Monday, September 29, 2008

Let's Ecology! 12: The Big Interview (part 2)

Takahashi began telling me about the Recycle Movement Citizens Association. He said that they were a citizens' group, and that their original main activity was indeed putting on flea markets, which they sponsored every month at Meiji Park in Tokyo and occasionally in other locations. About three years before, though, they had begun an organic food home delivery service, which they had named Turnip Boy, and it had become a huge money maker.

Takahashi talked a little about the bananas, which were being sold through Turnip Boy, and which continued to impress me with the organization's, and his, apparent sincerity. He also mentioned something about making a catalog of environmentally-friendly products, or "ecology goods" as they were called in Japan. I asked a few questions and quickly decided that I would very much like to work there.

Takahashi and Soga asked me some questions too. Looking at my résumé, they asked me about Waseda ("Wasn't the entrance exam hard?") and about the school I went to in the US ("Is that UCLA?") and what I had studied. They had me read something out loud in Japanese as a test, which I apparently passed.

They asked me about teaching English and why I wanted to change jobs. That was an easy one; it was all I'd thought about for the last year. "Because I majored in Japanese in school and put a lot of time and effort into studying the language and culture, I'd like a challenging job where I can use both Japanese and English in my daily work. Teaching English, my Japanese language ability and most of what I studied are wasted." That was my standard answer. It was all true, too, although it left out anything about teaching English in Japan being an awful job if you don't have a viable exit strategy.

They asked me if I was interested in the environment; I said I was, that I had read a lot about environmental problems and was interested in the subject but wasn't active in any groups or anything like that. That seemed to be a satisfactory answer.

Takahashi's next question, however, threw me a little. "You must really like Japan to spend so much time here. Why do you like Japan so much?" That wasn't so easy to answer truthfully. Like most gaijin who have spent more than a year or two in the country, I had gotten over my early "I love Japan" infatuation, and had very ambivalent feelings about the country. I tended then more towards actually disliking Japan as a country or culture than otherwise. The frustration of not being able to find a good job, added to the crowds, the long commutes, the generally miserable weather (I am from Southern California after all), the pollution, the gray drabness of the city, the lack of open space and greenery, and the hierarchism, insularity, intolerance and racism of Japanese society were weighing heavily on me at that time.

"What do I like about Japan?" and "Why am I here?" were the first thoughts that came to my mind when Takahashi and Soga asked why I like Japan, but one look at their smiling, expectant faces told me that this was no time for philosophizing, much less for an answer like "Actually, I don't particularly like living in Japan and I'd rather be in America but there doesn't seem to be much of a job market for ex-English teachers there."

"Uh… I guess… I like the people," was the best answer that came to mind. I thought this would be satisfactory, but Takahashi followed it up with another question. "What do you like about the people?" I was only one question deep; I wasn't prepared for a follow-up. I had just blurted out a safe and conventional answer without really thinking about it. The truth was that just like any other nationality I had come in contact with, I liked some Japanese people, I disliked some, and I was indifferent to some. But I had just committed myself to liking them generically, and now I was in trouble.

My rule of thumb when asked this kind of question by a Japanese person, however, was "When in doubt, use a cliché," so I frantically tried to recall some favorite Japanese self-stereotypes. "Well… they're friendly... and uh… polite... and helpful... uh… intelligent.... And... um... it's a very safe country."

Pretty lame, but that seemed to be the kind of thing they were expecting, in content if not in depth of exposition. They responded with the smiles and nods that universally recognized truths bring forth from anyone. I thought it was a good time to change the subject. "What exactly would my duties be here?" I asked.

Next week: The third and final part of the Big Interview. More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here. "Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

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