One job that exists in Japan that doesn’t in my country is that of the career fairy. These are people, usually women, who work at places like the central post office or the bank and are on hand to help customers as they walk in the door. And as a customer, of course you need help.
You’ve seen these fairies yourself — they descend upon you as soon as you walk in the door, even if you are just coming in to perform a routine errand. While surely people have been going to the post office and bank successfully for years, unaccompanied, these lovely ladies will accost you as if you must want and need instruction.
Once approached, you must tell this perfect stranger what your errand is that day: to open an account, to close an account, to deposit some money into an account, to send an international check or money order, etc. The fairies at the bank will even assist you all the way through your transaction at the ATM. Sigh.
I’m a private person. When I leave the house, I don’t even tell my husband why I’m going to the bank, how much I’ll withdraw or that I plan to pay my health insurance, my pension payment and pick up a jar of Alishan organic peanut butter on the way home. And I don’t expect to have to tell that to an imperfect stranger either.
But I walk in and the fairy rushes over in her high heels, with arms poised gracefully at her sides just far enough away from the hips to make it look as though she might take flight. Her pleated ruffle at the bottom of her vest flaps up and down as she flitters over to me in midair. She stops just before crashing into me.
She puts her hand together as if in prayer, cocks her head, smiles, and says in ultra-polite Japanese, “What task would this esteemed customer like to accomplish today at the post office?” I tell her and she ushers me over to the No. 19 counter, the same counter I’ve used for over 10 years now to send international money orders.
With international bank transfers over the Internet these days, I don’t have to visit the No. 19 counter very often anymore. But still, I can’t help notice that the counter is exactly the same as before.
I fill out the forms and hand them over to the clerk at No. 19. He looks it over and starts shaking his head. I will have to rewrite two parts that I have not filled in correctly.
He points them out and I am flummoxed. I had no idea my English was so bad, but according to the postal employee, my name should be written in all caps because Amy Chavez is not the same as AMY CHAVEZ. He also highlights my improper punctuation on another part of the form. Chavez, Amy is not the same as Amy Chavez. Uh-huh.
I clear my throat to ask a question, “Are you calling my third-grade grammar teacher, Mrs. Thurston, a liar? Do you realize that I would not be here today, standing in front of you, if I had erred in either of those points on a test?” I continue, incensed, “That’s because grammar teachers are a breed of their own where I come from. They instill proper grammar into students via drills. And bits. And if that fails, a hammer. Mrs. Thurston would not have permitted me to graduate if my punctuation was lacking.”
The man says that he is sure I am right, but this is Japan and they do things differently here. I listen politely, then offer to give him private English lessons. I tell him I’ll even throw in an extra bonus section on punctuation for free.
Lastly, he says, “Are you sending this money to North Korea or Iran?” I chuckle and shake my head no. He reprimands me, “You laugh, but it is a serious question.” I apologize for my cockiness. I am reminded of the sheer bravery and tenacity involved in sending an international money order.
He then asks me to take a seat. I sit patiently while they do background checks to see if I’ve ever been arrested, robbed a convenience store, had a traffic violation or uttered the word North Korea at a whisper.
By now I’ve been in the post office a half hour. I’m going to be late for my next appointment if I don’t leave soon. And you know how Japan is about being on time. I buy myself an extra five minutes by deciding to run to my next appointment rather than walk. Furthermore, my bladder is knocking on the sides of my abdomen trying to get my attention. The stomach is growling too. Civil war among the organs is about to ensue.
Time passes and now I will not just have to run to my next appointment, but sprint. And soon, it is clear that I will have to take a taxi instead.
I look around fervently for the vexing room, a room where you can get out all of your frustrations in private, then compose yourself and start again. All businesses should have a vexing room, especially if they are going to insist on petty rules that will ruin your day if you let them. OK, I wouldn’t let it ruin my day but it definitely ruined my “flow” in more ways than one. This long wait has played havoc with my carefully planned day. It has forced me to give up lunch and committed me to arriving at my next appointment with a full bladder.
I wonder if you ever get to the point, as an expat, where you can just accept these things. Even embrace them? Admittedly, I am much better than I used to be. When I first came to Japan, I was like a walking time bomb.
Perhaps I just need to practice mindfulness. I take a deep breath and say to myself, “I welcome the new rules of grammar, punctuation and the reversal of everything I have learned about the English language.” Breath out. “I am ecstatic to write my name in full caps, a skill sorely underdeveloped in my daily life.” Breathe in. (Knock-knock, says the bladder). “I embrace the elimination of commas, whether they come before or after a name, date or dependent clause.” Breathe out. “I accept that small letters are not the same as big letters and that if I dig deep enough I will see that the larger ones are in every way more official than smaller ones.” Breath in. Knock-knock.
Suddenly, my name is called. The man at counter No. 19 smiles, hands me the finished documents and apologizes for the hour it has taken.
The career fairy alights next to me and dances me to the door. She sincerely hopes that her esteemed customer is able to make her next appointment on time. And she reminds me, “Don’t forget to pick up the Alishan organic peanut butter.”
I rush out the door with no time to waste. With my bladder knocking and my stomach growling, I realize that civil war among the organs will not ensue. To the contrary, I have reached the perfect yin-yang balance: I am empty and full.
I hail a cab and speed off to my next appointment.
Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter: @JapanLite