After university, the job market around home wasn’t looking too great in my field, so I spent time as an outsider working in Japan. Several people I knew were planning to do the same thing, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time–adventure, yes; impossibly scary, no. I quickly discovered that it was hard to blend into a crowd, with my limited Japanese and my red hair. I also got used to small children pointing at me and exclaiming, “Gaijin!” (“Foreigner!”) in our small town, while their parents mostly ignored me. I had a network of ex-pat English teachers, and my employer, as a safety net, so all this was just part of the experience.
My job involved teaching English one-on-one to office workers in an auto parts factory. I met some lovely people there. Most of them had relatively little in the way of conversational English skills when I started, but it was fun to watch them make progress while getting to know them a bit better. I became friends, of sorts, with some of the younger women in the office, but I felt I was still kept safely at a distance. Once, I suggested that some of us go hang out on a Friday night. Kyoko agreed to organize it, and Hiroyo, Miki and Miho were invited to come along. A couple of Fridays later, we went out for sashimi at a restaurant in our little town of Iwanami, in Shizuoka Prefecture. I remember that we had a good time, and we laughed a lot. At the end, when it was time to pay, I got out my wallet and wanted to pay my share, Canadian-style. That’s when Kyoko told me that I didn’t have to worry, the company was paying. The employer liked to see employees spending not just their working hours, but their spare time together, and there was a budget for outings like this.
What?!? Here I’d thought we were just going out as friends on a Friday night. Knowing who was paying the bill didn’t negate the fact that we’d had an enjoyable dinner, but it still made me doubt the reasons they might have chosen to come along. Had they really decided to come because they’d wanted to? Or, if they had said no, would this have been a strike against them with the company? I decided not to let it get in the way of the friendliness they extended me, and filed it away in the back of my mind under “cultural differences”.
I worked with the company for about three more months after this. My year wasn’t up, but there had been a couple of major events affecting my family that pulled me back home. The last of these events happened on a Sunday, and I was so upset, I didn’t go to work on the Monday, and I flew home on the Tuesday. I left so quickly that my students and I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. I was surprised at how much this affected me! For weeks afterwards, I would wonder how they were doing, how they were adjusting to their new teacher, whether they wondered how I was doing. Imagine my delight when, a few months later, I received a VHS tape entitled “Video Letter to Tina”! With their new teacher, they had chosen to dedicate their year-end project to saying good-bye to me through a video. I cried and I laughed while I watched each one of them, in their practiced English, send me good wishes. I sent each of them a card with a short personal note to thank them. I think I only had the courage to watch it twice, but just knowing it was on my shelf was a great comfort for a while. I don’t think I have it anymore, but it was a great gesture to show that they had embraced this outsider more than I knew or understood at the time.