This time last year I was in Namibia. My brother, sister and I went on a two weeks road trip. We saw the most amazing galaxy in the open air, we witnessed the most disgusting mosquitoes and the most gorgeous animals who were living in the wild. The animal kingdom with lions, buffaloes, rhinos, giraffes and Pumbaa’s, was wondrous; we felt so humble when we glanced at them in their own habitat. It’s an indescribable experience and I was happy to share these gracious moments with my siblings. I don’t want to go into details about my African trip. I only mentioned this trip, because it is totally the opposite of my current situation. Who would ever thought that I was sitting on the hood of our van gazing at our galaxy hearing the deafening silence for the first time, and now I’m in this metropolitan that is running on neon lights 24/7?
“I brought doughnuts for this meeting, please have some. Thank you for everyone’s effort last week. It was messy, but… Ah, thanks Felicia, yes, you can open the boxes, yeah.”
My life in Tokyo has finally found a daily routine where I can rely on. The mornings are the worst, waking up and knowing that I have to push myself in the train on my way to work is demotivating. Other than that, I’m very lucky that I got to work in an international multicultural environment where I don’t have to deal with the traditional Japanese work culture. I work in an after school where kids (6-9 years old) arrive after their normal Japanese school time. We offer an English speaking program where we teach English with daily projects. Every month we choose a country and every day of the week we offer a project that is based on that country. In January we started with Congo, February was Spain, last month was Vietnam and this month is Polynesia. I work part time at the project development where I get to design the projects, and part time as a teacher where I get to see how our projects are realized in the classroom. We have been expanded to 7 locations and the project development team has to oversee every location. My supervisor is a South African lady, and my fellow teachers are from the US, Sweden, France, New Zealand, The Philippines and The Netherlands. The administration staff are from Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. What’s so fortunate about this company is that we don’t have to sulk under the Japanese overtime culture and we get to speak up when something is not right. Yet, now and then I get to see a glimpse of the unwritten labor rules peeking around the corner. Our beloved administrator from the main office has always been the first person to open the doors and the last one to lock them. We, the Westerners, often try to drag her out of the office without any results. I keep using the same Chinese saying my mum taught me as a mantra: “As long as we live, the amount of work will live with us.” It means that we never have enough time to finish our work. In the meantime our colleague lovingly tells us to go home, convincing us that she will lock the doors. Whatever needs to be done to make the day runs smoothly, she is on top of it; phone, email, bus service, translator, kids’ confidant, liaison, you name it. We all know she is dealing with too many things at the same time, yet she wouldn’t speak up and ask for help. Whenever we offer help with a bit of pushing she gladly takes it, but it’s something that I have to get used to it. It’s because we are not familiar with the language, we are too dependent on the admin staff. When things go sideways we still can’t take over their work.
This way I am, again, thankful for those people who are going an extra mile for their colleagues. Despite of having piles of work to do, they still help us out when we have personal issues with our bills or letters in Japanese. It humbles me even more when I think back how I’d treated my non-native colleagues back home. I never realized how much they struggle to work in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t take things for granted and appreciate all the help I receive. Just by making coffee for my colleague is not enough, but it’s the first step I’m taking. Oh, and apparently I take away the pressure from her by talking to her about football, she told me. This remarkable woman had quit her previous job and traveled to Russia for the World Cup 2018. “I support Germany, the big rival of The Netherlands. Well, rival, The Netherlands didn’t even play in the World Cup, so it’s not a rival anymore.” It’s because she’s a remarkable woman, otherwise I had flying kicked her out of the window. Sideways.
“Ah, please, stop asking me if you can take coffee. Take it, everything, I can make a new pot. And don’t thank me, coffee is for everyone.”
“Okay, thank you, Felicia.”
Yesterday she asked me what makes me so Dutch and what makes me so Chinese. I honestly didn’t know what to tell her. As an anthropologist I can never give a fair answer, because my academic senses would be yelling at me: “Every person is different, unique characters, there is no such things as typical Dutch culture!” But, hey, the proud Dutchness arose from my body and my other colleague asked: “Pride?” I turned to her with a questionable face and I answered, “Yeah, kinda.” I was a bit surprised that she said that. She mentioned that her Dutch friends are very proud of their culture. I nodded, but deep in my heart I think I’m more proud of Amsterdam than The Netherlands, because I associate myself more with the capital. And I think that’s the arrogance in me that will never die. The sense of belonging is so strong with the 020 zip-code than the rest of the country. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love the other parts of my country, in contrary, I just don’t know enough to be a patriot. Oh, and yes, I answered that I am very family-centered, hard-working which is more the Asian side of me, and open, straightforward, rude and a complainer which represents more of my Dutch side. “Yes, you are very straightforward, that is so not Asian, but I like that.” Thanks.
My colleagues make my work bearable. And, of course, some adorable kids too. It is tough to work full time in an environment where I’ve been limited in so many ways. It doesn’t help either when I don’t have to speak the language, because we keep telling the kids that they can’t speak Japanese in the class. It benefits them, but it’s horrible for me. Also, working with kids requires 200% of your time and effort. You have to be very ‘genki’, super joyful, energetic, and it consumes so much of me that I’m exhausted after a whole week of smiling and jumping around. I sometimes lose sight of the purpose I’m here for. Next year I hope I can look back at this time with a smile where I finally saw the cherry blossoms; most amazing sights in Japan! The flowers are a sign of renewal, new beginnings, and I feel like I’ve had so many starts, but this one, after obtaining my 3 years visa, is my official start of a new year. Where I try to complain less. Learn the language. Remember the kids’ names. Or something like that.
“I have a very difficult name, maybe you will remember it next time. Now go on, where is your jacket? Change your shoes, mommy is waiting for you ”
Written by Felicia Mok
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