Monday, October 15, 2007

Clumsy, or There are two and a half stories in every one story I try to tell, or Another crappy, rambling, unpolished thought abortion

The manager of my company is a twenty-three year old girl. She’s the second in command, next to Yoshiko. We’re the same age. We both like pretty dresses and eyeliner, but she’s much better dressed than I am, since I’m kind of lazy. We don’t really get along. When I first met her, I thought we were going to be friends. For the first couple of weeks before I started driving, she was picking me up at the train station and driving me to the various confusing places I needed to be. During our long car rides together, I spoke to her in casual Japanese or English, and found that despite being an English teacher, she was remarkably difficult to communicate with. It’s not that she couldn’t understand my words, but there was some unspoken cultural thing happening to which I was still oblivious. She often seemed silent or aloof, despite the fact that (as I would later learn) she’s someone who prides herself on her incredibly bubbly personality. Any question I asked her, she would usually return with a high-pitched, overly enthusiastic response and crisp head movements, then resume her silence. Contrary to the reciprocal necessity of conversation, she rarely had any questions for me. In fact, the first time I remember her willingly offering me any information without prompt was when she was explaining to me why my lesson failed. It was in English, shocking, and without the benefits that hedging and modals give criticism.

A couple months after I began working for the company, I learned that she was not just a fellow teacher who I had been regarding as my equal, but a manager. Was she offended that I had automatically presumed a sort of camaraderie with her, was she resentful and jealous of the attention a native-speaker receives, or perhaps just too self-conscious about her English or my Japanese to try to communicate with me? In Japanese, with other Japanese people, she’s very chatty and friendly. “Friendly” maybe isn’t the right word, but I already used “bubbly”. She’s high energy, and one thing I’ve learned about American culture since being here is that we don’t necessarily like people who come off as overly cheerful, who put on the biggest smile possible when they see you, and whose contributions to even the most banal conversations involve speaking in high pitched squeals. To us, it comes off as fake. In Japan, this kind of behavior is commonplace among women talking to a client, a customer, anyone they’re expected to be polite to. Culturally, she’s incredibly Japanese, and it doesn’t translate well into English. I think to some degree she knows this, which is why she doesn't seem to have a lot of interest in befriending foreigners.

As our relationship grew more tense, and I became aware of the authority this ditzy twenty-three year old had over me, I reacted like the catty woman I am. I passive-aggressively challenged her authority whenever I saw fit.

One afternoon, I was planning lessons in the staff room when she appeared at the door and said, “Please clean your eikaiwa room,” and dropped a dustmop at my feet. I responded with an enthusiastic “Okay!” and a crisp head movement, not because I was mocking her, but that’s just what you do here. When she disappeared into another room, I continued doing exactly what I had been doing before, deciding that I would sweep the eikaiwa room when I felt like it, since there were no lessons there for another two and a half hours, and it was my lesson, anyway, and the damn room was already clean since I cleaned it yesterday and nobody has freaking used it since then. Perhaps Japanese office hierarchy would have required I drop everything I was doing at that moment to sweep an already clean room that is none of her business, anyway, but I chose to ignore it. When I heard her rapidly sob-talking to our boss in the other room a while later, I have to assume it was about something else, but my natural instinct was to feel guilty. Occasional teary break-downs are the consequence of a highly stressful, estrogen-dominated work environment. We’ve all adapted to each other’s cycles, and there’s a certain time of the month you never want to be around the office. I always thought pre-menstrual bitchiness was a myth until I came to Japan. Maybe it’s because Japanese women need to take advantage of the one time of the month they’re allowed to go completely bat-shit. Not that pms was the issue at the time.

Obviously, hierarchy is still a big deal here, and it’s maybe part of the reason why Sayaka and I can never be friends. I get along great with the others, who tend to be part-time workers; housewives in their thirties with babies in tow, and college students. Most don’t speak English. Only two are men, both college students, both remarkably easy to deal with. However, the office pecking order can even appear in the smallest of gestures. Even though it’s subtle, it still kind of gets to me. For example, at the pre-school, we use laminated name-plates that we put on strings around each kid’s neck, because even Japanese people have a hard time telling each other apart sometimes. Anyway, at the end of each class, we sing the goodbye song and the kids return their nameplates randomly to any of the three teachers. My first day at the pre-school, when I was still trying to understand the elaborate system of rituals of the classroom, everything came to me as a disorienting surprise: Okay, we’re chanting now. Now we’re bowing, now they’re giving me things. Now the kids are grabbing my boobs. On that first day, I also experienced the subtleties of being the newest teacher, therefore the lowest ranking. After some of the kids handed me their nameplates, the other two teachers (Yoshiko and Sayaka), without saying a word, dropped the nameplates they had been given into my lap. It was my job to disentangle them, tie them neatly, and put them away, but at the time all I thought was, “What am I supposed to do with these?” It was a simple task, but one the more senior teachers never bother themselves with because there’s someone lower who can do it. Within a couple months, we got a new teacher to help with the pre-school, and Sayaka began wordlessly dropping the nameplates into her lap instead of mine. I give the new teacher the nameplates too, but I’m more tentative about it. I always hand them to her and say thank you.

As soon as I became full-time, it became my job to clean the office daily. Now it’s changed, and I view my role in cleaning more as pitching in than as being solely my responsibility. But at first I took this task very seriously, sweeping, scrubbing, and disinfecting to the best of my ability. A few months later, the company hired a new tutor, a male college student. One day, when I came to work he was already sitting at the table planning lessons. We exchanged greetings, and I went straight to get the dustmop and began sweeping, as I always had. When he saw what I was doing, he leapt out of his seat and took the mop from my hands, saying in English, “It is my duty,” and finished the rest of the floor himself. I was stunned, but also relieved to have the sole responsibility of cleaning taken off my shoulders. I learned from others that it was a bit unfair that I had been working so hard cleaning the entire office since I didn’t even teach many classes there, and it’s more common that everybody just helps when they have time. Still, if I come to work and find Yoshiko or Sayaka cleaning, my heart still jumps a little from sudden pangs of guilt. I try to ignore it.

Unlike me, Colin works within the public school system. Apparently, every year during late March, the end of the school year, the local board of education (by a mysterious and perhaps arbitrary process), rearranges the staff of all the area schools. Anyone from the school nurse to the principal has the risk of being transferred to a different school regardless of their desires. They can request transfers or petition to stay, but whether that happens is up to the board of education. The transfers are announced on a specific day, approximately two weeks before the end of the school year, and for days before the staff is abuzz with speculation, gathering in small groups to have hushed conversations. The principal reads the transfers at a staff meeting, everyone reacts with absolute stoicism, and every school is re-shuffled to some degree. No staff member is allowed to stay at any school for more than six consecutive years without transfer, anyway. When Colin told me about this, we discussed how needlessly dramatic and political it seemed, and Japan is all about community so how can you foster a community when everyone is at risk of leaving any year? To me it sounded like a nerve-racking, cruel process.

Then Colin pried his co-workers for more information about why the board of education does this annual shuffling: “So they told me that it’s for the sake of the newer teachers that they do it. If any teacher is at one school too long, they become wagamama (spoiled), and the newer teachers are doomed to do bitch work forever.”

“Oh, my god,” I gasp, “That’s really, really smart!” Spoken by someone who knows bitch work.

Living in a society with such a deeply ingrained system of hierarchy is bound to effect you eventually. In April, after I had been teaching only children for months, I began an adult class with two middle-aged, well-established aestheticians, one of whom is a renowned kimono expert in the prefecture. When they met me, the first thing they asked me was how old I was, then they joked to each other about my answer, about how old that made them feel. Their immediate and continuing consciousness of our age difference, along with the supposed absurdity of a twenty-three-year-old teaching successful, middle-aged women, knocked the confidence right out of me. I could no longer speak with authority as a teacher. I giggled and said um a lot, and any directives I spoke were weak with rising intonations like a question. My lessons wandered, I was clumsy in my transitions. My lack of ability to speak with authority had actually made me a worse teacher.

This wasn't such a problem in America. When I took the TEFL certification course, part of it was a teaching practicum, which involved teaching English to a class of adults. I didn’t have a problem speaking articulately and with authority then, even though I was just fresh out of college, and they were all adults with far more life experience. My mindset at the time was that regardless of my age, I had a skill they didn’t, and I had something to offer them. Now I’m getting back on my feet with these two women, and I’m getting better, but I still have internal conflict sometimes.

It would be wrong to say this struggle to speak with authority is strictly a Japan-related issue. I myself have struggled with it in different situations since hitting puberty. Maybe by being so hard on Japan’s stance on gender and hierarchy, I’m letting America off way too easy.

I’m reminded of a class I took in college that centered around activist literature. We had just read a book that concerned the social construction of gender (wow, it’s been a while since I’ve typed those words. How nostalgic), so the professor decided to do a little experiment. When we entered the classroom, we saw two rows of chairs facing each other a few feet apart. We were instructed to leave our backpacks behind the chairs and sit down. When everyone was seated, the professor told us to freeze and look at everyone else’s body language. The configuration of the two lines of chairs facing each other was supposed to simulate a situation we might encounter in public transportation. We observed, in the class of fourteen people, how many of the women had their legs crossed (all but one), and how many of the men were sitting in open positions (all but one, who had his lower-leg resting on his knee in the masculine cross). I was, by far, the most closed person in the group; legs crossed, back hunched over arms folded over my chest. Suddenly the professor points to me and says, “What about you? What would you do if someone attacked you right now?” My instinct was to say that I would curl up in a protective ball, but I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question, so I just shrunk further into my chair and became more the protective ball I had imagined. We shared an awkward classroom moment that occurs when you realize a question wasn’t rhetorical, but it’s too late to answer, anyway.

In that class’s discussion about gender, I listened to other girls voice their frustrations with the concerns they heard over and over again growing up; that girls didn’t speak up in class and didn’t excel in science, when this wasn’t a problem at their school and they were just as openly gifted as they wanted to be. In fact, they were bothered by the media telling them about the struggles they were supposed to be having. I wanted to speak up right then. I wanted to say that some of us went to public school, and I’m not talking about magnet schools. Some of us went to real, salt-of-the-earth public school where as soon as you hit middle school, if you have two x chromosomes speaking with authority leads to all kinds of grief. I came from a system in which it’s okay for girls to be smart, but they can’t quite show it, can’t seem confident in it. If you happen upon a correct answer or a clever observation in class, it has to seem like luck. Maybe you can show sexy-smart, but smart won’t be sexy for many years. If you speak with confidence in your voice, articulate your sentences and thoughts eloquently, you’re intimidating, you’re abrasive, you’re a bitch. And no one specifically says that you can’t express your intelligence this way because you’re a girl. If you asked them, they might even disagree, but if you’ve ever been a girl in public school who has tried to speak intelligently and asserted your opinions, you know what I’m talking about. It was simple cause and effect. Enjoy class, enjoy speaking and thinking, and face the rolling eyes, the “accidental” bumps in the hallway, and from the bolder kids, the names, shouted in passing, for no reason other than to take you down a notch. I was aware of this reality as I saw “the smartest boy in school” argue relentlessly about one of the themes of a short story in our advanced reading class while going on to have friends at his locker in the hall. I knew it was a bullshit double standard that the boys could speak up and argue and be assertive in their intellect, but I just wanted to make my life easier. I learned ways to make the words come out of my mouth seem less threatening. I began to mumble, avoid eye contact, slouch, and after I’d just made a cogent point, add “or something”, or “I don’t know”, or anything else to similarly discredit what I had just said. Maybe irrelevant tangents for humor at my own expense. I developed these defensive tactics myself, and when I got to college, I couldn’t keep up with all the talented, beautiful, intelligent women who spoke in paragraphs with thesis sentences and wrote poetry and quoted obscure bands. I had sabotaged myself, and that was what killed me. What this system took from me, that I had willingly participated in, was my voice. I had sabotaged my own ability to speak, just to keep some sebaceous high school kids off my back, and it wasn’t worth it. I wanted to say all of this, and I would ramble, and I would be disorganized, and my cadence would be halting, coming in sputters and bursts, occasionally interjecting “or somethings” and “I don’t knows” as an unconscious example of exactly how deeply I had fucked myself over. But I didn’t say anything. Even though that was what we were discussing at the time, I decided it wasn’t relevant enough, and I hated it when people weren’t relevant. We weren’t in a women’s studies class, or even a sociology class. We were in a cross-listed English and Environmental Studies class. Before long the topic changed to something else. I didn’t say a word for the rest of the class, anyway.

How does this relate to my problems with Sayaka? I’m not sure. She’s not even the first slightly-senior girl my age who I’ve had problems with in the workplace. Perhaps she’s just reacting to her unlikely position of authority in an ultra-hierarchical society. Maybe she struggles reconciling being a twenty-three-year-old girl who manages a staff of many older, more experienced people. Maybe whenever she has to give instructions to a thirty-four year old former career teacher, the discord tears at her guts as she has to in an instant decide what level of politeness to use. For her, maybe I’m just a big question mark. I’m a foreigner, an English teacher, and a contemporary. Perhaps she doesn’t know what to do with me just like the rest of Japan doesn’t, what with my position in this society falling into some combination of retarded child and rock star. I might be the one who experiences the brunt of her wild mood swings from cheerleader to dictator, since everybody else’s social position is far clearer than mine. In different circumstances, we might have been friends.

I recall a time when I was still new to the company, when Sayaka and I were leaving the pre-school with our arms overflowing with baggage and teaching materials. I was carrying the CD player, and as we passed through one of the two gates, I accidentally stepped on the errant cord, tripped, and flung myself and the CD player loudly into the fence, uttering a small, strange scream before regaining my balance. Having witnessed the entire thing, Sayaka’s knees buckled as she hiccupped in girlish laughter. Her body spasming, she struggled to keep hold of all her various oversized teaching materials. “Omoshiroi, Kyashi wa. Itsumo ‘Wah! Wah!’ iuteru.”

Over lunch, I explained to her that I was generally very clumsy. “What is clumsy?” she asked. I didn’t know the word in Japanese, so I looked it up in the pocket dictionary I carried around at that time. “Bukiyou,” I told her. She repeated it, looking a little confused. So I told her about how I spend a good portion of my daily life anticipating accidents that might happen to me. I fall down easily. I trip up stairs. A rainy day leads to me tiptoeing gingerly about every damp surface, gripping the ground with my feet. I see the long flight of stairs from the platform of Saga Station, and I move as far as I can to the railing, freeing the closest hand because in event that I should slip and fall, I’d be able to grab something in time. I imagine accidents where it would be particularly strange or public, or even injurious. I drop things. Appliances and electronics break around me at an alarming rate. I avoid sports, because in gym class, there seemed to be a magnetic pull between balls and my head. I’m too big, and I try to be small. I’m encumbered by my own form. Someone told me that renaissance comedy was based on the awkwardness of embodiment, of being aware of your own body and of others as a thing that is a process, that takes in food and digests and excretes and fucks and ejaculates and becomes diseased and occasionally falls down the stairs. Someone else told me that the main difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that in the tragedy, there are bunch of corpses on stage in the end. But the bit about Renaissance drama would have been lost on Sayaka, so I stopped at telling her that I regularly humiliate myself.

“I see, but I think the word you mean is ‘tsutanai.’ ‘Bukiyou’ is more like you try to pick something up and you drop it.’

That seemed about right, but I took her word for it. Soon we were talking about different things. We were still in a pretty expository phase of our relationship, so we talked about food and traveling. I asked her if she had a good time when she studied in Canada. She flatly replied, “Not really.”

“Why not?”

She smiled a little. In time I would learn that Sayaka smiles to express a wide range of emotions, but this smile clearly had a sadder story behind it. “Because I’m so clumsy.”