Friday, April 30, 2004
Just now on TV, is saw some actors recording a radio play set in Hiroshima after the bombing. They read their scripts, but you they displayed their emotions on their faces. Especially a woman, as she read, tears streamed down her face, and she had to wipe away snot from her nose. Amazing. Our facial expressions are transmitted through our voices. That's why we can hear someone smile on the other end of the phone.
Thursday, April 29, 2004
Yesterday I gave a presentation that I was not properly prepared for, in Japanese. Thankfully, it was only a dry run in front of a few people in our group. In another week, I present in front of the entire sales group. I just have to knock their socks off then. But, damn was I a deer in headlights.
I think I got a genuine smile out of the Yoshinoya waitress. (Yoshinoya is one of Japan's fast food chains. A log bar table wraps around a center aisle, so that a single waiter or waitress can serve and be a cashier for about 18 people.) I was paying for my dinner with a 500-yen piece. In Japan, when a cashier receives money, he does it with upturned hands. So, I placed it in her hand, where it slipped "Plock!" into my half-finished cup of green tea.
"Ah." she breathed with a surprise.
In Japan, the customer is king, so when a storekeeper makes a mistake, he apologizes profusely. My one previous incident of trying to joke with some storekeepers ended up embarassing them. They thought I was angry, and bowed multiple times as they apologized. Oops.
"Hold on." I said. I took my chopsticks, turned them upside-down, and picked up the coin from the bottom of my cup. By this time she had already gotten out my change.
"Here you go." I said. "It's a bit wet, though." I thought a bit and placed it into a napkin, rather than dropping it in her hand from my chopsticks.
I think I got a genuine laugh of her then. Or did she let out that laugh only because she thought it the proper thing to do?
As I was walking out, I stood at the doorway and took another look back. She was tending to another customer.
Sunday, April 25, 2004
Saturday, I was standing on a street corner trying to figure out how to customize my cell phone's email address, when a garbage truck drove up. A man got out and told me he was sorry to trouble me, but they had to back the truck up the driveway. Would I please move more to the side?
Thank you so much, he said.
Not at all, I assured him.
In America, when trucks back up, there's a beep, beep, beep. As the one man was spotting and the guy inside the truck threw the truck in reverse, I heard "Please be careful. This truck is backing up." and then a melody of a few tones, and then "Please be careful. This truck is backing up." and then the melody. I smiled.
Even the garbage trucks are polite.
I got back from dinner with my good friend D-san, someone I met when I did studied abroad in Kyoto two years ago. He told me how unhealthy he's been. How he hasn't been exercising much or eating many vegetables. "If you can get off every day on time at six, you'd do really good to cook a real meal for yourself. With vegetables. I just don't have the time." And he's only been working for a year. We come into this world with only one body. We must be wary of the toll that the grind of work can exact upon it.
As I walked out of Roppongi station, a lean black man asked me in an accent I couldn't place "Hey mahn, you want to go to a topless bar?"
"No, thanks." I said.
"Oh, you don't? Okay."
As I started walking away, he asked "Hey, where you from?"
"Where do you think I'm from?"
"I'm from America."
"But your parents are Japanese?" he asked.
"No, they're Chinese, actually, but I was born and raised in America."
"Oh. My son. He was born in America. He's half Japanese, but he was born in America."
"Your wife's Japanese."
"Yes. I'm sending him to school now. He is two years old. An international school. Because I want him to be able to speak English, you know?"
"Oh, yes, I see. How long have you lived in Japan?"
"Not so long... Four years. Before that, I was in Korea."
"How long were you in Korea?"
"I was there... I was doing business, you see... three years. That's where I met my wife."
"So your wife is Japanese, but you met in Korea?"
"Yes. And then we moved to America, where my son was born, and we traveled all over the world, to get women for my topless bar."
"Really? That's impressive."
"Yes. It's over there on the fifth floor."
I looked at the signs. "Diane?" I asked.
"Yes. Over there on the fifth floor.
"Okay man, I see you." He held out his hand.
I shook it. "Yes, it was nice talking to you."
If you walk in Roppongi or Shinjuku, you will see people who are obviously pimps for prostitutes or people set out to invite you to their strip bar or topless bar. Up until today I had never given thought to them. I had looked down on them, even. But here, today, I met a man who was trying to get people to go to his topless bar. And, he was a family man. Married, with a kid, who he worried about, who he wanted to send to a good school. He has a wife who probably had to fight against social pressures when she chose to marry him. Blessed be the people of the world. I will never look upon the streetside beckoners in quite the same way.
Saturday, April 24, 2004
Faces on the train. Reading, staring at the ads inside the train, staring at the floor, staring out the window. I can look at the person sitting across from me and wonder what is going on in his life. Where is he going to? Will he have a family to welcome him when he goes home? Will he feel lonely if he does not? What about that beautiful young woman? Is she dressed for someone? As riders on the train, people are most human. In front of strangers, we relax and let down our masks.
Everyone on the train is traveling. They're going somewhere to accomplish individual goals. So it is with the people sitting in front of me. Beside me. Standing around me. In this car. In the cars connected to this car. In this entire train. In other trains. Along this line. Along this network of rails. Taking people from place to place, with the slow clickety-clack of wheels on rail joints. Amid the lights of a Tokyo night.
Friday, April 23, 2004
I got my CitiBank check card in the mail today. It came in an envelope that said "CitiBank Private and Confidential. The card that gives you banking freedom around the world." This was both in English and in Japanese. It is a testament to the honesty of Japanese people that my bank card came in an envelope that practically announced that there was a bank card inside. As I looked for a toll-free number to call to activated it, I found there was none. It was ready to use out of the envelope. Amazing.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
I cut my hair by myself Tuesday. Wednesday at work, my cubicle mate asked me "So you got your hair cut?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Where did you get it cut?"
"I don't know. Somewhere cheap, right?"
"Y-san guessed it right away." I said, referring to one of my bosses.
"Did you cut it yourself?"
"It's funny how everyone can tell."
"You have 'steps' in the back of your head."
"Haha." I laughed. "It's that obvious I cut it myself, huh?"
"I'm telling you because I'm your friend, you know."
Today, I went to dinner with two employees who transferred to Japan from our San Francisco bay area location, Sam and Nitin. The both arrived at about the same time in October and November last year. Their humor was loud, they talked fast, the conversation was fast-paced back and forth, and they laughed with their entire bodies. It took awhile for me to get used to. I am surprised that in just one and a half weeks, I have become so acclimated to Japan that I need time to adapt back to an American context. It was a Korean-american and an Indian-american, too. Asian-americans. But that didn't make their conversation style any _less_ american. I'll elaborate more on Japanese v. American conversation styles later.
In any case, they were fascinating people. They had made friends with one of the waiters at a Chinese restaurant, a Chinese-burmese who spoke English and painted pictures that were occaisionally shown at exhibitions around Tokyo. That's where we ate dinner. I'll have to leave why I found them fascinating for another journal entry, though, because I have to tell this story. Keep in mind that Sam is actually Nitin's boss.
As we left the restaurant, Sam pushed on the door and stopped hard. As he pulled to open the door, I pointed to the Japanese character on it.
"It says pull." I said.
Nitin laughed out loud. "Hey, Sam how are those Japanese lessons of yours coming along?"
Sunday, April 18, 2004
This weekend, I went house-hunting.
According to the relocation assistant that my company set me up with:
Saika-san: "I didn't know you spoke Japanese. The real-estate agents I deal with deal mainly with foreigners. You, on the other hand, can go to local Japanese real-estate agents because you speak Japanese, and probably get a better deal. Just go to one of the real-estate agencies just outside of a train station."
With that, I found myself on my own.
A fellow sales-team member, Maejima-san sent me some links when I told him that I was looking for a place. They were three real-estate sales engines. I first looked at them, saw all the drop-down menus and check-boxes, and I almost immediately closed the browser window because I didn't feel like dealing with it.
Saturday morning, I pulled up one of the search engines again. Input the rail line you want to be next to, select what utilities you want to have, what kind of a floor plan, and it spits back some prices and locations. For twenty square meters, prices were about 700 to 800 USD per month. I spent some time looking through listings and looking at different places, and then I'd had enough. When I lived in the bay area, I'd looked for housing through craigslist.com, and I didn't have fond memories of wading through phone numbers and contact info trying to get to people. Then setting times and running around to different places to see the rooms.
So, I looked on the subway map and decided to go to Ebisu. It sits on the Hibiya subway line that runs to work, and the Yamanote line that encircles central Tokyo.
The guy who showed me around, Kanemori-san, was very helpful. He spoke no English, but was very patient with my Japanese. I learned that real-estate agencies are not limited to the immediate surrounding area. The company I went to was handling accounts all over Tokyo. To be a good real-estate agent in Tokyo, you have to ask the customer the right questions to figure out what he wants, and having a working knowledge of how to match the customers's answers up with what's available. I was instantly glad that I had gone to talk to a person. They're much easier to work with than computer search engines.
My agent, Kanemori-san, was an energetic man of 28 who walked with a straight back that rocked slightly from side to side, and who laughed easily. He was able to anticipate what I wanted before I knew that I wanted it. He asked me some questions, showed me some floor plans that I instantly liked, and took me to see a place that was well thought out, well constructed, and in a good location. It was 20-square meters, and US$820 a month.
We were going to see another place that was quite similar, except that it had a sink separate from the bathroom, when I asked him at the station if there weren't maybe something bigger, but at the same price. He was going to take me back to the office to look through some more files, when he asked me
"You said that you didn't mind if the place were old, right?"
"If it doesn't smell."
"Even if it's rather old?"
"Not a problem."
We went back to Ebisu, and he took me to a place that was in a Japanese style for US$890, but about 20 years old. It wasn't as modern. It didn't have digital hot water temperature controls. It didn't have a video display of someone who was knocking at the front entrance so you could decide whether to buzz him in, among other things. I loved it. Because this place was 30sq meters. 20 sq. meters may not sound that bad, but keep in mind that this includes the space where the kitchen, bathroom, closet, stove, washing machine, etc. go, and you're left with about 6 sq meters of living room. 30sq meters meant that I had over twice as much livable space!
We went back, and I applied to rent it.
Friday, April 16, 2004
Today, I had five hours of meetings, in the course of which I met a lot of people who I can't remember. The people I met are sales people and marketers from our distributors. It was a monthly meeting, during which they share the progress of sales prospects and forecast new ones.
It was a stimulating experience, though I confess that I had very little idea of what they were saying. Partly because of my level of Japanese, and partly because they were using a lot of unfamiliar product names.
I now have a centimeter-thick stack of name cards. Not bad for my first-week rolodex, eh? The trouble is, when you meet that many people, it's hard to remember them all.
"Have I given you my name card yet?" I would ask.
"Yes, I've received one, thank you."
Oops. I thought. "Oh, what was your name again?"
This happened two or three times, not but a few minutes after I'd exchanged name cards with them.
I learned something very interesting today. My company and the distributor want to find out who in a particular customer company makes purchasing decisions. Talks with upper-level management are going well, but these people are too high. They don't make the purchasing decisions. My manager N-san said "Well, we'll have another meeting soon, and there will be an American present. He'll be very direct, and the other side might talk more freely and let us know who the decision guy is."
Here's what that implies: with an American present, the Japanese will adapt not only by speaking English, but also by switching communication styles. My manager Y-san said that if there were only Japanese at the meeting, there wouldn't be such a direct exchange of information. Our side might ask, but the other side wouldn't tell.
Now, I look Asian. If I dress like Japanese people do, nobody can tell by looking at me that I'm not Japanese. Yet, I'm also American. So, I can do business two ways: as an American, with Western communication styles, or as an Asian, with Japanese communication styles. As my Japanese language skills get better, I'll be able to choose the best of both worlds. Building amity as an Asian, or cutting straight to the chase as an American. That kicks ass!
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
I just saw the strangest thing.
An ambulance drove up behind a group of cars stopped at a red light. The siren was on. You couldn't really have said that the siren was blaring, because it was alternating pleasantly between a higher and a lower tone. The people inside the ambulance turned off the siren, and one of them picked up the mike, and asked over the loudspeaker if the cars would please make way for them. The cars actually moved over sufficiently for there to be a path, and the ambulance responded "thank you."
The ambulance showed consideration for the cars by turning the siren off, and the cars showed consideration by making way for it. So much restraint! So much consideration!
Monday, April 12, 2004
This is my first day of work. I'm to report to the office in an hour. I'm excited.
I trekked from Narita airport to my apartment here with two rolling suitcases and a hiking backpack. at the airport, a man asked me:
"How long are you staying?"
"A year." I said.
"Oh, well then that's not too bad."
I smiled, and did not tell him that I had another five hundred pounds in a separate shipment.
I met someone on the train that was braver than I. You see, I'm coming to Japan having placed into fourth-year Japanese at my university. Michelle, whom I met on the train, came to Japan not knowing any Japanese at all. What drove her to do this, I do not know... some pressing yearning for adventure? She later helped with looking for my subway connection and with my baggage. She also told me that she'd done the same thing in France, going there and working for a year without knowing any French. Damn. Trial by fire. I can't imagine how hard that would be in Japan. People here speak scant English.
The situation was explained to me by a businessman friend I met on my previous trip to Japan two years ago. He ran a travel agency that specialized in South American tours. Consequently, he spoke fluent Spanish. He explained that people take four years of English in high school, and then two years in college, yet can't speak very well because the teachers often can't speak English. He added, regretfully, "This is very, very problem."
This is my first day of work since I left a temp job I had doing translation work a full six months ago. In my free time, I have come to look upon former boss with compassion rather than animosity, convalesced from a breakup with a girlfriend of two years, fraternized with my friends who chose to stay in the bay area after graduation, and read voluminously to garner wisdom from other people's lives. Through all this, I have attained a good humor that I scarce have known. My hope is, that I will be able to keep it, and that working as a salesman in Japan will offer me new insights into human nature, and allow me to make lots of money for the company that has taken the risk of hiring me, a non-standard employee. It is filled with this great optimism that I head out the door this morning.