Monday, February 26, 2007

An exercise in frustration...

So the Japanese are notorious for being indirect. They don't have words in their language that mean exactly "yes" or "no". No never quite means no here. Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means yes but. Sometimes it means yes maybe. It can be a little frustrating sometimes trying to pin someone down to a definite answer.

I have encountered this on many small occasions, and found it amusing more than anything. But I have also found myself avoiding asking someone a question because I feared it would lead to the awkward song-and-dance Japanese people do when they're going to have to refuse you something but don't want to.

Well, this afternoon, I had to ask my supervisor a question about vacation - specifically, Randal and I were planning to go away for a week (in which I knew there was nothing special planned, nor classes or anything). If I could extend our vacation by one day, it would be much cheaper for me to fly home. So I ask her if there is anything special going on that day.

"Graduation ceremonies," she says, "but ahhh, maybe, I don't know, maybe you don't have to be there but maybe you do."

"Oh, graduation ceremonies," I say. "That sounds like something I should be there for, no? All the other teachers are going to be there, no?"

She hemms and hawws and finally we find ourselves consulting with one of the vice-principals (unfortunately, the one who I usually deal with was away today, though from previous experience, his song-and-dance routine is as well-developed as the other's, so that would have made no difference in the whole fiasco).

"Ahhh, hmmm, uhhh, well, it is graduation and there will be farewells for teachers who are going to be transferred - it will be their last day here - and, ahhh, you say it's cheaper if you fly home that day rather than the day before? Well, ahhh, how much cheaper?"

Already I have been squirming and trying to get out of this conversation. If they want me to be there for graduation, I will be there. I think I should be there, though I don't actually know any of the third-years who are graduating. But I'm part of the staff and it seems proper for me to be there. If I had realized graduation ceremonies were that day (I get a schedule but it's all in Japanese, and I always have a difficult time pinning anyone down on what any one item on it is - I guess I just missed that one or gave up before getting there or something), I wouldn't have even entertained the thought of the cheaper flight.

I try to explain to them that I should be there for graduation ceremonies and that I will therefore take the flight home the day earlier. That should have solved things, right? Ah, but you forget I am in Japan. This results merely in more squirming and, finally, from kyoto-sensei (VP), "Ahhh, well, if your flight gets in earlier in the day, on Monday, say in the morning or early afternoon, you can skip the ceremony, which is in the morning, and come for the farewell parties that evening."

My supervisor quickly interjects, "If you want to come to the parties, of course. You don't have to. They will cost some money."*

I assured her as long as the farewell parties that night didn't cost tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars), I'd be glad to go since I know some of these teachers who are transferring,** but that, since the graduation ceremonies were so important, and all the other teachers were going to be there, I would just pay the higher fare and come home a day early since I understood this was important.

No, no, not so important, I am reassured.

But this is the Japanese way of talking. They say it's not important, but it is. And all I wanted was for one of them to say, "No, you should be there. Come home on Sunday. It's important for you to be there." Since I had already said 7 times, "OK, I'll come home on Sunday then," one would think that this would be easy enough to say without losing face.

One would think.


Anyway, the upshot of the whole thing is that now Randal and I are re-evaluating whether or not we are going to Hokkaido that week or not. We want to, but it will cost us almost as much to go to Hokkaido for one week as it did to go to Bali for two! So we might just go somewhere else that week and go to Hokkaido the day AFTER graduation ceremonies.

Double argh.

* The teachers were all surprised when they found out, a few weeks ago, that I'd agreed to pay about 8,000 yen (~$80) for a gift and dinner party for our principal who is retiring at the end of the month. The party is this Friday. Again, I figured as a member of the staff, I had a duty to be there.

** Actually, we don't know who is being transferred yet, so maybe I won't know the teachers being transferred (since there are so many of them and I only know maybe half). Every three years or so, teachers are rotated to different schools. I'm not sure why. If you ask, vague comments about the efficiency of the Japanese education system are made. Teachers are shocked when I tell them in Canada, many teachers spend their entire career in one school.

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