[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!


blogon said...

I think that picture is a person who has ingested an oversized candy heart in an attempt to gain a better seat.

And, WOW, my life in suburbia U.S.A. is so mundane. Maybe you can watch clips of US TV on youtube.com.

For Lent, I suggest giving up full-length pants.

Skip said...


Great post. Package came and everything is great. Does this mean Derby plans are sketch?


Giddy said...

That is just hilarious about the ashes. I mean, plenty of Americans give other Americans looks when they see the ashes, so I can only imagine it being even more suspect in a culture where that might be even more foreign. I bet they thought you were Charles Manson or something; the marks are similar.

Phil M. said...


Good to see you're able to go full native. I always found that there is a HUGE diffrence between living in Japan and visiting Japan on a business trip (I don't care how long it is). There is something about knowing that you are within a certain number of days of going home that allows you to see so many things in a positive/accepting light. Living there gives a person an uglier perspective on things. Enjoy!! Learn!!!

Keep the posts coming. Great stuff!