So we have arrived; the pen, the pad, and the architect are all in one place under the enchanting incense of coffee and rain drops. A different place, a different city, same ritual. A timeout from the adventure to recount the trials, the good times, the experiences, the things learned and relearned. These are the Tales of a Rōnin.
This past week I was invited to a nomikai hosted by one of the schools that I work at. Nomikai’s are an almost ritualistic aspect of the Japanese work culture. Sort of like the holiday party or monthly Happy Hour you might have at your job. I had heard from friends who used to be teachers about how crazy these things could potentially get. I guess it’s true that no matter where you are in the world, everyone has two sides to their personality: a sober side and a drunk side. Finally I’d be able to move beyond the daily small talk into more interesting conversations with the Japanese coworkers. I was excited and honored to be invited.
Expecting a very traditional izakaya with low tables and walls lined with aged bottles of sake, I was surprised to see the flag of Italy waving proudly at the restaurant’s entrance. I was a little taken aback that an establishment like this would exist out in this rustic town. Yet I was secretly happy that we would be dining at Olive that Friday evening. I hadn’t had some good Italian food since I was stateside. And wine…well, if you know me you know I was feeling good at that moment.
Upon entering, one of the teachers told me to go over and greet the waitresses and cooks. I couldn’t figure out why and out of confusion I muttered a little “Konbanwa” (Good Evening) and threw in a slight bow out of politeness. Later that night I realized that I could have been a little more gracious with my bow: they had closed Olive off to all customers besides our party (and another) for the evening. As I moved toward our section of the restaurant I noticed only a few teachers had arrived. Trying to keep things symmetrical, I took the next available seat in the long row of tables. Upon sitting down I realized that there was actually some kind of order to the seating arrangement. The Japanese teachers of English were sitting together, and homeroom teachers were sitting by grade. I overheard the teacher next to me saying things like, “I can’t speak English, should Eric-sensei sit with you guys?” I let him know that it was okay, I would try my best to speak in Japanese throughout the night.
Others started pouring in and 40oz bottles of beer were set on the tables. One sensei at my table proceeded to fill everyone’s cup with beer (or soda for the drivers). Soon after, the Head Teacher stood up and proceeded to do a welcome of sorts, which turned into a long speech of which most I couldn’t make out. After which he thanked everyone and bowed. We all clapped. Next, the principal did the exact same thing. We clapped. Another sensei. Repeat. All this time I’m sitting here thinking, “Doesn’t nomikai literally mean drinking party? When does the party start??” All of a sudden I was pulled away from my wandering thoughts when the Head Teacher requested that I stand up.
“He wants me to say something?” I asked one of the Japanese English sensei. She nodded.
“Yes, in Japanese. Good luck,” she said and smiled softly.
I stood up and bumped my knees on the table. (If I’m not bumping my knees on something it’s almost always my head. Every. Single. Day.) I proceeded to talk about my experiences so far at the school and with the sensei’s help, made a nice little speech. Everyone gave an approving “Ahh” and clapped. Finally we all stood up and raised our glasses. Kampai.
The first course was mushroom and onion pizza. How everyone managed to scarf down that first slice with chopsticks is beyond me. Noticing I was struggling, the waiter brought me a fork. I laughed to myself, the only utensil I need right now is my hand! Eventually I got the hang of it and caught up with everyone else. No sooner than my glass was halfway done, a nearby teacher had already filled it back up to the brim. On to the next course.
Spaghetti with chopsticks was a little more messier than expected. Yet others were polite enough to say that I was really good at using them. Every sip, and my glass of beer never seemed to lose volume. We talked about various things; likes, dislikes, music, sports, family, etc. Periodically, the Principal would randomly call on someone to stand up and do a mini-toast/speech over the loud, spirited conversation. When they found out that I liked wine, a bottle of red merlot was already opened and being poured into a glass for me. Now I had two never-ending drinks in front of me.
Eventually, the conversation shifted from general interests to more personal questions about my Life. They asked me about my major in college (Media Studies). It has become difficult to describe my major to people because of the variety of topics in media that it covers. Every time I try I find myself making stuff up, not telling the full story of my undergrad studies in order to make it easier for others to understand. This time, since I was literally drinking ‘til my cup runneth over, I was a little more liberal in the description of my collegiate study. After hearing it, and realizing that I had practically no background in teaching, one of the Japanese English sensei asked, “So Why Did You Take This Job?”
Her English was so blunt, cold; logical. She quickly apologized for her directness upon realizing my wide-eyed, jaw dropping stare. Time stopped for a brief moment and I formulated an answer in Japanese:
“I wanted to return to Japan,” and then, feeling like I should add some aspect of teaching to my answer, “And I want to become a college professor someday.”
The surrounding teachers hung on to my every word, and in unison let out a cool “ahh” at the end of my explanation. But the Japanese English sensei came at me again in her candid speech, “What would you teach at university?”
Again, I found myself making something up that I don’t entirely remember.
That one question is the most vivid memory I have of that night. On the way home I reflected: Why did I really take this job? Was it really just to return to Japan? Maybe. I’ve gotten so used to making up stuff that I’m starting to believe in the answers I give to people. Now don’t get me wrong, being a professor would be pretty cool. But it is not my ultimate dream. It’s a response I often give in order to avoid criticism. My ultimate dreams in Life are, as Mr. Spock would say, “Highly Illogical.” For this reason, I have become more and more uncomfortable in sharing them with others. I know that if I am to move on, I will eventually have to disclose these dreams to other people. But now is not the time. This excerpt from Paulo Coelho’s novel The Warrior of the Light perfectly explains why:
…he [The Warrior] rarely discusses his plans. And sometimes people believe this is because he is afraid of envy. But he knows that whenever he talks about a dream, he uses a little bit of the energy from that dream in order to do so. And by talking, he runs the risk of spending all the energy he needs to put the dream into action.
A warrior of light knows the power of words.
There’s still more work for this Wandering Warrior to do. But I’m getting there. Stay Tuned.