Wednesday, January 22: Aboard a Korean Airlines plane to SeoulThis is the beginning of a great adventure. I've quit my job, sold my car, cut my hair and am going to Japan to teach English. After 5 months of work, I plan to take the pile of cash I've accumulated and travel through Asia for two months before returning to school in the fall.
It was extremely emotional to leave home. My grandmother Cunningham is deteriorating, and I am faced with the possibility of never seeing her again, and because she has been suffering so much, I must reluctantly concede that this may be for the best. Saying goodbye to my parents, I realized that I have never really been away from home: never more than a couple of weeks and certainly not in a foreign country. It has been more than once that the emotion has welled up inside of me and overwhelmed what I wanted to be my stoic countenance.
The flight from New York to Seoul was nothing short of dreadful. Though basically smooth, the plane was packed with tourists returning home, none of whom I could communicate with. A mere 17 hours in the air between leg stretching walks (well, not quite, lest I forget the memorable and scenic stop in Anchorage, Alaska at 4 a.m. local time).
And then there is my irrational and unexplainable fear of flying which I somehow contracted in the last 5 years. Every bump, shake, and rattle of the plane caused me to shiver in fear that this steel sack of exploding fossil fuel might plunge to the earth at 9.8 m/ss. While the rest of the plane slept, I nervously entertained myself by staring at the back of the seat in front of me. The Korean grandmom next to me had no problems sleeping. Maybe my shoulder made a nice pillow.
Arriving in Narita Airport thirty hours after leaving North Carolina, my first thought was, "The signs are in English, too." Japan had already made me feel welcome, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived though I was. I was quickly swept into the required tasks at hand. I collected my bags, made it through customs, exchanged $100, and bought the ubiquitous Coke.
Here I learned my first lesson of avoiding embarrassment. When I had no idea what something cost, I just handed the clerk a big bill and waited for my change. Sometimes the clerks would pick the change out of my outstretched hand. I adopted the "Smile and look stupid" survival method, the latter of which came quite naturally.
I had arranged to stay with some fraternity brothers until I got settled, and I attempted to call them, but no one was home. No matter, I thought, for I had directions from the airport to the subway stop nearest their apartment. It required four different trains, but how hard could that be? I located the train bound for Tokyo, and bought my ticket.
At this point, I was burdened by three quite heavy bags, as I had brought enough to be comfortable and professional through three seasons (8 months). Three suits, five dress shirts, jeans, t-shirts, shoes, walkman, tapes, camera and a couple of lenses, winter coat, bathing suit, etc. etc. etc. Trudging along through the airport, with shoulders sagging towards the floor and bags almost touching, I questioned nearly all my packing decisions. Should I have left the walkman and tapes at home? Were two bottles of shampoo really necessary? Could I have gotten by on a few less Q-Tips? Several trains and some angst later, I arrived at the last stop in my directions.
The Tokyo subways, particularly for a small town boy like myself, took some getting used to. Seats were usually occupied, and often there was nothing to grab onto, as the train was packed by special platform employees with white gloves who pushed passengers into packed trains as the doors closed. A sudden lurch by the train could send a whole car's worth of passengers crashing to the floor.
A call to my friends still got no answer, so I had no choice but to wait. A friendly, wrinkled face helped me load my bags into a locker and then I set out exploring. At this point, I could have been in any big city with street vendors hawking leather goods and t-shirts. I wandered around for awhile still shell shocked from the long flight.
Several hours later I made it to my friends apartment and after 40 hours
and 8000 miles, I fell asleep on a tatami mat for most of a day.
Monday, January 27The incredible despair and loneliness of the flight over have been swept away by frenetic Tokyo life. I am staying with some friends, and Alex has some free time and has been showing me around. Their apartment is huge by Tokyo standards, and it impresses any local who visits. Naturally, it is small by North Carolina standards, and I feel somewhat like a sardine when we roll out the futons and bed down for the night. The search for a job has started, though I haven't gotten any offers yet.
Alex and I went shopping in the Ginza district, well known for it's pricey boutiques. I think my favorite product was the "perfect fruit" whose status as a gift elevates its appeal and its price. The cantelopes were going for $60 to $80, while the very large and perfectly packed strawberries started at about $20.
Sunday was spent walking around Yoyogi Park and taking pictures, a gathering place for street musicians, Yakuza phone card traders, and Elvis dancers. The street musicians, like those in America, played a lot of cover tunes and blues standards, but in a twist that was new to me, were not looking for any money. Illegal phone cards, drugs, and other goodies that likely originated with the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, were being bought and sold by Middle Eastern men nearby. I didn't take any pictures of them.
Most fascinating, however, were the groups of 4 to 10 guys dressed in 1950s-era America style dress dancing to the beat of stereos blaring Elvis, Eddie Cochran, and other legends. They moved with a martial arts like concentration and unity in a modern marriage of Zen Buddhism and Happy Days. The Japanese call them takenokozoku, or "Bamboo Shoot Kids," a reference to the fast growing plant.
Later, I received hostile looks from several Japanese while photographing a homeless man wrapped in a blanket. Honestly, the negative reaction caused by my photograph caused me to think more than the man's plight did. Clearly, Japan does not have a homeless or poverty problem like the U.S.; I only saw a couple others during my stay. Why wasn't I supposed to take his picture? Was it denial or perhaps disgust? It must have been quite a powerful emotion to pierce the strong Japanese sensibility of politeness.
Navigating Tokyo streets can be daunting. There is no uniformity to the layout with streets twisting and turning and multiple road interesections. Maps are largely useless, and street signs don't help much either. Addresses for buildings are based on when the building was built, not where it is on the block. Most people find their way around by landmarks. For example, I needed to print out some copies of my resume and the directions to the printing shop went something like "Take the North exit from Shinjuku Station. Head up the hill to the second fork in the road and make a left. Take the second left after the Daiwa Bank. We are in the 3rd building on the right, on the 5th floor." And when you don't have directions like these, you might have to ask passers-by. Like many others with no Japanese language skills, I would ask someone directions in phrasebook Japanese. They would point in one direction or another while telling me stuff I basically couldn't understand. I would then go 100 yards in whichever direction they indicated and then ask someone else.
Thursday, February 6After mooching off my friends for a couple of weeks, I've moved into one of the many guest (or "gaijin") houses in the Tokyo area. They are basically cheap shelter for travellers, English teachers, hostesses and street peddlers. There aren't any travellers in Friendship House II right now, but we get a lot of postcards from folks who have stayed here recently.
Tokyo is overflowing with foreign English teachers and English teacher wannabes (like me). Every westerner who has been in Tokyo more than a month seems to teach a little English on the side. The rumor is that 50 Westerners arrive at Narita airport everyday in hopes of landing a job teaching English. Who can say no to $25 to $50 an hour?
A hostess is a young, attractive woman who works as a sort of budget prostitute. They don't get paid as much as the real thing, but then, they don't have to do anything but chat with the patrons. Wages have been going down recently as the supply of hostesses outstrips demand. Danielle, Åsa,and Helen have been scraping for decent jobs.
You don't get much for your money at a Tokyo gaijin house. A little more than $340/month gives me half of a tiny room, access to a cramped kitchen, and the privelege of sharing a shower with 10 guys. I also have a cardboard box to hang my clothes in. Atleast Friendship House II is fairly clean. Some of the other ones I looked at had green bathrooms, and not because it was exotic Asian tile.
I still don't have a job, but the interviews are starting to go better. I know better what to do now. For example, don't ask an interviewer if they are American because you think they sound American. Canadians don't appreciate this.
(Note: my current employer can skip to the next paragraph now.) Pad the hell out of your resume. No one is really qualified to teach English, and qualifications probably wouldn't help much either, but it's amazing how quickly late night flash card assistance given to a friend cramming for an exam turns into "an Italian conversation course that I developed." Then you can always just lie. "I'm planning on being here from 2 to 3 years, depending on how quickly I learn conversational Japanese," is a decent response to the inevitable question of long-term intentions. You might recall that my true intentions are to work for 6 months. Some of the interviewers don't even ask questions; they know better than to believe the answers.
I need to find a job soon; the end of my cash is rapidly approaching. Stepping out of the house for a couple of hours usually results in an expense of US$5 to $12 for train fare, the obligatory meal at a sushi bar, and a pack of Luckies.
I'm sharing a room with a toothpick thin Australian programmer named Nick. He's come to Japan to get a job programming in FORTRAN or some other ancient tongue of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He's the most budget conscious guy I've met yet; he eats instant cup o' ramen three times a day and only drinks water. He's also giving himself a crash course in Japanese writing so he can send out resumes and a cover letter in Japanese. Though I'm impressed when he tells me that he's learned the 1200 basic Kanji characters that Japanese students study from 1st to 12th grade, I'm a little dubious of the depth of his knowledge after only 6 weeks.
No matter if he's ready, Nick has started to hand-write and address his job applications in Japanese. Unfortunately, no one in the house could read Japanese to proof his writing. Good luck, mate!
Some "crazy Iranian" had my bed before me. I think most of the guys here are in awe of his audaciousness. He would stand on a street corner and talk to every Japanese women who went by until one of them would sleep with him. He would stand out there all day in the snow if that's what it took. A woman might stay in his room for a day or two, and then he would be back on the street looking for another. He would do this for weeks until all his money was gone. He would then work for awhile and then start the cycle again. Eventually he couldn't get any more money and either went back to Iran or to jail, or so the story goes. I think Nick was happy to get a new roommate.
Tom is a Israeli bopping around the world by buying stuff in the third world and selling it in the first. He's not getting rich, but he's certainly getting quite an adventure He sells wooden cockroaches in wooden boxes to Japanese. In his spare time, he's been studying martial arts with an old master in the mountains near Tokyo.
The English and American guys living here all have Japanese girlfriends. There certainly isn't a huge number of available Western women, and having a Japanese girlfriend gives one an intimate view of the culture, though not necessarily good language skills. One American lawyer I met, an alumnus of my university, had been married to a Japanese woman for almost 10 years, but didn't use his Japanese in public very much as he really only knew the form used between husband and wife.
On My Soapbox Department: We found a Japanese "porno" tape lying around today. Being the anthropological bunch that we are, we watched it (no comments from the peanut gallery, please). It was, in a word, horrifying. Sure, it had the usual, if somewhat tame, faked/real sex stuff. But the plot of the movie was the abduction and rape at knifepoint of a young Japanese woman. Neither I, nor anyone else in the room, felt even slightly titillated. I'm not one of those Men's Studies majors either. This was just plain sicko.
The film is a horrible indicator of the ridiculously low status of Japanese women. Other examples abound in Japanese culture. Full grown women in service jobs are expected to talk in squeeky high little girl voices to their customers. Walls, billboards, and posters are covered with pictures of often-topless pubescent girls slathered in makeup and giving pouty looks. One observer noted, "The sexual ideal in Japan is a twelve year old girl."
This wasn't an underground film either. It was available commercially just about anywhere, for sale to just about anyone. We all gave thanks to those who fought and died during World War II.
I will give them this: the Japanese may not think men and women are equal, but they don't abduct, rape, or murder them (unlike the video), or atleast it's not reported. Japan is an extremely safe place for both men and women, native or visitor.
What a decadent life I've been leading. Without a job and infrequent interviews, I have huge amounts of time to read, watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, and sleep late.
Thursday, February 13I write this Thursday night from aboard the Shinkansen (super express) train, as the scenery whizzes by at 230 km/h. It's most interesting trying to make out human features when we zip through train stations without slowing down.
I'm enroute to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I have been hired to teach English by English Circles, one of the numerous private firms making a buck on trendy English classes. My long search for a job has paid off, as this is a good thing, for I have paid quite a bit of money to get this far and don't have much left.
Nick got a response from his job search applications. He has a job interview next week. I have to admit that I'm impressed, though it was amusing watching him attempt to speak Japanese with the woman who called to set up the interview. Fortunately, the Japanese caretaker of the house was able to assist him.
Friday, February 14Last night, I missed the early train by being in the wrong train station; hence, I had to wait until the next day for the local train that finishes the journey. It was snowing in Morioku, and the friendly cab driver and I exchanged misunderstandings for awhile before coming to the mutual conclusion that I wanted a "cheap hotel." He dropped me off at one of Japan's famous "capsule hotels." For $25, I got a plastic tube about the size of a coffin with a thin futon, a radio/alarm clock, TV (coin operated), and a light inside. The tubes were built into a wall and stacked 3 tall and 10 across. A 100 yen coin (about $.75) got 5 minutes of soft-porn on the TV, and I fell asleep to the sound of coins clinking and faked orgasms.
The scenery from Morioku to Sapporo was beautiful, if stark. Snow covered the hilly ground, and there were few people about.
Sapporo is a beautiful and interesting city. The city's layout was designed by American engineers after World War II, hence the streets are laid out in a grid with uniform sized city blocks and wide avenues. Much smaller than Tokyo, it almost feels cozy at a population of one million. There is an underground mall and walkway that is below much of the main street used during the winter to avoid the bitter cold.
Sunday, February 23Teaching English is not for me. After enduring a week of learning how to teach, and teaching a whopping one class, I quit before committing myself to an apartment and a job contract. I guess I just panicked. It seems kind of weird to be backing out after spending so much time and money to get a job, but when I saw the apartment contract which demanded a 2 year commitment, the job contract which expected a one year commitment, and quickly finding out that the work just would not be fun, I decided to get out. I think I need to really get away; no commitments, no expectations, no responsibiliites.
If there was one thing fun about the week in Sapporo, it was the drinking in Karaoke bars nearly every night. I'll be the first to admit that I scoffed at Karaoke while in college, but it was quite fun in the intimate and friendly atmosphere of the Sapporo bars we frequented. It was usually myself and an American named Peter, who had picked up enough Japanese in 6 months teaching English that he could get around easily. Our favorite bar was at the top of a highrise, across from a disco. The bartenders knew us and our poisons by name after the second night, and even humored us when we topped off the whiskeys ourselves while they "weren't looking."
The head English instructor at English Circles was a committed student of language instruction from Canada. Well versed in the theories of learning language, he worked tirelessly to improve the quality of the courses, and to teach us how to be effective instructors. The marketing manager, on the other hand, was concerned only with us putting on a happy face for the customers. It's hard to say who had the better perspective. After all, many of our students took English classes just "to meet people."
I'm hanging out at Friendship House II in Tokyo again. Using a credit
card, I've bought some more traveller's cheques and a ticket to Bangkok.
I've got a couple days until my flight leaves, and I think I'll just finish
watching these Star Trek episodes...
Continue on to Bangkok
Copyright 1997 by Jason Thomas James. All rights reserved.