Chapter 4: Setbacks

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
– Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (paraphrased)

In the pursuit of any worthy goal, setbacks are inevitable. And for my part, I only truly enjoy a task challenging enough that overcoming it yields satisfaction. That being said, I sit down to this entry (metaphorically, I’m writing in bed and have been here a while) more than a little discouraged.

The time period covered by the latest entry ends with moving into midterm housing in Maruyama, Sapporo on July 13th. It is now October the 28th. As you’d expect, the situation has progressed. Unfortunately, I must report that I find myself lonely and unemployed, staying at my parents’ house back in the States. But let’s rewind a bit to begin recounting the intervening months.

After overcoming the major hurdles of arriving in Japan and finding housing in the intended area, I set about the most important task – that which would allow me to remain in Japan, financially and legally. To my dismay, there were very few jobs listed online for the Sapporo area that I could A) locate without reading Japanese, B) was qualified for, and C) were full-time or at least offered visa sponsorship. I had done a dry run of this back in the States but obviously not diligently enough to realize the situation. If you want to know specifics, there were two jobs within commuting distance which fulfilled the listed criteria. One I never heard back about and one I received notification that I had not been selected.

Well, ok, online job boards weren’t my only plan for finding employment. A friend who had moved to Japan a number of years ago said that she was able to find a job at the local employment office. The name of the government organization in question is Hello Work. Of course, a city as large as Sapporo (around 2 million people) would definitely have a Hello Work and after some intense Googling and attempting to navigate their awful website, I found that the most relevant information for my situation could be found on the Sapporo municipal government’s website. There, I was able to find the address and contact info of the local office, their operating hours, and some limited information about available services. I saw to my relief that they did offer services in English but was immediately dismayed to learn this was by appointment only.

Appointments are made over the phone.

In Japanese.

Incredibly helpful.

Sarcasm aside, I resolved that I would use my limited Japanese to make an appointment over the phone and if that failed maybe I could go in person to do so. Here, though, it is necessary to describe somewhat obliquely some of my other experiences in Japan thus far.

n the perhaps week I had been job huntingImagine that you are, for the first time, learning how to downhill ski. You go to a ski lodge, rent your skis with little enough trouble, strap on your equipment and head out to the slopes. You walk out of the lodge and immediately fall over, attracting the attention of bystanders who alternately snicker or ask if you’re OK, both bringing equal embarrassment. You collect yourself and with a bit of stumbling and a lot of leaning on your poles, make your way over to the lift. This part seems very nerve-wracking since the lift doesn’t stop but you can clearly understand the loading procedure by watching others. When you reach to the front of the line, the seat hits you in the butt a littler harder than you thought but you make it on safely, albeit a bit rattled. You nervously watch the skiers below as the lift climbs up the mountain, somewhat uncertain of how much your seat should be bouncing and swinging. You approach the end and raise the bar. As you step off the lift for the first time, the seat pushes you roughly forward and you briefly ski forward before one of your skis unlatches and skates off down the ramp, spilling you unceremoniously on the ground. You quickly crawl out of the path of others coming off the lift and again feel incredibly embarrassed as a kind passerby retrieves your ski for you, helps you reattach it, and also explains that your boots are way too loose. He tightens them up for you, and as he helps you up you feel that balance comes much easier with your ankles tightly bound. With this feeling and despite your experience thus far, you are ready to make your first attempt down the slope.

Ok, this metaphor has grown too long. Anyway, imagine that in the all the above circumstances, from the clerks selling badges and renting equipment to the capricious bystanders, everyone is speaking a language that you only know the basics of. This is sort of what it’s like plunging into a new culture. You don’t know what’s going on, what’s expected of you, and how to do many basic tasks. Without the patience and kindness of strangers, you are completely lost.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned while in Japan is that I cannot abide this feeling.

I don’t want to delve into it in this entry but suffice it to say I was a neglected child and to this day have a significant amount of trouble with feeling unwanted and/or out-of-place. To continue, and not to be too cavalier about all of this, but historically I also have had a lot of difficulty adapting socially and have always had much anxiety regarding meeting new people and interacting with those I do not know well.

All this is to say, during my time in Japan I felt deeply uncomfortable due to my personal experience of “culture shock”. Many everyday tasks were a trial.

So, when I called up Hello Work Sapporo to try to make an appointment using my rudimentary Japanese, it required more courage than I had exercised since the last time I asked someone on a date (years prior) and my mentality lay on a knife’s edge. When the clerk answered, they spoke in curt keigo (Japanese honorific language) and I surmised from the scratchy voice quality that they were using a desk phone. I have virtually no practice speaking or understanding keigo, so despite it not being so different from teineigo (polite speech) I was accustomed to, I was completely fucking lost. I stumbled through a few phrases to try to voice my request, but couldn’t understand anything said in reply. I let the line hang silent for maybe 5 seconds, the clerk asked a question of me. I still couldn’t understand. I stalled for time by stammering out “nihongo wa chotto” and upon once again not understanding the rejoinder I paused for a couple seconds and then – without another word – I hung up.

Then I cried, for a while. And after forcing myself through some careful consideration, booked a plane ride home.