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Friday, May 24, 2013

This Gaijin Was Stress-free At Work

Vinnie or Vinny… or Vince… Vincent? Vin… whomever he is, recently as loudly as one can get in an e-mail without using CAPITALS, wondered what things were like for me versus now regarding work exhaustion.

It's true… while I do suffer from work burnout now - perhaps brought about by being older, writing a bunch of blogs on top of this one… being a father and husband… writing all day at work… getting five hours sleep because of all the writing… I do sometimes get a bit burned out.

I deal with people who are unreasonable, always wanting things now, and have little to no knowledge of due process...

But… back in Japan… it was a completely different level of burnout.

First off... I was never really ever homesick. I wish I saw the Blue Jays win their first World Series, or the Leafs play some decent hockey... but no... I had no added pressure regarding Toronto.

Back between 1990-1993, I 'worked' at one of seven junior high schools in the city of Ohtawara in Tochigi-ken, Japan.

I placed the word 'work' in quotes, because really… it wasn't a difficult job to perform. All I would do was go in and perform for the troops.

Whether it was being a human tape recorder: Repeat after me - or if it was telling amusing stories about myself, Canada or the English language - or performing a plethora of zoological sound effects to show the way we Westerners make animal noises versus the Japanese way… the only difficulty was to ensure my demeanor was 'up'… even if I wasn't, or if I was tired after a night of drinking or catting around like the whore I was.

I was so confident in my ability to mimic animal calls that I asked my students to shout out - in English - the name of any animal, and I would mimic its call.

When one brilliant young man asked me to do a goldfish - and I did by changing my elastic face into a elongated maw sucked O2 through the water, while my hands were splayed out like fins beside my cheeks… come hell or high water… I knew everyone in the city would hear about this and beg me to perform for them on cue.

And I did. If you open a can of worms in Japan, you better be prepared to see it through, less the worms go bad. No one wants spoiled worms.

So… barking like a dog… acting like a tape recorder - and ancient device similar to whatever it is on your computer that makes copies of music and videos for everyone to download illegally.

I got free school lunches.

I had a maximum of four classes of 60 minutes each day to bark, self-introduce, or read a book and have kids repeat after me.

I had a minimum of one class of 60 minutes each day to bark, self-introduce, or read a book and have kids repeat after me.

As a result, I brought the Daily Yomiuri newspaper into school and read it in the teacher's lounge. I had female teachers - my betters, in my opinion, but less important than my equals according to the male-dominated Japanese society - bring me cup after cup of weak green tea, and senbei (rice crackers)… I could do the crossword puzzle. I could read sports… I could study Japanese (I wasn't as interested in that after the fourth month there). I could get free massages from students wandering in, who would come upon a teacher and gaijin from behind and start pounding them lightly along the muscles of the shoulder.

I would wander around the schools - watch students take physical education… or music… I would sit in… sometimes I would join in. I can play the clarinet and tenor sax… and am decent enough at soccer, baseball and softball to not embarrass myself…

I would eat that free school lunch with my students… try to help during the school clean-up, but always told to not do that (student's job!)… then would play with whichever group of kids would ask me first… tag… soccer, baseball, archery, tennis - and all while wearing my good clothes. I didn't always get asked, but I didn't take offense at that!

After school… I could talk with the teachers and so-called janitors - any and all of them… discussing life, the universe and everything. We would talk about sumo, baseball, soccer, women, alcohol, fishing, food, women, students, life in Canada versus life in Japan, women in Canada versus women in Japan… it was, for me, the best time, as I gained so much knowledge knowledge. Nothing beats learning something new, eh?

After that, I might get dressed and participate in a school club activity like judo. I know some judo. Enough to survive. I certainly know how to be thrown. I also did kendo. I love being beat on the head with a bamboo stick.

I would dress and go home… sometimes my girlfriend would be waiting for me… it meant I might get sex later that night. Or an argument. I live for both. Not.

I might have a kyudo (Japanese archery) class. I might eat out at Mosburger. Matthew might come over. I might have to teach a night school English class (that was something I got paid on the side for). I might go and rent a few movies and watch them. I might stare at my goldfish. I might write my It's A Wonderful Rife stories… monthly (monthly!!!) columns for various JET newsletters or English-language newspapers (I even got paid!) (I don't get paid now) (I'm a lousy boss).

I might go out shopping for food. My fridge was tiny, so I would go out every couple of days. I might cook, but more than likely I would get a ready-to-eat meal at a shop…

I might go out and take photographs on the weekend...  or go exploring on my bicycle... or travel by train to visit a friend... or take a week off and travel the country - always with a girlfriend or girl friend, as I was their protection from nosy male Japanese, and they were smart enough to know how to travel without getting lost. 

In my third year, I would go out jogging every single night until I hit 10 kilometers a night.

I might have a string of relationships with women. I might spend my evenings consoling various JETs who were glum, or just called me to talk dirty (thanks Kristine), or who just wanted to share their day with me, or wanted me to tell them about something amusing (everyday!).

I stayed up until 1AM every single night. I was up at 6:30Am every day except the weekends. Almost like nowadays...

Hell… I didn't even mention that I only went to teach four days a week, with a fifth day spent at the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE)… where I would write letters, study Japanese, write short stories, get taken out sight-seeing by the bosses, laugh, chat and have a good time with my office.

Yeah, Vinnie, Vinny, Vin, Vince or Vincent… I was so stressed out from work. No. I was only ever down when it came to my personal relationships. I suppose I wanted things to be as perfect as I imagined they should be.

But work - there was no stress. I was not a teacher before arriving in Japan. I was a newspaper journalist for the Toronto Star. I actually quit that job to go to Japan. I actually left journalism school a month early to take the Toronto Star job. How could they fail me? I had proven that I was a good journalism student by getting that job.

But arriving in Japan... well... aside from arriving without a shred of knowledge of the country (really, all I knew of Japan were from some stereotypical cartoons, a couple of episodes of Gilligan's Island and one of WKRP in Cincinnati,  it was probably better that way.

I had never eaten Japanese found before until a week before I left Toronto. Japan was never a life-goal of mine…

Honestly… I had no preconceived expectations of Japan built up inside of me… anything that happened would be all gravy. Or soy sauce. Whatever. No expectations… no work stress. All I had to do was have fun and learn as much about my new home as humanly possible. I had to make sure my students had fun while learning a language most probably didn't give a crap about.

All I had to do was look like I was having fun (and I was), and everyone around me started having fun, too.

Being friends with a guy like Matthew was a blessing in disguise. If I was down, he cheered me up. But - and I assume this - neither he nor I suffered from work stress.

Yeah, we sometimes had to go and judge an English speech contest, participate in JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme activities, or do something for our BOE that we didn't want to do (maybe), but we were looked after quite well by JET and our Board of Educations (BOEs).

I've heard that some AETs (assistant English teachers) did have tougher or lousy BOEs - Get a haircut, ya hippie! - as a BOE once told an Aussie buddy of mine (I'm paraphrasing). But I think that was the exception and not the rule.

Speaking for myself (which is a good thing to do in your own blog), I heard from JET reps and from my BOE that I was well-known and respected by those in Japan's education ministry. I wasn't a great or even a good teacher. I was just someone who made things fun for everyone.

I hope that doesn't sound too egotistical, because I'm not trying to be (this time).

Japan was fun.

Work today in 2013… yeah… I have absurd deadlines sometimes, and have to make sushi from wheat germ to create a readable story… but I get to write everyday. How cool is that? It's sorta cool, which is why I write what I want to write when I get home.

Work doesn't really stress me out. Sorry Vinnie, Vinny, Vin, Vince or Vincent. I have other stuff that eats me up, but generally, I'm pretty loosey-goosey. Hell, some of the stuff I've already dealt with today would make your head spin, but I hope you'd never know it from my writing in this blog.

Anyhow… work stress is what you make of it. I don't let work bog me down too much. Other stuff - well, even Superman metaphorically sneezed around kryptonite.

Andrew Joseph

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