With all the hysterical news of nuclear disaster sweeping the foreign media, I have been asked several times now if I am thinking of leaving Japan. I’m not. Why? Because where I live in Japan, life is carrying on as normal. I am, I believe, at no greater risk here now than I was before the earthquake struck the north-east of Japan on March 11th. Yes, a quake could strike again but that risk has always been here. As for the radiation, well, it’s nowhere near me. So, I’m staying put. And I am very glad to be doing so because I already tried to go home once and it didn’t really work. It pains me a bit to write this lest I am painted as one of those losers who can’t hack it in his own country, but for the purpose of light comic relief I shall reveal to you my story.
This is my second stint in Japan. My first was a stay of about two years in the mid-nineties. I had come because I was unhappy in my job in the UK. It was a good job and one with the potential to bring in a lot of money but I wasn’t enjoying it. I saw an ad for people to teach English in Japan, applied, and came here with the intention of staying two years and then returning home to get my life back on track. After a year here, I was more sure than ever that I would not stay. I liked it but I feared becoming one of the lifers I wrote about in an earlier post. So two years came and went and I headed back to the UK.
I arrived home full of optimism but without any real plan about how I would find a job. I wasn’t worried, though. I had previously had a good career and although I knew I didn’t want to get back into that field of work, my intelligence and personality would see me all right. Of that I was misguidedly cocksure.
The girl at the recruitment agency looked at my C.V. and said she could get me some temp work in a call centre. I laughed and said, ‘Right. No, seriously, what have you got?’ and she looked rather grim and said, ‘That’s where we could place you. Probably. The thing is, if you really don’t want back into your old line of work, you’re not actually qualified for much. I mean, if you don’t know what you want, we can hardly help you.’ And then she explained that they weren’t careers advisors, but rather that companies were their clients and they found people to fill the vacancies they had. ‘i.e.,’ she said, ‘we find people for companies, rather than companies for people.’
‘So…,’ I said.
‘Call centre,’ she replied.
For reasons of pride I knocked back this opportunity, a decision that seemed a tad hasty when I found myself accepting a job in an all-night cafe whose primary perk was an ill-fitting t-shirt which failed to conceal my pre-middle-aged spread. That was bad enough, but I also had to work with lots of students who felt sorry for me having this as my real job.
The pay was less than four pounds an hour. I could feel people looking at me and hear their internal voices saying, ‘Oh look at that poor soul. What a shame! He’s a fat, bald man and he works in an all-night café.’ Worse was that within two weeks I had suffered the ignominy of serving both a girl I’d gone through university with, who was in having coffee with her mum, and then a girlfriend from my school days.
The girl from university greeted me warmly but she was smirking more than smiling when she asked what I was up to these days. It was difficult to see how I could pretend I wasn’t working in a café serving her coffee. The ex-girlfriend was too polite to ask if this was all I had amounted to, but even with my stomach sucked in as far as it would go it was clear she wasn’t in any way ruing the day she let me get away!
I continued to scan the job pages, getting more and more desperate as the months passed but nothing for which I seemed remotely qualified came up. I applied for a job as a subtitler for the deaf at the BBC, trying to claim that some of my days spent dealing with elderly students in Japan had instilled in me the qualities necessary to truly understand the problems faced by the hard of hearing. I got no reply. I even phoned a funeral director who was advertising for a trainee. Desperation had allowed me to convince myself that taking an entry level job in a funeral parlour could lead to my becoming an entrepreneur in death. By the time I picked up the phone to call, I could envision myself being made fabulously wealthy through a string of funeral homes. But when I explained my background to the kindly man who answered the phone and that I was looking for a change in career there was a muffled silence. Why, it was almost as if he were trying to stifle laughter by stuffing a clenched fist into his mouth and biting hard.
After he had recomposed himself, the man explained that they were really looking for a school-leaver. I assured him I had left school, but he sighed as he invited me to send in my C.V. if I really wanted and told me that I would probably be a little over-qualified. I had been knocked back for the kind of job that nobody really wants and that someone who didn’t pass any exams at school would probably take because the woman at the job centre told him to.
I got promoted to manager in the café, which meant I got about 20p more an hour and the top perk of being allowed to wear a shirt of my own, instead of the tight t-shirt. I wasn’t promoted because I was a skilled employee, but just because I was by now one of the longest serving members of staff and one of the very few who wasn’t actually just working there part-time. I had a panic attack that this was becoming my life.
When I started believing small ads in papers that I too could make big $$$$$$ helping stuff envelopes in my free time, and that The Competitor’s Companion really could help me enjoy a comfortable life through monetary and non-monetary prizes alike, I realized I probably had to retrain. Fuelled by nightly bottles of red wine, I had fleeting, ridiculous notions of joining the police, or trying to become an actor. I’d have been hopelessly unsuited for either of these, and in the cold, sober light of day had the sense to realise that I was desperately creating visions of hope where there was none.
Socially, things weren’t going much better than my career. It’s strange to think that when I went to Japan in 1994, none of my friends or family had email, but that was the case and what it meant was that to stay in touch I had to phone regularly or write letters. Neither was much good really. When I sat down to write a letter, I could either bore the recipient to death with the minutiae of my life in Japan or I could write about ‘normal’ stuff, which meant saying hi, writing a couple of lines and then chewing on my pen for a while wondering what else I could say. Even when making the writing really big and leaving plenty of space between words，it was still almost impossible to fill a page and I would invariably give up. Email is great, simply because it isn’t rude to send someone a one or two-line letter. Nobody thinks badly of you for it, but I’d imagine people would think it a tad odd to receive an airmail letter from thousands of miles away that read:
How are things going at home? Everything out here is going well. The job’s still okay and I’ve been going out quite a bit and having a good time. I’m still not seeing anyone.
Anyway, write back soon!!
Even filling a postcard was hard work, but there wasn’t much point in postcard writing anyway; I wasn’t really writing to let friends know what I was doing, but rather so that they might reply to me and reassure me that they were still my friends and hadn’t forgotten about me. You’re not expected to reply to a postcard, but you do feel you should reply to a letter. Well, I do anyway. Evidently, my friends didn’t feel the same obligation.
Phoning was even worse because it meant an oral equivalent of the letter with big spaces and a long empty bit. Even my dad found it hard to talk to me. I’d say, excitedly, ‘Hi Dad, it’s me!’ and he’d say, ‘Oh hello son. I’ll just get your mum.’
So the consequence of all this was that when I got home and phoned a few friends it really had been quite a while since I’d spoken to them. And they’d changed.
I don’t mean that as a complaint or that they had become less likeable people. They hadn’t. It’s just that I had gone away for two years and they had carried on with their careers and were building successful lives like normal people do. Their salaries had increased and they had bought flats.
One of my first social outings was to a friend from university’s flat for a dinner party. I’d stopped off at an Oddbins and picked up a bottle of wine on the way. It was a Chilean red in a bargain basket in the middle of the shop and was the cheapest I could get with a cork. The flat was near the university but it wasn’t like the flats of people I knew in that area when I had actually been at university. Those flats had been furnished with cheap sofas and unmatching patched-up chairs and had sticky linoleum kitchen floors and carpets patterned by decades of indeterminable fluids. This flat was clearly the home of somebody on the fast track to success. The living room had a beautiful hardwood floor,and a fantastic marble fireplace that an estate agent would probably call a period piece. Above the mantlepiece hung a huge gold-framed mirror, and on the adjacent wall was a proper picture, not a poster! I sunk deeply into the leather sofa and munched on nibbles that had been provided, thinking two thoughts: I really hope they don’t open my wine, and I’m glad I decided against buying a six-pack to keep at my feet for the evening.
The dining room table was set with proper tableware, including side plates, napkins and different cutlery for each course – all the things I thought people only had because they got them as wedding presents. There were even different glasses for water and wine, like in a restaurant. If we had been eating at mine, someone would have been drinking their wine out of a mug with ‘World’s Greatest Son’ on it.
It was a pleasant evening, chatting with old friends and sharing a few jokes but it did make me realise how far behind I’d fallen. My friends had clearly become young, up-and-coming professionals. I was still, to all intents and purposes, a student.
A few days after the dinner, I saw an ad in the newspaper for a big recruitment firm. I’d been to see a few recruitment consultants in the last few months, and none of them seemed particularly gifted in any way. Maybe I’d fit right in!
After three interviews I was offered a job starting the following month. It was great; not a job I’d ever considered, but I could at least hand in my notice at the café. I started full of optimism and for the first month I thought that I might finally have got my life back on track. My salary was pitiful, but I would get commission on any job placements I made and during that first month I spent a lot of time at in-house training sessions where we were repeatedly told that if we put the effort in we would get the rewards. My boss’s favourite phrase was, ‘It’s not rocket science’, which I think was meant to reassure us that we would succeed, and whilst it did that to an extent, it also served to remind me I was doing a job that anybody could do. In my mind, she was saying that an idiot could do the job.
Training completed, I was expected to cold-call companies and get them to agree to allow me to find them staff. My boss was right; it wasn’t rocket science and theoretically any idiot could do the job. Somehow, though, I was a spectacular failure. Sure, I’d learned all about the importance of asking open-ended questions and getting to really understand the clients’ wants and needs, but what most of the clients wanted was that I would piss off and stop bothering them at work. On my first morning of canvassing potential clients, a politely spoken man told me that I made him ‘think of something brown’. But then he didn’t just hang up like he should have; he sort of waited for a response and I said, ‘Right. Do you mind if I phone you every so often to see if you’re looking for anyone?’ because we’d been told how important it was to try and build relationships and keep in touch with any potential clients. The guy said, ‘Oh, just fuck off, will you?’
It didn’t get much better. I couldn’t ignore the fact that it was basically a telesales job, except that instead of annoying people at home as they sat down to watch Eastenders, I was annoying them at work when they were busy trying to earn a living. I lasted a little over six months in the job having found a total of four people jobs. When I approached my boss to hand in my notice, I went into her room and she said, ‘You’re going to resign!’ She tried not to look too excited, but confessed that it was clear I wasn’t cut out for this industry. I resisted the temptation to say that perhaps she wasn’t as good as she thought she was either, because despite all her expertise in finding the right man for the job, she had hired someone as unsuitable as me to work for her own company. Instead, I told her that I had decided to go back to Japan. She smiled and wished me all the best. When I left her office an odd sort of commotion began. It was almost as if she were dancing in there.
I returned to Japan with a new respect and professionalism as far as teaching English was concerned. I had to. If I couldn’t claim to be here because it was my heart’s desire, it meant I was here because I was one of those losers who couldn’t hack it in his own country. It seemed to work. I got a job at a small conversation school, took the work seriously and worked on improving my teaching skills. I met my wife and we set up our own business teaching English. The business grew and I discovered that you didn’t have to be a loser to be long-term English teacher. You could, in fact, just be somebody who realises he should never have stopped doing something he actually enjoyed.
So, no, I’m not going home. And thank heavens for that.