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Saturday, November 30, 2013

That Long Distance Feeling

I'm not sure why, but animals and kids have always kind of gravitated towards me… like they just know I'm either fun or harmless or perhaps both.

I like to think I am.

It's why I think I did OK (okay) as a soccer coach or music teacher before trying my hand as an assistant English teacher (AET) on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme working with a JTE (Japanese teacher of English). In fact, along with running out of initials to write, I know I was more than good at being a friendly face, with some knowledge to impart to the youth.

When, in 1990, I arrived at my new home in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan, after a brief tour of my three-bedroom apartment by my bosses from the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education), they left me alone to unpack, sleep or go out and explore this brave, new world of Japan. Being a coward, everything scared the crap out of me. So I stood there in the middle of my clean and fully-furnished home and dreamed of doing all of it and more.

But… before a minute had passed within my idealistic reverie, the telephone rang.

Who the hell could be calling me? Matthew? Ashley? Kristine? Some other JET I had met during my three-day orientation in Tokyo?

Oh god… what if it's someone who doesn't speak English… like a Japanese person?!

Why would a Japanese person want to call me? I don't speak Japanese!

Actually I did. I knew the simple greetings of 'konichiwa (hello)', 'sayonara (good-bye)', 'watashi-no namae-wa Andrew-desu (my name is Andrew)', and before the bosses left my huge apartment, they had taught me how to answer a phone… and then laughed at the absurdity of that teaching, because what would I do after that?

"Moshi-moshi (a greeting used ONLY on the phone)," I said anxiously to the telephone… repeating myself two or three more times before I actually picked up the still-ringing contraption.

"Hello?" I said in English. Fugged that one up, didn't I?

"Ha-ro…" said the voice slowly on the other end.

"Konichi-wa," I answered again.

And now… because I have confirmed that I am indeed fluent in Japanese, the person on the other end began a long speech, that ended in the word 'ka', which because it was done in a raised intonation, I assumed I was asked a question.

Apologizing to the Japanese caller, I stated: "I don't speak Japanese."

I must have said the right thing, because there was an audible sigh on the other end…

… and then another long speech was made for my benefit - again ending in 'ka'.

Ka? Ka? Was I besieged by crows making a phone caw?

And… was I talking to a Japanese woman? An old Japanese woman? Was she single?

This was just my fourth day in Japan, and being so freaking unfamiliar with the Japanese and the Japanese language, I was not able to discern just what type of a speaker I was being bombarded by.

The voice wasn't deep, so… female… definitely female… if I heard English, I would have been flirting with them already… but no… perhaps this was some old Japanese woman who:

1) hated foreigners because her husband had been killed by one in the war;
2) was confused and thought she was calling her idiot son-in-law, who was so stupid, it would not surprise her to learn he couldn't understand Japanese;
3) was dialing a wrong number;
4) was dialing the correct number and wanted to talk to the previous occupant of my apartment and phone number;
5) was actually wanting to talk with me.

Being in a strange land, and not knowing the rules of etiquette of the country except for the global rules of what I was brought up with back in Canada by my parents, I continued to hold onto the telephone and anxiously reply that I was sorry, but I did not understand Japanese and can't speak Japanese.

We Canadians are apparently noted for our politeness. I can't see it, but I always try to prove the stereotype correct.

"Watashi-no namae-wa Andrew-desu," I said after the fourth outburst from my persistent old woman caller. I did it just in case they didn't know that I was the world-famous foreigner who had just arrived in Japan to teach the world how to speak English.

By the way... I'm not sure why, but I had already picked up a Japanese accent, and was able to hide my neutral Canadian twang, even though I only knew less than 30 Japanese words. Hitting the accent - that's a talent, and not me mocking anyone.

Anyhow... after stating my name over the phone... that elicited a long pause, and then a simple "goo-bye", before she hung up.

Now… if that was to be my welcome to Ohtawara-shi, it was certainly strange… but definitely not threatening.

Strange I can handle.

I was polite, they were polite… and together we just had a five minute-long telephone call where I am sure neither of us understood the other.

I was determined that would never happen again!

A few weeks later, after I was sure that being misunderstood and not understanding would continue for my entire stay in Japan, I remarked to a JTE that every night I get a strange phone call from an old woman who speaks Japanese to me, but bookends it with 'Hello' and 'Goodbye' in English.

"It's getting annoying," I remarked.

It was… phone calls were very important to the foreigner living in Japan back in 1990… because this was pre-Internet and definitely pre-everybody-has-a-cellphone-and-a-computer… and if it wasn't for chance meetings, snail mail and the telephone, a foreigner might die of excessive masturbation. Not me though…

As such… even if Ashley and I might be "in flagrant delicto", we would stop so I could answer the phone. Once it was her brother calling her... at my house on my phone... but you see... phone calls were so important that she told her brother to call her at my place... and I wasn't even aware that anyone knew she and I were dating.

(Apparently, no one did - from Ashley - as apparently she told everyone we were just friends. You just had to look at me... the way I would hungrily eye a woman holding a cheeseburger... to know that it was going to be extremely rare for me to JUST have a female friend I wasn't screwing.)

But... stopping in the act... realizing the phone call THIS time was the old woman and then being forced to be bored silly for five minutes while I went "Uh-huh" or "Hai (yes)" without listening to a word that was said, just like every other time it happened, it often took me out of the mood for a few seconds after my caller would end the call.

So… I told the OBOE bosses… but what the hell could anyone do, they asked? Trace the phone number, I suggested, because I had watched a lot of police television dramas… they smiled as they sucked air through their collective teeth and said "tabun", which translates into 'maybe'.

Hey… at least they didn't say 'no', right?

They did say no. If a Japanese person says 'maybe' to you while sucking air through their teeth, they are politely saying they don't want to say 'no', but 'no' is the answer.

I didn't learn that one for maybe two years.

Meanwhile… I continued to get those harassing phone calls…

About one year later, I arrived back at my favorite school, Nozaki Chu Gakko (Nozaki Junior High School), where the staff and kids went out of their way to make me feel not only welcome, but special.

The head English teacher came up to me in the teacher's room and handed me a nice cup of hot o-cha (green tea) greeted me warmly in English - and I reciprocated in Japanese, standing to smile and bow deeply as I did so. I could see a lumpy shadow hiding behind her.

"An-do-ryu-sensei," she began in a heavy Japanese accent, "this is Kazuo. He is level 2 student (Grade 8 - 13 years-old)."

"Yes, I know Kazuo quite well," I smiled and bowed towards the boy peeking out nervously from behind his teacher. That was true, by the way… I did know of Kazuo. I knew he enjoyed peeking at me and smiling every chance he got. But he never said too much. Just 'konichi-wa'.

"He has told me that he is the person who has been calling you every night."

You could have knocked me over with a can of hot coin-machine coffee. Apparently he had been bragging to other boys that he and I were best buddies. How? Phone calls. Word then got around.

But… a boy? That's who was calling me? I thought it was an old woman?!!?

Well… I suppose it makes sense.

Kazuo was a special student. A special needs, mentally-challenged boy who was in a regular school because his parents did not want or could not accept the stigma of having a child in a proper special needs school or class like they have at the 10-kilometer away Wakakusa Chu Gakko (Wakakusa Junior High School) .

To go to Wakakusa... well, it would have been too far away for him to travel every day, but surely one could assume they would have a school bus for the special needs students. Tabun. But, all of that is moot.

Behind those mischievous, sparkling eyes and broad smile, he had a slight speech impediment that made him sound like he had a mouthful of mashed potatoes that made even his Japanese-language a little tough to understand unless you made an effort.

But those eyes… I always saw them light up as his faced formed a genuine smile whenever he saw me… and it being infectious, and it being me, I would always grin back. But, when he wasn't looking at me and staring at a text book, he appeared emotionless and dull.


"Uh, he doesn't call every night," I lied.

"It's okay..." I continued.

Thankfully this JTE was one of the most gentle souls on the planet. She was smiling and caring and had her hand gently on Kazuo's shoulders now, as she explained that he has promised to not call me ever again.


"No, no, no," I said. "It's okay… I didn't know it was my friend Kazuo on the phone… it's okay if we talk… maybe not every night… but it's okay."

After agreeing that he could call me once a month (I begged for more for his sake), Kazuo scampered back to his class while the JTE and I chatted some more…

"He really likes you," she told me.

"He got your phone number from the previous AET, and at first he said he was confused when you, a man, spoke on the phone and not his female AET teacher and friend."

Says me: "I'm sure she would have said good-bye to him."

"She did… she did… but I don't think he realized that good-bye meant good-bye forever."

I wasn't going to let her see me cry. But I didn't even realize my face was wet and spilling tears until one hit my hand.

If you are a big, burly foreign man in Japan, or just me, and a Japanese woman sees you tear up because you are feeling emotional about the plight of a student… well, let's just say I may have slightly altered her perception of men (maybe just foreign men) a bit more to the positive side.

As for Kazuo… I later sought him out and told him - in Japanese, thanks to another JTE - (Yukiko from THIS article) that he could call me up every Sunday night at 8PM… making his face light up again as he smiled and bowed and smiled some more…calling me tomodachi (friend) as he bounded away.

But… after calling me that next Sunday night, he didn't call the next week or the one after that… he kept to his one-a-month schedule imposed on him by his English teacher.

So… fearing my crappy Japanese didn't get across, I asked Yukiko to translate for me when next I saw him.

He said he understood me that first time I had told him, BUT… and then he leaned in and whispered in Yukiko's right ear.

He bowed and ran off, smiling.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"Oh… you don't want to know," she grinned knowing it would make me want to know even more.

"Yes, I do. What did he say?"

"He says that he doesn't want to talk to you so much because he doesn't think you are smart enough to understand Japanese."

Well… the bastard had me there. And... Yukiko was loving the veiled insult.

"He says you need to study your Japanese, and he will study his English more."

So I did. And so did he.

Now… I wish I could tell you that Kazuo went on to become a great speaker of English, but he didn't. He had improved a lot by the time he had graduated Nozaki junior high school… but not to the point where he was legitimately going to pass English. But at least he had tried.

Instead of going on to one of the various educational levels of high school available in Japan, Kazuo went to work at his parent's restaurant located nearby to the school in the west end of Ohtawara—where I was told the meals were always free for me.

I rarely went there (that would be taking advantage of honest folk) (that and the fact it was 10 kilometers away)… but I still did, discretely leaving behind money when I finished. Kazuo was there, where he washed dishes and occasionally delivered food to the tables…

But, when he saw me, he would smile, bow and add another smile atop the first one, and we would speak to each other and understand each other… he in English and me in Japanese.

His mother would come out to yell at him, but seeing me, she would stifle herself and say "Daijobu (it's okay)", and turn back into the kitchen.

He wrote to me a few times after I went back to Toronto - attaching photographs of Japanese wrestlers (think WWE-style wrestling! - that photo at the very top is one Kazuo sent me. It's Tarzan Goto in about 1994 at a famous and local Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) barbed-wire match) that he himself had taken. I would write back - at first… but after my mother died, and other girlfriend relationships died, I fell out of love with Japan for a while… and because the hurt was too great, I callously forgot about Kazuo.

Here's the back of the photograph where Kazuo has written a brief description  - most of it in English - hoping I would know what it was all about. I didn't back in 1994, because his letters were all in Japanese. But now... thanks to the Internet, I was able to decode the particulars a couple of hours before posting this.

Ever since I started up this blog four years ago, I often wonder what the now 35- or 36-year-old Kazuo is doing. Are his parents still alive and running the restaurant? What if they are dead? They seemed old back then... certainly looking older than I am now in 2013. Is he able to look after himself?

If Japan could often be difficult for a foreigner, it could also be very difficult for a person with special needs.

I wonder… and realize now that I miss listening to him speak to me on the telephone.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Inwardly, I'll celebrate Kazuo today as I do an early celebration of my son's 8th birthday at a Toronto Marlies hockey game. I'm even taking my son.

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