This is an extract from my book Lifer – How To Be A Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher in Japan. It tells of my first day in Japan.
My original teaching contract was for two years. I had every intention of staying for that length of time and then going back home and figuring out what to do with my life. My Japan trip was a diversionary adventure, intended to delay the important decision of what my life plan was. After meeting my first other foreigner in Japan, however, I suspected I might not last the two years. He was in Japan for the long haul, a lifer, and was also what I believe is commonly known as a genki arsehole. His name was Paul and he was absurdly enthusiastic about anything and everything. He was a man that you could peg in an instant as a complete dork. Unless you were one of the Japanese who are the food of the genki arsehole; one of the ones who didn’t see him as a first class tosspot but rather as just being full of beans and overflowing with eau de westerner, like the foreigners on the telly.
Paul’s optimism manifested itself most in his choice of hairstyle. He had a combover, a barcode as the Japanese so wonderfully call it. That in itself was unusual in a man just on the cusp of thirty, but he had gone to the trouble of dying it peroxide blonde. Granted, it kind of killed the barcode joke but I’m of a mind to think that if you are a man who opts for the combover, the colour of the hair isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference to your attractiveness. Paul obviously thought differently.
He was a teacher at the chain school which had hired me and he had been sent to meet me at the airport. It was then that I found out the school had thought I had been arriving the day before.
‘I came down here to meet you yesterday,’ he said, beaming with joy as if that in itself had been just great!
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘They’re not pissed that you got your dates wrong.’
‘I didn’t,’ I said.
‘Hey, it’s cool,’ he said. ‘Really.’ And then, once we were on the bus into town, bouncing with unbridled energy on the seat next to me, he said, ‘So, whaddaya wanna know?’
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘About Japan! Whaddaya wanna know? You can ask me anything.’
I wanted to ask if he thought Japanese people didn’t realise he was bald.
‘Well,’ I said, resting my greasy head against the bus window, ‘I’m a bit tired just now, so I can’t really think of anything. I’m sure I’ll have lots to ask you soon enough though.’
Paul told me that would be just fine and then he sat grinning at me with widened eyes and saying nothing. And when it looked like he was just going to continue to sit and grin at me for the whole journey, I felt a bit uncomfortable about going to sleep and decided to ask him how far it was to my apartment.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘So what’s happening there is that you can move in tomorrow. Tonight you can stay at mine!’ I emitted a small squeak through my fake smile.
He told me he had made his home here in Japan and had no plans to return to The States, because there was nothing there for him anymore. He was one of the many guys I would later meet who appeared to be hiding out in Japan because they couldn’t hack it at home. They were people who had found a place where they could walk down the street without fear of a wedgie, people who had discovered that somehow, somehow, they had found a place where reasonably pretty girls would shag them. People, I was sure, quite unlike me.
Paul had a friend called Don. He was about 31 and had a huge Ned Flanders on his top lip. Without the moustache he would have had an enormous expanse between nose and mouth and a lip to keep his chin in permanent shade; with it he looked absolutely ridiculous. I first met him in a bar with a Japanese girl whom he proudly and loudly proclaimed to be his girlfriend. She was pretty and slim and so far out of his league that you would be forgiven for assuming he was making a pathetic joke, like a sleazy uncle hugging his niece in front of friends and thinking it funny to try to pretend she is a conquest. But he wasn’t joking, and she was his girlfriend, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from taking hold of her by the shoulders and giving her a thorough shaking while pointing at Don’s top lip and shouting, ‘Look! Just look at that for fuck’s sake! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?’
I used to laugh at Paul and Don but I could hardly blame them for staying. When you’re a loser like that, staying here and getting a Japanese wife and teaching English for a career is the best you can hope for in life. Oh, how I pitied them!
But, well, I’m still here. I’m bald and my wife is Japanese.
We arrived in downtown Fukuoka and Paul took me into a large office building. He summoned the lift and he, my large suitcases and I made our way up to the eighth floor. A high-pitched voice announced that the lift doors were opening and we stepped out into a reception area with blue carpet tiles, a couple of sofas, and walls decorated with photographs of Japanese students playing various kinds of party games. There were also random English slogans on pieces of card! ‘How are you?’, ‘What do you do?’, and ‘Boy, it’s hot today!’ were some I remember.
By now it was around 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. I had left my home on the Monday. For some reason the Japanese staff at the school seemed to be under the impression that I had spent a pleasant evening relaxing in Tokyo before catching a connecting flight to Fukuoka the next morning. I have no idea why they thought this or why they thought my plane was due to arrive the day before, but they were mistaken on both counts. In fact, I had left on the Monday morning, had spent some time in Heathrow enjoying a few airport pints, had flown to Singapore and had spent six hours or so in Changi airport enjoying a few more airport pints before flying on to Fukuoka. I had left my house almost thirty-six hours earlier and had slept little on any of the flights. So it came as something of a shock to be taken directly to the school and then to be asked by the manager if I had a suit.
‘Yes, of course,’ I said, thinking that she was worried that I would show up for work the next day in the same sort of clothes I had travelled in. She told me I could get changed in one of the classrooms. I was too much of a coward to object and anyway had nowhere else I could go. My apartment, Paul had already told me, was not yet ready and I would have to spend the night with him in his tiny, one-room flat. He would be finishing work at 9:00 that night and I could go home with him then.
I was unshaven and smelled faintly of stale beer and sweat. I was shown to the small room where I was to change. I dug out a suit. It was brown and so crumpled that when I reappeared some of the staff thought I had come to my first day of work dressed as a walnut.
I sat in the corner of a classroom until nine that evening, watching my predecessor say tearful goodbyes to students who clearly wished he wasn’t going anywhere. I held my arms close to my body lest any errant breezes waft in the direction of others and struggled not to blink in case I started snoring immediately. I made odd facial expressions as I perfected the art of the covert, closed-mouth yawn.
Students pointed with quivering arms and said, ‘What? That?’ when told that the starey man grimacing in the corner was soon to be in charge of their classes. I’m surprised any of them came back again.
Actually, some didn’t.