Thursday, September 9, 2010


Before one (me) moves to Japan, one (me) hears much said of the "Japanese" way of thinking and behaving and reacting, which includes - but is not limited to - the Japanese Smile, the Japanese Sharp Intake of Breath, the Japanese Work Ethic, the Japanese Reaction to Foreigners, the Japanese Subway Code of Conduct, the Japanese Subway Grope, the Japanese Breast Fixation, and the Japanese Criticism (which is to say, silence, followed by the Japanese Smile). Essentially, when you move to Japan, and particularly when you take up employment in a Japanese institution, you must rethink both your general manner of behaviour and your ability to assess a situation. The fact of the matter is this: if you (I) think you (I) are working hard enough, you probably aren't. If you think you are dressing demurely, you are probably a saucy minx. And if you think you are doing your job well, you are probably instructively moribund (yes, moribund).

This is difficult for anyone (me). In New Zealand, if you are doing a crap job, you will be told so. This information may come in the form of a written or verbal warning, an icy shoulder or semen in your coffee (extreme cases only, or so I am reliably informed), but it will come, and due opportunity will be given to rectify shortcomings (Aside: unless the amendments to the Act are permitted, and then if you are in the first 90 days of employment then you will find yourself out on the street with no explanation - but I digress). The practical machinations of NZ law (impractical as they may be) were of zero interest to me whilst I resided therein, so why now? Why indeed). The Kiwi Karacter is brazen, bold and bolshy and even the most reticent employer/co-worker/nosy stranger on the street with no pants on will grab you by the scruff of your neck and rub your face in your failures.

Not so in Japan. As an email from my supervisor (sent to a posse, rather than just to me, would be on plane home, locked in bathroom, rocking back and forth, if t'were for I alone) informed me, the Japanese smile, while it may appear to be a symbol of encouragement, is in fact an awkward reaction to the fact that something is terribly wrong, and you are at fault. Like babies with gas, this smile appears as a physical reaction to intense discomfort. So, to quote the aforementioned supervisor: "I’ll give one easy advise: As you know Japanese people are so shy and not too many words but just smile (even for JTEs); “Japanese smile” sometimes shows “OK” “agree” but sometimes “not good though I don’t say clearly”. You see? Even when he is giving advice about the omnipresent "Japanese Smile" he shrinks from directly addressing the less pleasant elements... He is "Japanese Smiling" in an email! A rare talent.

All of this is a long-winded (gassy baby) explanation for why I am frankly terrified and uncomfortable from the moment I step into the entrance hall of the school and replace my outdoor shoes with my indoor shoes, to the moment I don my sunglasses, undo two buttons on my blouse, and leave. It is hard because the staff are so welcoming, the students so intelligent and interested, and the novelty of teaching so great, that I instinctively feel relaxed and at ease and able to be myself entirely - I have to force this discomfort upon myself in order that I should quell my instincts and remember that quoting Eddie Izzard whilst instructing third years on possible examples for inclusion in their essay entitled "Why I prefer Camping by the Sea over Camping in the Mountains is NOT OK ("I'm covered in bees!); using "beer" as a Hangman word in NOT appropriate and taking a photo on my iPhone of the student's t-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Pills, Pipes and Needles" (illustrated with a picture of Winnie the Po(thead)o with a jar of honey) is a POSSIBLE breach of privacy.

The problem is that reliance upon that internal gauge that tells you whether you are doing a good job and pleasing those around you or whether you are mortally offending an entire community (NB: did that in the weekend, by wearing a sheer top, breasts are contraband items here) is not advisable. The safe assumption is that your interpretation of the social cues surrounding you is inherently wrong. Specifically in the case of the unassuming JET, you could consider yourself a grand success, practically the adopted daughter of the principal, and then find yourself refused in your request to re-contract. And there is no definitive way of knowing where on the scale you teeter, for even a request for advice or feedback will be met with the ubiquitous nod and grin.

So that is where I stand - on eternally unstable ground. All confidence in myself and my abilities must be tempered by the realisation that I am, and always will be, an alien.

On a more positive note, today I was told by one Japanese teacher of English (who spent some years living in Canada and is therefore capable of greater inter-culture communication than weakly upturned lips) that when I was teaching I "looked like a queen". I took the more conservative regal interpretation over the Priscilla Queen of the Desert option, because even though I wear more make-up than all the other teachers combined, I don't think I've reached drag-queen levels. I glowed from the compliment all day (and preened and fanned myself and was generally very un-Japanese and smug) even though the question of which queen exactly could lead to some contradictory possibilities (headless, traitorous, short and round, festering, with rotten teeth, dying of the plague etc etc).

In a vanity inspired solely by my red hair, I have quietly (and now world-widedly) decided upon Queen Elizabeth I as my teaching persona. And if she can conquer the Spanish, I can conquer the Japanese. Even if they smile at me.