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Monday, July 7, 2014

Home Sweet Home - Sorta

I've been rather happy-happy-joy-joy in my description of Japan over the years, if I might quote a song from the Ren & Stimpy cartoons (hear HERE).

I know that Japan is not always that way - sometimes it is like being hit on the head with a hammer - but for the most part, I had an amazing time while there and really, with MY experience, I would recommend it to anyone.

In fact… I would bet that most people had a positive situation in Japan and tell others all about it, which is why people keep clamoring to go to Japan.

But… some people do not have a positive experience. Or, so it seems, the negatives tend to outweigh the positives. 

I'm going to present two opposite views of a first day in the new home of a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan.

One is of myself, and will be presented after the one I offer written by Maia… who is approaching her 11th month in the country.

Maia creates a blog entitled Maia Does Japan. She seems young to me, but that's probably only because I seem old to me.

Maia has had a difficult time in Japan, what with not being utilized properly as an AET (assistant English teacher) until months had passed, and now, with a blog entry re-presented below, she provides a warning to new would-be AETs on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, that if things aren't going the way you think they should be going, don't hesitate at all to stand up for yourself.

I have NO idea if Maia is a whiner and if that immediately translated over to the way she was treated, but, even though we are only presented with HER side of the story, somehow I doubt it. I think she's been screwed over big time by the folks at her Board of Education (BOE), Japanese teachers of English (JTE), and thus by JET, who have not been able to stand up and resolve the situation on her behalf.

Here's what she wrote about her first day in her new home town:   

Maia Does Japan
A word of advice to new JETs
When you come to Japan, do not under any circumstances let your supervisor, BOE, or other JTEs walk all over you for the sake of being “polite”. If something is not right, tell them. Especially if it’s a dangerous situation or your realistic basic needs are not being met.
That being said there is definitely a line between what counts as basic. You should be willing to come and work hard, but you should also have minimum, realistic expectations met. Especially situations that involve your basic safety or could be potentially harmful to you.

I keep thinking back to how I arrived in August (the hottest time of the year) to an apartment with no AC (which was understandable), no fan (which would have been okay but better if they would have taken or helped me get a fan before stranding me) and a broken shower (unacceptable) and how my supervisor walked in, said “okay see you tomorrow” after realizing my apartment was hotter than an oven, realizing my water wasn’t turned on and when it was my shower didn’t work and without helping me figure out how to get to school, handed me a sandwich and a coffee and left.
I had to chase her out the door to see if she knew if there was a supermarket or somewhere near by incase I needed something to which she replied “I don’t live here, I don’t know- sorry bye.” 

And in my weird JET Lagged, completely overwhelmed state I accepted her response and lack of help with the most basic things and cried in my living room that this is somehow “what I wanted- this happened to me because I wanted to live here.” 

I’m not trying to scare you, and what I got was “horror story” bad, and I’d probably be back in America right now if my neighbor didn’t come and save me from my oven of an apartment, but I wish I could go back in time and start standing up for myself right then and there- because its one of those things that snowballs until it’s incredibly difficult and almost impossible to stop.

So lesson to new JETs; You are not here to be Japanese and overly polite and accepting of things that are more than incorrect. Please stand up for yourself.

Damn… as my friend Vince says, her experience in Japan sure doesn't sound anything like my own.

Well, I've only ever just presented the facts about Japan as I have come across them… I've not embellished the facts, though maybe I have the language, but there's a reason my I called Japan a wonderful rife/life.

In my own opinion, I was like Ferris Bueller… every thing I did came out perfectly - even when it didn't seem like it would.

So, here was my first day under the tutelage of my bosses of the Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken Ohtawara Board of Education, or as I call OBOE - though I only thought of that a few years ago:

After being picked up in Utsunomiya-shi by the two men who would be my boss (ie responsible for my well-being in Japan), plus another man who drove the panel van, we traveled with two of us sitting on my luggage, because the van had no seats… there were no windows  - aside from the windshield and the passenger and driver-side window, and the ones on the rear doors… and there were no seat belts… but whatever. It didn't phase me. At least it was air-conditioned.
During the van ride up to Ohtawara-shi, Kanemaru-san who chain-smoked cigarettes in this closed space (no big deal to me), pulled out his Japanese-English dictionary and pointing to each word by word, told me a joke.
That joke is lost to the ether, but I recall it wasn't that funny, but I laughed my ass off because he was trying to tell me a joke!!!!
I'm in frickin' Japan with one guy who spoke decent English and two guys who didn't, and one of the two tells me a joke in English!
Screw the Japanese stereotype of no sense of humor! Screw it all to hell! I knew right then and there that I was going to love this country and this experience. Right frickin' there!
Hanazaki-san - who spoke good English - always seemed to have a grin on his face. After I laughed long and hard at his joke, Kanemaru-san would a grin on his face until the day I left him three years later. (I do assume he's still around and still smiling).
When we stopped, we piled out of the van walked up a few tiled stairs and took an elevator up to the third floor... and then walked west along an outdoor corridor with stuccooed walls to my green-doored apartment... a key applied - and presto.
My three-bedroom apartment was designed for a family.
Although I did not have air-conditioning, I did have a fan.
While Hanazaki-san turned it on, Kanemaru-san went to the phone and made a call.
Hanazaki-san gave me the five-yen tour - western-style toilet with just enough room to stand up n- there was no way I could possible miss! , a shower big enough for two people as I later learned, lots of room in the bathroom to do a cartwheel or two (don't ask), a washer/dryer single unit, and in the main open concept area, a stove but no oven, a convection-microwave oven, lots of pots and pans and cups and glasses and saucers and cutlery. A spice cabinet and teas left by my predecessor, a telephone, a tv, an alarm clock, a sofa, a chair, some carpeting, a mini fridge that was empty…  … and Hanazaki showed me how to use the futon… and how to roll it up every day… and how I should take care of it - though I didn't do as I was instructed.
The place was beautiful. This was the first time I had ever lived on my own, and I had a lot of room.
The place had a hot water gas heater that I had to turn on to get hot water, but other than that, everything else was familiar to me - heck, even the microwave had English and Japanese instructions on the buttons!   
Minutes later, a knock at the door was answered by a running Kanemaru-san, and holy crap - there were seven more people in my apartment - men… women… well-dressed and carrying groceries.
I was shown how to use the rice cooker - because I had admitted I did NOT know how to cook… and while I was shown how to use the cooker, I forgot everything I was told because, well… the instruction was in Japanese - and when the men, aka Hanazaki-san translated, he would quite frequently admit he had no idea what the women were talking about - showing me for the very first time, the Japanese line as divided by the sexes). I was also suffering from information overload.
Groceries!… They brought food and drinks… and stocked the little fridge for me.
There was a map of the city and surrounding area pinned to the wall above my telephone, and I was shown two spots were I could go and get groceries… though truthfully I had no idea where I was on the map and thus everything else, though written with the English shop names, meant nothing to me… whatever.
I had them show me how to use the gas heater several times to ensure I got it. The same with how to turn on the TV - THIS, the men knew… 
When it appeared as though it was all over, I was still smiling and bowing and thanking everyone in both English and Japanese - and with that, everyone left me alone - for the first time - in Ohtawara-shi.
I didn't know what to do first… I needed a shower, but really, what I wanted more than anything was to go out onto my balconies and look out my new hometown.
To the west it was kind of dingy, with kind of ugly buildings, but it was beautifully clean and bright… Ohtawara, was a town with a glandular problem, as it has 50,000 people spread out over a wide swath of land… which means that it was not very dense, population-wise.
Through the north balcony, I had a vista of a bunch of mountains… so tall that there were clouds lower than the peaks - all visible in the beautiful blue sky, with wonderful white clouds traveling slowly across the atmosphere.
And then the door-bell rang.
What the heck?
I peered through the eye-hole and saw the fisheyed visage of Kanemaru-san peering through at me peering out.
I throw open the door.
He smiles, bows, and bids me in slow English syllables to '“Ah so desu,” he said. “Do-nu-stahs, pulizu.”'... so I snap on my shoes, lock the place and follow a running Kanemaru-san down a set of stairs to the left of my apartment door that I hadn't noticed before...  
It was now around 4PM... and lunch was a long time ago... so it was a nice surprise that my three new Japanese friends were ushering me into a  restaurant located conveniently at the base of my apartment building.
The four of us sat sans shoes in front of a low table and as we were about to order some food and drinks, from out of the blue, a voice spoke out: “Hey, Andrew, you gaijin! How are you?”
I turned around and looked into the grinning face of Matthew Hall – who in the decades I have known him has never lost that smile. The giant strawberry blonde (6’-4”, 180-lbs) smiled and said he also lived here in Ohtawara but that he would teach junior high in all of the small hamlets outside of Ohtawara. Cool. An English-speaking friend and neighbor who lived about a five-minute bike ride away.
After eating and drinking and having a great time with Matthew, his boss Suzuki-san, and my three new Japanese friends, we were all a bit drunk - okay, I think my Japanese guys were... we paid the bill, that is to say the Japanese did, we bowed and said something in Japanese to the staff and then my Japanese peers helped me stagger over to the elevator to walk with me back to my apartment.
I asked them to come in,  but they said - no - allowing me to get acquainted with my new life in Japan.
It was still only around 6PM - my belly was full, I was slightly drunk on Japanese beer - very tasty!, was sweaty because it was hot... and so I went to have a shower - figuring out that dangerous gas heater without blowing the place up.
Finishing - someone had brought me a bar of soap, shampoo and conditioner and even toothpaste and a toothbrush and deodorant stick! I had these things anyway, but it's nice to know they cared.

I got dressed and with a glass of Coca-Cola went back out to the north balcony, as there was now a cacophony of sound coming from outside… as a large shrine was being carried around by a bunch of happy revelers - it was now close to 9PM.
I had NO idea what was going on… didn't care… I wish I did, but whatever… the people down below saw me and smiled and waved happily to me and I to them.
I grabbed my camera and snapped a few shots…

And that, people, was MY first day in my hometown of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. And no, it wasn't the best day I had in Japan. Not even close. But it was still pretty frickin' awesome. Matthew, by the way, recently shaved his strawberry blond hair off - hopefully for nothing political and indeed, as a great joke on his son.

That photo at the very top - that was on a wall of my apartment. It says: "Welcome to our city Mr. Andrew Joseph."

The photos of the shrine below.. may be a tad blurry because I may be a tad bleary, as in drunk.
Friendly? Yup! I actually got to know the three (maybe four) clearly visible people over my stay!
I pity the poor people being whipped to move this portable shrine. The whips are invisible and I pity no one here..
After the shrine went by, I called home, talked to the family, and then called Ashley, who I assumed was already my girlfriend because I let her get to second base with me a day or two earlier. I know - I could have called this blog Great Expectations, but, what the dickens!, it was taken. Ashley wasn't in yet or was sleeping. She and I might have been at loggerheads for much of her two-year stay, but there is no getting around the fact that I thought she was beautiful and I loved her very much - which is what fugged me up emotionally so much. That was my problem, regardless of who was the problem.

Now... while not every one I talked to had as amazing a first day in their new town as I did, but no one had a bad one. I don't know anyone who had to cry as Maia did - and yeah... I actually talked to everyone about their living situation over the next several months.

I feel really bad for Maia... can you imagine if she had first read about my experience and figured it would be all sunshine and unicorns, and then found out that it was closer to a Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell - why I might think that Andrew was a liar.

Here's the thing. While I might stretch the truth every once in a while for entertainment purposes - to make a joke - the facts are still the facts.

Just remember: ESID - Every situation is different.

As for me - to paraphrase the lyrics from the old television show the Fresh Prince of Bel Air:

"I looked at my kingdom
I was finally there
To sit on my throne as the Prince of Big Hair."

Buds (from left) James, Colin, and my hair. WTF?! I suppose I was trying to grow a pony-tail and it just wasn't there yet.
Andrew Joseph

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