Too Late for the Festival: An American Salary-Woman in Japan

Too Late for the Festival: An American Salary-Woman in Japan

by Rhiannon Paine PAINE

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Rhiannon Paine, a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley, agreed reluctantly to transfer to their Tokyo branch. She had no idea what she was in for, and neither did her Japanese colleagues. While they coped with her social gaffes, like arriving late to work and blowing her nose in public, Paine struggled with Japanese food––"deviant


Rhiannon Paine, a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley, agreed reluctantly to transfer to their Tokyo branch. She had no idea what she was in for, and neither did her Japanese colleagues. While they coped with her social gaffes, like arriving late to work and blowing her nose in public, Paine struggled with Japanese food––"deviant sea-creatures on rice"––and with the Japanese language, which kept tripping her up with new verb tenses.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 "Piquantly amusing..." --Atlantic Monthly

 "[Paine] poignantly compares the energy and regimented lives [of the Japanese] with her...compulsive Western need to find herself, to fulfill the promise of freedom." --Boston Phoenix

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1985, Paine, then a 37-year-old technical writer, accepted an offer from her former boss at Hewlett-Packard to work for a year at that company's Japan office in Takaido as a foreign service employee. Intended to be a lighthearted memoir of an American in Japan, Paine's story reads more like one long homesick whine. Although she was apparently paid an enormous sum of money to do very little, she detested her job and was annoyed by her Japanese colleagues, who arrived on time, wore business clothes rather than jeans to the office and did not eat at their desks. To add to her pique, a feud (never fully explained) among three of her fellow foreign workers prevented her from socializing with them as she had envisioned. She hated Japanese food, disliked the noise, crowds and traffic in Tokyo and found the language impossible to learn. Paine does express some appreciation for Japan's lack of crime as well as for the many kindnesses the Japanese showed her. It is clear, however, that she was unable to bridge the culture gap; her attempts to point out the humorous differences between Japan and the U.S. fall flat. Anyone contemplating a visit to Japan will learn little from this myopic account. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Yet another American goes to an Asian country to work for a year or two and must write about it. In this case, Paine worked as a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard in the Tokyo office from 1985 to 1987. She knew little about the country and nothing about the language, although she gamely took Japanese lessons and tried to speak it. Colleagues took her on trips to Mt. Fuji and other sights, but she refused to eat local food and here makes fun of the locals' attempts at English. Otherwise, she searches for corn flakes and luxuriates in her comfortable quarters, wondering how Japanese can stand their own cramped space. Mostly, she dwells on office politics, complains about her life, and plans her escape back to California. Her descriptions of sights, customs, and religion are of the most elementary nature. Paine is a poignant and engaging writer. She needs a different subject.--Kitty Dean Chen, Nassau Coll., Garden City, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An engaging recounting of a Hewlett-Packard employee's year-plus stint in Japan. Paine is a Californian who had lived in England, toured in Europe, and saw herself as a "Sophisticated World Traveler." Lured to Japan a decade ago by Hewlett-Packard's offer of a "suitcase stuffed with money" to serve as a technical writer on a special project, she realized immediately that she would not blend into this crowd as she had in England. Dubious about the food, uncomfortable in crowds, inept with the language, and bored at work because her assignment was postponed, she felt she would always be a gaijin, an "outsider person," to the Japanese. With her co-workers glued to their computer terminals on other aspects of the project, she tried to keep herself busy writing haiku on such subjects as cornflakes, attending meetings, and keeping up an e-mail correspondence. Both rebellious (she was late for work) and concerned about offending (she tried to curb her propensity to boast), she remained ambivalent about Japanese culture and frustrated by the complex language (there are more than a hundred ways to name seven objects). But her colleagues gently guided and befriended her, one wooing her away from the computer to dance under the falling petals of cherry blossoms. She also studied Japanese history to better understand the nation's willingness to submerge individuality for the greater good and experienced a brief spiritual transcendence during a visit to a Shinto shrine. That was followed by an acute bout of self-consciousness about her body, large, pale, and awkward relative to the graceful people surrounding her. Finally back in California, where her suitcase full of money bought her dental caps,contact lenses, and a house, she thought often with gratitude of her sensitive and solicitous Japanese friends. Amusing, sometimes touching account of how Japan's formal and conventional culture beguiled a spontaneous and independent American.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I woke suddenly in a strange bed. It was ten minutes past midnight by my alarm clock, which was bouncing up and down on the nightstand like a commercial for long-life batteries. But what time really? I counted on my fingers, trying to work out the time difference, and then gave up. In the uncurtained picture window across the room I saw my reflection go wavering across the glass, a ghost with wild dark hair and an O-shaped mouth. The hotel's luggage stand leaned forward, bowing to me, and dropped my big green suitcase on the floor.

    I'm a native Californian and no stranger to earthquakes, but this was the first time I'd experienced one from the midsection of a Tokyo skyscraper. Should I get up? Get dressed? Run down twenty-two flights of stairs to get crushed under one of the ship-sized chandeliers in the lobby?

    By nature, I'm not a person who springs into action. I'm more of a person who sits around and thinks. It seemed to me that if I was going to die, I might as well die in bed, so I plumped up the pillows and leaned back. I started by wondering if my friends Paul and Tessa Coleman were all right in their apartment in Mitaka. It would serve Paul right, I thought, if I got squashed into human sashimi in the ruins of the Century Hyatt Hotel, and he had to find someone else to document his software. It was his fault I was here.

    "Dear Nano," Paul had written to me, five months earlier, "how can I persuade you to come to Japan and work with us as a Foreign Service Employee? How much money do you want? We need youdesperately!"

    It was the most seductive e-mail message in my experience. I'd been a technical writer at Hewlett-Packard Company for three years and I had certainly been kept busy, but none of my managers had ever confessed to needing me "desperately." Nor had the question "How much money do you want?" been posed nearly as often as I would have liked.

    Paul's message continued:

As you know, Tessa and Duncan and I have been here for a year, working on a special project for Hewlett-Packard Japan, HP's Japanese affiliate. We have a budget for a technical writer for one year, starting in April, 1985. Our SPN group will soon have almost thirty people. They are wonderful, though primarily of the male persuasion. The work should be interesting....

    Managers were always telling me that our work was interesting. I always pretended to agree, sensing that an honest response, like "About as interesting as sludge," would detract from my next performance review. But I'd worked with Paul and his wife, Tessa, for two years before they moved to Japan, and I didn't doubt his sincerity. If he thought that writing software for semiconductor manufacturers was interesting, well, he came from another planet, that was all. A planet where, at the moment, large salaries were apparently on offer.

    I had just come home to Silicon Valley after a six-month leave of absence from Hewlett-Packard, which I'd spent traveling around Europe on the cheap. My checkbook reflected, with dismal accuracy, the fact that I'd earned no money for months. Visa bills that I couldn't afford to pay had started arriving from Paris cafés and London bookstores. Although relations were still cordial, the friend I was staying with was starting to hint that it would be nice if I had an apartment of my own.

    And here was Paul Coleman asking, "How much money do you want?"

    I wrote back, "I've just got home from Europe, Paul, remember? I've been traveling for six months and I never want to see a suitcase again unless it's stuffed with money."

    "We'll give you a suitcase stuffed with money," Paul responded, explaining the Foreign Service Employee "compensation package." I roughed out a budget and calculated that in one year I could save as much as ten thousand dollars: a fortune. The most I'd ever had before was four thousand dollars. It had taken me five years to save it, and I'd just spent it all on my leave of absence.

    So I had assented. I would work for Hewlett-Packard Japan for one year, starting in April, 1985. "My poverty but not my will consents," I wrote to Paul. If you have to give in, you might as well do it with a quotation from Shakespeare.

    The alarm clock stopped its manic dance. The Century Hyatt Hotel rocked gently on its heels and then subsided. I slid back under the covers, but I couldn't sleep. I wasn't afraid of aftershocks. I was afraid because I had come to live alone in a foreign country. I had lived in England for five years back in the seventies and I wasn't afraid then, but I didn't see England as foreign. I saw England as a grown-up United States, regal with years and dignity, a bit stodgy perhaps, but full of useful advice for us youngsters. "Wear your wellies in the rain. Speak properly. Don't be impertinent." And Europe, although more foreign than England, wasn't nearly as foreign as Japan. A German woman had stopped me on the street in Freiburg and asked me for directions. She thought I was another German. No one in Tokyo was ever going to take me for Japanese. I was going to stand out, and I don't like standing out. I like to blend in.

    For many years I had cherished an image of myself as a Sophisticated World Traveler, a Citizen of the World. I was not the stereotypical American abroad, rampaging about in search of New York steak, central heating, and someone who speaks English. I wanted to be a portable person, someone who could make herself at home in any country. Plop me down in Burma or Nigeria or Costa Rica and you'd see how well I could adapt! In no time at all I would learn the language, master the culture, and make loads of wonderful friends.

    So here I was in Tokyo, plopped. I was trying to be optimistic, but I had a feeling that my Sophisticated World Traveler image was going to be difficult to maintain in Japanese circumstances. I'd played a lot of roles in my thirty-seven years, some more persuasively than others. Wife of a British Merchant Navy Officer was one of my failures. My ex-husband is a thoroughly good man, but I never mastered the knack of saying, "So, darling, how's your cargo of liquefied ammonia?" as if I gave a damn. I did better as Candidate for M.A. Degree in English Literature at Liverpool University. I got the M.A., after learning how to churn out statements like, "Disbelief did not give rise to disregard; Hardy's inability to give intellectual assent to supernatural phenomena added to rather than detracted from his interest in them."

    In the past few years I had learned to write shorter sentences and achieved modest success as a technical writer. Now, though, I was being asked to play not only technical writer, but also American Salary-Woman in Japan.

    Living in England, I had tried hard to be English. I'd worn tweeds, drunk endless cups of tea, adopted an English accent, cultivated reserve, and never talked about money. (This was easy to do since I didn't have any.) I hadn't become English—the accent never fooled anyone but Americans—but I had changed, inside and out. "How do you feel about getting divorced?" my best friend asked me when I moved back to America. I fixed her with the look that English people give you when you ask "impertinent" questions and changed the subject.

    If I were to prove similarly susceptible in Japan, I could end up in a Buddhist monastery with all my hair shaved off. Of course, Japan wasn't going to accept me the way that Britain had. Britain had held out her arms and said, Welcome home, I remember your dear grandparents, would you like to see the family albums? Japan had greeted me with a nicely judged bow, the kind you give to female foreigners of relatively low socioeconomic status. Japan would treat me with respect but would never let me forget that I was gaijin, unalterably different.

    I wasn't sure what frightened me more: being different for a year, or finding out that I didn't feel different at all.

    Either way, I thought, as I fell back into jet-lagged sleep, I'm going to be shaken, and by more than a minor earthquake.

Chapter Two


The next few days passed in a blur of impressions. Traffic, clouds, crowds, rain. Smells of cherry blossom, boiling noodles, tatami mats, stinky drains. The clackety-clack of passing trains; the tapping of women's high heels on pavement. In the department stores, raspberry-pink microwave ovens and lime-green refrigerators. Tens of thousands of people on the streets. I'm mildly phobic about even lightly populated public spaces, so the thousands of people were a problem. I was learning to calm myself by reciting silently a short poem by Ezra Pound—"The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough." Petals were good. Petals weren't threatening.

    What else? Billboards and shop signs I couldn't read. Narrow maze-like streets lined with countless cubby-hole shops. Seafood. Lots of seafood.

    A few days after the earthquake, my new colleagues gave a party for me at the Saffron restaurant in Kichijoji, a shopping district near our office in Takaido. The Saffron was in a basement. Most restaurants in Tokyo are in basements, I was to learn. There isn't room enough to put them all at street level.

    Accompanied by Paul and Tessa, I walked into a warm dark room full of statues with big breasts, lanterns in amber glass, a glazed giant sea-turtle, and a selection of huge oil paintings depicting nude white women in an era when cellulite was considered sexy. "It's a Continental restaurant," Paul explained, guiding me to our table. Yes, but which continent? Over the table hung a fishnet full of shells. Atop the table, displayed on platters, were the shells' former occupants, all glazed eyes and neatly curled tentacles.

    Three days in Japan and already my Sophisticated World Traveler image was slipping. I'd believed I had eclectic tastes in food because I liked foreign food in California. But the food at the Saffron restaurant bore scant resemblance to the Japanese food at "Benihana of Tokyo" in Cupertino, California. Benihana may come from Tokyo, but judging from the amount of beef he serves, he arrived in California after an extended stay in the Midwest.

    I looked at the ill-favored life-forms on the table in front of me. My mind told my stomach, "This is tasty food, this is nutritious food." My stomach replied, "Shut up and get me a pizza." I don't like admitting that my stomach has more clout than my mind, but I ate so little at my "welcome to Japan" party that Miyuki Suzuki, our group's secretary, apologized for not having ordered more suitable food. In a pattern that would soon became familiar to me, a Japanese person was assuming the burden of my deficiencies.

    I assured her that it didn't matter, there was plenty of food I could eat and I wasn't hungry anyway. I tried to be convincing because I liked Miyuki. She made me feel tall; I'm only five feet four, but she came just up to my shoulder. Never mind that she also made me feel old (she was twenty-four) and plain, with her flawless skin, perfect features, and wavy long black hair. She was soft-spoken, courteous, and intelligent. She had graduated from Keio, the top private university in Japan, and her English was excellent.

    It seemed obvious to us Americans that Miyuki was wasted as a secretary, but in Japan in 1985, even the brightest and best-educated women took jobs as "office ladies." Miyuki didn't seem to mind serving tea to her colleagues every morning and afternoon, any more than she had minded translating my dinner speech into Japanese.

    I'd rehearsed the speech, but there hadn't been time to memorize it. I had to read it. "Pati-ni-kite kurete arigato gozaimasu. (Thank you for attending this party.)" I couldn't tell whether my new colleagues understood, but they applauded politely. I bowed, sat down, and filled another bowl with rice.

    "Good speech," said the young man next to me.

    "Thank you."

    "Nakamura," said the young man, blinking behind his black-rimmed glasses.

    "I'm sorry?"

    "My name is Nakamura."

    He was in his mid-twenties, a small man even for a Japanese, with something nervous and alive in his face. I told him, "My name is Rhiannon-san."

    Nakamura turned pink and looked away, apparently to study an oil painting in which a scantily draped woman was strenuously resisting the advances of a faun. There was something different about him, something that set him apart from the two dozen men around the table who all looked alike to me with their golden skin, black hair, dark eyes.

    He turned back to me and I spotted the difference. He was the first Japanese man I'd seen who had a mustache.

    "You can call me `Yoz,'" he said.

    "Really? Paul said I should call my male colleagues by their last names."

    He nodded vigorously. "For most people I think that is true, but I am so different, you see! So I prefer to be called by my nickname."

    "Well, okay, Yoz."

    "How do you like Japan so far?"

    "It's interesting. I'm learning a lot about myself." A nice self-centered answer.

    "Maybe you didn't enjoy the earthquake last night." Yoz spoke English fluently, but with frequent and oddly-placed stresses. Listening to him was like taking a child armed with a pin into a room full of balloons. You never knew when a word was going to pop.

    "Do you have a lot of earthquakes?" I asked. I tried to sound blasé about it. After all, I'd spent most of my life on top of the San Andreas fault.

    "Yes!" replied my new colleague, with enthusiasm. "One almost every day. In the old legends we have written that the islands of Japan are riding on the back of a catfish. When this so-called catfish moves his tail—boom!"

    "A catfish," I repeated.

    He frowned. "Some legends say, not a catfish, but ... Miyuki-san!" He fired off a question that Miyuki answered in a soft voice. He turned back to me. "Dragon."

    I was jet-lagged and very hungry. There were only four women in the SPN group: Miyuki and another secretary, Tessa, and me. All men were strangers. Talk about your dragons! Cigarette fire gleamed in their hands. Smoke poured out of their mouths. Their speech was an incomprehensible, low-volume roar. I would never learn their names. I would never be able to tell them apart. I would not make any friends. I felt as hollow as the shells above my head.

    I stood up and began to work my way around the table. I asked each man his name, repeated it, bowed, and shook his hand. They'd had enough to drink that it made them laugh, watching the face of each fellow as I reached for his hand, and I realized that I was embarrassing them because the Japanese don't shake hands, don't touch each other much and certainly don't touch strange foreign women, but it was too late, I was halfway around the table. It would be worse now to stop than to keep going.

    So I kept going, under the shells, past the big-breasted statues and the oil paintings and the amber lanterns, through the smoke and the embarrassment and the shouts of laughter, and I could tell that although I was mispronouncing their names and making them shake my hand, my new colleagues weren't upset with me. My behavior wasn't proper, but they could see beyond the behavior to the impulse that had prompted it. They agreed, it seemed, with E.M. Forster. "Only connect."

    I sat down again. I felt flushed and dizzy, as if I had walked a lot farther than around a restaurant table.

Meet the Author

With the money she saved in Japan, Rhiannon Paine made a down payment on a house in Healdsburg, California, where she has lived ever since. Catch up with her at www. (see the Festival page for photos) and chat with her on Twitter, where she is @calbion.

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