czenzi

Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Misguided attempts at cultural awareness.

In Japan, People on April 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I tried out the koto yesterday just to see what it was like. My boss arranged it for me on a lark. I barely mentioned, “Koto sounds fun,” and next thing you know she’s pulling out her address book and making calls. Two weeks later, she’s going along to show me the place and to make introductions and to serve as translator. (Talk about employee benefits.) Neither of us knew what we were in for.

Before I explain all the craziness, I should pause for an educational note for those who aren’t aware of what a koto is. I wasn’t really either until just before I made the offhand comment to my boss. It’s a giant stringed instrument played with bone finger picks. Kind of like a zither. Or maybe it is a zither, since I don’t know the actual definition. I have absolutely no musical training, which is probably starting to show. Wikipedia, bless them, will kindly provide us with a picture:

Pretty, eh?

Anyhow, we went to my new koto sensei’s house. The woman talks fast, really fast, and does not pause for air or us. The first thing out of her mouth was “Are you allergic to cats?” This was before we even hit her front stoop. There is a preserved beehive on a table inside her front door. She does not own cats.

This simple fact became a mystery I spent the entire two hours trying to unravel.

Needless to say, I couldn’t concentrate at all. I kept missing the notes. I couldn’t remember the names of the numbers in Japanese. (My language skills are terrible, but they aren’t that bad.) The leather bands on the picks were too tight. They kept popping of my fingers. My version of “Sakura, Sakura” sounded deranged. My boss, who had planned on leaving early, waited it all out, either looking slightly amused or looking slightly pained.

In all my fluster I only caught fragments of the conversations happening between my boss and my teacher. One was about whether learning koto would make me more marriageable. (Apparently, no.) Another was about whether I would be able to find sensei’s house next week. Most of this centered on the fear that I wouldn’t be able to read the public transport time tables. (I’ve been here nearly two years. Illiteracy hasn’t stopped me yet.) Finally, there was the negotiation over where to find me a practice koto for at home. My boss was given the task of calling every single music teacher in the city. This is not hyperbole. Every one of their names was listed in full. Repeatedly. My boss had to take notes. The aim is to track down a errant koto that sensei had lent to someone, at some point, maybe. Three thoughts: It’d be hilarious to listen in on those those phone calls. Where will I put a six-foot-long koto? My poor boss.

Driving home, when we finally figured out the mystery of the cats, we laughed the entire way.

Home at work.

In Japan, People on April 11, 2011 at 9:19 am

I walked into work today to see one of my bosses (the third in command) sitting at his desk shaving with his electric razor. Japanese offices are communal, with the desks facing each other, so it’s not like he was in the privacy of his own space or had a door to close.

Here’s the clincher, I’ve been there just over a week and the first thing through my mind was nowhere near “What the . . .” It was more along the lines of  “Wouldn’t it be better if he had a mirror and some water?”

I should clarify. This is a new place of employ for me, but I’ve had this job for a while. We rotate regularly. Needless to say, I think I’m getting used to this kind of thing. I see people brushing teeth at their desks after lunch, clipping nails, changing ties, gargling. This is all perfectly normal behavior. Slightly more out of the ordinary examples include a couple times when a coworker brought his guitar and sang Beatles songs while the rest of us were working. Or, in her free time, at her desk, the woman who would segment and peel oranges to make marmalade and candied rind. The entire room smelled like a Florida grove. I wasn’t complaining.

I’m pretty sure a few American managers who would balk at all this. I have absolutely no understanding of business. And, I’m not culturally  aware enough to offer more than a fleeting glimpse of things here. Certainly nothing definitive. But, in it’s own strange way, it makes sense to me. These people are there all day. Truly. My Protestant work ethic has nothing on them. I have coworkers who bike home after 10, 11, 12 hour days. Then they work a good part of the weekend. So, the barriers break down and they treat the place as their home.

I think the physicality of the space encourages them too. There are no cubicles or room dividers. In a way, things aren’t as regimented. And, the idea of what’s mine and what’s yours is far more nebulous. If someone needs a room key that’s in an absent coworker’s desk, they open the drawer and get it. It isn’t even an issue. No matter how many times I transfer to a new office, my desk is always near the coffee pot. I cannot tell you how many mugs get forgotten on my desk while I’m gone. It’s like a ceramic wasteland every Monday morning.

This isn’t to say Japanese offices aren’t hierarchical. They are. Extremely so. The bosses are at the front, lined up in order and facing their subordinates. Desks are grouped together by common division, and similarly ranked by seniority. It’s very top down. There is always an order and everyone is aware of it, but this doesn’t necessarily make people feel out of place or cut off from their coworkers. So far, everyone seems to coexist quite well here, even with a fair idea of coworkers’ comparative salaries and grooming habits.

Oh, and if you want to know where I rank, I’m one pay grade up from the coffee pot.

People are trickling back.

In Japan, People on April 10, 2011 at 1:34 am

I’m already back at work after my vacation. Have been for a week. Others are just now coming back. We’ll see what they decide to do, if they’ve decided. I’m going to stay. I’m going make it work here in Japan. I think I am, maybe. Yes, I am.

Chickens on sticks.

In People on April 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Yakitori last night with a person I don’t know how to take. She’s okay, I think. Sometimes I think about how it’s so easy for bad blood to spill over. We live in too close a circle here. It’s all impacted. It amplifies when we get brutal. And when we get scared. And when we forget what’s right. Sometimes the blood isn’t ours, but we feel the splash. Or, the blood is ours and, God, I just want to live it all as an outlier. I just want to collect my teeth, move to the edge of the ring and make it through.

Still, the yakitori was okay, and she was okay, and we are okay, I think.