Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Without a Telephone, No One Can Hear You Scream!

"Nemo!!!! Where are you Nemo!!!!!!?????"

Fall 1989, Nagoya, Aichi

To get a phone at this time, you had to fork over about 800 dollars US. I couldn't afford it! Now you can get a reasonably priced cell phone, but back then there weren't any...

I lie here in my apartment in Nagoya, staring at the ceiling. It is scary running a temperature when you are all alone in a foreign country. If this isn't just the flu, I don't even have a phone to call an ambulance. I realize in my pyrexic daze that I don't know what to say in Japanese, had I had a phone. I might be able to get across my address with my poor pronunciation, and if they are smart enough to assume I'm in trouble and not making a crank call, they might send someone. If I do need to call, I'll have to stagger or crawl to the public phone down the street.

Although it's freezing, I am hot. Central heating is virtually unknown in Japan. I have two small electric heaters to heat my whole apartment (not that I need them tonight). In the morning, I see my breath inside my apartment. (Which is another new experience for me!) I can see the stars outside as I don't even have curtains. I am not alone in feeling it is often warmer outside than it is inside my place. The cockroaches agree. They stay outside as they know it is warmer!

My first impression of the biggest city in Aichi Prefecture is of a grey concrete city of no discernable personality. It is depressingly ugly. So ugly in fact that I feel the need to talk about it with the other foreigners I've met, just to be sure that I am not being too negative about it. Am I going through culture shock I ask myself? Probably. It's funny, few people will ever admit they are going through culture shock. It seems to be a very embarrassing topic for many people-as if they would have to admit to some flaw of character. Yet I am not ashamed and feel a need to talk about this ugly city. My foreign friends agree though, that Nagoya is one of the ugliest cities they have ever been to. The concensus amongst us seems to be that because Nagoya was rebuilt in a big hurry after the war, money was scarce and during the 40's and 50's concrete was in vogue. So you get this butt- ugly city called Nagoya with many 5-10 story, concrete, shoe box buildings. There isn't much foliage to interrupt the endless boxlike flow towards downtown.

Yet I walk around, and their are vestiges of beauty. There are delightful old Japanese houses with traditional style gardens including bonsai trees. The river near my apartment is tree lined with cherry trees and I contemplate a Spring of beautiful pink cherry blossoms floating down on me. Thankfully Nagoya is nicer than first appearances. The neighbourhoods are her saving grace.

English School

I work for a small school near my apartment. They have sponsored me for my visa along with another school. My boss, Mark from Minnesota, is fond of four letter words in both English and Japanese, talking about how he would like to "do it with that little high school girl..." and he is fond of cutting gold fish with scissors, hoping his pirahnas will attack them. They never do; and look bored in fact. I am called "squeamish" when I protest his ritual of cutting the goldfish. This is the man I work for. Minnesota; is that where many people are in-bred? I can't remember.

I also work for another school called St. Maria College. It is a women's two year college coupled with a language school. There we use a method similar to Berlitz. It is quite classy looking inside. Unfortunately, most of the students are not very serious about their studies, and seem content to pass the time until the day they get married.

Working there to some extent is like being a child in a candy story. There are a bevy of beautiful, eligable young women, but for a young teacher, they are off limits of course. I am advised by Craig, the Scottish head of the English Department, to "...have the students call you Mr. Burns. You being a young teacher, I think it is important that you keep some distance from the young women students we have here. If they call you Kevin, they will feel closer to you." What's wrong with that? I secretly conspired. But I agreed with Craig, Mr. Burns it was. I looked but didn't touch.

Every English School has a personality, as does every class in fact. Both are shaped by the teachers and students, and in the case of a school, the office staff as well.

I was a friendly, small town Canadian guy, coming to live and work in Japan for the first time. It was rough at first to say the least.

To come to Japan takes guts. You have to leave your friends and family back home, you no longer have the social supports you did in your hometown. From scratch you have to make a new life for yourself, and other people of course, may not want to be a part of "KEVIN"S NEW LIFE IN JAPAN!--the maudlin game show announcer wailed. "So Jack are you going to watch the Superbowl on Sunday?"--I asked hoping to start a conversation. "Of course I am!" He practically yelled in disgust. I soon learned that I reminded Jack of someone he knew during the war-- perhaps someone he had wanted to strangle with his bare hands. I never broached the Superbowl topic again. I wanted to see my 27th birthday! Jack was high strung and had just gone through a painful divorce. Can't imagine why--what a delightful personality. He was working twelve hours a day, six days a week. Can you say, "on edge?" I asked a mutual friend, "What's up with Jack?" She said, "He finds you too friendly."

I decided I would back off. I took to wearing turtle necks in case Jack lost it--hoping somehow the material would help me to slip out of his sanguinary hands. It worked. He lightened up and started talking to me more. He turned out to be a pretty good guy once you got to know him. I lived to see my 27th birthday.

by Kevin Burns

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