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November 2008

Eden Carter Wood
‘Your nose is very big,’ the student told me, gesturing grotesquely. ‘And your eyes, also very big.’

‘In my culture,’ I replied primly, keeping my temper in check, ‘such comments would be considered rude.’

Plenty of people had gone mad in Japan. In my first year a guy in my prefecture had lost it completely on a weekend ski trip to Hokkaido, stripping buck naked and wandering casually into a pachinko parlour as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. I’d heard that his family had come to collect him and he was now back in the suburbs of Sydney, a gibbering wreck.

Every year there were new stories like this one, anecdotes passed between us at winter conferences, at team-building enkais, at prefectural teaching seminars. There was the girl from Iowa who refused to leave the airport on arrival, taking the next flight home in tears and, we gasped, at her own expense. There was the story of the Irish guy who got drunk his first week in Japan and fell from the tiled roof of his apartment, breaking both his legs. No one ever actually seemed to know these people but their myths prevailed, long outlasting their tenure.

• • •

‘Japanese people are very shy,’ Mr Ogawa told me seriously, flicking the switch which turned the central locking system on, securing the passenger door. An innocuous enough habit, presumably to deter carjackers, but it made me nervous. We were on the way to the yearly team teaching conference, and he was hoping to avoid helping me with our presentation.

‘So are New Zealanders,’ I assured him.

‘Many Japanese find public speaking difficult,’ he explained, lighting a cigarette. ‘Japan is an island nation. Very isolated.’ He exhaled.

‘We find it difficult too,’ I countered, determined not to let him get away with it. I had spent the last two weeks preparing materials for our presentation, and I did not relish the idea of performing it alone as well.

‘New Zealand is very far away,’ I added, allowing the faint suggestion of homesickness to linger in the air. I didn’t miss New Zealand at all but he wasn’t to know that.

‘It is near to Australia,’ he reminded me, opening his window a crack and holding the drooping tip of his Mild Seven to the rushing air. A flurry of ash flew in our faces, distracting us from our deadlock.

• • •

The other foreign teacher in Subarashii was a last-minute recruit who arrived a month or so after me. Thinking it a nice gesture, our supervisor Noriko suggested I show him around. It soon became apparent, however, that he didn’t need my help.

‘How have you not picked up more Japanese?’ Grahame asked that first day, rearranging his text books on the desk that we would share, month on, month off as we rotated between the two junior high schools in Subarashii. ‘I would never have believed you had been here a month already.’

His apartment was minutes from mine and for the first few weeks I hung out with him after work, swallowing my irritation as he told me things I already knew. ‘This is yakisoba,’ he’d say, pointing it out at the supermarket. Or, ‘this is udon.’ His high school Japanese was strange and he used it to flirt with local housewives, slapping his razor-burnt cheeks with cologne before we went out. After a week or so I gave up, made excuses, kept largely to myself. More than a year went by and sometimes we wouldn’t see one another for months at a time.

• • •

‘Have you experienced Japanese seasons?’ Mr Ogawa asked politely, although he knew very well that I had. We had been working together at Subarashii Junior High School for eighteen months.

‘I have indeed,’ I told him. ‘Last year I saw the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park. It was very beautiful.’

Mr Ogawa gasped with surprise and for a moment I thought he was going to drive us off the road. ‘Really?’ he said, his eyes wide behind his spectacles.

‘Oh yes,’ I continued, ‘and in autumn I travelled to Nikko, in Tochigi prefecture. The trees were beautiful.’ I had been greatly impressed by the wild monkeys that we had seen fornicating by the roadside, but it seemed more polite to compliment the foliage.

‘What kind of gas do you use in New Zealand?’ Mr Ogawa asked next, stifling a yawn. Culturally-based small talk, the staple of the foreign teacher’s life in Japan, had never been his strong suit.

‘I’m not sure,’ I told him seriously. ‘What type do you use?’

‘This car?’ he asked, ‘I don’t know the word in English.’

For a few minutes we watched the road. I wondered idly if I should ask him to pull over so I could buy a can of hot coffee from a vending machine. We had plenty of time, maybe we could go to a convenience store.

‘What is it in Japanese?’ I asked eventually.

‘Hi-ocu,’ he said, enunciating each syllable with tremendous care.

‘High octane,’ I translated happily. ‘That’s the English word for it.’

Ogawa-sensei smiled, also pleased, and made a mental note of this.

‘High octane,’ he repeated. We are not so different then, you and I, his smile seemed to say.

Stopped at the traffic lights, Mr Ogawa took the opportunity to light another cigarette.

‘Do you smoke?’ he asked, offering the crushed pack, already laughing heartily at the absurdity of his question. Although male teachers often congregated outside the staffroom for a cigarette, it was considered irresponsible for Japanese women to do likewise.

‘Thanks,’ I said, practically ripping his arm off. I hadn’t had a cigarette since breakfast, and lit up now with relish.

‘Wow,’ said Mr Ogawa.

• • •

Less than a year and a half after his appearance in Subarashii, Grahame began to show signs of cross-cultural fatigue. It began subtly enough, with an increasingly lackadaisical approach to hygiene and appearance. Previously punctual and fastidious, Grahame-sensei would arrive at school late, they told me. He spent hours sleeping at his desk, unshaven and reeking of whisky, his shirt crumpled like a sitcom drunk. He chewed gum during class. He belched. He flirted with students.

As the other native English speaker in town, I was the obvious choice to speak to him. One afternoon, I traipsed up the stairs to his apartment and rang the bell. For a long time there were no sounds from within, but eventually the door cracked open to reveal a vertical strip of Grahame’s long, ashen face. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. He looked terrible.

Inside his apartment was gloomy, a ghastly smell rising from the sink. I watched him shuffle over to the kotatsu, slumping back against the fag-singed cushions. The television was on, and I stood there awkwardly for a moment while he rolled a cigarette from tobacco scraps filched from the ashtray.

‘How’s it going?’ I asked.

‘Fine,’ he said. He turned to gaze up at me, his dull blue eyes ringed with yellow.

‘How about I make us a coffee,’ I suggested, surveying the filthy kitchenette hopefully.

‘Knock yourself out.’

For the next few minutes I pottered around like an old woman, locating and scouring a couple of mugs, boiling water, scraping out the mould from the bottom of the plunger. After a moment I became aware that Grahame was staring at me, watching me intently from his cushion. Stupidly, I figured this for a good sign, offering him an encouraging smile.

‘It’s nice and sunny out,’ I said, handing him his coffee.

‘I’m bored and I’m horny,’ Grahame coughed, taking it. He lit his makeshift cigarette, tossed my lighter back to me.

‘Well, that’s life in smalltown Japan,’ I chirped, forcing an ironic chuckle. A thick fug hung in the room, a toxic cloud of chip fat and ammonia. ‘Shall I open a window?’

Grahame didn’t reply, so I tore aside the thin mesh curtains, stained and sticky with years of smoke, and slid the doors apart. Down below were residential parking spaces, barely delineated in the bare, dusty earth. I leant forward against the railings, considering my options. It was a clear case of culture shock, straight out of the fat blue textbook they’d handed out at orientation. I wondered if I should advise him to go home.

A sudden gust of sour breath surprised me and Grahame’s bitten fingers pinched my waist.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you lonely too?’

• • •

Mr Ogawa followed me around the convenience store vicariously, bobbing about like an excited child. Occasionally he would spot something interesting and swoop in, offering an explanation or asking a question the answer to which he already knew.

‘Have you ever tried Asahi beer?’ he asked coyly as we cruised the long row of refrigerators. We peered through the condensation, killing time.

‘I like Asahi very much,’ I confirmed. ‘Japanese beer is very good.’

Comically, looking from side to side as if to check we were not in danger of being overheard, Mr Ogawa whispered. ‘I think so too,’ he said.

‘Do you like whisky?’ I asked casually, egging him on.

‘I love whisky!’ he cried. I noticed a few teenagers were watching us, only pretending to read their manga now.

‘Really?’ I said, mock incredulous, but the joke escaped him.

‘Have you ever tried these?’ he asked next, drawing my attention to a display of dried snacks. ‘This is octopus. This one is squid.’

‘Delicious,’ I affirmed, smacking my lips hungrily.

‘You must be Japanese,’ he said approvingly. ‘Can you eat natto?’ Natto was a sticky fermented soybean snack, famously abhorred by foreigners. Being fond of natto meant that one was unusually au fait with the Japanese way of life.

‘I love natto,’ I said truthfully, not without pride. Mr Ogawa’s shock at this pronouncement was short-lived, outbid by my own absurd discovery. ‘Banana KitKats?’ I said, astounded, spotting them. ‘We don’t have those in New Zealand.’

Triumphant, grinning from ear to ear, Mr Ogawa added a few to his shopping basket.

• • •

‘Melanie-san?’ Noriko tapped my shoulder lightly. It was the morning after my visit to Grahame’s apartment and I was hunched over my desk, struggling with the finer points of my conference presentation. ‘I have some bad news. Please come to Kocho-sensei’s office.’ Nervous, mildly excited by this change to my schedule, I padded along behind her, almost tripping in my regulation slippers.

The large expanse of Kocho-sensei’s office, delicately scented with stale cigarette smoke, was pleasantly cool and empty. Kocho himself was nowhere to be seen.

‘Dozo,’ Noriko said, gesturing at the nearest couch. Obediently, I sat.

‘Grahame-sensei will leave this town today,’ Noriko said, perching beside me, neither on the couch nor off it. ‘He has had a terrible accident.’

The official story, it seemed, was this: drunk, clad only in a grubby cotton yukata, Grahame had leapt from his balcony, plummeting two stories. Miraculously, he had survived, but his wrist and three fingers were broken. He was already on his way to Narita International.

So this was how the myths began, I mused, sipping my cold green tea. With lies and half-truths, with cover-ups, with someone’s overpowering shame.

• • •

Back in the car, Mr Ogawa offered me another cigarette and lit one for himself. My hair and work clothes were going to stink, but it didn’t matter. I lit mine too, and settled back into my seat. It was still only nine o’clock.

‘What’s your favourite whisky?’ I asked, indulging him, but the moment had passed.

‘I have been a teacher for twenty five years,’ he said seriously, starting the car. ‘Four years at Subarashii Junior High School, as you know. Before that I was at another school.’

‘Right,’ I said. I was familiar with the vagaries of the Japanese education system, which transferred a certain number of teachers every April, seemingly at random.

‘What do you think about our town?’ he asked, changing tack slightly as he pulled out into traffic.

I had been asked this question many times since my arrival, but this time I felt he wanted the truth.

‘I like it,’ I began, the words tripping easily off my tongue.

‘Is it difficult for you in Japan?’ he interrupted, flicking cigarette ash into an empty coffee can.

‘Sometimes,’ I explained feebly.

There was a lengthy silence.

‘I think Grahame-san found Japanese life difficult,’ he said. His tone was matter-of-fact, level, giving nothing away. ‘I think maybe I should have helped him, before.’

‘Me too,’ I said.

‘If you have some kinds of problems in Japan,’ Mr Ogawa said, ‘please tell someone, OK? Probably we can help you.’

‘I will,’ I promised. ‘Thank you.’

We rode in companionable silence for a while, watching the rice fields go by, smoking. When we pulled in at the centre just before ten, Mr Ogawa seemed to have cheered up a little.

‘These are for you,’ he said, handing me the Banana KitKats as we walked together to the entrance. ‘For break time.’

Inside I could make out huddled groups of foreign assistant teachers, complaining about everything no doubt, perhaps speculating on Grahame’s sudden mysterious departure. Separate from them stood clusters of Japanese teachers of English, chatting together in bright voices. Mr Ogawa and I looked at one another. At the door would come a parting of the ways, both natural and inevitable.

‘Thanks,’ I said.

© Eden Carter Wood 2007