From my book in progress, SHIFT: A New Paradigm for Women in the Workplace – Stories and Strategies.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7
“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.” — Arianna Huffington
A few weeks into a January move to Osaka, Japan by the urging of a friend who had been there for a couple of years teaching English as a Second Language, I arranged to meet for a job interview at a local donut shop a few blocks from where I was living. Halfway through the encounter, I knew I’d made a mistake. Never in a million years would I have gotten into a car with two men I didn’t know if I’d been home in California. But then, who conducts a job interview that way?
I’d been in Osaka, Japan for two months by then and wandered the streets by myself often. Maybe it was something I’d read before I’d arrived, how safe everything was, no crime in the cities of Japan, a respectful coexistence. Or maybe it just felt that way because everyone was so polite and gentle. I had witnessed nothing that resembled Oakland. Everything was different. I was different.
I was an outsider looking in and what I saw seemed undeniably safe. Safer than safe itself. Looking for a job had seemed promising. I was young but experienced, I was eager and optimistic. Friends gave reassuring advice, bolstered my confidence. But as the days became weeks spilling over into a month, I was feeling a bit desperate to secure a job soon. And a proper visa.
It was raining hard the morning I walked the three blocks from my tiny hovel above a tofu shop in the Ikuno-ku district to the Mr. Donut to meet the director of a new English school hiring teachers. I’d woken up late, tired and anxious and gotten ready in a hurry. As I approached the proposed meeting spot, I noticed a handsome middle-aged Japanese man standing with a young, red-headed man who was holding an umbrella over both of their heads.
The young man perked up as I approached, assuming I must be the woman they were waiting for since everyone else in sight was Japanese. The redhead’s name was Simon and he spoke with an Australian accent. He introduced me to Mr. Haruki, or Haruki-san as he was correctly addressed, and ushered us quickly inside. We sat in a plastic booth and had coffee. And donuts, of course.
Simon was there to facilitate, to translate for Haruki-san, apparently, as he seemed to speak no English whatsoever. After just a few minutes, the two men had a brief conversation in Japanese and stood up abruptly. Simon explained that we were going to finish the interview at the school, so I stood and followed them out the door. Assuming we were walking there together just a block or two, I followed them across the street. But as we hit the curb, Simon swiftly opened the back door of a parked sedan and motioned to me to get in. So, I did.
Somehow in that moment, all my street smarts went down the toilet. Everything my mother ever taught me. All the words, as a teenager, my four older brothers etched into my psyche. All of my own intuitive boundary lines from living in sketchy urban neighborhoods obliterated in a split second. Blindly trusting these two strangers, I climbed in as Haruki-san took the wheel with Simon as his co-pilot. I was momentarily draped in an all-trusting-of-Japanese-culture awareness, waiting for a short drive to the school. When we entered the freeway and I suddenly had no grasp of the lay of the land or my place in it, I started to spin.
What in the hell am I doing! I would never do this back home, why
Am I doing this here? I don’t know anything about these people. Am I being kidnapped?
I’d walked all over this city for weeks and had even gotten lost a few times. Every neighborhood tended to look like the next. Same coffee shop, same zori straw sandal vendor, same hole-in-the-wall tempura window, same camera shop, same blue noren—those short, divided curtains adorning the outside of every sushi restaurant on every corner. Once, I got off at the wrong subway stop and walked five blocks before I realized I was not in my own neighborhood. But this. This was different.
Feeling sweat beading up above my upper lip as the car hurtled along the freeway under overpasses and through tunnels, viewing delivery trucks and construction sites whizzing by my window, I remembered a word I had learned the day before: Abunai. Danger. Watch out! Spoken as a warning. When would I ever need to know that word? I stood up erect in my seat, leaning towards Simon.
“Um. Simon. Where are we exactly? Where are we going, where is the school? I am really uncomfortable with this. I don’t . . . can you . . . tell me where we are?”
My voice was getting shrill and I was shifting around looking out the back windows for something familiar, trying to get my bearings. The rain was starting to pick up again, splashing sheets of water against the windows, further obstructing my view. The windshield wipers increased to an angry, menacing rhythm. Simon ignored me as Haruki-san erupted into an impetuous release of loud, rapid-fire invective as Simon nodded repeatedly. Dutifully listening. Deferring. Acquiescing. Had my fearful voice incited that? Had I spoken out of turn too directly, too aggressively for a woman? Was the real Haruki-san and his motives emerging now that I was fully captive?
Simon responded to his boss in a calm voice while appearing to be quite agitated himself. Haruki-san was staring at me through his rearview mirror now, sizing me up. I looked towards Simon for succor.
“What’s going on, Simon!” I pleaded.
As two gaijin—non-Japanese people—in an awkwardly defective situation, weren’t we supposed to be on the same team? Allies? Help! Simon turned slowly towards me and gave me a dirty, nearly sinister look then turned back around. All I could see was the back of his head. What did this mean? Where were we going and when would we get there? We were exiting the freeway then to who knows where, to what fate. I began picturing myself being handed off to a local ring of Yakuza into some sort of sex slave scenario, my roommates waiting days before becoming alarmed over my absence. It would be way too late by then.
I shifted in my seat again, looked out the rear window then turned swiftly forward again. I gripped Simon’s shoulder with my whole hand, as if rustling someone from a deep sleep. But I kept my voice low and calm, pretending to myself that Haruki-san would not hear.
“Simon. Excuse me. I’m really uncomfortable with this. Can we . . . can you please—”
Just then Haruki-san sped up to run a yellow light and pulled abruptly to the curb and parked. I reached for the back door handle and hustled out into the rain, snapping open my umbrella and stepping onto the sidewalk. The two men were getting out of the car as I stood waiting. Simon came and stood facing me as Haruki-san, with his back to me in dismissal, stood just outside his car door, looking across the street.
“Are we at the school now? Are we going to the school?” I asked.
Simon glared at me.
“We’re right back where we started. See there?” he said, pointing across the street, “Mr. Donut.”
He stood smirking at my lack of awareness and sophistication. Didn’t he understand what it had been like for me? Was he so indebted to Haruki-san that he failed to feel any empathy for my situation? Or had something nefarious been underfoot that was suddenly aborted? He was staring at me, waiting for me to say something.
I laughed nervously.
“Oh. Yeah. Well. How about that. Hmm,” I said.
“I’ll assume I’m not getting hired to teach for Haruki-san, then?”
I spoke the words into Simon’s silent, disdainful stare. He was waiting for me to leave. He was enjoying this moment, even though, maybe, his own job was a little bit in jeopardy now. Could that be? Or was I the only fool. I was hoping maybe they both learned a little something from the whole thing, too. I quickly turned on my heel and scurried off down the sidewalk towards home.
I looked back towards the Mr. Donut, but they were no longer in sight. It was like they didn’t even exist and the whole thing had never happened, but for my rapidly beating heart. I stopped at my favorite take-out window the next block down and bought a package of inarizushi. I walked with relief past the familiar KFC, its ceramic Colonel Sanders standing proudly in front of his business wrapped in a blue cloth kimono. He was smiling at me. I was home free.
Or was I?
How would this unsettling experience inform my relationship with Japan, my new temporary home—if I could manage to even land a job here after such a flagrant faux pas, that is. What other kinds of communication and cultural breakdowns and misunderstandings would unfold with my future employer that I would also have no foresight into? As a woman who was used to having some semblance of a voice in the workplace, however unequal it may have seemed at times, it was nothing like the car episode.
Over the course of the next year living in Osaka, I did jump numerous hurdles, both in work settings and socially. I learned a lot about what it takes to respect another culture’s ways while also attempting to penetrate it even a little bit. And how to understand and interpret without altering my own character, integrity and values. I’d learned a valuable lesson, however treacherously gained it was, that set the bar in so many ways. I couldn’t regret it, but I certainly could recognize that I had really woken up to something different that morning.
. . .