Wednesday, February 25, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Addendum

Looking back on my articles, I’m thinking I might have been overly critical on Japanese society. Not that I don’t fully agree with everything I wrote, but it would be a shame for someone to only see negatives in a country with so many wonderful aspects.

Japanese People

Contact with locals can always vary from traveler to traveler, attitude included, but I don't think I’ve ever met a more generous people than the Japanese. The gift-giving mentality in Japan is instilled at such an early age that to those of use coming from “selfish” western cultures, it seems nothing less than godly.

When finishing any major contract of employment, you will most likely be treated to an evening of eating, drinking, and other debauchery (karaoke… or a hostess club depending on the business). In Japan this is no small feat, with all-night prices going upwards of 100,000 yen for just a few people. Upon my completion at Shin Nippon Biomedical in Kagoshima, I was kindly given a blue yukata and invited to join in the party for another departing coworker.

Nor is this limited to the business world. Readers may recall my adventures hitchhiking in Kyushu, when a kind man drove tens of kilometers out of his way to ensure I would reach the main highway, and presented me with some senbei to pass along to my fellow staff members. Unbelievable. It was further trumped in an ultimate display of generosity that took place less than four hours later.

I was dropped off by an elderly couple in central Kumamoto around 9:30, with 210 km between me and my apartment. With nothing else to be done but stick out my thumb and try my luck with the night drivers, I got a ride from a middle-aged couple in a matter of minutes. They incorrectly assumed that I was a stable, sane foreigner who wouldn’t do anything so foolish like hitchhiking to Kagoshima in the middle of the night; but, I told them I was a company employee, who must return to work at 8:00 AM on Monday and I had just gotten several rides from Nagasaki, where I had run a half marathon in 1:28.

They didn’t drive me to Kagoshima. They didn’t take me any further down the highway. They consulted with each other and decided they didn’t want to worry about me, a random stranger in the night, coming to death on the side of the road in Kumamoto Prefecture (I doubt this would have happened). Instead, they took me straight to Kumamoto Eki and paid for a shinkansen ticket direct to Kagoshima Chuo. I was stumbling through every “thank you” I knew in Japanese, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough. I passed along my email and told them to contact me; unfortunately, I never heard from them, and didn’t get the chance to return the favor. They wouldn’t give me their phone number… just a name. I’ll have to look them up if I return to Kyushu.

Advice to you all: return the favor. Give gifts when the situation calls for it: New Year’s cards, White Day, Valentine’s Day, Birthdays, employee departures (permanent, or even a long vacation), end of the school year… I’m sure I’m forgetting a few – Christmas is more of a romantic holiday, though. Bring plenty of supplies from home to use as presents; something homemade is best.

Group Harmony, wa

I was never the best at this, having pretty much destroyed the office wa with my cross-cultural blog entries on AEON. After that, the damage was already done, so I didn’t see any harm in widening the crack in the ice; I turned the thermostat down when no one was around; I ducked out as soon as my last class ended; I never went out to eat with other teachers. Hopefully from my tone, you can tell I should have been doing the opposite.

Life in Higashi-Hiroshima started out easy enough; introduction parties, letting our hair down with excessive eating and drinking, learning our respective personalities. But I didn’t know this. I was hot (arrived in June), drained, nervous, and unable to speak ten words of Japanese. I didn’t realize that these outings were practically necessary to maintain group harmony, to establish wa in the on-hours, to show each other we could relax and have fun. My sentiments about the working environment aside, I should have been able to establish a better sense of community with my coworkers; it remains a big regret for me, not taking advantage of many opportunities to further my insights on Japanese culture.

Showing strong emotions without first establishing your baseline behavior is pretty much social suicide in Japan. Yelling in particular (think about it… how many times have you heard a sober Japanese person yell in anger?) is likely to make others give you the cold shoulder for weeks to come. I admit I was certainly frustrated enough at times to let off some steam in class, but I restrained myself. By the end of the year teaching, I think my students would have considered it a joke if I started spewing obscenities or looked at them with my brow furrowed; by that point, Turner-sensei wasn’t “an angry person”.

Escape is ok

You don’t have to eat sushi every day, drink yourself into a stupor with coworkers every Saturday night, and visit a shrine on Shogatsu in attempts to convince yourself you’re making the most of your Japanese experience.

Sometimes I just felt like grabbing a Domino’s pizza, drinking a Dr. Pepper from the import store, and watching Rocky Balboa online…

“Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s been super-friendly, but I want to play cricket, have a barbecue at the beach and lie in the sun.”

Under the Osakan Sun, Hamish Beaton

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