Tuesday, January 24
Tuesday marked the beginning of Emma’s last week at Sagamiono school. It was also the first week for our new teacher, Luke 先生. The transition week. But before I can talk about the new guy, I need to talk about the outgoing veteran. Emma has left an indelible impression upon me. And to be blunt, I’m going to miss her like crazy.
Emma’s first week at our school was relative run-of-the-mill. She ran around the school and after her mentor, Mark 先生. She was eager to learn and eager to please. But still it was the first week. She was a bit guarded. I was guarded. We were unfamiliar with the other and sensible enough to let our professional relationship develop at a natural rate. Oh if only the Emma and Alex of January 2011 could see themselves in January 2012. What a contrast it would be.
Emma and I began to tear down the professional walls on the first weekend. We went out with her mentor for some Mexican and beers and let our hair down. I took to calling her “Emmar,” playing up her accent. I would call her Emmar for the next year. The following week at work was a bit less formal. Jokes were exchanged and personalities began to show. We both even managed to slip a zinger by the other a few times.
The weekend returned to us.
Without the supervision or awkwardness of a third-party, the two of us drank and showed our true selves. She, a Kiwi with a smart mouth and penchant for drinking with the boys. Myself, with a keen sense of sarcasm and also a liking for beer. Needless to say we hit it off. The majority of that night was spent arguing about whose countrymen could drink more, Kiwis or Yanks. Neither of us wanting to show a national weakness, kept drinking. We finished a Saturday night long after most people had gone home; and only shortly before the rest woke up. I remember arriving at my apartment still wearing a suit with dawn rising behind me.
“This Kiwi, hiccup, she’s alright. But, hiccup, she may be able to, hiccup, drink more than me. Hiccup. Can’t let her know. Hiccup.”
January and February passed in a blur. Both from keep busy and too much drinking. Then from out of nowhere, it happened. Friday, March 11th. The Great East Japan Earthquake. The nation plunged into chaos. Confused and alone, I bonded with my coworkers, Emma and Hamish. That night the three of stayed together for as long as possible. No one wanted to be alone. In the days and weeks following the disaster I grew very closer with my friends. We were all the others had at that immediate moment. Having lived through something so terrifying created a strong bond between us.
The months after the disaster saw the country moving towards normality. The days got longer. The air grew hotter. Far from the devastated areas, we could occasionally forget about the tragedy to the north. Emma and I would seldom hang out on the weekends. We both jokingly claimed to have a social more important than the other. But we still would see each other at the office for 40+ hours a week. Plus the obligatory post-work beer after a long and hard week. Even on occasion we would see each other on a day off.
Then Emma formally declared her decision that I had known for long, she would not renew her employment with our school. For many reasons, Emma made the difficult decision not to accept a renewal. Fortunately for all of us this decision was made six months from the end. I had six more months with my Kiwi friend.
Our final six months together continued much as the first six had. Lots of time together at work, sometime together outside, and a friendship growing deeper than I was aware of. Then all too soon it was January. Her final week teaching.
Emma was much too busy in the transition week to talk with me much. But we were still in the same office. An off-handed joke towards the other was still easily had. We visited our favorite bar, Angie, after work for a drink, a beer for her and a soda for me. Neither of us could believe a year had passed. So much had changed for both of us.
Wednesday, January 25
Wednesday was one of those days for me. I arrived to school very proud of myself. It was payday and I had taken care of a host of errands, all requiring money from my fresh paycheck. I even arrived to work early to get some extra things done. Then it started.
I poured a coffee. I took off my coat. I felt lighter than normal. I had forgotten my jacket at home. A must have for a professional look and for our office. I put my coat back on and grabbed my keys. My hot coffee would have to wait. My phone rang. It was the bank. I had forgotten my ATM card on top of the ATM. I returned home afraid my phone would ring again with a call from the post office. Luckily they never called and I retrieved both my jacket and ATM card with no hassle. I returned to work just in time to teach my first lesson. All in a day’s work.
Saturday, January 28
Saturday. 8 PM. End of the week. Emma’s last party. Luke’s first. The combined farewell/welcome party. A great turn out, 55ish people. We ate at Art Glass, an Indian restaurant. I could seldom talk to Emma or Luke. Emma was busy migrating between tables and saying goodbye to everyone. Luke on the other hand got stuck at his first table. Like most new teachers he wasn’t sure how to excuse himself from enthusiastic students. I eventually swooped in to rescue him. I spent the rest of the night relocating him every 20 minutes so we could meet new people.
Otherwise the party was a great success. Emma received a thunderous applause when she entered the room. It was especially touching to see the look on so many of the students’ faces. Emma had really made a contribution to them. She managed to hold back her tears until the time of her speech. She choked up when speaking Japanese but managed to get through it. The students again applauded with sincerity. She will be missed.
After dinner I led our students to the second party. I had grown very tired of our usual second party location. The staff is rude and their prices too high. So I led everyone to a bar I had visited, and enjoyed before. I had visited the bar and spoke with the owner earlier in the evening. I had told him I would be bringing a group of 20 people. He told me 20 was a lot, but we could make it work. I was thrilled until I led our posse out of the restaurant and to the bar. More than 30 had followed me. We descended upon the bar and visibly broke the fire code. Yet we managed to squeeze everyone.
During all of this my stress level was at a climax. Some students were visibly upset about the location. Apart from being too small, they were anxious around the customers, who were mostly Africans.
“Stop being racist and stop standing. Take a seat and order a drink.” I thought the first sentence and spoke the second. After some time everyone was seated and served. My stress level subsided a little.
At one point I visited the restroom to relieve myself. Standing at the urinal I heard the stall next to me flush. Out stepped my manager. We were using a shared unisex bathroom. We both let out an awkward laugh.
I returned to the main room and watched everyone drinking. I was the only sober person in the room. I was the youngest. I spoke the least Japanese. But somehow I managed to be the leader of our group. I relished it. I took a look at my watch and realized last train was coming. I moved from the table to table reminding everyone about last train. I paid my tab and left for the station.
Despite a questionable ending to the night, we still had a good time and were able to send Emma off right. Success.
Sunday, January 29
I worked the Sunday after Emma’s party. Luke came in to prepare for the week before. Smart man. Emma came in later to finish up her work. I thought I had said goodbye to Emma the night before!
After work Emma, Sari and myself took a few silly pictures in a プリクラ booth. We laughed out loud and walked back to the station. I said goodbye to Emmar, again.
Monday, January 30
On Monday Sari san helped me get contacts. We visited 町田. I had my eyes tested. I was very unsatisfied with the last optometrist I visited. I believe they misdiagnosed me. My eye strength hadn’t changed in six years before Japan. Then they changed my prescription because, “the previous prescription was too strong and was ruining” my eyesight. My eyes were also no longer the same strength, so I had to buy twice as many contacts as before. Funny. That means more profit for them.
Convinced the first doctor was an idiot intent on cashing in on me, I tried to outsmart the system the second time. I lied about my vision so I would have the same prescription between both eyes, and hopefully a stronger prescription at that. The doctors figured out what I was doing. They told me to stop and again said a strong American prescription would leave me blind. Beaten and embarrassed, I played their game. The diagnosis, conveniently, was the same as the first doctors office. Which they conveniently read off the contacts box I brought from the first doctor. Note to self: leave those at home next time.
Wednesday, February 1
I saw Emma for lunch today. We ate salads and discussed the meaning of the universe. After work Moto, Sari, Emma and myself met at Angie for an after work drink. They drank and I again had a cola. Emma was keen to stay late and keep drinking. Abstaining from alcohol and having to work the next day, I was not keen. Sari and Moto were torn. Eventually reason, me, won and we left. I said goodbye to Emma, again, and went home.
Thursday, February 2
I saw Emma for lunch on Thursday. She and I treated Yuuko to coffee as a “thank you” for having us over to her house two weeks before. We took another プリクラ and I went back to work.
After work I saw Emma again. She and some of our students had gone out for dinner and drinks. I joined after work and an hour late. I stayed late with Emma and our friends. My trip back to the station after dinner was put on hold. Emma wanted to take another ぷりくら. Who am I to say no to an impromptu photo shoot. Four of us ventured into the small booth and took some pictures.
Finally I was able to get us back to the station where I said goodbye to Emma. For the first time in 12 months we didn’t have plans to see each other again. We stood outside the station gates not wanting to say goodbye. Eventually the cold air sank in, tears built up and we said goodbye. We both took comfort in the high probability that Emma will return to Japan in a few months to teach English in the public school system. I wished her the best and gave her a long hug. Then I turned around and high tailed it to the trains.
See you soon, Emma.
Sunday, February 5
Mom and Dad’s 29th anniversary! Amazing!! Congratulations!!!
-Can you use chopsticks?-
On Wednesday I ate lunch with Emma. We had our normal conversation about social injustices, the future of the free market, western assimilation into the Japanese workplace and so on. You know, the normal lunch time topics. At one point during the meal Emma mentioned a long time annoyance. She really hates it when Japanese people ask patronizing questions. For example, “Can you eat raw fish?” The question that really gets her goat is, “Can you use chopsticks.” Then I thought about it and she was right. That really is a condescending question.
The conversation moved on and the topic was quickly left behind. I had forgotten the question until I stepped into the elevator after lunch. My mind returned to it, “Can you use chopsticks?” What a silly question, I thought to myself. But in truth I had been asked that very question dozens of times. So many Japanese people expressed a patronizing surprise when I used chopsticks in front of them. Did they really think their culture was the only that could use chopsticks? Or did they think westerners were too dumb and callous to use something besides their own silverware? The elevator doors opened and my mind quickly dropped the topic.
Quite incidentally this topic came up again that night in my discussion class. I was having a one-on-one conversation with a new student. We were talking about food. Naturally he asked the question.
“Can you use chopsticks?” Asked the new student.
Without even thinking I gave a reply; “Yes. Can you use a fork?”
I was shocked by my inadvertent sarcasm. And then I appreciated the humor.
The man sat there looking befuddled. He fully comprehended the question. But couldn’t decided what to say. Obviously no one had asked him such an apparent question. Finally he gave a joking answer.
“Yes, I can. But not very well.”
We both laughed and moved on to another topic. Inside though I was conflicted. I was surprised that I would make such a comment. But it also felt good to make a quick-witted comment. And I appreciated that the student saw the humor in it. I decided to keep my fork-rebuttal in my back pocket. If the circumstances are right I’ll use it again. But I’ll have to use it sparingly. It’s best not to step on toes. Not here, nor anywhere.
And so with Emma gone from our school her legacy lives on. I’ve taken up her legacy. Now I had a smart mouth.
かんぱい (kanpai) – Cheers
プリクラ (purikura) – A
町田 (Machida) – A ward in Tokyo