[The American Years]

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Orient Yourself

Nagoya at night from the hotel towers.

So my training has wrapped up and I'm headed back tomorrow (Sunday).

Couple of things: I am now an employee of a Japanese company. It's different than before. Vastly different. Frighteningly different.

The last day of orientation included a Japanese language test. I didn't think it would be a big deal, I know a little right? Well the Japanese test was a 4 page paper test, all multiple choice. What's worse is that it was all in Hiragana, the one of the 3 Japanese alphabets of which I have no knowledge at all. Granted I have very little skill at the other alphabets.

It was rough. As they passed it out, they said "It's our requirement that you are given some training in your home country before you come here." Now they tell me. So with it being multiple choice, with 4 possible answers to each question, I expect to get somewhere around a 25% score.

It was humiliating. I just sat there staring at the paper while everyone else in the room (31 people from 16 countries) dug right in and started filling it out.

You know what I thought of? All the students I taught in middle school who didn't know English on paper at all. Most were smart, well meaning kids, who could speak English just fine, and could learn things in classroom and lab settings. Then here's this test and they can only look at it and make random picks at it. It put me in touch with kids in that situation. And just in time since I've been out of teaching for 12 years now.

After my 2 days of orientation, I went in to the office on Friday, and was not prepared. The orientation program failed me or I failed it, one or the other. Now, I've spent tons of times in that office on my previous business trips over there, but this was different. They handed me a new computer. Nice, right? Well, except that the computer is pretty low tech (it has a floppy drive) , and it's all in Japanese. I mean everything is in Japanese. I don't know what I was expecting. But to navigate the email system, and the time management system, or all the normal programs that we use, will all be vastly different. But maybe it will help me learn! Digital immersion!

The other thing that happened in the office was that I nearly was prohibited from returning to the US this weekend. I made this calendar months ago which showed when I am coming and going to and from Japan. Sent it across the pond and heard it was approved. Then I get in there on Friday, and the people who were supposed to have the whole thing squared away per that calendar are sucking wind through their teeth and saying things like "It's very difficult to get approval for this travel," and "Can you stay?"

Nice. There was some high level negotiation with the head honcho of my division in Japan, and he finally agreed. This was at noon on Friday that they say it's OK for me to return to the States.

So that's fine, but my whole calendar plan has gone kablooey I think. When I'm back I will discuss with the local brainpower and figure out what we can do. I think the whole thing is up for revision now! Did I mention in a previous post that I didn't expect the plan to stay the same? Yup, believe I did.

Help me out with this one. Give up your train seat to anyone who is (from left to right): old, pregnant, carrying a kid, injured, and finally... with a broken heart? suffering heartburn? Carrying a box of chocolates for St Valentine's day? You got me.

And you know what, if an old pregnant lady with heartburn, a broken leg and a small child got on the train, I bet nobody would give her a seat. Just the way things are over here.

So it's Lent now, and I wasn't able to get to the Catholic center in Nagoya in time for services on Wednesday. But I just went to Saturday night service. At the end, they gave out the ashes again, I guess in case people missed the 3pm on Wednesday like I did. In case you don't know, on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, the priest marks the sign on the cross on everyone's forehead with ashes. He says "Remember that thou art dust, from dust you came and to dust you will return". It's to put one in the right "dying to self" frame of mind for Lent.

All well and good until you're a 2 meter tall foreigner on the train in the busiest stations in Nagoya on a Saturday night, and your forehead is up there above traffic for everyone to see. It was awesome. I could have nearly had the whole train car to myself while the everyone packed into the neighboring cars.

You know, the Japanese tend to give ample space to the Gaijin anyway. Choose not to sit next to us on the train, suddenly remember they didn't actually need to take the elevator when the doors open showing Gaijin inside. It's OK. I understand. They don't want to catch our disease -- our gaijin leprosy.

Then put a big black mark the size of a 500yen coin on your head and lookout! More strange looks than usual. And of course nobody came up and said "Hey, I think you have a little smudge of something, just there." That would be rude.

I didn't play it up too much, because I'm a little shy, but I did go into a couple of stores and made some purchases. Loved the reaction. But I also felt uncomfortable making people feel uncomfortable, if that makes any sense. So I came back to the hotel sit my ashy head here in front of the computer and write this out. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I'm in!

Me at the Detroit airport leaving enduring the delay to get here. Talking to the family on the phone. Those were such simple times.

I made it. I’m in country. My short week here of orientation was eye opening. The Japanese love a nice form. A lovely document with some spaces and a routing that must be followed, and you hit it with your name stamp to show you approve and agree. It’s awesome. Nevermind that the form is useless.

All 31 of us Inter-company transferees from 16 different countries jammed in a room. You’ve never seen Japan look so diverse!

My first full day here included my government required health check. Nothing too drastic. I found that one of the American guys over here with me who was born in Vietnam has bad hearing. That was good to know. I thought his speech was incomprehensible because of a thick Vietnamese accent. Now it makes sense that it’s from his hearing being bad. Poor kid. I guess I won’t make fun of his accent anymore. Or I’ll double down on it, since he can’t hear me anyway.

They drew some blood from everyone. The biggest brawniest (Brazilian) guy in the group had to lie down for nearly fainting. I went right up to him on the couch and asked him in my best Portuguese if there was anything I could get him. A drink of water? A light snack? A teddy bear and a phone to call his mommy?

The eyesight lady had me take off my glasses for the test. She told me through a translator that I didn’t need glasses. (Sure, lady, and I bet you think you don’t need a dentist.)

(Please forgive me. I’m not that mean. Really I’m not. I just realized I had 3 mean jokes in a row. It’s hard to be funny without being mean. But I’ll work on it…. You might say please work on being funny first.)

They measured my height and weight. And man I have lost some serious weight! Before I left I weighed somewhere above 210 I think. Then I get here and I weight 96! Awesome! That Japanese diet is really working! I haven’t weighed 96 since 4th grade! Oh, duh. Metric system. Darn.

Well at least that explains the reading they got on my body fat percentage. There has to be some metric conversion factor there. I didn’t think my body fat percentage would be 3 digits.

The worst thing was the interview portion of the health check.
“Are you ok?”
“Um, yes.. I mean Hai.”
“Mmmm OK. Finish.”

With Lent starting while I’m over here, I think it’s unfair. Coming to Japan is like automatic lent. No meat on Friday? I’d have to seek out meat instead of sea food. And what to give up for Lent? No shortage of things that I’m forced to give up over here. Sleeping at regular hours, doorways I can pass through, English language TV, contact with friends and family, whole-grain anything, …. I think living over here for a year will be permanent Lent. Perma-Lent. Not just for the monasteries, anymore. Now available to the public!

Picture from a Japanese cemetary. One plot per family, with ashes of the deceased members in urns on the base of the large monument. This was a huge cemetary that I happened across. Must be the largest in Nagoya.