In Japan, first impressions matter. A lot. Put your foot in your mouth and you could end up ruining a potential friendship, having your bosses dislike you, or living next to a neighbor who may be silently plotting your demise because you’ve annoyed them.
Devon knows all of this. He’s prepared for it. And yet, he can’t help getting himself into one or two odd situations along the way. Find out exactly how he navigates his way out of Japanese etiquette traps in Chapter 5 of Forever Foreign.
Where and When to Listen to Forever Foreign, the Fictional Japan Podcast
Looking for episode 1? <- click here!
Want to start with Forever Foreign’s trailer? <- click here!
Looking for the sixth episode of this Japan adventure? <- Click here.
Episodes from season 1 of Forever Foreign drop every two weeks, and we would LOVE it if you’d subscribe and consider giving us feedback via a review or comment.
You can also find links to your favorite podcast feeds below:
Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design, original music – Brock Chrystian
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Callum – Josh Leach
Voice of Kanae Ueda – Saki Taylor
Coming in a minute!
Chapter 5: Please Love Me Japan (Transcript)
DEVON: (a little frantic, almost out of breath) Sunday, Aug— Sunday, August 13th, 2013
(big breath) Hey Henrik,
It’s still the morning here, but I couldn’t wait until the end of the day to talk about this, and Callum’s still asleep.
You remember Erika’s warning from yesterday about the man in apartment 205? She told Callum and I not to annoy him, but didn’t really say much else. I went to his doorstep, running away just when it seemed he might pop out. Well, I just had my first face-to-face encounter. Sort of.
I woke up at 8 and, spurred on by a rumbly tummy, went in search of food. First, I took a two minute bike ride down the street to a grocery store that’s literally called ‘Market’, but found that it wouldn’t be open until 10, so I went to a Lawson convenience store instead.
I may well just be full of myself, but I’m already feeling like a star customer of the place. I challenge you not to feel that way too, Henrik, when you catch one of the staff members staring not once, not twice, but a total of five times as you go up and down the aisles. I know that cashiers are generally on guard for shoplifters in any part of the world, but this part-timer seemed captivated, not vigilant. So much so that I half-expected to be asked for an autograph as I paid for my cold coffee and egg salad sandwich.
When I got back to the Gulag – our soviet-looking apartment building – I locked up my bike, and was startled by the sound of the sliding glass door to the entrance. It opened with several loud bangs, making me jump to attention. When I looked behind me, a figure in baggy sweats was stepping inside.
He was lean from what I could tell and quite short, coming only about as far as my shoulder in height. I signaled that I was going inside, and while it was hard to get a good look at his face underneath the deep hood I could tell by the hunched shoulders and lack of greeting that he was dubious of the stranger wanting to enter his building. Ultimately he left the door open before starting up the stairs without a word.
Unfortunately that didn’t end the tension, because I needed to use those stairs, too. Thankfully I was only going up one flight. Still, he looked back at me with what I can only guess was a frown under the hood before quickening his pace up the stairs. At the second floor I expected him to continue on up, but he didn’t. He went straight down the hall instead, which could’ve meant only one thing; this was the man in 205.
I inserted the key to my apartment door with one eye on the fellow walking away. As I knew he would do, he opened the door at the end of the hall, but not before a nasty glance my way. How did I know it was a nasty glance when I couldn’t see his face? Well, you’ll just have to trust me.
What do you think, Henrik? Did I annoy him? I promise I’m not leaving any details out. That’s really everything that transpired, and yet somehow it feels like this diary now has an antagonist. Guess I just need to avoid him as much as possible from here on out. Do my best not to annoy, as Erika said.
Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say for now. I’ll be back later!
(tape recorder clicking off, room tone for a few seconds)
Aaaand I’m back! Today marks my first full week in Japan, and what a beautiful day it was. Not a cloud in the sky. Now that I think about it, I don’t know if I’ve seen two clouds get together at all this week. They must be getting lonely! Makes me think there might actually be something to that poster I saw in the airport claiming that this is the sunny prefecture. I wonder if there’s a rainy prefecture to balance things out.
After the encounter with the man in 205, I had my sandwich and coffee while listening to a little Steely Dan. Henrik, if you don’t know who Steely Dan is, well… Have a listen to Deacon Blues and I promise you will never forget.
That egg salad sandwich from Lawson was my first ever. I’ve always turned my nose up at them, but for some reason today felt like the day to give eggs and bread a chance. Henrik, I don’t know if all egg salad sandwiches are created equal, but it certainly feels like the one I had this morning was something special.
Do I talk about food a lot? It feels like maybe I do… I should think about a rating system if I’m gonna keep raving about everything I put in my mouth…
Let’s think. It’s probably best to keep to a ten-point scale, but what would a ten be? Yesterday’s demi glaze katsu don is up there, but maybe not a ten. Bit too much gristle for my taste. The curry I ate was also really good, but ten feels too generous for a chain restaurant. Or maybe it isn’t… Ahhh I know! The ramen! Let’s use the ramen as my gold standard.
But I can’t go comparing conbini food to that… I guess I’ll have to separate them. And with how fluffy the bread was and how creamy the eggs were in today’s sandwich, if there was ever a 10 on the conbini scale, it would have to be it. By the way, conbini is the clever Japanese equivalent to convenience store.
As I finished my coffee the sounds of Callum stirring in the apartment next to mine could be heard. I honestly think the walls might just be paper mache, because I could hear everything down to him yawning. And yawning quietly at that…
I wanted to get out and explore the town a little, so I went over to his place and knocked. He answered wearing a shabby pair of black shorts and a white t-shirt. It was the worst dressed I’d seen him to date, but it made more sense when he told me they were his summer PJs. He told me he would come knocking when he was ready to go for a bike ride. That was just before 11.
I thought it would be nice to invite the ladies on our journey too, but when we got to their apartments Alyssa shooed us away, saying she was in a skype call. Bree didn’t answer at all. So Callum and I rode off as a twosome.
With no particular direction in mind, the road next to the main river seemed as good as any. We followed the water east for some time, and I got a good sense of how much work had gone into taming it. The banks on either side are reinforced with stone, and any number of weirs can be seen along its course, creating little waterfalls to control a flow that never seemed like it would come up much higher than my knees if I stood in it.
Crossing a set of train tracks, we passed a tall forested hill surrounded by houses and roads, eventually coming to a large building that Callum was sure was city hall. Personally, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it; everything was still blurring together in my mind. It wouldn’t even begin to come together until we reached the strip mall that Erika drove us past yesterday. We’d been riding pretty casually for an hour by that point, stopping here and there, so we went into a grocery store for a little break.
I could spend an hour talking about all the differences between that store versus the ones back in Edmonton, so I’ll just hit on one for now: seafood. In the supermarkets of my youth you’d be lucky to find more than three different types of fish, certainly none in their fully-finned form.
Japan is a little different. I didn’t keep count, but there had to have been easily 2 dozen different varieties. Some were cut up into filets and some were whole with sad little eyes looking up at me. Some were just tentacles. I could’ve spent an hour inspecting them all if it weren’t for my hunger.
Callum and I followed our noses all the way to the corner of the store where there was a big sign on the wall in English saying ‘delicatessen’. There were rice bowls with different meats, packs of noodles, fried foods, you name it. I settled on a set of fried chicken and rice, and Callum went for sushi.
We took our food back to the forested hill from earlier, leaving our bikes in a parking lot halfway up. From there we hiked up to the top and were surprised to find the perfect spot for a picnic. There’s a playground, a wide lawn, and a lovely paved walking path that wraps all around. The whole area is much bigger than it looks from below, and a leisurely loop takes about ten minutes.
From on top of that hill we got the full picture of Hotaru. Mountains cut in at opposite angles from the left and the right, both sloping toward a wide valley swarming with buildings and other infrastructure. Dividing the scene down the middle is the river that we’d been biking next to. I counted four or five different bridges, the nearest one being for a set of train tracks that veered out of sight. In the background is a cellular tower painted white and red that draws in the eye. Normally something like that might not deserve mentioning, but it has a sort of grand air to it and looks a little like a miniature Eiffel Tower.
Henrik, I’m the kind of person that needs a haunt. A place where I can go for a contemplative walk or, at the very least, be out of the apartment. I had a feeling I’d return to that spot often as Callum and I walked away to find a place on the lawn at the other side of the park.
The two of us stretched out and opened our meals, and it was only then that I felt the heat starting to get to me.
“We really should’ve put on sun screen,” I said.
I’m uhhh, I’m gonna take another stab at Callum’s accent.
“Didn’t you?” Callum said. “I did.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” I asked.
“Was I supposed to?”
“I guess not,” I said. “Would’ve been nice, though.”
“Now I know that Canadians can’t put on sunscreen without permission. How charming!”
I ignored the ribbing and ate a little quicker, wanting to get out of the heat as fast as possible. By the time we’d finished and were back at the Gulag it’d been a couple of hours. I felt pleasantly productive by then, if a little wiped out.
There’s not much else to report from that day. I had a cat nap and went to Market for groceries later. I didn’t buy much; only a carton of milk, some eggs, bread… Oh, I got a flavor of potato chips that I’ve never seen before: Seaweed. Haven’t had a chance to try them yet.
I’ll leave it at that, Henrik. (knock at the door) It’s—
DEVON: I guess I won’t leave it at that.
(footsteps, door opening)
DEVON: Come on in, Callum.
(footsteps, sitting down)
CALLUM: I won’t stay for long. Just wanted to tell you that your accent is still way off. I’m not sure what it is this time. Some part of Ireland? Liverpool maybe? I haven’t got a clue, really, but it’s not Adelaide.
DEVON: Are you gonna coach me or did you just come to point out that it’s wrong?
CALLUM: I was thinking of giving you some advice… but now that you mention it I think I will let you keep blundering. Nice idea!
CALLUM: I suppose a dodgy Irish accent is better than Braveheart, so there’s that. Goodnight!
(A few of Callum’s footsteps that stop short after “hold on”)
DEVON: Wait. Are you wearing a suit tomorrow?
CALLUM: Of course. We’re meeting our boss for the first time, aren’t we?
DEVON: Just checking! Good night.
(footsteps, door closing as Callum leaves the room)
As I was about to say, Henrik, it’s past 8 now… And I’m only just realizing that I forgot to buy aloe gel. Damnit. I have a feeling I’m gonna be sorry for that because my skin is already tender. Well, nothing to do but hope there’ll be a nice tan in the morning when I have to meet my boss. Good night!
(tape recorder clicking off)
Monday, August 12th, 2013
Always wear sunscreen. Always.
That bit of pain from last night grew worse before bed, and by the time I was supposed to be sleeping it was impossible to move my legs, arms, or face. Every bit of skin that was exposed during yesterday’s bike ride was beet red, and my neck even showed blisters by the morning. I long for the days when it was jet lag keeping me awake.
This morning wasn’t all bad, though. Once I was up I made my first meal in Japan; eggs on toast! I really could’ve used some caffeine, but I still don’t have a coffee maker of any kind, so it was up to ol’ adrenaline to keep me chipper. Sadly, I overcooked the eggs since I’m not quite used to the stove settings, but otherwise the meal hit the spot.
(knock at the door)
DEVON: (sigh) Who is it now?
(footsteps, door opening)
DEVON: Hey Callum. We need to figure out a secret knock so I can just tell you to come in.
(footsteps, then sitting down)
CALLUM: I’ll think of something obvious.
DEVON: Well? (Scottish accent) What can I do for ya?
CALLUM: You can take the time to learn a proper Aussie accent, for starters.
DEVON: Oh, that wasn’t an Aussie accent. That was Scottish.
CALLUM: How did you think that was an Adelaidian before?? (sigh) I just needed a break from my computer and heard you starting another diary session. Mind if I sit in?
DEVON: I’m not sure how I feel about making this a regular thing…
CALLUM: I can leave if you want.
DEVON: Hmmm… You know what? This might be the thing to keep me motivated. Just stay quiet, alright? Henrik, you can’t see this, but Callum just did a mouth zippering motion. Thanks bud.
After eating, I stepped in front of the mirror in the bathroom to shave and gave a start. A hideous tomato with black hair and brown eyes looked back at me. Not a tomato in very good shape, either. This one was still sporting a bruise on his forehead from slipping in the shower a week earlier, the color of which had faded to a sickly yellowish-brown.
Henrik, I wouldn’t call myself a vain man, but I wanted to at least be presentable for my first meeting with my new employer. So when I saw my reflection it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. We do the best we can, though.
As I rubbed a healthy amount of shaving cream into the stubble of my face and neck I savored the cool sensation on my sunburn. But only for a moment. With the razor held to my right sideburn, I tried not to think about the next action. Instead, I took a deep breath and went for it, wincing as the blades scraped across my crispy skin, repeating the motion over the rest of my face.
It hurt, Henrik. It hurt. And I’m not even sure that it was a fruitful exercise. If anything I might’ve looked even less human by the time I was done. Better than the beginnings of a beard, I suppose.
CALLUM: Were you really that concerned with your face?
DEVON: Dude. Look at it. Look at it!
CALLUM: Right. Fair enough.
DEVON: After getting into my suit, I sat on the edge of my bed, wincing each time my collar touched my neck and wallowing in self-pity at my plight. I had to wonder if I was stepping on some kind of Japanese custom of not getting too much sun the day before meeting your new workplace superiors. Would they be offended? Might I be forced to wait for another day where I was less brightly colored to meet them? It felt like my only hope for getting my new boss’s approval was omiyage, and thankfully I had just the thing.
Before leaving Edmonton I’d done a lot of research, trying to figure out what would make the perfect gift to represent Canada. Something maple-themed was the obvious choice, but it might’ve been a little too obvious. I wanted to do better than the countless Canucks parading through Japan with armfuls of maple caramels and cookies.
After some digging I found out that Coffee Crisps not only don’t exist in Japan, they’re also uniquely Canadian. Henrik, if you haven’t tried them, please do. They’re made up of layers of thin wafers and some kind of soft, bubbly coffee-flavored candy. The whole thing is dipped in chocolate to make an irresistible snack. Think of a single bar of kit-kat, but thicker and evolved into its final form. I stuffed an 8-pack into my bag and prayed that they would make up for my repulsive sun-damaged flesh.
Erika came knocking at precisely 9 o’clock, just when she said she would. When I opened the door, she didn’t even bother with pretense. Now that I think about it, she didn’t greet me either. What she did do was double over with wild laughter, pointing at my face. There was nothing for me to do other than stand there for a full minute and take it. At some point I found myself laughing with her, and by the end I felt silly for how seriously I was taking myself.
Finally, after a ragged breath, Erika managed to say, “They’re going to love you.”
When Callum came out of his room – sorry if me talking about you is a little weird, Callum.
CALLUM: Not at all.
DEVON: When Callum came out of his room it was his turn to laugh. And when we picked up Alyssa and Bree, they got in on it as well. It might’ve actually been the first time I’ve seen Bree smile. Would you agree?
CALLUM: (amid a chuckle) Now that you mention it, yeah. You might be right.
DEVON: Our meeting was across the street from the slightly shabby-looking city hall building Erika had pointed out on Saturday. On the drive over, she told us a little of what to expect, which wasn’t much. We would go over some scheduling details and receive a few documents, but mostly we were there to introduce ourselves. So she asked the four of us to be ready to state our name, nationality, and a hobby or two. In Japanese, if possible. I was nervous, but thought I might be able to stumble my way through.
The board of education was in a newly built facility behind the city library. On the second floor, Erika took us to an empty meeting room with a conference table and a dozen chairs all around. It had a brand new, sterile feel to it. The walls were white, the table was white, and the chairs were plastic and black. Papers were set out around the table along with name plates; the four of ours were on one side while Erika’s and Kenta Okada’s were on the other. I recognized the second name from my conversation with Erika on the drive into Hotaru.
We weren’t waiting long for Erika to return, and even before Okada sensei came into view he announced himself with a booming, “Herooo.”
The four of us said hello back, but I, at least, was a little too nervous to do much else other than smile.
Okada sensei is about as tall as I am, but he looks to be a good deal heavier. I don’t just mean that he’s fat, although I guess he is a little chunky. I would describe him more as burly, with muscular forearms that made me think of a baseball player.
He looked us each over briefly before sitting down, smiling as he went. Bree was the closest to the door, so he nodded to her first. Next was Alyssa, then Callum, and finally myself. When his eyes fell on my face they went from looking welcoming and enthusiastic to wide-eyed and shocked.
“It’s… berry hotto ne?” he said, his mouth hanging open.
CALLUM: (laughing, then stifling his laughter) Sorry. Sorry…
DEVON: “Very hot,” I agreed. And I was getting hotter. Sweat was even beginning to soak through my suit jacket.
Okada sensei spit out some Japanese that I didn’t understand before gesturing to Erika for a translation.
“He says you should buy some sun screen.”
“Thank you very much. I will,” I said, hoping that was the end of the discussion.
More Japanese changed hands before Erika said, “Ano… you should try a lotion for the burns, too. Okada sensei will recommend his favorite later.”
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I said.
His eyes lingered on the bruise on my forehead long enough that I thought he might run for a poultice and a list of ingredients to grind in a pestle and mortar. Thankfully he sat down instead.
CALLUM: (stifling another laughter) You’re forgetting whe— Sorry. May I?
CALLUM: You’re forgetting when Okada sensei ran to the other room for aquarius sweat. He gave you a bottle all to yourself while the rest of us sat around watching. Wouldn’t continue with the meeting until you’d finished half of it.
DEVON: How could I forget. Anyway, that ended my turn on the stage. From there, we all took our seats and started the official business. Erika opened the meeting by thanking us all for coming before asking Okada sensei to make his introduction.
“My neimu izu Kenta Okada,” he said, holding up the name plate that was on his desk.
“Aimu furomu Hotaru. I raiku Japanese comedy berry much. Nice to meechu.”
“Nice to meet you too,” our four voices intoned.
Erika and the rest of us did our introductions next. Callum predictably spoke about video games and Erika went with Harry Potter. I learned something new about Alyssa, who didn’t even attempt a word of Japanese as she told us she liked Volleyball. Thinking back, it’s not such a shock given her height and how often she talks about working out.
The real surprise came when it was Bree’s turn to speak. The sullen girl from Ohio turned into ray of sunshine as she spoke in what seemed to me like flawless Japanese about her love for acoustic guitar. Then she went on for another ten or twenty seconds, saying things that I couldn’t begin to guess at. Whatever it was, Okada sensei and Erika were blown away. Literally. They were actually recoiling in their seats, eyes wide in shock.
Okada sensei managed to gather his wits enough to say, “Berry nice Japanese!”
The rest of us gawked at Bree, who was beaming back at Okada sensei and Erika. I’m not sure what came over me, but I stood up from my chair, clapping furiously. I couldn’t help it. Bree had blossomed into a confident flower before my eyes, leaving me awestruck.
When it was my turn, I had what I thought was a stroke of genius. I managed to give my name and country in Japanese, which I was thankful not to completely trip over, and instead of mentioning a hobby, I pointed to my cherry-red face and said, “I like going outside.”
Henrik, it was a hit. Erika translated for me and Okada sensei actually laughed so hard that he clutched his belly. I couldn’t have been prouder of myself for the lemons I’d made from lemonade. Wait… Lemonade from lemons… Whatever. It was awesome.
After that, Okada sensei passed things off to Erika to review our yearly schedule, or at least some of the highlights. She mentioned the Chiron English day camp that we would have to attend in a couple of weeks, but there were also lots of school events to look forward to. Too many to name here.
The most important thing Erika explained – or at least the one I remember her talking about the most clearly – was the Hotaru summer festival that the board of education members take part in each year. I guess it’s a custom for the new English teachers to join in, too. There’s a banquet, a parade, food stalls… Lots to look forward to. And it’s happening this Friday!
Okada sensei made a drinking gesture, saying that he was looking forward to seeing us at the festival as he got up from his chair. Apparently that was the signal for the meeting to come to an end, because he reached across the table to shake our hands, wishing us luck during the school year.
I took that opportunity to hand over the Coffee Crisps, saying they were from all of us. Okada sensei gave several slight bows as he accepted, telling me that he would share them with the others in the office. It was just a small gift, but he seemed to really appreciate it, and I felt better for it, too. Nothing like the gift of giving!
Erika had two more things in store for us today after leaving the board of education: bank accounts and cell phone contracts. Setting them up was a simple process that took a couple of hours altogether.
I won’t bore you with the details, Henrik. But I did want to say it was kind of funny watching the teller at the bank and the agent at the cell phone company struggle with my full name: Devon Maxwell Thompson Glendenning. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t mention the middle names at all. But since it’s in my passport it’s in my Japanese visa, and since it’s there it’s in my residence card. Now it’s spread to my bank account book as well as my cell phone contract.
I’m convinced that our time spent running errands today could’ve been cut in half if the Japanese workers didn’t have to fumble through the extra names. At both establishments they had to check, double-check, and triple-check to make sure that the conversion to the Japanese writing system was satisfactory, too. I hate to think of how much longer it would’ve taken without Erika.
It got sorted eventually, though. And now I have my own Japanese phone! Technically, it’s American. I think… but I bought it here, so I’m gonna go ahead and keep calling it Japanese. Also it’s got a cool Japanese keyboard installed that I’ve never used before!
Oh, there’s one last thing I wanted to mention that happened today; a short encounter before dinner. As we were heading out together for Market, Callum and I crossed paths with the man in 205. He was wearing a similar hoodie to the one from yesterday and once again had it concealing his entire head. I guess he must’ve been coming home from work when we saw him at the top of the stairs.
“Konnichiwa,” I said.
Callum, who had been avoiding eye contact with him until then, shot me a look that said, “Why on earth are you poking the bear?” The man seemed to have a similar question on his mind, making a show of turning away and slamming the door at the end of the hall. Go ahead, Callum. I can tell you wanna say something.
CALLUM: Why were you poking the bear? The guy wants to be left alone.
DEVON: I dunno. We said we wouldn’t annoy the man, but, to me, being nice isn’t the same as being annoying. If it is, well… Call me annoying! Maybe he’s set on being miserable now, but who knows, one day he might wanna give happiness a try.
CALLUM: You really are a drongo.
DEVON: Thanks. Well, Henrik, I think that does it for today. Callum did you want to say goodnight?
CALLUM: Not particularly.
DEVON: How ‘bout a little Mario Kart?
DEVON: Good night, Henrik!
(tape recorder clicking off)
(cicada sounds fade in in the background prior to the next line and continue)
Tuesday, August 13th, 2013
How ya doin, Henrik?
The sun blisters are reaching their peak. I thought I was in pain yesterday, but it’s hard to wear a shirt at all currently, so I spent most of the day inside with a cold cloth draped around my neck watching TV. Erika came by with Okada sensei’s secret cream, which felt pretty great as I splashed the milky liquid over… my… body? Okay, that’s NOT what it sounds like. I hope that’s not what it sounds like! It was an unmarked bottle and the contents were a little sticky… No, Okada sensei wouldn’t do me like that. Would he..?
In the afternoon Callum joined me for an hour or two. We chatted about the man in 205, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t introduced myself to him yet. Self-introductions were an important part of the meeting at the board of education, so I wondered if it might be the missing ingredient in my relationship with the stubborn chap.
From that little idea, a plan was born. I waited for him to come home from work, pouncing the second I heard the entrance door rattle open at 5:30. Just as I’d hoped, the man from 205 could be heard walking up the stairs moments later.
I stepped out of my room, did a small bow, and from the top of the steps said in Japanese, “My name is Devon. I’m from Canada and I like reading books.”
He grunted something – not Japanese, just a throat noise – and walked right past, slamming his door. Didn’t even look in my direction. I guess I’ll have to think of some other way to reach this man. I won’t stand for discord in the Gulag, Henrik. I just won’t.
Anyway, I’m off to bed. Erika is taking us all to our schools tomorrow and I’m first on the docket.
(sound of cicadas take us out before tape recorder click cuts off sound)
Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
I’m getting the feeling that punctuality is important to Erika, because she was once again at my apartment exactly on time. Not a minute late. To tell you the truth, I might have to call it something other than good timekeeping because she was uptight all morning.
It’s understandable, on some level. She was supposed to be taxiing all four of us English teachers around to different schools, after all. I only had one, but I happened to know that Callum had two places to visit, and the girls might have even more.
On the other hand, it wasn’t understandable at all. She looked much more nervous than I was even though it was me who was meeting people for the first time and introducing myself in… not even my second language. What would Japanese be to me, my second attempt at language? No, that honor belongs to French. Oh French, how I failed you… Whatever you wanna call it, I was supposed to be the one who was stressed, not Erika.
My guess is that she’d just gotten a little over ambitious in scheduling her day. She would’ve done well to listen to something that grandpa Glendenning used to say: “Pile too much on your plate and it’s sure to spill over.”
I don’t think her plate did spill over, but it might as well have. She was in the doldrums from the time she picked me up to the time she dropped me off. She didn’t even bother commenting on my sunburn.
“Ano… just introduce yourself to the principal, okay?” she said. “The same kind of introduction you did on Monday.”
“Can I give them some chocolate bars?” I asked. I’d brought quite a few along with me in my bag.
She paused, as if calculating in her head whether it would ruin her timetable for the day. Finally, she said, “That should be okay.”
The school I’ll be working at for the next year is called Hotaru Chuo elementary. Chou means middle, or center. It’s the biggest school in Hotaru, I’m told, with around 400 students, and because of that, the teachers who work there generally have the brightest spotlight on them. That’s what Erika said, anyway.
The school is partway up the side of one of the mountains near city hall with cedar trees and traditional houses all around. We parked in a small lot next to an open gravel field before going up a set of stairs leading to the entrance. At the top, Erika hit an intercom button. A voice greeted us and Erika responded in Japanese before stepping back to wait. Moments later a woman could be seen jogging down the stairs on the inside, waving her arms frantically with a broad smile.
“Welcome!” she said as she opened the door. “My name is Taguchi…” She said her first name, too, but I don’t remember what it was. There’ve been a lot of new names in the last week and a half.
If I had to guess, I would say that Taguchi sensei is in her 50s. She wore track pants and a polo shirt today, making me feel overdressed in my suit and tie.
Two pairs of slippers were already laid out inside the entrance, so we took our shoes off, put them on, and followed Taguchi sensei up the stairs inside. As we walked, I made note of the light-colored hardwood that made up the stairs. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a school back home with anything like it.
After knocking, Taguchi sensei took us into a cozy room with a single desk at one end, book shelves all around, and two sofas with a coffee table in the middle. She told us to sit down just before leaving from a different door than the one we’d used to enter.
On the wall opposite our sofa, just below the ceiling, were a dozen or so framed pictures of old men, many of which were done in black and white. They all looked very distinguished. Very respectable. I asked Erika who the dashing gentlemen were and she said that they were past principals of the school. I guess it was a sort of wall of fame.
When Taguchi sensei returned, it was with the sort of old man with a comb-over that would’ve fit right in with the ones in the pictures. His name is Harada… Something… Henrik, I’m lucky I even remember that much. I’m told that I’ll just be calling him kocho sensei, anyway. It’s Japanese for principal.
He welcomed me with open arms, trying my name out for the first time. “Debon Makusueru Tonpuson Gurendenningu desu ne?”
Apparently news of my full name had spread to the teachers at my workplace.
“Call me Devon,” I said.
Kocho sensei then pointed to my face and said, “Daijoubu desu ka?” Are you alright?
I’d almost managed to forget that I was sunburnt for five minutes.
“Daijoubu desu.” I said. I’m alright.
When we were all seated, I performed the same self-introduction that I’d done the day before for the man in apartment 205. When I said my name I stressed that it was just Devon Glendenning.
Taguchi sensei and kocho sensei kept theirs simple, giving only their names. But they did hand me business cards, which made me a little nervous. You see, Henrik, business cards are a very big deal over here. Luckily Chiron trained us on how to handle them.
One by one, I received each tiny rectangular piece of paper with both hands, bowing slightly and bringing it close to my face for inspection. I then pretended as if the card was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen, which for me was a bearded lady who could put her legs behind her head. A solid 8 seconds later, I was gingerly putting it on the table.
We dove into the meeting from there, which quickly became less formal and didn’t last long at all. In total, it was… maybe ten minutes? And mostly consisted of them asking standard questions to get them ready for when I joined the staff.
“Can you eat school lunch?” Taguchi sensei asked.
“I think so!” I said.
Erika translated the next question for kocho sensei: “How will you get to school?”
“I think I’ll walk, if that’s okay,” I said.
All three of the Japanese people in the room seemed shocked at that.
“Ano… Don’t you wanna use your bicycle?” Erika asked.
“It’s not that far,” I said. “Of course, if I’m running late I’ll hop on the bike.”
They made me feel a little like a super hero for wanting to walk to school. Like there’s a troll under the bridge that I’ll have to cross to get to Chuo or maybe a gauntlet of swinging axes. I kinda hope there’s a gauntlet…
We went over other things like how I needed to prepare a self-introduction for my first classes, but soon it was apparent that we were just casually chatting. When the silences grew long enough I pulled out the Coffee Crisps, asking how many staff members there were. A question I immediately regretted.
A rough number would’ve been fine, but Taguchi sensei took it as a matter of honor to give me an accurate figure. A great deal of counting on fingers followed before she told me there were twenty-two, no twenty-three, no twenty-four people. I put four 8-packs of Coffee Crisps on the table just to be safe.
With a grand flourish, I said, “Omiyage from Canada.”
Kocho sensei seemed really impressed, giving me two thumbs up. “Debon sensei,” he said. “Berry cooru guy.”
That added quite the pep in my step as we left the building, Henrik. I mean, who doesn’t like to be called cool?
My first day at work isn’t for another two weeks, but I hope those chocolate bars will be enough to get me in my co-workers good books early. What am I saying? They’re Coffee Crisps. Of course they’ll be enough. Now that I think about it, they might even be too much… What if they love them to the point that their expectations of the guy who brought them are overinflated? I’m not such a cool guy, after all. Not really. Oh no, what have I done? I guess it’s better than giving them nothing I suppose…
Whatever happens then, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about the power of well-timed omiyage. And seeing the reactions of Okada sensei at the board of education and now kocho sensei at my school gave me an idea. So when Erika dropped me off at home, I got straight to work.
(rolling tape recorder sound sloooowly starts to fade in)
In one of my dressers there’s quite a bit of arts and crafts supplies; if I had to guess, I’d say that the previous ALT made a lot of materials for his classes. So I constructed a little box out of some spare cardboard that was lying about, pasted white paper on it, and wrapped it in some red ribbon. But not before putting three snack-sized Coffee Crisps on a bed of construction paper that I’d cut into narrow strips and crinkled. From there, it was a matter of waiting. And I’m actually still waiting, so I’ll turn things back on when he arrives. Ya know, do this live.
(tape recorder clicks off)
(tape recorder clicks on and the rolling sound fades to nothing over 10 seconds)
Okay, it’s 5:30 and I just heard the sliding door downstairs open. I’m guessing it’s the man in 205 since he came home at the same time yesterday. Just looking through the peep hole now… Yup! It’s him. Show time.
(door opening, 2 footsteps as Devon walks just outside his door)
205: Mou! Mendokusai!
DEVON: Uhhh… this is omiyage from Canada…
DEVON: Umm… Kanada no… omiyage… desu?
(sound of a small wrapped cardboard box. I’ll record)
205: Eee? Ii desu ka?
DEVON: Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
205: (more cheerful) Yoroshiku onegaishimasu! Kanada shusshin desu ka?
DEVON: Kanada… Yes… Uh… Hai. Kanada desu. Watashi wa Debon desu. Etoooo anata no namae wa nan desu ka?
205: Ueda Kanae desu. Nihongo jouzudesune!
DEVON: Arigatou gozaimasu. Please, enjoy the chocolates. Uhh, (said slower and clearer) enjoy the chocolates.
KANAE: Arigatou gozaimashita.
(a couple of footsteps, door closing as Devon goes back into his apartment)
DEVON: Soooo… the guy in 205 is a gal, huh?
(knock on the door based on the start of the Mario theme)
DEVON: That must be Callum’s secret knock. Come in.
(door opening, 2-3 footsteps, door closing as Callum comes inside)
DEVON: Yoooo awesome secret knock!! I knew it was you right–
CALLUM: (angry) What the bloody hell did you do? It’s like you’re trying to make our lives in this town shit by pissing off someone that we may see every day for the next year.
CALLUM: Listen Devon, you’re a nice guy, but sometimes—
DEVON: Hold up. Let me stop you there. Don’t want you saying anything that offends the person you’re going to be seeing every day over the next year. I have good news.
I’m not sure how to break this to you, but the man in 205 is… a woman. She’s been wearing hoodies all this time so I had no idea. I feel like an idiot.
All I did just now was give her some chocolate from Canada, but I swear when I handed that box over she transformed. It wasn’t just the fact that she pulled her hood back, either. Imagine the scene from Lord of the Rings where Gandalf breaks Saruman’s spell over king Théoden in the Golden Hall of Rohan. If you can’t imagine that, just imagine someone magically having a revolting makeup job removed from their face and the lighting in the room suddenly becoming much more flattering.
CALLUM: I know the scene. Probably a lot better than you do…
DEVON: I seriously doubt it unless you’re actually from New Zealand and not Australia. She smiled, Callum. And she told me her name.
CALLUM: (hesitant) What is it?
DEVON: Guess you’ll just have to earn that yourself.
CALLUM: Piss off. I didn’t bring enough omiyage for her.
DEVON: Maybe it doesn’t have to be from your home country. I still have some matcha waffles from Okayama station if you wanna try giving those.
CALLUM: Couldn’t hurt, I suppose.
(crinkling of a plastic package)
CALLUM: I’m off! I’ll let you know how it goes.
(door opening and closing as Callum leaves. Some footsteps and then settling into a seat as Devon sits down)
(muffled, excited conversation)
(chuckling) I guess a little thoughtfulness goes a long way in any country, Henrik. Though it miiight be more pronounced in Japan. Whether it was a beautifully wrapped package with foreign gifts or something from down the road, it didn’t seem to matter. As long as there were good intentions behind it, any offering to the lady in 205 would’ve been fine.
Maybe words like omiyage and souvenir deserve a more charitable interpretation than just ‘gift from somewhere else’. After all I’ve seen this week, it feels more like a message. A message that says, “I think you’re important enough to deserve some of the lightest, tastiest, most heavenly sweets this planet has to offer.”
Who knows how important Kanae Ueda will be in my time here, but at the very least I’ve given us a good start.