sucking experience. Part of it is the nature of work (which involves any sort of repetition) and part of it is your outlook.

The main problem with the corporate world is that it rarely affords one the opportunity to be creative in any way. In Japan, it can be worse than in other countries because of the issues with how decisions are made and the slow pace of change. Even if you have a lot of great ideas for instituting positive changes, those ideas won't be welcomed and even if they're welcomed, changes may not come for years.

When I worked in a Japanese office, the feeling you're having eventually ruined my health and depressed my spirit. You have to get out before it does the same to you.

Say what you will about teaching English in Japan but it carries far more opportunity for fulfillment if you just choose to reach out and take it. You can help people in many ways (not only in terms of their English skills but with confidence and extra-cultural catharsis) and you can learn a lot from them in the process. You just have to work someplace where you don't work in a harness which forces you to follow some boring, rigid lesson structure.