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Don't Feed the Gaijin

In 1993 I spent my first Christmas in Japan. At that time I was a faithful GEOS employee. I did a lot of things for the company that would be unthinkable now. I really wanted to get along with everyone and do my job the best I could. I even considered a career at GEOS! I had bought into the program.

During a school meeting in early November the subject of the school's annual Christmas party came up. "Cool!" I thought.

Every year GEOS Odawara has a Christmas party at a local restaurant. It's usually held at one of the most posh restaurants in Odawara in the Vierge building which is one of the biggest, most centrally located buildings in Odawara.

Games were planned and task forces created to oversee the various festivities. At the end of the meeting, ticket prices were discussed. Each ticket would be 4,500 yen. I thought it was kinda steep for games and songs but then I heard that there would be lots of food and an open bar. The date for the party was set on a Sunday so everyone could attend without canceling classes.

The big day was fast approaching when I was accosted in the hallway of the school by Kaoru, the senior Japanese teacher.
"Chris?"
"Yeah?"
"Could I get your 4,500 yen now?"
"What? Why? What for?"
"That's how much the tickets for the Christmas party cost. Are you bringing anyone?"
"No. We have to pay to go to the party?" Warning bells were going off in my mind but I ignored them.
"Yes."
"Whoa...better be a pretty good party, huh?"
"Oh, it'll be the same as always."
I coughed up the dough and went to have lunch with Linda.

"Did you pay Kaoru for your ticket?" I asked at the restaurant while opening an oshibori package.
"Yeah. Sucks, doesn't it?"
"Uh-huh. I can tell you this, I'm going to eat and drink my 4,500 yen's worth."
"No you can't"
Linda had been at GEOS for about a year longer than I. She had been to all the parties before and knew the drill.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You cannot eat or drink a thing at the party." She answered.
"Yeah, right".
"Nope. Not a thing."
"Explain, please."
"We're staff. We cannot eat or drink anything because we're working."
"But the party is being held on our day off!"
"It's an official GEOS party. Your contract says you have to go and do what they say."
"That's bullshit! You can't be serious. They're not going to allow us to eat? They're going to be so stingy as to not let us have a bite? We're paying to go! C'mon, who's idea was that?"
"Don't ask me. Ask the managers. I heard that a couple of years ago the foreign staff got some food and a drink."
"What about the Japanese teachers? Do they get anything?"
"They can eat and drink all they like."
"WHAT!!!???"
"They're only part time so they can eat and drink all they want. They paid for their tickets, too, you know."
"Please tell me you're bullshitting me. Please tell me you're pulling my chain."
"Wish I were, Christine." Linda said in a sing song voice as she looked out the window.
"What do the managers think we're going to do? Dump food into back packs and pillow cases and walk out?"
"Eww! You use pillow cases? I would only use a duffel bag."
"What's wrong with having a plate of food? Don't you think it would look strange if we didn't eat?"
"There's nothing you can do about it. Our contract says we gotta go to at least two GEOS functions and work."
"Oh, this is too much. I'm going to talk to the managers about this!"

For the rest of that week, I couldn't get a word in with the managers. They were either in a meeting, trying to sell a customer a course or in Tokyo being shouted at. I could finally broach the subject at the next meeting. I raised my hand.
"Yes, Chris? Do you have a question?" Kaoru translated for Ayuko the manager.
"Uh, yeah. How come the foreign staff have to pay to go to the Christmas party on our day off and we can't eat anything?"
All the Japanese staff squirmed a little in their chairs as the question was translated for Ayuko.
"The party has to make a profit for the school, Chris. Also, it is not your day off. You're working" Kaoru translated for Ayuko "The Japanese staff are paying to attend, too." she continued.
"Yeah, but you guys get to eat and drink." I said.
More shifting in chairs.
"All the Japanese at this school are part timers." Kaoru said.
"What has that got to do with the price of tea in China?" I asked.
"China?" Ayuko said.
Kaoru translated my meaning to Ayuko. Ayuko looked at me and blinked twice.
Linda piped up, "I heard that a few years ago the foreign staff were given a meal and a drink. Can we get something like that? We have to be there for five hours, you know."
There was a flurry of Japanese conversation and a calculator was produced. Some frantic calculating and finally some good news.
"Yes. GEOS will provide a meal and a drink for you at the party." Kaoru translated.
"Alright" I thought, "Things are looking up."

When the Sunday of the party rolled around, I dragged myself off the floor of my "apartment" and got dressed like I was going to work: suit, tie, and socks that matched reasonably well without close scrutiny. I caught a bus for the Vierge building.

When I got there I couldn't recognize the Japanese staff. They were all dressed in their best clothes. "Wow" I thought, "They sure don't look like the people I work with!"

All the activities were being set up and guests were arriving. A Christmas Carol singing contest was held, along with the obligatory round of Pictionary, then the Official Chowing Down Time began.

"Here are your meals!" Kaoru chimed. She handed Linda, Alisa, and I a plate each. On the plate was a neat little triangle cucumber sandwich about the size of a quarter of a regular slice of bread. Next to the triangle sandwich was what could possibly be the first table spoon measured pile of crushed potato chips in the world. She then pointed to three small paper cups on the edge of the closest table. Each cup was half filled with orange drink.
"BA-Ha! Kaoru! You're a gas!" I laughed.
"What are you saying?" asked Kaoru.
"It's a good joke, Kaoru, but I see a large pitcher of beer looking awfully lonely over there." I said.
"No. No. Chris. This is your meal." Kaoru said earnestly.
My mouth dropped open as I looked at my paper plate of "meal". I looked at Linda and Alisa. Alisa popped the triangle sandwich into her mouth and started picking at her chips. Linda picked up her paper cup of orange drink and looked at me.
"Kao, there is no way this equals a meal." I said.
"Whatever." She said as she walked away.
I walked up to the table which was laid out with huge serving trays of ham, beef, turkey, baked chickens, vegetables, four different kinds of salads, pitchers of beer and bottles of wine and champagne. I grabbed a plate and started helping myself.

Just as I started to choose some food, someone pinched my left tricep, hard. It was Kaoru standing there with Ayuko. Kaoru talked at Ayuko furiously. Ayuko said something very brief back.
"You cannot eat or drink anything at this table. Put your plate down over at the serving window near the kitchen." Kaoru said.
"What?! This is fucked up. Look at all this food! All I get is one triangle of a cucumber sandwich?!" I exclaimed.

The words "fucked up" had apparently not gone unnoticed. Some students turned their attention to us. Ayuko smiled broadly and laughed loud. She touched my shoulder and said something for the students looking on. They all laughed. My student Takashi approached me and slapped me on the shoulder, "You're a very funny guy, Chris."
"Thanks Takashi. I'm also a hungry guy." I said as I walked to the serving window to turn in my ill gotten food.

Ayuko and Kaoru slunk away and held a little conference with the sales manager. They returned to my side after a while.
"Chris? Can you get Linda and Alisa over here for a second?" Kaoru asked.
"Sure." I said and went to round up my fellow co-workers.
"OK," Kaoru said in a conspiratorial voice as we all gathered around to listen, "you guys can eat and drink anything here IF a student brings it to you." She nodded her head and glanced from one of us to the other trying to add a seriousness to the announcement.
"If a student brings it to us?" Linda repeated.
"Yes. If a student brings you something to eat or drink you can have it." Kaoru still looked like she was in on some kind of fascinating wrinkle in the plot.
"Oh, man!" I said as I spun away from the huddle.

I walked across the room in the direction of my students. Takashi was my coolest student. He was a great guy who always tried his hardest in class. He and I had spent many a night quaffing brews and tearing into yakitori and I felt that he was probably my closest friend in Odawara.

"Hey Chris. How's it going?" Takashi asked between bites of unagi.
"Oh just peachy, Takashi, just peachy." I said in a distracted way as I surveyed the room.
"What do you think of the rack of lamb? Goes good with the Ebisu, doesn't it?" Takashi asked.
"I wouldn't know" I replied.
"You should try the unagi. Very fresh. I found a hook in one piece. You know it's fresh when you get a hook!" Takashi enthused.
"Hmmm, yeah. Hook. That's good eating." I said absently.
"Chris, is something the matter?" Takashi asked.
"Uhhhh... yeah." It struck me then. I felt kinda bad because the managers might have frowned on the students doing it but they were paying customers and the managers were employed on a revolving door basis soooooo......
"Takashi? Can you do me a favour?"
"Yeah sure. What is it?"
"Can you please get me a plate of food and a glass of beer?"
He laughed with his mouth full. No doubt he thought I was continuing to be the funny guy.
"Sure. What do you want?" he asked playfully.
"The swordfish steak looks good tonight, I'll have some of that, some veggies, a bowl of rice, a mug of beer, a glass of Mateus, wait a minute, that's Suntory licensed Mateus...skip it, I'll have a glass of champagne instead. Hmm, yes, that should do. Thank you very much, Takashi."
He went over to the table and loaded up. He brought it to me and laughed as he asked, "What's next?"
"That's all. Cheers Takashi. God bless you. You're an officer and a gentleman."
At this he laughed and started talking to someone else.

Linda and Alisa approached me and eye balled my plate.
"Oh, ee-nah" said Alisa.
"How did you get that?" asked Linda, "Ayuko and Kaoru are guarding the table."
"My student asked me if I was enjoying myself and I said no. Or something like that."
"Hmmmm, who can I enlist?" Linda looked around the room, "Aha! Kiyomi! He's a good sport!" and with that, Linda was off.
"Aww! No fair! All my students are fucking geeks!" Alisa bawled, "Nobody will feed me!"
"Wait a minute, I used to teach Harumi over there. She's cool. Just subtly hint to her that you haven't tried the caviar yet and she'll help." I said.
Alisa dashed for Harumi.

Linda was munching the crepes suzettes when Alisa had her plate of lobster handed to her. Kaoru came up with Ayuko, "We see what you're doing. You shouldn't be eating anything from the tables!"
"Would you be happy if we ate from the floor?" I asked.
She scowled and then led the perplexed looking Ayuko away.

I have never completely understood why Kaoru had it in for the foreign staff at Odawara GEOS. Teacher after teacher had failed to get along with her. Maybe she was jilted by some foreign teacher/boyfriend and was now taking her hurt out on us. Who knows? She kept after all the foreigners at the school relentlessly. She timed our classes and lunch and toilet breaks, interviewed our students, monitored our off work activities and made judgments about our attire constantly. At first I thought she wanted to be a manager but she told us she would never do "such a stupid job." She maintained that they were paid poorly, worked long hours, and were regularly humiliated for sport. No, she insisted, she would never be one of them. Could she be helping Ayuko? She would have been pretty two faced if she was because she said nasty things about Ayuko behind her back.

By the end of the party that night, I had consumed what I thought was 4,500 yen's worth of food and drink. It wasn't hard to do with the sumptuous spread laid out for all except the full time staff. A new rule was created after that night, too. It went something along the line of: "any full time worker paying full price to attend an official Odawara GEOS function may consume food and drink. All other full time workers who attend [and you must, because it's in your contract!] will be paid 300 yen per hour and will not consume any food or drink at the event." Can you guess which is the more popular route for teachers to take when confronted with a party?

Now, I know what you're thinking, "That is evil!" and, "You didn't have to put up with that shit!" I know. I know. Problem is, I didn't know that at the time. I was 22, new to Japan, naive- Hell, let's call a spade a spade, I was stupid. I tried to do what was expected of me by my company. I wanted a career. That is precisely how GEOS likes it's employees: young, stupid, and dependent on them. Have you noticed how GEOS doesn't hire foreign teachers in Japan? Ever wonder why? Foreigners who live in Japan long enough eventually wise up. Any "wised up" foreigner would not tolerate the company's monkey business. They wouldn't be able to keep a staff. Placing its foreign staff in apartments is a great way to hobble them. The newbie relies entirely on the school. Pay to attend a party? It's something a new guy would do to fit in. Besides, it's a small price to pay for all the perks you get, right?

That's the story of my first Christmas in Japan. Warm and cheery, huh? It's Dickensian in a way. I felt like such a pathetic character scrambling for a meager bowl of gruel, "More, sir!" Since leaving GEOS, Christmases spent in Japan have been much much better. It's not such a hard thing to do after all that.

Chris

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