Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Lost Repatriation Diaries: Three Words

Note: This is from October 2008, when I was just starting my job. I don't have any new stuff, so I thought I would share it.

Sitting in a chair too small at the orientation for my new job, I was struggling to think of three words to describe myself. My supervisor had just proposed this task for each of us as an icebreaker, something she’d undoubtedly pulled from some pocket management guide. I was in awe of these people who, rather than thinking of this as an absurd request, easily came up with adjectives, labeling themselves as caring, thoughtful, hard-working, intelligent, optimistic, creative. Thank god I was one of the last to go, because digging through my brain, I could only think of words like, young, caucasian, and female.

Is this what people do in America, think about their internal attributes and keep them readily available when called upon to give them? Why would I tell others what I supposedly am? Isn’t that rather presumptuous, as if they’re too stupid to figure it out for themselves? And isn’t it a little self-centered to sit around thinking about your own internal attributes rather than getting to know others? And aren’t people often wrong with their self-assessments? I remembered a study from a class I took in college, how when asking sample groups of American and Japanese people to give words to describe themselves, the Americans almost unanimously listed internal attributes, while the Japanese almost unanimously listed words that referenced their social context—housewife, lawyer, member of the school tennis club, student.

In Japan, I don’t recall any of these types of icebreakers. We just had jikoshokai: self-introductions. Mine was brief. Just my name, my country, my job. Really, it depended on the situation, but it might as well be brief, because hardly anyone listened, they were too busy grinning and clapping, so impressed that I could speak simple Japanese.

Back in America, at the social services agency where we’re sitting in child-sized chairs, I start to think of self-deprecating descriptions of myself. I don’t want to sound too conceited or intimidating. Maybe something about how I’m lazy in my house, and don’t do my dishes enough? Sometimes I’m too shy? I’m overwrought with guilt and self-criticism? Those are incredibly stupid ideas.

I’m reminded of the time my company in Japan, in an attempt to advertise for our summer school, gave a big informational presentation in a reception room at a wedding hall. I was half-listening to my co-workers as they gave their speeches at the miked podium, their voices dropping out of audibility as they bowed when they spoke. At my side table, I was diligently studying my notecards, whispering the Japanese script that my tongue kept tripping over. In between presentations, Yoshiko, my boss, touched my shoulder. “First, please in English, ‘My name is Kyashi. I am teacher. I come from Shiroishi. I live in America. Nice to meet you.’ Jikoshokai, ne?” Self-introduction. In English. Before my Japanese self-introduction. Okay, if she says so. Whatever I thought wasn’t important, I just had to honor what she wanted.

At the podium, I smiled and slowly said, “Good evening. My name is Cassie,” I could sense the crowd tighten in a collective discomfort, and I continued, “I am from America. I live in Shiroishi. Nice to meet you.” All eyes were stunned and bewildered. I could feel the crowd’s silent panic about the prospect of an English presentation, and their utter embarrassment, for themselves and for me. Like watching a comedian bomb on stage. I switched into Japanese, and I could feel the crowd’s collective relief. Those five sentences had been an eternity for all of us.

Back in America, there are only a couple more people to go before I would have to stand up and give my three words. I’m at my last resort, which before Japan was often my first resort: the flippant response. Sarcasm, irony, acerbic wit—all things I realized while in Japan that I relied on as a crutch, that most people in my generation use too readily. Colin often uses the word “Hilarious”, but can’t do so without sounding sarcastic. When asked for clarification, he doesn’t know if he’s being sincere or not. Sincerity is uncool. The word uncool is uncool. Shhh. Stop talking now. If you want to get bad reactions from people in Japan, I recommend trying out your sarcasm. It doesn’t really exist in Japan, and irony does to a much lesser degree. It seems everybody there is so damned earnest. Sincerity is the cornerstone of their functioning society where everybody can do the daily cram-school chant about doing their best and loving every subject in school without snickering.

It’s my turn, and I stand up, dusting off my improv skills. “Hi, I’m Cassandra. I’m going to be the literacy coordinator. As for three words to describe myself, I think I’ll borrow some that have been used already and go with patient, thoughtful, and oh, let’s say creative.”


Blogger Carol said...

Oh Kayashi, I just LOVE your posts to death!!!! Even though I've read this one before, I think you added a little twist to it. Either that, or I've just forgotten the original. At any rate, THANKS so much for posting this!!!

12:14 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

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