Monday, March 31, 2014

pieces of work

The summer after I graduated from college I worked as a rental agent at a brokerage that catered to the mostly young, mostly motivated subsection of the populace that wanted to live in Beacon Hill, generally due to its proximity to downtown.  I typically woke up five or ten minutes before my first appointment, threw on some clothes, tucked in my shirt, and sprinted down the street to my office, in order to earn enough money to pay my rent, pay back a loan from my dad, and pay for my plane ticket to Japan.  It was the second best summer of my adult life, which meant it was ranked two out of four.  (I didn't know it then, but after college, summer basically stops mattering.  It follows then that that particular summer is still probably the second best summer of my life.  The first, incidentally, was also spent as a rental agent, a vocation which was also abandoned, along with summers, once I graduated.)

I spent most of my free time that summer hanging out with my best friend from college, who was recently my roommate, and my girlfriend, who was recent in general.  As a rental agent, I could make my own hours, and I soon fell prey to that common affliction, dawdling, which every independent contractor knows all too well.  I forsook my work in favor of late night crosswords in the girlfriend's air-conditioned pad, canoe trips, all-expense paid trips to the Virgin Islands courtesy of my girlfriend's rich parents, and a 4th of July Party with my roommate on the rooftop of our (non air-conditioned) Comm Ave apartment.  As a result, by the end of the summer I had only saved about 40% of the funds recommended by my Japanese language school for starting out in Japan.  This paltry amount, approximately $800, was supposed to last me the six weeks before my first paycheck from my full time job arrived in my UFJ bank account.

The bitter pill that every long-term expat has to swallow sooner than later is the realization that life abroad, when you are fresh-faced and few in fine threads, is lived much more frugally than the study-abroad in college which most likely was your first medium-term stay in another country.  For someone who began his expat adventure with such a shortage of funds, this realization kicks in rather quickly, especially when living in the city ranked "2nd Most Expensive in the World" at that time. After a few days of modest indulgences - ordering the extra egg in my ramen, buying iced coffee from the vending machine, etc. - I stared at the six or seven remaining 10,000 yen bills (about $100 each) like a gambler with too much in the pot contemplating a questionable hand.  As they say in Japanese, my situation was "dame".  In other words, it was a bad scene.

When my dad called in the debt payment I had failed to make over the summer, I became aware that the situation was more like "arubaito ga nai to hontou ni dame" (If I didn't pick up a part time job, it was a seriously bad scene).  Fortunately, one of two things happened: either the universe sensed what I needed and provided, or I picked myself up by my laceless Japanese boot straps and provided for myself.  (Feel free to choose whichever version suits your political worldview. I'm ambivalent... and a Green either way).

Considering the circumstances of how I found my first part time job in Japan, I'm of the opinion that it was a combination of universe and hard work.  A few days after I decided to look for additional work, while waiting in line to order a 100-yen teriyaki burger at McDonalds (a strategy I had learned from my frugal days in Boston, sans teriyaki) I happened to meet a woman with an elementary school aged daughter in need of an English teacher.  That part could only have been the universe in action.  On the other hand, agreeing to commute thirty minutes each way to her home every Tuesday night for a one-hour lesson that paid 2,800 yen (about $30) was most certainly propelled by my bootstraps.

With extra money coming in, I was free to engage in that most established, customary, practically sanctified tradition among English teachers living in Japan: going on dates disguised as language exchange sessions.  For me, these sessions consisted largely of sputtering over two or three Japanese words with a very patient woman who inevitably spoke nearly fluent English, before switching back to my native language so I could try to seduce her with more than the Japanese names for the three food items she had just taught me (and that I likely had already forgotten).

Let's not go into the outcome of those dates.  Let's just say that fortunately for the appetite that I was succesful in sating, the menu had pictures.  More fortunately, I knew a hip spot near the Dotonbori river in the center of town where every item was 280 yen, inclusive of tax and tip, which meant I could pay for exactly ten items with my Tuesday night earnings.  If the "language exchange session" was going well, the majority of those items would hopefully be beer, the Japanese word for which I knew very well.

When I got a call from my mom letting me know the credit card bill was coming in, I took on a second student, and then a third.  My first student, the single-mom entrepreneur I had met at McDonalds, kept me on for about three months.  Eventually I think that her drive, from the train station to an unfinished apartment in a nice part of town she maintained for her daughter's school district eligibility and apparently also for english lessons, was probably too much for her.  The second, a die-hard Elvis fan who showed up to every lesson with cowboy boots, a plad shirt and his hair slicked back like the king, stuck around for about a month before telling me he needed a teacher with Saturday off, which was a luxury a first-year teacher at my school could only dream of.

The third was a delightful woman who attended a Shakespeare course at Oxford every summer and who was perfectly satisfied to talk about Hamlet for an hour every week (Romeo and Juliet and Othello, the other Shakespeare plays with which I was familiar enough to discuss, were of no interest to her).  We would sit in a coffee shop, sipping slowly at small, rapidly-cooling cups of coffee, while I would bullshit about "the play" in the way only English majors can, and she would listen with absolute delight, nodding eagerly and occasionally offering her insights.  She engaged me as a tutor through the winter and into the spring, until the day that I cancelled our lesson due to my hangover.  The next week, after we had compared notes on the young prince for the umpteenth time, she handed me an envelope containing a two week bonus, and politely informed me that our lessons were over.  Being the 23-year-old idiot that I was, it didn't even occur to me that my poor excuse for missing our lesson the week before was the cause.  Being Japanese, she never would have mentioned it.

It's possible that this last envelope was once again the universe stepping in, or perhaps stepping back, since it brought me to exactly to my savings goal. You see, for several months, I had been stuffing a sock drawer with bills (the good kind) earned from my part time jobs, including a stint as a cram-school instructor I had taken up to fill my Tuesday night vacancy.  After being fired by my third student, I had just about $500 in said sock drawer, which I estimated was enough to buy a second-hand motor scooter.  It was, and this (more or less) was the scooter:


While I had loved a vehicle before I bought my scooter, and have loved vehicles since, none of them come within a thousand miles of matching the love I felt for my "baiku", especially when measured by unit of love per CC .  In this case, it was 50 CC's of pure, heart stopping adoration. 

I zipped (apologies in advance for using such a twee word, but as anyone who has never driven anything over 50 CC's surely knows, "zip" is the only word appropriate for riding a scooter) all around the sprawling megalopolis of Osaka town on my "baiku".  I zipped to the station when I was running late in the morning and wanted to avoid the fine of a half-day wages for missing even a minute of my first lesson.  I zipped to my weekly Japanese lessons, passing the zoo and the busy intersection near Tennoji station before spending an hour and a half with a patient and well-spoken woman who taught me Japanese.  I zipped once or twice to said cram-school job, but stopped after being caught in a downpour on the way home.  And every time I zipped anywhere, it was all the sweeter that I had paid for my vehicle myself.

After a year of teaching, my salary went up by about a hundred dollars a month, which was about the same as doing an extra English lesson per week.  I had paid off the loan from my father and put a dent my stateside credit card .  I had even begun working on my student loans (after about six months of postponing them via a very creative solution involving a Japanese school and my teacher's willingness to bend the rules on the forbearance application.  Beating the man is a universal proclivity, it would seem).  My spending had stabilized - I now added my own egg to my ramen - and I had mastered the art of finding overtime at work.  All this combined meant it wasn't quite so important to maintain part time jobs.

In fact, if I had stayed in Japan longer than a year and a half, I would have been quite comfortable, at least until my company imploded about a year later.  (If I had still been in Asia when that happened, I might have been one of those out-of-work teachers that took the free one-way ticket from Japan to China to teach there).

But after a year and a half I had left the country, and after a couple of months traveling the world I arrived back in the United States, planning to go to graduate school, and taking on part time jobs yet again.  Over the course of the year that followed, I was an English tutor, an assistant to a UPS driver, an employee in a payroll department, a teaching assistant and a Princeton Review teacher.  I got around in a white Toyota Camry that was probably older than my Japanese motorbike, and at the end of the year, rather than a trip around the world, I took a trip to the New York City borough of Brooklyn to begin law school.

And now we've reached the point where - if I squint - the past begins to intrude into the present, and when I think about how I made my way in the world during that time it's different than when I cast my mind toward the past like a fishing net and see what comes back.  Well, I guess I just admitted it.  I'm reflecting on my past jobs like an old fogey talks about his time working in the candy store (you know who you are).  So let's stop while the stopping is good, while the sharp smell of exhaust from the Honda bike with the white seat is still lingering in the air, while I could still bullshit about Hamlet if I wanted to, and where there's always a chance that the universe will decide to throw you a bone while you're waiting in line at a McDonalds.  "Natsukashi, na" (those were the days).

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