Sunday, May 30, 2004

My wonderful friend, Hisae

My training is still ongoing, and I'll finish this Thursday. Then I have to wait for my paperwork to come through at immigation before I can actually start working--and that should be either late this week or early next week, I hope.

I stayed at my friend David's apartment the first 2 nights I was here, and then went to stay with one of his students. She's around my age, maybe a little younger, and was absolutely wonderful. She and her husband live in a house and it had an upstairs bedroom for me to use, including an air conditioner--the only one in the house! She's the most un-Japanese woman I've met here! I think she would much rather be living in Cuba, so she's taking Spanish lessons and going to salsa dancing classes. While most of the other Japanese dance students wouldn't recognize a Latin beat if their lives depended on it, Hisae (he-saw-eh) swings and sways to the rhythm like a native! Her heart and soul are filled with everything Cuban! I think she'd like to live there some day.

She was so wonderful I hardly know where to begin in telling you about all the things she did for me. The most important was helping me find housing. I moved into a gaijin (foreigner) house yesterday and am trying to get settled. It's hard to be in a place with so little privacy, and I'm hoping I won't be here long. I'd like to move into my own apartment, but in Tokyo it's necessary to have at least 3 or 4 months rent paid up front to rent an apartment Then there's the additional money for the real estate company, and another month's rent for "key" money for the landlord. It's essentially a "gift" to get approved to rent the apartment.

My room at the gaijin house is 6 tatami's big, or about a 10 x 10 room. I have a fairly good-sized closet, a small frig, and an AC. It also has a single futon on the floor. That's it. No other furniture. I fold my futon in thirds to make it a padded "chair" and lean up against the wall for back support.

Each day I have a 15-20 minute walk to and from the train station. At least half of the walk is up hill, so it's quite a workout--especially with the high temperatures and high humidity. By the time I get to the train station in the morning, I'm totally drenched. You could wring me out! Not the best way to start the day, I might add. I'm sweating buckets and trying to stay hydrated, but it's just about impossible. Everyone keeps telling me, "Just wait, it's not even summer yet!" Everytime I hear that I want to run, screaming, back to the Pacific Northwest! How do people live in this climate? Yesterday was a record breaker I heard, with a high of 91 and humidity around 80%. I try to leave extra early every morning (around 6:30) for my train ride to my training center. It takes about an hour from door to door. I thought it would be cooler at that hour, and less crowded on the train. Hah! No such luck!

My first morning on the rush hour train left me literally in tears. I was being crushed and bruised as throngs of men in black wedged themselves into every square inch of space. I got pushed along in the mass of bodies and held on for dear life. I don't even know how to describe how packed in we were! As I was shoved and battered, my eyes welled up as I did everything to keep from going into a complete panic attack. A nice, 50-something business man crushed next to me looked at my face and saw the tears and a look of stark terror cross my face. In the sweetest and most endearing way, he smiled and whispered, "It's OK, it's OK" as he managed to thread his arm behind my back and push against the crowd to give me a little more space. I was so grateful for his genuine act of compassion!

As we stopped at each station, the train took on even more passengers. The train employees would race over to the doors as they closed to make sure everyone was pushed completely inside. It was a nightmare beyond belief. The sides of peoples' faces were literally pressed tight against the glass doors, and you couldn't slip a dime between them. After that exprience, I decided to forego the express train and take one of the locals. That's where most of the women and children ride, leaving the express to the crazy business men.

I've managed to ride and transfer trains like a pro after only one week. Now I can get just about anywhere by train. Unfortunately, the trains are really, really expensive, so it's costing me a bloody fortune to get to and from work. After my training is completed, my employer will pay my monthly train fare, so that will help a lot. It costs about $12/day round trip.

Last Wednesday was a really rough day. I went to my training classes in the morning and then had to go to immigration in the heart of Tokyo. After waiting in line for 2-1/2 hours, I got up to the counter and the agent told me I was at the wrong office. I needed to go to Yokohama since that was where I was living. At work I had been told that everything had been centralized and was now located in Tokyo. Another big, fat hah! By that time I had to leave to go meet with my boss at 5:30pm at the learning center where I'll be working. I got to sit in on a class and spent some time with my mentor who will be monitoring my lessons for a few weeks. I had to stay until the last lesson, which made it 9:30pm by the time I got out of there. By the time I got to the house where I was staying, it was almost 10:30.

My friend Hisae had gone to a tango performance, so I guess her husband must have worried a little about what had happened to me since I wasn't home at the usual time of around 6:30. I'm still not sure about the details (things have a way of getting lost in translation), but he was there waiting for me at the train station at 10:30pm when I arrived, and handed me a bottle of hot tea that you can buy from vending machines. He doesn't speak any English, so I'm not exactly sure how he knew I would be on that train. Sure hope he wasn't there to meet every train!

Without exception, everyone I've met has been unbelieveably helpful and kind. After the late night train arrival, Hisae's husband dictated a note to her to give to me saying something like "I would like to take you out for sushi and kareoke Friday night." Every Japanese person asks me if I eat sushi, and when I say "yes," they're absolutely bowled over. They don't think Westerners can eat raw fish! Hah again! They were also stunned when I told them I eat miso soup and drink green tea! As for kareoke, I'm not giving up my day job! Hisae's husband, on the other hand, was quite good. While we sat in their very tiny neighhborood kareoke bar, some people came in and sat next to us. They were very surprised to see a foreigner there and began to ask me lots of questions. The man was a retired business man who had taken many trips to America, so his English was pretty good. When I tried to get up to leave with Hisae and her husband, the other people begged me to stay "just for 20 more minutes." They were so excited to have an American in their neighborhood!

Now that I'm in a gaijin (foreigner) house, I'm having to fend for myself for meals. Hisae saw to it that I was kept well fed. Her breakfasts were wonderful, but I kept asking her to please fix smaller meals, which she, of course, never did. Every day she went to the market and bought fresh vegetables and fruit, so I always had salads, fresh tomatoes, melon, mangos, yogurt and asparagus or some other vegetable. One day she made fresh spaghetti. It had chopped tomatoes, chili peppers (her Cuban influence, I think), fresh basil and slivers of ham. It didn't taste like any spaghetti I've ever had, but it was, nevertheless, delicious.

The day after my especially long day at work, I woke tired and frustrated at having to deal with finding my way to yet another immigation center. This time it involved several train transfers and a long walk to a place I couldn't find on any map. It was just one of those mornings, I guess, and I was feeling so tired of the beauracracy and inconvenience that I burst into tears at breakfast. Hisae jumped up from the table and grabbed a Hershey's chocolate bar to give me for comfort. It just cracked me up! I hadn't had any chocolate at all in Japan, and we had never even discussed chocolate, yet here she was using chocolate as comfort food! I still laugh every time I think about it. She seems to speak a universal language when it comes to chocolate. Her favorite expression was, "don't wowry!" I loved the way she said it, and that, too, made me laugh.

When I moved to the gaijin house, she called a taxi to drive me to it instead of letting me lug all my things on the train. She took me shopping for a sheet for my futon, and gave me a couple of gift boxes of towels and wash cloths and an individual plate, bowl and mug set. She also gave me a pair of jeans (that fit perfectly!), a few blouses, and a pair of dress slacks. Since she started salsa dancing, she's lost some weight so these clothes no longer fit her.

Every day is a whole new adventure here, and I keep wondering what the next day will bring. It's a land of so many contradictions. On the one hand, everything new is "improved" and desired. But, at the same time, the old ways of doing things (especially at work where an employee may not leave before the boss--and then only after waiting a full 10 minutes) are deeply entrenched. Even though ingenuity in electronics is famous worldwide, new ideas are looked at with a healthy serving of suspician. TV is the worst I've seen anywhere! News broadcasts are so completely boring and repetitious that you just want to weep. Newscasters read from hand-held notes and the camera work reminds me of stuff I did as a TV production student back in the 80s! I haven't seen a single Japanese-made TV program that is even remotely interesting. How can it be this bad? Hisae only had limited channels, so maybe cable channels are better. I don't know.

For anyone who has ever watched the Star Trek TV series, the Japanese remind me of the Borg, or collective. They're great at following orders and organizing details, but somewhere in the mix, they forget that we're supposed to be creative beings. I think that's why they love foreign fashion designers so much (they're never met a label they didn't love), because they create something new and different. The Japanese just lack the confidence to be daring and innovative. They're too afraid of making a mistake and being shamed.

That's also why so few of them speak English, even though they could diagram any sentence with the skill of a master grammarian. They're afraid to make a mistake and unwilling to take any chances. The government has mandated that all Japanese must learn to speak English and even offers monetary incentives to learn, yet when they study English they're far more concerned about how to use "present perfect tense" than in uttering a complete sentence.

It will be so interesting to actually teach English to Japanese students. I'm hoping that I can make it fun and useful.

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