Thursday, May 7, 2009


By Peter Kelly

I was pretty bored with my life as it was so breaking my stalemate of one job a year made sense. "Life elsewhere has to be better," I thought.
"You might as well travel the world when you are young," encouraged the executive at my last job. "It will open your eyes to the big world and help you to think more expansively," she said.
It took me a while, and several failed attempts to move elsewhere, until I decided on a place to escape to.
Two years later, my decision to work in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher was realized with an offer from the country's leading company in the industry. I booked my tickets with abandon and expectancy.
"Is the grass really greener on the other side," asked one sinister friend. "Are you sure it is a good idea to leave Jamaica now and move to Japan in the middle of a recession?" was another attempt to make me reconsider. But I was determined to find my kernel of opportunity in impenetrable Japanese society.
But the moment I hit the tarmac on April 4 en route to Frankfurt then Pudong, I knew my life would change. I was the only black person on all three flights that amounted to 23 hours.
"Are you a tennis player from America," inquired one curious co-passenger as I positioned my pair of tennis rackets in the overhead compartment.
By the time I landed at Narita Airport I was a zombie. But customs was a breeze. As english teachers in Japan command incredible respect, I was not viewed with any suspicion. Senseis, as we are called, are 'third parents' and are expected to be exemplary citizens.

I was like a kid in a candy store in Tokyo. Vending machines at every corner, large neon signs written in Kanji were incomprehensible, larger than life and the models all looked Western and stick-thin. It took me five minutes, bumps into people and numerous repetitions of sumimasen [excuse me] to understand that you always walk on the left and I ate rice, miso soup and fish for about four days, as I did not understand the menus.

Training for my new job was interestingly simple but I freaked out in my first demo lesson and it was torn to shreds by the trainer. A flicker of hopelessness crossed my mind but turning back at that stage would be the real failure. It takes a strong mind to settle down in a new culture. No one is going to spoon feed you, so you must learn fast and advance.

People are incredibly purposeful and competitive here. Everyone wears a suit to work and must arrive 10 minutes to the hour to be considered early. Arrive on the hour and an apology is in order.

Fashion is amazing in Tokyo but bargains are sparse except you go to Harajuku. Here, you can take the risks you would not dare to at home. I even saw a guy, walking with who is apparently his female companion, carrying a hot pink purse-looking bag, obviously his, and wearing jeans so tight he could injure himself. But noone stares, snickers or cares about what anyone else does, so your stress level from the "who is noticing me" factor is nil.

Japanese are suckers for order. Walk on a red light and you could be ticketed or whistled. Lose your train ticket and be stuck in the station except you repay your fare. Lose your money or valuables and you are sure to have it returned to you within 24 hours.

People are very helpful. One guy walked 10 minutes with me to help me find a train. If you forget to remove your outdoor shoes when you enter some establishments, you are sure to offend someone. If you don't have your Alien Registration Card on your person, prepare to be detained. Good luck trying to explain to bored policemen who speak only Japanese.

By the time I moved into my small apartment in Chiba, I had made friends with a few other new teachers. Most are from the USA but there are Kiwis, Aussies and Brits in the mix.
The bed in the apartment is no lower than 4 feet tall, the doorbell has a surveillance video camera and the toilet seat is heated, electronic - and speaks.

I am a spectacle. A black man in a small community is awful, especially for small kids. They stare alot. Some are friendly. One little girl ran and shrieked as I jogged towards her one evening. Friendly as some are, you can tell when Japanese people don't like visitors. They stare pass you as though you don't exist. More welcoming ones are eager to do 5-minute English drills with you. Surprisingly, some don't know of Jamaica until you mention Bob Marley.
The grass is actually greener if you condiser that crime is virtually non-existent. More people die from natrual causes and suicide here than from murder. Walking around late, carefree, is not uncommon and I was told that gangs only hang out, they don't rob or mug. It is so safe that some people are paid their sizeable salaries in cash. Many companies hire solely on merit and if you work hard, you will go far.