Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Educating Kathryn

Let the frequent flyer miles begin.

Perhaps you do forget how to ride a bike, I wonder as my pedaling gets increasingly labored on the way home. I just left a sake- and sushi-filled welcome party in honor of my new position as a teacher at What’s The Name of the School in Saitama?, outside of Tokyo. The honor didn’t include a ride home in a car, so I’m on the trusty bike, which isn’t proving so trusty.

The bike has been my main conveyance for the past two weeks as I acclimate to my new life in Japan. I haven’t used a bicycle to get from point A to point B for 20 years, and the idea was refreshing, as if I was heading out on the flash-back to preteenhood ride into town.

Until now. It’s dark and cold, and I’m only vaguely familiar with the way back to my new apartment. The bike definitely is slowing down. Suddenly, it jerks to a stop, and I fall to one side.

I wonder whether I’m experiencing culture shock until I realize there’s a reason I’m feeling so chilled. My tea-length skirt has unraveled into the bike chain. I’m left nearly bare from the waist down. Still on the ground, I see a pair of men’s shoes offering a faint reflection of would have been my own blushing cheeks, had I the advantage of daylight.

It’s the chairman of the board of education, on his way home from the same fete. My rescuer dismounts his own bike, flings his tie over his shoulder in deference to the dirty work ahead, and systematically removes my chain, retrieving my skirt inch by inch. I’m speechless to the side, now coming to grips with what my mother had in mind when she always insisted to us kids to wear clean underwear “just in case.” He turns the bike over and puts the chain back on, gives the pedal a couple test spins and sees that the bike is on-line and ready for me to ride. He humbly hands me my evening wear scrap, reassembles his tie, wipes his chain-greased hands off on his hankie and rides off into the night.

Unable to even mutter a casual thanks in his own language, I’m again struck by the task ahead of me.

I’d taken a sabbatical from my post as a high school French teacher in central Ohio a month earlier, heading to Japan for a new adventure in teaching. Denial on the necessity of learning the Japanese language carried me through the first few weeks. I was well taken-care of by supervisors and friendly, sympathetic Japanese hosts. I was led through basic logistics such as setting up a bank account, registering as a foreign resident at the city hall, starting up the electricity and water services in my apartment. Now a legal alien with a functioning apartment, and access to cash on demand, I am ready for the new chapter of my “teaching life.” The apartment is quite modern. Every appliance has a remote control with some kind of timing device. In Japanese. Assuming that numbers going up indicate the climb to high power, I crank my air-condition to the highest option: 30. I wasn’t feeling much relief from the heat wave as 30 was apparently indicating the degrees Celsius, which means nothing to me until you tell me that is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside it was 40 degrees Celsius, 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that you should not casually guesstimate for a fever when you call in sick, but we’ll get to that chapter later.

I didn’t realize that I was incapable of operating my hot water option for at least the first week. Again, an electric hot water control gauge in the bath/shower area called for Japanese reading ability to operate. In 104 degree-heat, I am happy with cold showers, three times a day. However, as a guest in a country heralding its bath culture, the fact that I was not using hot water came as a shock to the staff at work. I brought up the inquiry casually in the office (as I grew dissatisfied with the cleanliness of washing my one lonely dish in cold water) and, as a result, unwittingly subjected the other foreign staff to a thorough in-house lesson on the importance of cleanliness, bathing and self-grooming. My attempt at explaining that I was, in fact, cleaning myself was sidelined, and “Educating Kathryn” became the seemingly assigned project for more than a handful of Japanese speakers of English at the board of education. Major language barrier strike one.

Every language teacher and language learner can share a survival story based on the importance of gestures. Mine was more of a horror story. I found myself a mime but without the pristine white gloves (that the taxi drivers wear, incidentally) mimicking a pig, a duck or a chicken in the grocery meat section in order to ease my surprise regarding, “what’s for dinner?” Other items, tucked into the aisles were labeled in Japanese as well, and more of a challenge if there was no unsuspecting customer or employee in eye-shot to help me act out the rhetorical “what is this?” question. Even if the reading requirement was minimal, that is, of the one-symbol character families, if it was off the page of the basic starter list of kanji for foreigners--person, moon, mouth, tree--I was lost. Rarely were any of these items on my grocery list, so I knew I was in trouble (Note to marketers – diagram everything during the packaging process—you’ll make millions internationally).

The stress of suddenly facing illiteracy as an educated adult set in, and one quick remedy for an Ex-pat is obvious: comfort food. The American staple? Peanut butter. I pick up a tub and look forward to my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That I can do: I don’t need to read the functions of a microwave and don’t even have to risk setting the apartment on fire by miss-programming the oven or range. A classic PB&J doesn’t even necessarily call for toasted bread. I slap it together ready to reward myself from the grocery store battlefield. “Disgusting,” I muster as I practically choke on my first bite. I’m probably the first person in the world to concoct a miso paste and jelly sandwich. I’m stuck this evening with the ingredients for miso soup and jam on bread. My mouth waters as I wonder what the Tokyo prisoners are eating tonight. Tomorrow is a new day, I convince myself, crawling into bed. I can rest assured that I can dream in English and wake with this nightmare meal behind me.

However, the next morning fails to jump start my new day theory as I started believing that Japanese coffee is the most bitter, undrinkable beverage in the world. Thus far it was a mystery to me, but perhaps that’s why “American coffee” is a menu item in coffee shops and restaurants in Japan. I was often asked, “What do you call ‘American coffee’ in America?” “Uh, coffee,” I’d answer, expressionless. Days later I realize that the bag of sugar I was using to sweeten my brew was, labeled in Japanese, “salt.” (I repeat: note to marketers – diagram everything during the packaging process—you’ll make millions internationally.) The written word beats me again--language barrier strike two.

Perhaps the accumulation of cold showers, faulty air-conditioning skills, topped off by the miso paste sandwich and salted coffee meal plan took its toll and thus I came down with my first “cold” (what seems to be the catch-all term used for any ailment here, from sniffles to broken arm) in Japan. The first cold in another country doesn’t warrant a diary entry or a memento in the scrap book, yet the first trip to the hospital does. Dreaming of rediscovering the blissful simulcast interpretation on the flight, I head to an “International Hospital” in central Tokyo with the assumption that I will find English speaking staff to help me. An educated adult female has a comfort zone on how much help to accept. This I was going to do alone. The train trip into town was an adventure, with announcements at every stop in hurried Japanese (my guess it was Japanese – it was a language that I couldn’t understand, and was still unconvinced existed. I daydreamed that it was all some guise to make the foreigners believe that they understood each other. I was waiting for the game-show host to appear and tell me that I was the brunt of a joke…)

I made it to the hospital and met a doctor. Oddly, no language was exchanged. He handed me a small, empty, paper cup labeled with a print out of my name and pointed out of his office. I suppose we didn’t need to discuss what I was to do in the cup. Incidentally, in 20 days, I didn’t meet two toilets that flushed alike. That didn’t seem significant until there were red and green buttons in the restroom. Green means go and Red means stop? Unfortunately, I was not driving the toilet. Green set off an alarm. A loud alarm. Nurses charged in to tend to who was having an emergency. Yes, I was having an emergency. I needed language lessons immediately: Is there an ICU for that? The diagnosis: major language barrier strike three. Flying in the opposite direction, did ground-breaking pitcher Nomo fare this poorly in his first month?

The above unembellished, unedited accounts represent down right blunders of the brain. What really sent me on a language school search was the blunder of the heart which came next, the bike teaser I opened with. Recovered from my apartment set-up virus, super market symptoms, and common cold due to a mild case of culture shock, I learn of a welcome party in my honor sponsored by the board of education. Ready to turn a new festive leaf, I humbly accept. My employer will host. It’s an opportunity to salvage my pride from five star gaffes thus far. In dutiful preparation (note that the new leaf has begun: the aforementioned concepts of humility, saving face and duty are revered in Japanese society. I’m fitting right in!), I take the obvious steps to impress. I bathe thoroughly thanks to my lesson on self sanitation, dress well, and set off for the venue on my city-issued bike.

This is not a mountain or touring bike. Modern Japanese view the bicycle as a practical mode of transportation, a concept that America weaned before my time. This bike resembled my first bike. It was purple (incidentally my favorite color. Incidentally, not my lucky charm), upright, one-speed, and had a front basket for groceries (or for briefcases for the business clientele. It was a new first--I wasn’t training for an athletic competition, and I didn’t have training wheels. Little did I know, training wheels might have been a good thing.

I arrive in time for the opening toast, speeches, introductions, and we are set free to mingle about at this what is something close to what I know as a “cocktail party with heavy hors d'oeuvres.” I’m surrounded by pseudo-Japanese speakers of English who tend to be fluent in the slow, drawn out; “Myyy naaame isssszzz” introduction, and then they insert their last and first name at bullet native Japanese language train speed. I stare down patiently at my mini soy sauce plate with broken in three places disposable chopsticks and thank the Great Buddah for the Japanese catch-all honorific title, “sensei,” which is used for pretty much any master of his field. I write-off the idea of learning any proper names, and focus my energies on not flipping a piece of shrimp tempura across the room to land on NameThatSensei’s plate. The appetizer menu is weightier on the octopus tentacles than the deviled eggs, but I gum my way through the evening, gastronomically and audio-visually. Flowers, photos, and the closing good-bye clap end the evening and we file out of the venue and go our separate ways. Survival Welcome Party 101. I pass with flying purple colors. Not so fast—literally—soon after my newly established success rate stalls.

Training wheels, athletic shorts, grocery shopping helpers, or trouble shooting toilet flushers – these were superficial accessories that were not going to dig me out of my culture gap hole. The desire to learn the language got three dimensional that instant when I stood speechless out of not knowing how to express my sincere gratitude the way I felt when the chief of the board of education unraveled my skirt and pride out of the bike chain that night. That grease stain was not going to come out until I made strides to communicate my “pleases and thank yous” the way I was raised. Educating Kathryn had only just begun.


  1. This is the funniest thing in the world --- more please.

  2. Kathy - I love it! Can't wait to read the next one - probably will do so now.

  3. Allison and Susan, I'm waiting for you both to come back for a visit. There's a lot of do-overs to do!