Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 233rd story of Our Life Logs |
When I was a kid, I was crazy for Connecticut. The state where I was born had it all for the young adventurer: massive meadows, rivers big and small, broad brooks and the wild spotted trout that filled them. Growing up in the early 1960s, exploring my hometown was enough to satisfy my wandering spirit. But as I crept toward young adulthood, I began to dream of life outside the 20-mile radius of my home. Surely there was more.
Dad made it known that he wanted me to go to an Ivy League university as he had, but I decided on a small college in Upstate New York. Four years passed quickly, and I remember clearly the joy of my graduation day—two of my mother´s sisters were there, and all had a grand time. Only my father was in a sour mood.
When we later had words, I vowed “once and forever” to go off and see the world. My mother cried when I declared my intentions. My father quipped, “Good luck.”
I ended up living in Seattle for six years. Besides the first and most challenging job I had as a residential counselor for “emotionally-disturbed boys,” I had a string of part-time gigs that never panned out: part-time city bus driver, journalist, photographer, phys. ed. and soccer coach, “a landscraper” (as we joked at the time), and even a balloon-delivery boy. Then one day, my life changed. I attended a lecture called “Jobs in Japan” where the presenter showed slides of cherry blossoms blooming, magnificent temples, and explosive bullet trains. His message was simple: any native speaker could travel to Japan, secure a work visa, make a significant salary teaching, and easily enjoy trips around the exotic Japanese archipelago and Asia itself. Finally, a crush on Hiroyo, a community college classmate, clinched the deal.
In 1988, I set off on the adventure of my lifetime—to live and work in Tokyo, Japan. I only knew of one other person in Japan at the time (my brother´s high school classmate, Brendan, who had gone off and married a Tokyoite). We exchanged letters (remember–very few people used email then, and most probably worked in government labs in Los Alamos), so it took about two months for our letters to crisscross the Pacific Ocean. Brendan encouraged me wholeheartedly to join him, promising to help me with everything at first.
My trip was star-crossed from the beginning. I decided to leave behind the one letter in which Brendan had meticulously written his long street address and telephone number, for instead, I thought it best to copy all this pertinent information into another notebook. Unfortunately, the number I managed to copy wrongly, as I would soon find out.
Arriving at Narita Airport, I was in another world. I caught the sleek bus to the hotel where Brendan had booked a room for me. Brendan instructed me to call after 5 pm, as he´d be returning from a day off outside the capital. At least I could sleep in a bit I thought. But no—somebody banged on my door at 8 am, apparently telling me it was time to check out.
I decided to bide my time in the local park despite the cold, but it was a long wait from the morning until 5 pm. I went in search of something to eat around 2 pm and realized I could read almost nothing on the streets—despite my full year of study. I had to literally drag a waiter onto the sidewalk to point to a bowl of plastic noodles in the display case in front of the restaurant. I soon sat with a steaming bowl in front of me, but suffered another shock after receiving the bill.
The dim sun had set. It was finally time to call Brendan. I found a pay phone and inserted all the coins I had, only to hear an old woman´s faraway voice: “Moshi, moshi?” (Hello, hello?)—clearly that wasn’t Brendan´s apartment. I couldn’t think of anything else to do but wait half an hour and call again, until all my coins were gone, swallowed by the monstrous green phone. What should I do next? I couldn’t call my brother stateside to save me. That would be an arm and a leg.
I stood by the chilly roadside, brightly lit with Tokyo´s incessant neon. I tried to hail a taxi, but car after car passed me by. I learned later that the white-gloved drivers were afraid to pick up foreigners due to their lack of English ability. Finally, a driver slowed and allowed me in with my bags. I showed him the written address, he bowed numerous times, and we were off, racing along undulating streets and narrow alleys. The taxi meter raced as well, but the calculations in my head made me more afraid than the speedy driver. One bowl of noodles, several wasted phone calls, and a taxi ride had already made a dent in my $1,500 nest egg that was supposed to last until I had secured a job.
Finally, the driver stopped and smiled at me. We found Brendan´s apartment after all, marked with a “Michael Dukakis for President” bumper sticker. “I thought you weren’t coming!” Brendan exclaimed in his night robe. It was 9:30 pm.
Indeed, my one American friend in Tokyo helped me in the right direction. He found me a temporary place to bed down, a “gaijin” (literally “outsider” or foreigner´s) house. He introduced me to my first private students who loyally stuck by me for the six years to come in Japan. He even gave me detailed instructions of what to do if a major earthquake struck—something that had never happened anywhere close to my quaint Connecticut home.
But as November crawled towards Christmas, I had no real job offers. Every train ride chewed up $2.00 or $4.00 from my cache and I grew increasingly desperate. I was scared to call home and admit defeat—something I could never do—whether it was a simple disagreement with Dad, or a game of “H-O-R-S-E” in the driveway with my brother. This adventure had turned into a nightmare.
Finally, one frigid night, I trudged to the subway station as Japanese businessmen spilled from nearby bars, laughing and stumbling to catch the last train. I remembered I at least had a plane ticket home, but I had never been so penniless and low in my life. I felt a tear welling in my eye when I looked down at my beat-up loafers.
Directly in front of me lay a fat leather wallet. My heart jumped as I picked it up, looked quickly around to see no one. I ducked into a dim phone booth and peeked inside only to see a roll of crisp Japanese bills—with no ID or cards or pictures whatsoever. I hopped the train, clutching the wallet to my breast; the typical late-night passengers gave me the once-over. On my way to my tiny apartment, I sat on a bench under a leafless cherry tree and examined the wallet´s contents. Nothing but a wad of 10,000-yen notes, 12 to be exact—approximately $1,000.00 at the going exchange rate.
This was it. The “good luck” I’d needed for so long.
This sudden money didn’t make me rich, but I certainly never had felt that much cash in my pocket at one time in my life. I counted the bills again and again, feeling their crispness, bigger and browner than US bills, all with the solemn face of Fukuzawa, a Meiji-era philosopher, looking out at the world. A sigh of relief escaped—I could stay in Tokyo, for the time being at least. My pang of guilt was erased the next day when I asked a German friend, a manager at Audi-Opel, if I should have returned the money at the police box–as I assumed any Japanese would’ve done. His curt response, “Anybody who loses that amount of money so carelessly deserves to lose it. Or they have other money that´ll quickly cover this minor loss.”
I went straight out and bought a new business suit (one of the cheaper things I´d ever buy in Tokyo at a hundred bucks), and soon found a regular job teaching company classes at a reputable Japanese-American company. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was working to really help others, and the respect the Japanese showed to teachers didn’t hurt. This journey had begun to feel like an adventure again.
When I found the sudden money, I could breathe easier and begin to enjoy the Japanese culture (and cuisine!) that surrounded me. Yet, I learned so much more—about planning, and persistence, and developing the patience I needed to be a better teacher and person. Not long after, I was making $100.00 an hour, delivering seminars in English to Japanese executives. I could see the light at the proverbial end of the tunnel as I paid off my $5k college loan which had constituted an “onerous” $59.62 payment every month for 10 years. At least that was something to make Dad happy—he was the co-signer.
Since living and thriving in Japan for six years, I took six months off for the first time. I traveled to tropical locales like Bali, I completed a PADI diving course in the Philippines (my dream at the time), then rented a motorcycle and rode over a mountain pass in Vietnam in 1994—the first time that American tourists were allowed to enter the country some 20 years after the war. Finally, I returned to the US where I bought tickets and attended 12 World Cup games, including the opener where Bill Clinton, Oprah, and Diana Ross regaled the sellout crowd. I bought a sparkling (used) car, and drove across the country on a 30-day camping trip with my sister.
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