I used to think there were three possible answers to any question: yes, no, and whatever’s not covered by yes and no. Like, when the waitress asks, Do you want another beer? That’s a yes. Isn’t it about time you thought about going home? That would be a No, not until I get that beer I’m waiting for. And, Would you at least please stop bothering the other customers? That would would be a Well, if that’s how you feel about it, then I’m leaving. Just as soon as I get that one more beer.
It’s interview season in Japan. The weather is getting warmer, the ume buds are starting to appear, and maybe you could even see a bird. Yeah, like maybe in a zoo. But anyway, about this time every year I pick my two-sizes-too-small Japanese suit up from the floor of my closet, polish the front of my shoes, and head out with my resume.
My Japanese Interview
I went to this interview last week. It’s for a job teaching English, so for some reason unbeknownst to anyone, the entire interview was in Japanese. I walked in and there was this chair in the middle of an enormous room, and a panel of six people sitting at a long, white table, all staring at me. I was like, Is this my chair? Why is it so far away from everyone? I sat in the chair.
Everything went pretty swimmingly. My version of speaking Japanese is to toss a bunch of nouns and verbs in semi-random order into a sentence and then stick a -desu on the end. And that’s what you get. It’s not pretty, but everyone smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, so I guess they followed it okay. Anyway it was better than this time I had an interview in the States and looked down to discover that the crotch of my old suit was riddled with moth-eaten holes. In the middle of the interview I realized I could literally see my own balls. True story. Anyway, at least that didn’t happen.
They asked a lot of stupid questions. Why did you want to become a teacher? Hmm, maybe because I got tired of eating cups of noodles and instant coffee. What’s the difference between teaching adults and children? Uh, they’re older? I don’t know. Whatever, I made up some stuff and it sounded okay. And then they asked The Question: “What do you think of Japan?” And they all leaned forward a little bit.
The 3 Ways a Question Can be Answered
I heard a little voice in my head. It said, “Easy question, Ken! Knock it out of the park and let’s get out of here and get a beer!”
I don’t know why God gave me the little voice, because I apparently never listen to it. Instead, I had a Moment of Clarity. Right there in the middle of the enormous room, I realized that there were not three possible answers, but rather three ways of answering any question.
Way 1: Lies. I love this because lies are super convenient. You just tell people what they want to hear. “Japan’s great. Everyone’s very respectful and thoughtful of others. People enjoy it when I speak Japanese and the language has helped me to make many friends.” Done and done. Now let’s go get that beer.
Way 2: Naivete. This is the answer I would have given a decade ago. “I love Japan—everyone’s so friendly. Everywhere I go, people say ‘hello’ to me and bow to me. They’re very polite. Such kind people you have here!” Again, brilliant answer. Expect an offer letter by the end of the week.
Way 3: Thanks for the rope. I’ll just be a minute while I wrap it around my neck. Any time I start to answer a question with “Well . . .”, I really should just stop, because I know I’m about to dash my body onto the rocks. In Japanese, this usually comes out as “Maa . . .”, possibly “Saa . . .” Either way, I’m screwed.
“Maa . . .”, I said, “every good thing has a corresponding bad side to it, right?” I paused and the six people nodded kind of slowly, transfixed. I kept going. “The things that I like about Japan are also the things I don’t like about it. Like, seriously, what would I say about the U.S.? That it’s great? U.S.A. Number One? Come on, that would be simplistic. There’s a ton of good and bad, all wrapped up together. Same thing here. These are big countries.” That’s what I said. Then I looked up to see if everyone was following me, and they were all pale as ghosts. Their mouths were hanging open and their pupils were the size of saucer plates. And the little voice said, For the love of God, Ken, stop.
But I was on a roll. For some reason my need for self-expression momentarily outweighed my aversion to sleeping in a box in the park. I continued, “For example, I love how clean the toilets are. But the seventy year-old woman who’s got to scrub the porcelain probably isn’t as thrilled by it. Like I wouldn’t want to be her. And I love Japanese sushi. But I wouldn’t want to be the dude who’s standing in place all day long slicing up raw fish. That would suck.” Somehow it didn’t sound as bad when I said it in Japanese, I thought.
I looked up again, and I was like, Oh . . . My . . . God. Everyone was terrified. I thought the one lady was going to cry. Like there was a tiny tear in the corner of her left eye. They all looked at each other, like, What should we do? And I was like, No, it’s cool. Really. I don’t mean I don’t like Japan, it’s just if someone tells you only good without the bad, they’re either waxing you on, or they haven’t thought about it much. And I gave some more examples of good and bad, but somehow the more I said, the worse everyone looked, which I found strange. So finally, I stopped.
And then the man in the middle took a deep breath and said “Maa . . . Thank you for your honesty. We’ll contact you within three weeks with the result. Thank you. Okay. Thank you, thank you.” And I was like, Oh. So I stood up and bowed, and suddenly it seemed like the door was really far away. But on the way out I thought, Well, that didn’t go too badly really. I mean, I gave a complete answer and even my grammar was pretty good. Plus the nice man in the middle thanked me a lot and bowed in return. Such an excellent country, and the people are awfully kind, really. I’m pretty sure I got the job.