Jan 28, 2007


The copy machine was covered in red flecks of spice, and the school smelled of sake. This was because a rather old woman had just sashayed about my place of work, throwing spice all over the place and spraying sake at things. She also said some stuff while doing this.
This, of course, was to get rid of evil spirits.
The old woman in question was the sister of our company's president. She doesn't really have an official job with the company- instead she traipses around Japan visiting the various schools and making sure that the decor and such is up to snuff. If she arrives at a school that's not to her liking, she makes it her business to move things around, redecorate, and other such things. Then, of course, she litters the place with udon spice and sake spray. Because, you know, those evil spirits really hate spices and sake. Total teetotalers they are, evil spirits. Yesiree.
I was sort of surprised to find that my Lady Manager actually believes in this sort of thing. I shouldn't be, really, as one religion is as improbable as another, but she defended the old woman's ability to see ghosts and such, and recounted how one rural school had indeed been haunted. I decided to stay politely silent until she asked me, "don't you believe in ghosts?"
"No," I said. She replied with a surprised sounding "Really?" as if my nonbelief was some sort of bizzare pathology. It was odd to come face-to-face with Shintoism for a moment. (Hey, I think it's odd to come face-to-face with strong Christian beliefs.) Intellectually, I knew that such beliefs existed. But that didn't reduce my surprise to find people who actually believed in ghosts and such.
Anyway, I hade to clean off the copy machine after the old woman exorcist left. The stuff was getting into the buttons and such, and the little flecks were causing interference on the copying surface.

The next day, I had to attend an all day training session, which was actually mostly useful but boring in several long stretches. I won't go into the details, but there was an overall theme of emphasizing "kihondosa." Literally, kihondosa means "expected behavior," but in practice translates more accurately to "professionalism."
I am somewhat inexperienced with anything that could be called "professionalism."
Back when I worked for the dysfunctional (but charming) local bookstore, our idea of being all professional and service-like was to wait until our customers were out of earshot and only then call them nasty things. We were basically your stereotypical surly hipster business, wherein attitudes were copped, sarcasm abounded, moodiness was the norm, and actual helpfulness cropped up maybe once or twice a day after we'd just had our coffee.
But, this was okay. The U.S. is a place where one can expect to find novel-reading service people, surly baristas, somnabulic operators, and radio-listening bank tellers. Mostly, people are alright with this. Sure, service with a smile is appreciated, but I think that most Americans don't care too much about it.
This is not the case in Japan. Over here, service is considered very, very important. Actually, important to the point where it's sometimes sort of creepy. When the entire staff of a ramen restaurant turns in your direction, smiling hugely, and says "Arigato goziimashita!" at you as you leave, it's a little unsettling. So, I'm definitely having to tweak my expectations. The students at my school are also customers, so we are all expected to reflect the bright, shiny, expectations of Japanese service. Kihondosa and all that.
One problem that I have with this personally, is that I perpetually look more negative than I actually feel. I've been told on several occasions that I look pissed off when in fact I feel perfectly neutral, and both of the managers have been constantly reminding me to smile. I can see their point- a six foot tall, pissed-off looking gaijin isn't exactly the most welcoming sight, but it's nevertheless difficult. I'm also trying to make myself more extroverted, more accomodating to low-level students, and friendlier in general.
It's coming alright- but I don't know if I'll every get to the bright, shiny, ideal of kihondosa and service-ness of most Japanese employees. My surly bookstore days are damn hard to shake off.


Sydney said...

When I worked at Coffee People I had a similar problem. Whereas you have been habituated to a certain hipster service model, I had one merely suggested to me by the job itself. Everything about it said: Be An Asshole. But like you have your school's administrators suggesting that you go beyond typical American Service With A Smile to Japanese Kihondosa, I had the Port of Portland breathing down our barista necks, saying: Be Extra Nice, Peons! What I used to do was close my eyes (and try not to fall asleep because it was 5 in the morning) and try to summon up all possible good will towards my fellow man. My goal was to take deep breaths and just feel generally happy and positive until the deepest breath made my lungs feel tight, like when you're really excited about something. In retrospect, I imagine that there was a combination of things going on here: 1) fucked up circadian rhythms from working from 4-noon, therefore waking at 2:30 or 3 am and going to bed at 7:30pm; 2) Sleep deprivation, because I was very bad at getting to bed by 7:30; 3) caffeine high, to counteract the hour/sleeplessness, from both coffee and chocolate covered coffee beans; 4) sugar high from all the gummi bears and aforementioned coffee beans we shoved in our apron pockets to tide us over while waiting for an 8am "lunch" break; and 5) way way way too much KISN FM, because it was the only thing that kept customers placated while they waited in line for coffee, God knows why.

Therefore here is what I suggest: don't get enough sleep and then each morning before work, chug about 20oz of coffee, eat a bunch of candy and meditate to "Build Me Up Buttercup." Sure, some people will tell you that there is no way a sugar addled, caffeinated gaijin swaying to terrible examples of "classic" rock is a good example of kihondosa, but I think that when they see how energetically you greet your students, how wide your grin, how truly possessed of the spirit of humanitarian love you are, they'll be clammoring for your secret.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

when all else fails, I try to channel Margaret Cho as my inner monolog and imagine her imitations of the students right in front of me.

Joseph said...

Ooh! You could wear a Laura Bush mask when you teach class! She just radiates calm, poise, and professionalism!