Labor of Love

The other day a friend asked me “What do you do all day?” It is a good question. Then again yesterday my son exclaimed, “Are you finally getting a legit job!?”

We moved to Hiroshima September 2nd. In Idaho, I would have been busy helping thirty children become a learning community. Instead I was trying to keep myself busy in a hotel. Everyday we ate breakfast together in the Bridges café on the sixth floor. Then Rich would head to work. I would get another cup of coffee, read the newspaper, watch the construction on the train station, and observe the patrons of the café. As my cup was filled, place cleared, water poured, I would chat with the wait staff. They are all young, good-looking twenty-somethings. Initially, they would look at me with that “deer in the headlights” look. But soon a few warmed up and would chat back. We would have short interactions. As vocabulary resurfaced I would use it. All would smile broadly and tell me my Japanese was skilled. Soon we were greeted with grins of recognition and “Good morning”. I added “Genki desu ka?” {How are you?} to my hello. With every meal, I would chat with more staff.

After breakfast I would Skype into my boot camp. Yes, I would do boot camp in my hotel room. It was therapeutic to keep this routine. Since I had many hours ahead, after that, I would go to the fitness center. I needed a place to be. The housekeeping needed to do their job and I needed to be out of the way. I didn’t want fresh sheets and towels every day but couldn’t get that communicated either. There was a range of mishaps due to this problem. We got a note under our door highlighting them more than once. I started leaving two Hersey chocolates on the bathroom counter. In Japan you don’t tip, but this was a gift. Sometimes I would have an appointment and need a shower so I would interrupt their work. I would say, “Daijyafu” Which means “its ok”. My mere presence caused excessive apologizing and bowing.

Laundry service was another issue. We had a daily laundry allowance. The form had to be in 7 pt font. You would think that I could fill out a simple form. I couldn’t. Every time, the person picking up the laundry had to ask me to do something to the form. And that was another thing. Getting it picked up. I had to dial 9 before 9 am to have regular service. From the immediate absence of sound I could just imagine what was happening on the other end. One of the complications was that if my room didn’t get cleaned I didn’t have a form to fill out. You wouldn’t think asking for a form would be that difficult. It was. When I inquired at the front desk, they told me to dial 9 with any questions. Finally, three days before we left, a manila envelop with ten forms inside were slipped under our door. By then we were accustomed to having something slipped under the door. Whoever answered room 1318 got a couple Hersey’s chocolate nuggets.

I was the face to room 1318. Whenever we would come out of the elevator, the lobby staff would be watching and would bow. I made sure to return the bow with the time sensitive greeting. “Ohiyo gozaimasu” for good morning, “konnichiwa” for good afternoon, and “konbanwa” for good evening. I made sure to make eye contact and bow to all staff regardless of position. I wanted them to know that I saw them. I also made sure and said “sumimasen, or onegaishimasu, or arigatou gozaimasu” or all three all together whenever possible. This is like the Japanese language lubricant that keeps social communication going. It is saying “excuse me for troubling you now and in the future and thank you for putting up with me”. I knew we were causing all sorts of havoc behind the scenes. It is hard to describe not being able to communicate the simplest need. Who knows how many Japanese faux paus we did. It is why, when Rich suggested that I give the big bag of German chocolates to the hotel staff I was so relieved. I know that we impacted many people behind the scenes. Looking back, I now see that the hotel staff became my community.

It started all over again when we moved to 401 Kureru Ushita Honmachi. From giving gifts to our neighbors, meeting the building owner, mailing packages to my sons, grocery shopping, or traveling on the Amstram, these activities introduced us to the neighborhood. I recognize a pattern emerging. Initially they look at me with fear in their eyes. Then they realize I am trying to speak Japanese. They smile and tell me how skilled I am at their difficult language. With each visit, my time is more efficient and less traumatic.

My daily walk along the river is also helping my neighbors get to know me. I am starting to recognize the same people who walk. It helps if they have a dog, a walking partner, or something remarkable about them. If they will make eye contact I will always bow and greet them in the time sensitive greeting. This usually causes a big grin and a greeting in return. Many do not make eye contact and this is a part of their culture; especially with the age group that has time to walk the river during the day. There are many students who use the path. I know the envelope pushers because they will be the ones that call out in English. If they are in a group this always causes the rest to laugh.

A few days ago I was in a meeting at the Sheraton; I had been approached by the chef about an idea to help the staff speak casual English. The “learning and training” manager leads this dead serious meeting. He explains his expectations. He speaks English, but still has a Japanese mind so this takes some time. Then he pauses. He tells me he is going to ask me a difficult question. “How will you be in a room full of Japanese who cannot speak English?” I can’t help but grin. I describe my exchange student experience. I mention that I currently take a moms’ cooking class with other Japanese women where no English is spoken, intentionally. The man’s demeanor does not change. He is as serious as a heart attack. He then asks how does speaking more English help his hotel. I have been told that my face is very reflective of my feelings, so I am careful not to look smug. I take a deep breath. I apologize for saying what I am about to say. I tell him again what a lovely hotel he has, how much I enjoyed the staff and how hard they work. (I am learning the Japanese mind.) Then, very carefully, I describe to him the problems I had staying at his hotel. I point out that most of his patrons from Micron are here on serious business. That they too struggle to be comfortable in his hotel. With that, he invites me to lunch in the café.

From the minute we enter, I am greeted and hugged by the staff. I couldn’t help but notice that the manager noticed. He also has to notice that the exchanges are all in Japanese, except for my “I have missed you” in English. As he walks me out, he comments on my “friendliness” with everyone in the cafe. I remind him that I had spent a great deal of time in his hotel.

What I do all day is build and maintain relationships. It is invisible work. It is work that helps my husband do his job. It allows us to live peacefully in a culture very different from our own. It enriches our experience so that it is an adventure to be relished instead of endured. We now have several Japanese friends instead of just Emi-san. This enables us to have a deeper more balanced relationship with her.

I have invited all of the inhabitants of Kureru Ushita Honmachi to come buy and ring my doorbell on Friday. I am handing out snack sized Snickers, Three Musketeers, M &M’s and Hersey candy bars. I had to ask permission from the owner which ended up being facilitated by Tomoko in 1102. She is so excited her children get to dress up and “finally” get to do this thing called Halloween. She also wants to practice her English so we will be having coffee soon.


7 thoughts on “Labor of Love

  1. I love this, Ang – you’re so kind and intentional about building relationships and respecting people. I can’t wait to read about how Halloween goes 🙂


  2. Ang, You are amazing. Even in the most trying of circumstances you are building community! Wow. An important foundation that is trully behind the scenes but makes all the difference to each individual and your community. Thank you for sharing this amazing writing. So vivid, so perceptive, so poignant. I send back the Japenese greetings to you. xo


  3. What a pleasure to read your stories. Micron has an Ambassador in you. Stay there a bit and you’ll either be on their staff or hired by the hotel😃


  4. Great blog! I am so proud of you for how you are embracing your experience, and making friends while doing so. It is a testament to the strong, wonderful person you are!! I also am looking forward to hearing how Japanese “trick-or-treating” goes. Please take some pics of the kids! Love you!


  5. Dear Angela,
    Just wanted to say what a great post this is! ☺ I can’t wait to see your pictures of the kids who come to your door and how they dress up. What a great idea! And so nice of you too! The kids will be excited I’m sure.
    Are you being paid by the hotel to teach an English class? How often will you teach it? I guess you may still be working out all these details. Congratulations!!!
    I have already read your new post twice.


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