From: Peter Rivard
Date: Sun May 25, 2003 4:12:33 AM Japan
To: newsletter
Subject: Bad boy--Good boy--and the requisite Japan-bashing

Hi, all,

       Well, I've had a mixed couple of weeks out here. I began the month by getting a speeding ticket, which out here can be a big deal, especially, if, like me, you were foolish enough to be caught tooling down a straight, wide rural highway at 45 mph. 45 mph sounds much worse in centigrade: it works out to 73 kph in a 40 kph zone, and 30 kph over is the point at which one's coach turns into a pumpkin.
       I followed that up with my interview for the elementary school ALT job (assistant language teacher) in Fukui City, which actually went quite well. I introduced myself to the board just as I would to a class of third graders--to my surprise and relief, the members actually responded pretty much like real third graders, something adults usually don't do well, making this kind of attempt bomb. A little English, a little Japanese, "I'm from Boston and Chicago," marked Boston and Chicago on the map I'd drawn on the white board, showed them pictures of my family eating huge steaks, etc. Then, the first board member began a long, meandering question, but he spoke so quickly that I thought I'd never be able to understand the whole thing. I got sort of a by-the-fingertips grip on what he was saying in the first sentence or two but felt sure I'd lose my grasp eventually and have to ask him to speak more slowly, but to my own amazement and despite my constant slipping toward the precipice, I was able to keep that shaky hold throughout the interview--getting just enough of questions asked in faster and more complicated Japanese than I can usually follow to be able to put together sensible answers. Though no one asked the questions I'd expected, I was able to use some of the phrases and grammar my teacher Mitsuko had drummed into me as she'd helped me prepare. At one point, one of the guys was looking at me as if I weren't making any sense at all, but his was the one question I was most sure I'd understood, and if my answer seemed off the wall to him, it wasn't because of language problems but because I thought about things differently than he did.
       Then, of course, I woke up rolling in sudden pain and began my daylong kidney-stone adventure. I survived the first round when it was blocking the duct out of my kidney, but the damn thing's still lurking around somewhere, waiting to make my life hell in round two.
       And, of course, another up-side. I finally heard that I got the job (unofficially--I'm still waiting to be offered the job, but my information has gone from inside sources [a new colleague who used to work with the people on the selection board] to public ones [my name's at the new position in the list of who's going to be where next year]); it turned out that I'd done especially well at treating the board like third graders in my self-introduction. I heard later that another reason I was chosen was that, while I was "Japanese" enough to get along in the office, I had held on to enough of my foreignness for my presence to be worthwhile in the classroom. One of the other applicants spoke much better than I did but came across as so perfectly Japanese in his manner and way of answering the questions that the committee felt that they'd lose the whole point of importing a foreigner if they chose him. I immediately thought of the board member looking at me as if I were saying something crazy and suddenly that seemed like a good thing.
       But, of course, this is my life, so there has to be a punch line. "And another important point in your favor--and it might sound crazy but it was quite important to the board--is that you're from New Jersey." Fukui has a sister-state relationship with New Jersey that gets played up in all the international relations and tourist pamphlets the prefecture sends us, so I assumed it was a joke, but he went on, and on, about New Jersey and the new governor's campaign promises to strengthen that relationship (can you imagine campaigning for governor on a promise to reinvigorate a sister-states program? Good lord, there ain't much going on out here in the boonies). I finally broke in to say, um, the obvious. "Oh.... Well, you might not want to say anything about not being from New Jersey until you're good and settled in." I like to think I would've gotten the job anyway.
       And then another other shoe dropped. I found out that my ticket would involve going to traffic school for a day, a license suspension of 1 to 30 days, depending on how well I did on a test at the traffic school, a court date, and a fine approaching the astronomical. Of course, I had to present myself to the principal, tell him what I'd done, and formally apologize--really, I'd known both the speed limit there and the fact that the cops sometimes set up their radar trap at exactly the place they'd caught me, so I did feel pretty bad, but he put me at ease (he's a great guy, thank god). Then he told me that if the board decided to reconsider hiring me because of the ticket, he'd go to bat for me. "Oh, please I don't wish to be any trouble. You've been so helpful already, I couldn't ask that of you. Etc." (All meaning, "Thanks, I'd really appreciate it," while really thinking, "You mean they'd actually change their minds because of a damned speeding ticket?") In the end, my suspension was for one day, I got high marks to take to my date with the judge, and, no, they're not going to change their minds over a damned speeding ticket. I would've hated to put my principal in that position after all he's done for me; it was bad enough to make him look bad after he'd been talking me up to help me get the job in the first place (and bad enough to put him through the paperwork the school has to submit to the prefecture whenever a faculty member misbehaves).
       And, since this has all been about me, I'll finally add something about Japan. First, I have to confess that when I went to the traffic school, I played up the I-don't-understand-Japanese bit, largely because I was afraid I'd fail the test without as much help and sympathy as they could give me. The instructors were quite friendly and eager to help, and at first I was worried they'd think I was faking the not-understanding stuff because I was able to talk to have a decent conversation with them. As soon as I sat down for the first video and later the first lecture, though, I was reassured that I wasn't at all faking it--there was no way I'd be following much of this stuff. As soon as one of the officers pulled me out of the lecture and started to try to help me through the test, he could see I wasn't faking it, too. Of course, I couldn't read any of the questions, and even after having them read to me, I needed more explanation; he was pretty good, actually, at rephrasing things in Japanese that I could understand, but on a few questions, I couldn't understand at all what they were asking despite his best efforts. At several points, he scanned a question, read it aloud it to himself more than to me, then said to himself, "Ahh, you wouldn't do that, I'll just check `no.'" Then, he had to go and another officer took his place, and this guy just confused me more instead of helping. In general, I've come to see the ability to communicate effectively in your own language with someone who doesn't understand it well (the ability to speak simply) as an extremely reliable indicator of intelligence. By the time we started up again after lunch, I'd spent a lot of time chatting with the officers while the other speeders, drunks, and runners-of-lights suffered through lectures and videos; I'd been invited into the office of the superintendent for tea and chat, more like an honored guest than inmate there for punishment/reeducation; he even asked me to translate some English in an e-mail he'd received. Later, someone frantically dug through the files to find an English copy of the test, which makes me think I must have failed my attempt at the Japanese version (they were rooting for me to pass now that we were such good friends). I got 98% on the English version, and I also aced the video game coordination test and the driving test (it helped that the other testee in the car with me, who drove the course first, made me look good--I kept thinking to myself, "Dude, that was a stop sign," and "You have heard of speed limits?"; it seemed like he hadn't realized that the guy sitting next to him was there to decide how long to take away his license for).
       Here's the part about Japan. I'd found some helpful hints on the internet, so I was prepared. But how would you answer questions like, "Do you have confidence in your ability to drive safely?," Are you a safe driver?," and "Are you nervous when you're behind the wheel?"? The correct answers in Japan are "No," "No," and "Yes." Japanese are taught from birth to be humbled, embarrassed, and ashamed; if you don't think you're a lousy, dangerous, incompetent driver, you're cocky and you won't be mindful enough of the need to be careful. Confidence in individual ability is considered a negative personality trait here.
       The irony in driving here is that so many people have so little confidence in what they're doing that they constantly think about the mechanical aspects of controlling a car that should be automatic--and thus don't have enough brain cells left over to pay attention to which lane(s) they're driving in, which way they're going, what the other cars on the road are doing, or their three-year olds leaning out of the rear windows waving to dogs by the side of the road (child seats? seat belts?). Just go to a Japanese parking lot and watch the people try to figure out what to do--it's an afternoon's entertainment. People literally have to stop and think about which way to turn the wheel to get the back of the car where they want to put it--they'll make half a dozen attempts to back into a huge spot, and that's normal. It's common to see parking lot attendants have to tell people which way to turn their steering wheels, even when they're going forward (I've had to do this myself when directing parents arriving for a school ceremony).
       So, I've gone from self-flagellation to self-congratulation to Japan-bashing: a pretty typical month in the ex-pat lifestyle. To round it out, I'll add that I went on a field trip to an amusement park with the first years and realized, again, how much I love working with these kids. After floating around from group to group, I was adopted by a couple of girls who asked me to join their group. One of them stuffed her small stuffed rabbit into my shirt pocket to carry around for the afternoon (with its head sticking out, to enjoy the view). "Do you carry this thing all the time?"--"No, only on special days"--"How old are you again?" It's hard to believe these kids will be teenagers by the end of the year. I got bruised while a passenger in a go-kart that another intrepid 12 year old saw fit to slam head-on into a retaining wall, and I let a bunch of boys show me how to shoot a bow and arrow, after which I taught them a little karate (I didn't let on that a key to success is being a foot taller than your opponent). More pictures are here.

O genki de


p.s.--one last thing. At traffic safety school, I found myself stereotyping my fellow violators, especially one young guy with a blond dye-job and an undoubtedly expensive but authentic-looking "Hi, I'm with the Crips" outfit. Gangbanger wannabe. "Yanqui," I thought, using the term for the ubiquitous young hoods who drive noisy cars, wear American gang fashions, and generally make trouble. I even came close to giving him the contemptuous chuckle I reserve for the truly pathetic (someone who's not just a wannabe but a wannabe asshole). Then, of course, the bastard had to go and puke all over my comfortable assumptions by being nice to me--repeating more slowly and clearly an announcement he thought I'd missed, engaging me in friendly smalltalk, and volunteering to pair up with me for the driving test (which, as I mentioned above, turned out to be more helpful to me than he probably intended). I'm glad that something, probably just luck, kept me from revealing my assumptions before I found out they were wrong. Every so often, something my father told me years ago comes back to save me. Although I often fail, I do my best to live up to his words: "Don't be a jackass, son."


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