Remembering Japan, sort of nostalgically

What you put on the Internet really does stay on the Internet. Case in point: some articles I wrote seven years ago are still propping up the advertising links on a (now either defunct or totally fake) Japanese culture website. Thanks to the power of Google/hoongle search, these links appear on page one of a search for “Jodi Neufeld.” Nice to know that they live on, even after the site itself has spiraled into AdSense purgatory.

Here is the first article, which you can find in its original form here (although I don’t recommend it). You can look forward to reading the second article in a future post. Try to contain your excitement!

An encounter with Japanese businessmen – Lesson one in Japanese business practices

By Jodi Neufeld (c. Spring 2001)

“On Friday, thirty-six businessmen from Tokyo are coming to visit the university.  We need three tour guides to show them around before their conference.  Oh, by the way, they don’t speak any English.  Volunteers?”

It was sometime in the autumn of my sophomore year that I decided I was going to take the plunge and sign on for the university’s study abroad program in Kyoto, Japan.  I’d studied Japanese since my first semester at Colgate, and I found the Japanese language and culture more and more fascinating the further I progressed.  Progression…well, at least I hoped I was progressing.

Often the intricate kanjiand intuitive grammar structures still threw me for a loop.  But at this point in my college career I had it fairly set in my mind that Japanese would be one of my concentrations, and as my sensei (teacher) stared pointedly at me after asking for “volunteers,” I knew it was my obligation as a concentrator to raise my hand.

Cocky that I understood concepts like salaryman and keigo (a formal form of Japanese spoken in business situation or other formal occasions like weddings) I picked through my pocket dictionary the night before the tour for some key words and prepared to meet the gentlemen from Tokyo Electric Company, the largest supplier of electricity in Japan.

The next morning dawned like many at Colgate: dreary and wet.  Upstate New York is famous for its breathtaking fall foliage, not so famous for the gray, drizzly brand of weather which finds us when those leaves hit the ground.

As I put on my nicest business suit (having resolved the pants/skirt debate the night before with a coin-toss) I went over the stock phrases I’d drilled into my head: Watasi wa, Jodi Neufeld de gozaimasu.  Hajimemasite. (Hello, my name is Jodi Neufeld.  Pleased to meet you.) Sumimasen ga, watasi no nihongo ga heta desu kara, yorosiku onegai-itasimasu. (I’m sorry, but my Japanese is very bad, please excuse me.)  Somehow I had convinced myself that these two phrases, combined with a well-executed bow, would simply blow my guests away and set the tone for a marvelous little dialogue.

Two facts I managed to forget: first of all, I am not fluent in Japanese, and second, reading about Tokyo businessmen is a completely insufficient manner of preparation for actually meeting them.

The encounter begins

Things started off well, though.  I arrived early to the meeting place, where our guests had just finished breakfast.  A quick look around revealed jet-lagged faces and little in the way of smiles, but I had expected that and bowed politely and smiled to everyone who looked my way.  “Ohayo-gozaimasu!” I greeted them as cheerfully as any professional greeter in a Japanese department store.  I was quite pleased with myself for my politeness.

Next it was time to begin the tour.  We split up into three groups, each guide leading some twelve men, all of them wearing identical black suits, black ties, and deep scowls.  Still I was not deterred; I performed my well-rehearsed introduction and received an encouraging “Yosh!” as we headed out.  So far so good, I thought.

As the tour guide with the least proficiency in Japanese, I had been given the only translator traveling with the group to help me if I got stuck.  Thank goodness he was there, because the minute I started talking about the first building on our route, a large problem became evident to me: my lack of vocabulary.  Good grades on grammar quizzes really don’t help when you’re trying to describe the history and use of the administration building in Japanese.  The translator (I’ll call him Mr. Yamada) quickly became my crutch, relating my words (and hopefully not my embarrassment) to the group.  I berated myself silently as we moved along.  When I’d apologized for my bad Japanese, they had probably assumed it was a gesture of politeness.  Now we were all discovering just how lacking my Japanese was.

But I put this issue behind me as we walked (now it was starting to drizzle; one of the younger men held an umbrella over the translator’s head).  A year and a half of Japanese yields fluency to very few gaijin, and I was certainly not one of them.  More concerning to me as we walked along was the uniform mass of deadpan faces.  I knew these men were jet-lagged, just as I knew they were not likely to display their interest openly even if they had it.  But these guys looked bored.  I dug deep into my knowledge of the campus’ history and tried to tell them stories that would interest them.  They perked up a bit when I talked about the dormitory built by Colgate’s first students, who dragged the stones from a nearby quarry and completed the building as a physical education requirement.  They also seemed very interested when I explained that there were some one hundred trees from different parts of the world planted on the campus, but when I was unable to identify their scientific names as we walked by a few of them, they seemed to sink back into disinterest.

I didn’t know enough facts.  They wanted facts.  How many acres is the campus?  How far to New York City?  How much rain is there each year in this area?  How many volumes in the library?  I just didn’t know, and to my aggravation it was these things that most interested them.  Grasping at straws, I brought them to the Japan Center to observe a first-year lecture in Japanese language.  They stayed for five minutes and then filed out of the room without comment, leaving behind a very nervous bunch of freshmen.  Later, the Japanese intern who was also sitting in the room told me in outrage that the businessmen had actually made fun of the students in that classroom, remarking that they spoke poorly and could not manage the simplest phrase.

Our tour concluded (no small relief to me at this point) back at the administration building, where we had our picture taken and said our good-byes.  Mr. Yamada handed me a small gift.  “Thank you for that interesting and informative tour,” he said to me.

What went wrong?

Japanese politeness at its best.  I couldn’t believe that they found the tour anything but dull and inadequate.  The final blow to my confidence came next, when he handed me his business card.  It pronounced him the president of a translating company, somewhere I might be looking for a job in a few years.  I prayed that he wouldn’t recall my poor performance on the tour if I ever contacted him for an interview.  And of course I had come unprepared for the exchange of business cards—I had none of my own to give him in return.

Silently pronouncing myself a total failure, I thanked the group and retreated to my Japanese classroom, where my class was in progress.  When my sensei asked me how it went, I just shook my head and gave him an accusatory stare.  I felt he’d stuck me in a situation where I couldn’t possibly have felt successful.  He chuckled, giving me one of his “Buddhasmiles” as we the students in his in-group call them, and went back to the grammar lesson.

As he lectured I thought about the tour.  I had been prepared for everything that had happened—the facial expressions, my linguistic inadequacies, even the interest in factual information—so why did I feel so unsatisfied and disappointed?  The experience was a wake-up call.  Grammar lessons were not enough.  Reading books on culture was not enough.

Culture shock can occur even on our own turf, and that’s what happened to me that rainy day with the salarymen.  Even when we’re prepared for culture shock, it’s still just that—a shock.  I’m glad I had this experience before going to Japan, and advice I give myself now stems from a Japanese proverb that says “If you fall down seven times, stand up eight times.”  Perseverance is highly valued in Japanese society, and if my vocabulary and my pronunciation are still lacking when I set foot in Kyoto next fall, then certainly everyone will be very impressed with my refusal to let that stand in my way.  I am going to Japan, and whether I encounter salarymen, Zen monks, politicians, or soba shop owners, I will face them all with one word in mind: ganbaru.