Postcard from the Kaisha: public health check edition

I have for all my years working here in Tokyo avoided the company health check. I have always been a bit of a hypochondriac, so although a free comprehensive health workup is shiny to my magpie eyes, the thought of my results being known to anyone outside the doctor’s office is an abhorrent prospect. Where the results go is not entirely clear, something about a “person in charge of company health.” I place too much value on my own privacy to allow for any sliver of a lack of patient-doctor confidentiality. What the fuck, Japan. I don’t know where this comes from, but it’s not a socialized medicine thing: see other countries with similar systems. There is not only the bigger issue of whose hands your results could float into, but the lack of privacy starts from the office visit itself.

I will begin with the caveat that I’ve been to a few clinics (the breast clinic in Aoyama being my favourite all around) where things are modern, nice and neat. For the most part, however, the places I have gone don’t leave a lot to the imagination. From having to explain what ails you to the receptionist in front of the whole waiting room, to the nurse discussing the prescribed medications with you in front of the whole waiting room, to the curtain or flimsy divider that allows others to hear your consult with the doctor. I’ve grown fairly accustomed to it now, although that is more likely because I haven’t (thank god) had anything too graphic to discuss (see: me puking in an echo chamber of a bathroom off the waiting room), not because I am suddenly down with strangers hearing all my biz. I realize I have privileged, Western expectations when it comes to medicine, but there you have it.

So what has changed, you ask. I must have been to a company health check if I am writing you this postcard. Last summer one of my favourite coworkers died very suddenly and I spent the following months wondering if the same thing was going to happen to me. I also discovered what an anxiety attack was like. Cue the company health check.

As I write this, I’ve gone through two annual checks now. Companies pick and choose the full menu that employees are subjected to and while I am thankful to not have had my stomach filled with barium, I am less than thrilled that lady part checks are not included, because unless you say you are exhibiting symptoms, it can be expensive to have your cervix scraped and your ta-tas smooshed around. Even with universal insurance, you have to pay 30% out of pocket. So, instead of covering some really useful tests, the Kaisha chooses some useful ones and then some I’ve never heard of that are in the WTF-are-you-testing-for-this category. I won’t go into all the different implications of this kind of annual testing in Japan; I am not knowledgeable enough and I doubt I can articulate what I do know. It can be very good but also not so good for hypochondriacs (I never knew I should be worried about this!).

This year, I went to the clinic on the last day of the exam period, so I was lucky enough to be surrounded by 20 or so of my not-so-closest Japanese colleagues. There I was, perched on a chair thigh-to-thigh with two male Professionals, pretending we don’t know each other. For the purposes of the Kaisha’s health check menu, we are not required to wear one of those fabulous cotton gowns, but some of the Professionals got to catch a glimpse of me in a hot little beige number as I moved rooms for a chest x-ray in full view. It’s bad enough being put through the health check mill with your coworkers under florescent lighting, but add to that the awkwardness of being the only whitie, known to some only by name and seen for the first time on your way to giving a urine sample.

Speaking of which, the urine sample takes the award as the most egregious manifestation of the lack of privacy. To say nothing of the fact that I watched the nurse hand empty PAPER cups to patients that her fingers had been inside (the cup, not the person), after filling to the line, I placed my cup in the two-door cupboard to be secreted away by a nurse only to see the cupboard was full. Full of five other OPEN PAPER cups of urine the names on some of which were entirely visible to me. Well at least I know what Tanaka-san’s piss looks like for the next time he asks me to do work for him!!! Let’s just pause here to ponder the cray-fuckedness of this.

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I suppose I should look at this as some kind of group-building exercise. After all, so much of society is group-focused, why not all hold hands, do a health check together, and share the results later! While grateful for (70%) universal health care and a company that pays for my prodding, the exercise of going through the annual exam in front of coworkers who may or may not be able to hear what is being said behind the closed door and may or may not have seen my fucking urine, will not be one of my most cherished memories.

Postcard from the Kaisha: business card edition

Because who would I be if I wasn’t the lonely whitie who couldn’t smoothly execute an old Japanese-style “card exchange” receiving line without incident?!

The Kaisha doesn’t let me out to see customers very often, so I do a lot of back office work. No, that is not a euphemism for something else, although it would certainly make for an interesting memoir pitch. The downside to this is that I’ve yet to hone my business card exchanging skills. What was that you said? It takes skill to pass a business card back and forth? You obviously haven’t been in a boardroom with a line of 15-20 people to get down, stopping at each person along the way to say “oh Honorable Customer, I am humble Lonely Whitie, please think of me favorably in the future” while deftly handing your business card over at the right angle and speed with one hand, taking theirs with the other, careful not to defile it. You really need about four hands to do this, so I am surprised that the arms of the Japanese salarymano erectus have not evolved more to accommodate this basic survival need.

I’ve bungled the receiving line before, usually because I have been called in for training observance or some such insignificance and so I try to back into a corner to hide out until it becomes painfully apparent that I need to get my ass in that receiving line. This is probably one of the only times I would rather be an OL passing out green tea, because at least they are expected to keep quiet and blend in with the curtains. I would blend so hard.

My most recent spectacular involved my running out of cards halfway down the line. Nothing says business competence like having to mumble that you don’t have any more cards to a couple people before deciding to dash out and grab some more. In my defense, I didn’t realize how many Honorable Customers I would be trading cards with, so I didn’t think to put a one-inch stack in my pocket. Back in line I struggled to maintain my composure while neatly stacking the received cards in one hand and passing out one at a time of my own from the stack clenched in my other hand, the card stock probably mottled by then with sweat. Ever the lady.

It’s a constant tug-of-war deciding whether to act like a bumbling foreigner or to do my best “Japanese act” in these situations. On the one hand, owning my foreignness unloads all responsibility but makes me feel rude, while trying to imitate my hosts is a bit awkward and embarrassing. I usually go for awkward, if not only so I can regale you gentle readers with stories of it.

Bubble: burst

It’s all bullet trains and views of Mt. Fuji until you realize that as a woman, the sound of your pee is shameful, something to be disguised. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to make prolonged and distasteful gargling sounds  at public bathroom sinks and to not disguise the sound of a shared bidet washing your coochie.

 

* I don’t know why I bother writing this but you should know by now that I like living in Tokyo. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But one thing that I can’t fail to notice is my attitude change over the years from being a uni exchange student, to an independent student, to a Kaisha bitch (not to be confused with an OL). I’ve long since considered Tokyo my adopted home, albeit temporary, and along with that comes all the minor annoyances of daily life that you can find anywhere with a slight Japanese twist. I’ve noticed this among friends and acquaintances and no matter your initial reason for coming to Japan, at some point your bubble will burst.

Golden oldies

Gaijin are so introspective. We love to talk about ourselves and are equally fascinated with our own uniqueness as that of our hosts. We can talk about cultural assimilation and share our gaijin badges of honor for hours. There are even diagrams plotting out the stages in one’s career as a gaijin; all of them inevitably start with the green wide-eyed newbie and after a series of radical ups and downs, end with the jaded expat, derided by all for any number of things from bitterness to condescension to having made the choice to settle here forever. At any point along the gaijin spectrum, really, you open yourself up to criticism and who best to judge you but a jury of your peers: other feckless outsiders.

As someone who is fresh off the plane (FOP), you can make all kinds of rookie mistakes: declaring Akihabara is cool, squealing over “crepes” (in quotation marks as they certainly are not) in Harajuku, exclaiming breathlessly to coworkers how damn friendly everyone is.

As a mid-termer (3-6 years) you are open to snarkery from both the FOPs and the gaijin who have been here longer. You either don’t speak enough Japanese by this point, have been teaching English for too long or you’re a little too enthusiastic for someone who has been here for more than a couple years.

It is the gaijin who have been here upwards of 7-10 years who are equally revered and ridiculed for their decision to make Japan a long-term destination. You can be infantilized for being so thick to have stayed here so long by the mid-termers who silently pat themselves on the back for having an escape plan and stared at uncomprehendingly by FOPs who are both afraid and confused by the Japanese-speaking foreigner who seems perfectly at home here, possibly even paired off with a native and contributing to fighting Japan’s population decline.

As a gaijin, no matter what you do or how long you’ve been here for, other foreigners from a myriad of backgrounds will have reason to find fault with you. Maybe because you remind them of themselves or of who they are fast becoming.

This isn’t always apparent if you surround yourself with similar-level gaijin. As has been long documented, I don’t hang out with many people (something that becomes painfully obvious when I am asked as a favour to contact “all” my friends here), least of all bright-eyed FOPs. To be fair though, I don’t know any “lifers” either, at least not in Real Life. I myself fall in the grey zone between mid-termer and lifer (you can’t blame me for creating a grey zone for my own selfish purposes), a fact I have become increasingly more insecure about. I have even considered lying about my gaijin age. The way I see it, everything is samurai and geisha up until around the five-year mark. You basically get a free pass until that point to fluff around and soak up the local culture, eat good food and bang some locals. Saying you have been here for four or five years is relatively safe – you’ve got some gaijin chops but haven’t been here too long that you lose all credibility. You see, it’s all about having gaijin cache and every time you meet a new foreigner you can assess the other’s based on some simple questions.

It’s terribly difficult to strike a balance. You can’t have been here for too long but you must have a command of Japanese. You shouldn’t like manga but you do need a working knowledge of some aspect of Japanese culture that gives off the right amount of cool and seems somewhat effortless. If you’re a guy, you probably don’t want a sexless nagging wife and kids, but rather an attractive Japanese companion who can hold her own in conversation but isn’t “like those bitches back home.” If you’re a lady, likewise, you probably don’t want a salaryman husband who exhibits a general tendency towards long hours and treating you like his mother, but rather a good-looking Japanese man with a hint of samurai who treats you as his equal and knows his way around under the hood. Basically, dear readers, you want someone who is Japanese but not too Japanese. It’s a delicate fucking balance. You like Japanese food but aren’t trying to prove something by eating natto, which would only serve to impress Japanese people, something you could more easily achieve by simply picking up a pair of chopsticks.

Now that I am a bit past the golden five-year mark, I am noticing with some horror that I am slowly turning into a lifer in others’ eyes, particularly FOPs (but what the fuck do they know, right?). As of late, I have found myself face-to-face with a slew of FOPs and what’s worse, many of them are here on a short assignment of less than two years. They are all so, like, thrillllllled to be here and to eat crepes in Harajuku, party at Feria and take weekend trips en masse to the countryside. When I let slip that I don’t think every single thing is perfect here and receive pitying looks, I want to yell at them that I’ve put my time in, it’s been great thanksverymuch but that you must be an idiot with blinders on not to see some of the downsides. My favorite though, and what inspired this vitriol and possible self-loathing is the look I get when these FOPs find out how long I’ve been here. It’s like they’ve come across a golden unicorn that can poop out endless 10,000 yen notes for them. When this happens, I then have to frantically qualify my existence here in Tokyo and explain that my exit plan is in motion. I also want to inform them that there are lifers much worse than I, that I look like I’m on a month-long holiday compared to some of these other gaijin. Blink. Blink. Some of these FOPs can’t fathom how someone would come here and manage/want to build a life without an expat package. I haven’t even given birth to a child half of this country and lately I am feeling like the peculiar oldie at gatherings to whom no one can relate.

A spinoff from this is when you tell female FOPs that you are dating a local. And then prepare to be charmed by comments such as “I’m just not attracted to Asian guys,” “some of the guys here are so girly,” “I need someone taller than me and buff.” Yes, I must cop to having had reservations about the local men when I came back here, a notion I was quickly disabused of. Equally humiliating is being asked for advice by FOPs on how to date here when the only pool they plan to swim in is the foreign one. Well, gee, I don’t know, I was snatched up by a local pretty early in the game, but good luck cracking on to the foreign guys who already drowning in Japanese pussy. I get it, I do. It has got to be supremely frustrating when your potential dating pool shrinks to the size of a water droplet (I feel the same about my friend pool), but I can’t summon a whole lot of sympathy when the advice-seekers are looking at me like I just got off a 10-year stint on a deserted island and can’t remember how to use a knife and fork. I wish I could take my own advice and make some more Japanese lady friends but I’m afraid that ship has sailed.

This post probably hasn’t inspired feelings of kindness in you, dear readers, I have probably offended those of you who are gaijin. Hell, I think I may have offended myself. But my time here as a gaijin has been weighing heavily in my mind the last few months, as I tally up what I have and haven’t done, what I maybe should have and what I kind of wish I had. And to plan going forward what I want to do. There are some days when the sheer foreignness of Tokyo catches me completely and utterly by surprise. I’ll be sitting on the subway or walking down the street when it suddenly hits me that I live in East Asia and that I don’t look much like the people around me. I would never use this word in speech but there it is: delightful. It’s a delicious feeling to be taken by surprise like this, when so often I am swearing at people in my head or walking around like I own the place. I’ve never really fit in, no matter where I go, so it shouldn’t come as such a shock that I find myself straddling the middle ground here. If anything, I think I am increasingly disconcerted at how my own impressions of Japan have changed in many ways and not changed in just as many.

Bubble: burst

It’s all samurai and geisha until someone pukes in the elevator of your apartment building over the weekend and doesn’t deign to clean it up. So much for Japanese politeness! Thank god I pay 10,000 a month to a maintenance man who will get the chance to deal with it the next time he is in! Maybe the puker decided to leave it so that it would get dry and crusty, and thus easier to chisel off.

 

* I don’t know why I bother writing this but you should know by now that I like living in Tokyo. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But one thing that I can’t fail to notice is my attitude change over the years from being a uni exchange student, to an independent student, to a Kaisha bitch (not to be confused with an OL). I’ve long since considered Tokyo my adopted home, albeit temporary, and along with that comes all the minor annoyances of daily life that you can find anywhere with a slight Japanese twist. I’ve noticed this among friends and acquaintances and no matter your initial reason for coming to Japan, at some point your bubble will burst.

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