As the jammed jumbo jet tilted sharply right, swerving in a tight arc for its final approach to Narita Airport, Keri Canyon's sweaty fingers gripped tightly the in-flight magazine, as if that would help. The motion sickness receptacle, known in the vernacular as "barf bag", lay on her knees, as yet, unused. The flight from Vancouver to LA had been uneventful; however the Pacific crossing had been hell. Turbulence from the get-go.
The meals were OK, but who wanted to eat? She'd already seen the movie twice. She had been assigned a seat in the middle of a long row, with kiddie families on both sides. No one to talk to. The magazine was her only distraction, until the beverage cart came by. She ordered a glass of red wine, and then another. "To help me sleep", she reasoned. Yet on an empty stomach doing cartwheels already, the grapes began to rollick. Rather than really sleep, the young teacher stumbled into a slumber of jagged edges. Now, definitely sapped and dragging, she prepared to meet, for the first time, her new home for at least the next two years: Japan!!!
An exotic land of isolation and mystery. Would she be able to make it here?
And if so, with how many? Could she learn to “scrut” the inscrutable? Where would life lead her here? "A whole new world, a new beginning" to paraphrase Aladdin. Despite her weariness, she was excited.
Customs and immigration was a breeze. The natives and foreigners went to different lines. Although the Japanese lines moved much more quickly, they were longer. Her passport, working visa, and luggage in order, Keri moved on to the main terminal. The information packet from her new employer, a nationwide private English school dubbed Nogo, contained explicit directions on how to proceed by bus to the science city of Tsukuba. There she was met at the station by a representative of Nogo and driven to the main regional office for a welcome and an orientation. She desperately wanted to take a shower and change before meeting the star suits. "Shoganai, it can't be helped", sympathized the driver, and she'd learned her first Japanese phrase.
The three at the conference table, all men, stood and tossed down a moderate bow as she entered. They seem satisfied with her tentative reciprocation, so she was invited to sit. The stern, slim, gray haired man in the middle spoke first. Yamada's words were interpreted by Kubota san, a repatriated national who had spent his childhood in California.
The gist of the chairman's speech was: Welcome to Japan and your new job. We expect you to work hard and uphold our reputation in the country and community as one of the largest, and therefore, no doubt, one of the best, English schools. My door is always open, except when I'm playing golf or pachinko, ha, ha, ha.
Yamada Junior spoke then, repeating much of the same. Finally Kubota, who served as instructor supervisor, gave Keri an outline of her regular duties, a code of teacher conduct document, an employment contract, and her class schedule. She was required to sign each, and then awarded a copy.
Next came a tour of the facility, one of three in Tsukuba. There were six tiny classrooms, a reception office, a textbook/library area, a supply closet and a single bathroom. The walls were hung with blown up photos of class activities, students and teachers. A large bulletin board contained promotional flyers, announcements, and postcards from clients past. Keri was introduced to Asuka and Hiromi, the office ladies. Their welcome was warm, yet she sensed from them an aura of sympathy.
By now it was 6pm local time. The meeting ended. Kubota gave her a ride to her apartment, about four blocks away. It was a simple second floor studio with a small balcony. There was a kitchenette, a microwave, a washer in the bathroom, though no dryer. A few pots, pans, plates, and such were found in the drawers. It was clean and included an air conditioner.
"Not bad," remarked Keri, "but there's no bed!"
Kubota opened the shoji closet and showed her how to prepare the futon for sleeping. Keri thought it was kind of like camping out. After showing her how the shower worked and explaining the concept of the ofuro native style bath, her new boss announced that Keri should freshen up and be prepared for dinner at an izakaya at 8:00.
Alone at last, Keri plopped down on the futon and contemplated the wonder of it all. She was really here! She promised herself that she would give this employer her absolute best, like the true professional ESL teacher that she was. They were providing her with this unique and seemingly lucrative opportunity and she intended to demonstrate that their decision in hiring her had not been misdirected. She was going to be a team player.
She hung a few items in the closet, then jumped into the shower to wash off the travel grime. Feeling much refreshed, Keri selected a conservative, dark blue business suit to don for dinner. She was still drying her hair when the doorbell rang precisely on the hour. The handsome Kubota stood before her with a hand in his hand. It was his wife's. So Rieko was introduced and off they went.
The cramped but peppy Suzuki wound its way through dark and narrow streets on the outskirts of town. Keri couldn't see much, but that whole left-side driving thing made her queasy. As they backed into a parking space, she noticed that most other cars had also parked that way.
"Must be how they do it here," she figured. She felt as if she were learning something every minute. The plants, streets, fields, houses, cars, people — everything was new to her. "I love it!" she squealed.
The izakaya was large, but typical. Did they want a table or tatami booth? But the others had already spied them. Yamada Senior stood up and yelled, "Ooi". The three walked over to a large table in the middle where waited the rest of the staff, with wives and a few kids present. Seating herself between Kubota and Junior, Keri was immediately presented with a full mug of Kirin beer. Senior stood and offered a complex toast, some of which was translated to her. Thus, with shouts of "Kanpai!" all round, ensued her first intense cultural experience. (To be continued)
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