Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Learning to bow

After living here a while your body language changes. Manoeuvring your way around small spaces and unconsciously observing the way those around you interact with movement is bound to have some effect. I remember my Japanese teacher in high school telling me that she used to find herself bowing while talking on the phone in Japan. I was 16 and found that to be terribly endearing. I had no idea what I was in for.

I feel strange lifting my arm to wave to Japanese people I don't know well from a distance and prefer a quick nod of the head. When I see people in the hallways instead of keeping my head up and smiling I duck it in a mini bow of acknowledgment and am always torn when a foreigner holds a door open for me as to whether I should say thank you and make eye contact or just bow my head in thanks. On a slightly unrelated note, I have learned not to become incensed when the beau beckons for me with his fingers pointing down instead of up, a gesture that would normally make me feel like a dog but in Japan fingers point down, much like the directional swirl of the toilet bowl water in different hemispheres.

After the years I've spent here, my body language slowly evolving, I finally learned how to bow this week. I'd love to tell you that the Kaisha sent me to a bowing class as punishment for being a gaijin on a Monday but it's actually part of my training to become a kimono dressin' master. My teacher sat me down for one of our lecture lessons this past week and taught me about the delicate intricacies of manner from a Japanese perspective. She even whipped out a tray at one point to demonstrate how to carry something but luckily it didn't go as far as having me practice it up and down the room (possibly equivalent to walking with a pile of books on your head in a Western etiquette class?). She then taught me how to bow both standing up and sitting down, with three degrees of politeness for each. Granted, the average Japanese person learns this by imitation, but I would hazard a guess that most of them do not learn it like this unless they go to finishing school, take lessons in a traditional art, or are taught it in a work seminar. Hand placement, where to focus your line of vision, how far forward to go, bending from the waist with a straight back, not bending your head too far forward so as not to allow a peek down the back of your kimono collar, the speed at which you move and the length of the pause once you are down - all things to think about in executing a proper and graceful bow. I will say though, I felt a lot smoother after having it spoon fed to me. Getting up and down from seiza was also something we practiced, and my teacher related to me the words of an old crooner whose name I cannot recall, which were that learning to get into and out of seiza properly takes ten years to master. Now if that's not some good old Japanese methodology of learning I don't know what is! I felt like the fucking karate kid but with a fancier obi.

The most interesting part of my teacher's lecture however, was the story she told me of herself as a young OL. Back in the day (over twenty years ago) when she joined a company as a young bright-eyed OL, the company sent her and the other newbies to an OL boot camp. Apparently they had to get up early and exercise every day for the week of this camp and were drilled on proper manners, including proper use of keigo and how to answer the telephone. The kicker however, was that they were also taught how to do things like fold and put away futon properly. Instead of simply being trained to be good office ladies, their company was practically grooming them for their futures as housewives. I suppose we should be happy that things have changed although looking around, it seems things are not changing quite as quickly as they'd have us believe. Companies still have training sessions for newbies and while perhaps not as extreme as folding futon, there is still an eerie sense of the fifties that I get from it all. What is interesting to me, is the fact that upon entering a company here, both men and women are (re-) taught keigo and basic business practices such as writing emails and letters, and phone manners. Am I out of touch and this kind of thing happens elsewhere? Or do university graduates either sink or swim in the manner department depending on the experience they've had before starting their careers? I suppose one thing that comes out of manner training here is a sense of uniformity across the board, but to me this makes the interactions between people a bit stiff and rehearsed. And here we go into the honne and tatemae thing again. I'm going to quit here and be thankful I am learning how to bow by choice, and not through some boot camp designed to primp me into marriage material.

Postcard from the Kaisha 6

I have been freed from my gaijin exile, hard to believe I know, but it's true. At least for this week. Despite some perfectly good and decent cubes around me, I have been the only quarter in my quad since I started at the Kaisha. Except for that crazy week when it rained 10,000 yen notes and a secretary had the misfortune of being seated in my quad. They quickly remedied that SNAFU however, and I promptly found myself alone again in my quad.

Imagine my curiosity then, when towards the end of last week individual items like a computer monitor, a clipboard and a pen holder containing pencils adorned with pink furry ends began to appear on the desk across from me. I tried to deny it, unbelieving that the Kaisha would actually seat someone with me on more than a temporary basis. The move went forward in full force though, and I now share my quad with two secretaries. One of them I "kind of" know, as in she acknowledges me when necessary, and she actually came over to announce her arrival and we did the whole "please think of me fondly and let's be good to each other in the future" thing (nicely summed up in two words: yoroshiku onegaishimasu). The other one is fairly new and I only got a Good Morning from her, no So We're Sitting Together Now chit chat. In fact, I had to wait until the more seasoned one physically took her around to everyone for introductions to be introduced. But who am I to complain, this is the Kaisha.

As Seasoned was moving her stuff and getting settled, some of her secretary sisters came by to scope out her new digs or twitter and giggle as they did a walk-by. Perhaps this is normal behaviour here. If I were to include it in my conspiracy theory, I would tell you that they are giggling and casting sneaky glances around my quad because Seasoned has drawn the equivalent of the short straw in getting stuck in a quad with me. But I'm not telling you that. Am I?

We shall see how it all pans out, and whether these two ladies last for more than a week sharing my fair quad. One thing I am becoming unblissfully aware of however, is that I have to reel in my at-work equivalent of Secret Single Behaviour. Alone in my quad I was still wary of people walking around the office but I could still make a certain amount of noise, eat raw carrots and cubes of chocolate, and shake my caramel macchiato with wild abandon so that the espresso and milk become one. I even, wait for it, have blown my noise on occasion when I can't be bothered going into the bathroom, turning on the Sound Princess and having a good old honk. Now I am under the close scrutiny of two secretaries who type quietly, speak in hushed tones and hang up their phones slowly so as not to allow the receiver to make a sound upon hitting the home base. Am I about to enter secretary boot camp? We shall soon see...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pointing fingers

I got an email last week from the administrators of the building where the fair Kaisha is located telling me that someone in the building has contracted the swine flu. It then went on to disclose the name of the foreign company where said dirty and infected person was visiting from overseas. Nice. I love how in times of panic people point fingers. My first thought when reading the email was dirty foreigner. What do you think the Japanese people reading it thought?

A friend recently related a story to me about his Japanese partner, who wanted to cancel their yearly summer trip back to the States with their children, fearing the wrath of their neighbours. Apparently one nosy ossan had no qualms in voicing his displeasure at the family's impending trip, thinking they would surely contract the flu outside of Japan's safe border and bring it back, infecting the whole apartment block. The old guy probably has a better chance of running his bicyle into a car. These be strange times and I am almost surprised the government doesn't quarantine all foreigners before letting them into Japan.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Part of your world

Just call me the little fucking mermaid. Last week I had a short glimpse of what life might be like if I was one of the popular girls at the Kaisha and had a lunch date lined up every day of the week. But just as Ariel got her mertail back after a short jaunt on land, I find myself confined once again to my cubicle ghetto.

My secretary, ever helpful and outgoing lady that she is, neglected to tell me she wouldn't be in the office for a couple days and so of course there was a fuck-up that needed fixing during that time. I enlisted the help of my colleague's secretary who has got to be the holy grail of secretaries, and made my experience so pleasant that by the end of it I wanted to trade mine in. That sounded a little horrible even for me didn't it? Honestly though, I am still trying to pinpoint whether it is a gaijin thing, a me thing or a severe lack of social skills that prevents her from acting courteously towards me. All I'm asking for is some eye contact time when I pass her in the hall, or if that is too much, a 5 degree tilt of the head. Really now.

I decided to take Holy Grail out to lunch to thank her for being so fantastic and unlike all the other biatches I gots to deal with. I like to think I am over the whole English-so-mumbo-jumbo-it's-cute thing, where you compete with your gaijin friends for who can receive the funniest/cutest email from a Japanese person, the level of cuteness being defined by how mixed up/unexpected the English is. Apparently I'm not however, so when Holy Grail replied by email, "Thank you for your invitation, that's what I thought all along, but I can not create opportunity," I knew we would be Friends for Life. Which is how we found ourselves eating lunch at a macrobiotic cafe, exclaiming far too loudly when discovering we live near each other and generally giggling at nothing like a couple of OL bitches (minus the horrid nurse slippers).

Holy Grail gushed over how happy she was to have the chance to finally have lunch together and I beamed like an idiot and just kept repeating that I was super happy about the whole thing. Actually I think Holy Grail is probably around 10 years older than me (35 (or 65 in secretary years)) and not as inane as some of the barely-legal ninnies just out of university, so we had a nice conversation and I was pleased to discover that she is a genuinely nice person. So nice in fact that due to her secretary age, I figured she probably holds sway with a lot of the secretaries and definitely has a finger on the gossip pulse at the Kaisha (try as I might I can't find it). Which is why when she asked me how I found the Kaisha, I gave the usual party line but also threw in that I am pretty darn lonely in my cubicle ghetto, compounded by the fact that no one talks to me (can you hear the violins yet?). I expected that comment to make the rounds by the end of the day and maybe, just maybe, some kind soul would take pity on me and end the Ostracization. Holy Grail mentioned that she had invited another secretary along who had begged off, claiming she can't speak English. I don't know why I bother mentioning to you that we've had exchanges in Japanese over the photo copier, because clearly I think I'm speaking Japanese but it must be coming out in English. Next time I'm going to just speak Hebrew. According to her, a lot of people simply don't have enough confidence in their English to befriend me so who knows, maybe my neurotic conspiracy theories are moot...either way I'm still part of the out-crowd around here. Last week did show me however, that change is possible and at this rate I will probably build up a small network of people who will acknowledge my existence by right around the time I quit, at which point people I don't even know will start coming out of the woodwork claiming how much they'll miss my white ass around here. Just you wait.

Monday, August 10, 2009

August Storms

I don't know what it's been like in other parts of these fair islands but the weather in Tokyo has been a little apocalyptic as of late. A long earthquake last night and flash rains this past week and I have to remind myself we are in the middle of a hot summer.

Something the beau said last night has really stayed with me ever since I woke up this morning. This past week marks both dates of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so he had been watching something on TV about Nagasaki while I was trying to sleep off a headache. He came into the bedroom and seemed to really want to explain the Japanese consciousness of the bombings and a collective feeling in August in Japan that relates to obon, the anniversaries of the bombings and the koshien high school baseball series. I was already half unconscious but he left me by saying that when there is a lot of rain and stormy weather in August, Japanese people believe it is the tears of those who died in the bombings.

That is all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beach Party 2

I'm quite liking this month's poster where they compare walking along the edge of the platform to the shoreline at the beach. Cute. The guy is even wearing those fashion mistake crocs! I'm loving how the Creepy Couple are looking all stern and narc-y from both sides of the pillar. My only question is, what are those little balls flying around? Magnified particles of sand? Run away polka dots?! Happy August!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Postcard from the Floating Kaisha

If this was the opening of a movie, there would be a close up of me sipping champagne on what looked like a yacht with the sun setting behind me. The camera would then pan out to include one other token gaijin, three barely-legal Secretaries and five Top Professionals. Yes, I would have preferred just the close up shot too. What would occasion such a situation you may ask. A gokon perhaps or maybe the opening scene of a porno? Nope, just another evening on the old yacht with a couple bottles of Veuve Cliq and an hour-long fireworks display in Yokohama. I've now been spoiled and will always look down my nose at watching hanabi from the shore now that I've seen it from right in front of the launching barge with Yokohama twinkling behind it. But let's back up a minute shall we?

One of the TPs whom I have known for quite some time invited me to a small and intimate gathering on his boat where we would be watching the Yokohama fireworks from. He implored me to invite another foreign colleague to, you know, give the party an international vibe. He also said that he would be inviting some other TPs and I quote, "young Secretaries." Keep in mind this is also the man who told me that as long as a man is was younger than my father he would be a suitable partner. Allrighty then. The Yacht TP offered to drive me and the Secretaries so there we were, four hos in the back of his Benz, cruising out to Yokohama. It definitely felt like a weird group date where money is involved and you have to laugh no matter what is said. I guess he figured we were cheaper than calling actual hostesses.

On the boat we cracked open the champers and sat around eating finger food and pretending we were all old friends. I smiled so hard at the men barely younger than my father that my cheeks were sore the next day. One of the TPs spent the whole time playing with his new flashy camera and on more than one occasion me and the other Token were instructed to get our faces in the frame to, what do you know, show the party's international side. And it was a side. As in sitting off to the side and not speaking until spoken to. You know how in some cultures you can hire groups of people to celebrate or mourn for you? In Japan I think a similar business would really take off, except you would be hiring out foreigners to give your event an international vibe. You could even specify age, race, gender and how many of each, depending on what kind of "vibe" you're going for. I'm seeing yen signs, are you?

I think this goes without saying but I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you that the Secretaries were all wearing heels. On a boat where there is jumping involved between dock and deck. I had actually contemplated wearing heels but didn't want to end up being the only one with heels and looking absolutely ridiculous. How wrong I was, I mean I live in the land of women who wear heels to climb Mt. Fuji. So there I was in flats feeling, well, flat.

The fireworks themselves were great but I had a date with Shibuya later that night and was itching to get back on dry land when they finished. I also mistakenly assumed I would be getting a ride back. It was decided we would have coffee on the boat back at the marina so the Secretaries scurried around making the coffee and being domestic. In situations like this, foreign women can either join the Secretaries in their hostess duties and feel a bit awkward and subservient, or they can sit with the boys and switch to mute. After the coffee had been passed around, like a high school dance the Secretaries got off the boat and went off by themselves somewhere leaving me with the boys, growing more resentful as each minute of conversation centering on kyabakura ticked by. When is this conversation appropriate? Apparently when a gaijiness who speaks Japanese is the only female present. Had I known I wasn't going to get a ride into town I would have taken off as soon as we hit the rubber bumpers tied to the dock.

After 30 minutes of more inane conversation someone finally made a move to leave and the Yacht TP walked us up to the marina gate, saying he was going to stay behind and close up the boat. We then had one of those long drawn out goodbyes so popular here and just when I thought it was over, the Secretaries ran back to the Yacht TP to ask again if they could stay behind and help clean up (I don't think that was code for something). Shockingly enough, three of the TPs had come on the train (the horror!) and the one who did have a car of course offered the Secretaries a ride back. They barely even said goodbye to us and the other Token and I got the distinct feeling that we didn't exist as no one even bothered to ask how we were getting back to Tokyo, which by the way, was a 75-minute train ride away. To date there has been nothing more hellish than waiting for a train for 15 minutes (!) when you know your friends are waiting in Shibuya. To top it off, on one of the shorter connections, one of the TPs who had said nothing to us all night finally opened his pie-hole to bark "2 minute! 2 minute!" at us. Domo arigato.

I would be remiss if I didn't give you the whole Saturday night party report, not just the one where I was treated like hired help. A girlfriend from my Waseda days was in town from London so we decided to get down and dirty with another girlfriend of ours and head to Pure for the first time in five years, possibly the most fun you will have for 2500 yen (3500 for the gents). And the dirtiest. Whatever would the authorities do back home if we had a concept of an all-you-can-drink club? I was astounded by the novelty of it when I was 19 and FOB in Tokyo. The novelty didn't wear off however, and I found myself there most weekends for a year, stumbling back home at dawn. I've avoided going back since returning to Japan three years ago for a variety of reasons, I think the main one being my misconception that I'd outgrown it for pencil skirts, heels, an actual salary and 20,000 yen bottles of red wine. I was clearly way off base in this assumption, something I realized as soon as the woman at the front put on my yellow wristband and handed me an empty glass to take to the bar.

Pure. How to describe it? I don't know if all the drinks getting thrown around and spilled are due to the fact that the alcohol is practically free or simply because everyone is so off their faces. The floor then gets slippery and dirty (which accounts for all those wipe outs when I was busting a move at twenty) but you don't realize this until the 5am dawn highlights the black streaks on your feet. Planning a night out there yet? Honestly though, they play great hip hop for dancing and everyone is ridiculously friendly. Being hit on from all sides certainly doesn't hurt the ego either and we made a huge group of new and temporary friends that night. I used to go to several clubs in Roppongi but none are as fun as this club in Shibuya and they are missing the friendly vibe. In Roppongi it's either a shit club with Japanese girls and foreign men salivating all over each other or a more expensive place with bankers, Eastern European models and others who are patting themselves on the back for not being at Heartland. There's no camaraderie or sense of let's get through this nomihodai experience together, everyone is too serious about mating to let loose and enjoy the drinks in plastic cups. I'm not saying that mating isn't on the agenda at Pure but there is a lot more fun and light-heartedness and I'm afraid I want to go back. Where else will an extremely young looking boy-man from Bali come up to you and say "hey baby," like he's been practicing it off of some B-movie from the 80s? If that doesn't convince you then what about the experience of dawn on a weekend in Shibuya, right before it gets hot and the light is smog-gold. It's quite the walk to the station watching groups of people sitting on the sidewalk or coming out of clubs on their way home.

Losing my religion

I recently jumped on the iPhone bandwagon and let me tell you, it is fab. Apart from the fact that I can't really use the damn thing properly. I send out the requisite address change email and who do you think emailed me back bright and far too early on Saturday morning? Kenshojo. When I didn't reply she called twice an hour later. I finally replied and asked how she was and got a SUPER GENKI ON CRACK reply. She asked if I had the day off and thinking she was just making chit chat, I naively said yes. She immediately emails back and says "Let's grab a coffee then! I'm with my friend in Omiya (hot bed of this Buddhist cult) so why don't you come out here around 3? Bring your boyfriend too." Fishy-sounding isn't it? I swear she was planning to sit us down and ply us with Books to improve our otherwise cult-free lives. I didn't respond for a few minutes and she immediately sends another emailing announcing that because it was so hot that day, I should come sometime after 5. Who is this woman?! Her first mistake was assuming that I would go out to Saitama (and we all know how I feel about getting stuck out there) and her second was assuming that Quit hadn't already filled me in on her new religion and wily ways. I politely declined and had barely pressed send when she asked me to meet the next day. I did the classic I'll have my people call your people and thankfully haven't heard from her since. Close call, this blog almost turned into a free cult conversion site for some freaky deaks in Saitama.