Saturday, January 29, 2011

'Hey I got a schedule to keep here!...' - A Year in Fukushima #6

Last month I stumbled across a job opportunity in Florida that seemed right up my alley. This was pretty exciting for me as jobs and my alley don’t normally hang out in the same neighborhood. The position, involving fingerprint analysis and expensive-looking machines, would jibe perfectly with my advanced (mostly in age) education. What tipped my stubborn work/life scales though was the prospect of living year-round within a short bike ride of the sand and surf. This was a place I could almost imagine being gainfully employed. So immediately (meaning within a week) I got to work on the application process.


As with any application to a law enforcement agency, the paperwork involved a lot of swearing: I swear I don’t have any objectionable tattoos (or a forked tongue, a condition actually spelled out in the ‘no bodily mutilation’ section); I swear I don’t smoke (drinking, by its non-mention, is fine); I swear I have no history of repeated marijuana use beyond ‘experimental’ (Bill Clinton clause); I swear I have no recent DUI convictions. No problem, I’ll swear to all this and lots more, just hook me up to that polygraph. Oh and by the way I’ve got that ‘high school diploma or GED’ thing covered.

Imagine my concern then when I remembered that not two weeks before all this came my way I had agreed to teach a year-long English course at one of Fukushima’s zillion product manufacturing companies. I didn’t agree, exactly; Mr. Sato, an extremely nice guy who has a habit of dumping jobs on me, took my not outwardly disagreeing to take the job as a yes, and had already had three meetings and eight phone calls with the people at ‘Kaisha A’ about this upcoming contract which, it had by now been exhaustively determined, would last for one year. Obviously I needed to be more aggressive in my passively not agreeing to take on this new job, because unless there was an overload of applicants in Florida with high school diplomas or GEDs and no forked tongues I was going to have to take my practiced soft shoe to a higher level. ‘Well you see, Sato-san, right about when class is going into its third month here I’m going to be falling asleep to the soothing sound of the Gulf of Mexico…’

Through my world wide web of inside contacts I found out that this was the second posting for this position in Florida…in a town right on the Gulf…with amazing white sand beaches…and supermarkets with peanut butter… The second posting! It made me wonder if bodily mutilation was more common than I imagined among Floridians with GEDs. How could this position remain unfilled? More importantly, how much longer would this bit of good fortune last? Because now it seemed possible that my timely (read: slothful) application submission might actually spare Mr. Sato the grief I had been planning to trot out for him. This applicant evaluation was going to require a comprehensive background investigation, a polygraph exam, medical checks and my mother crawling through the attic back home to dig up my high school diploma so I could include a copy of that along with my graduate school transcript. For any normal governmental agency this process would take months and months. This was going to work out perfectly! I'd be evaluated, accepted and on a plane heading for Tampa even as I was still recovering from my hangover after the year-end party where my students, after a glib 'Hi Kevin I'm fine how are you?' would chug their beers and spend the rest of the night acting like I didn't teach them a thing.

But then the Kaisha really started pouring on the procedure.

Allow me to explain a bit about Kaisha A’s streamlined approach to admitting visitors to their high-security complex, surrounded on all sides by five-foot-high chain link. Through June of last year I taught a beginner’s course there. Before the start of this course they had requested a resume from me – in Japanese. Fair enough. They think a year with me is going to turn their mumbling employees into global communicators then why wouldn’t they believe I could scratch out a few legible Kanji? It’s all just protocol anyway; nothing I wrote resembled the characters for ‘fork’ and ‘tongue’ so they just stuck my standardized form with attached photo in a file somewhere and got back to scheduling meetings to schedule more meetings. Now, eighteen months later, they are requesting another resume from me. Two, actually, since now they want an English version as if this will make them or me or anyone believe these classes are helping transform the goings-on there at the plant into a regular UN gathering. Mr. Sato – did I mention he was a rally nice guy? – pulled out a photocopy of my first resume and told me he’d add a line at the bottom about the work I’d been doing for him in the past year and a half and send it in to those Kaisha A curmudgeons. That left me to handle the English version.

Which I have yet to get around to.

At the start of my first gig with Kaisha A, unlike the other teachers, I didn’t have a company-issued ID card to politely flash to the retired guy working the security gate. No problem, I’d get the standard guest pass in the plastic holder. ‘Please clip it either to your jacket or on your shirt pocket,’ Grandpa-san told me. I went with option three and stuck it in my backpack. On top of the ID Card / Guest Pass, we were each given a gray card to slide through this small machine at the gate, which produced the same buzzing sound as Japan’s new tsunami warning system. Of course this was all simply a test to make sure these gray cards could make the machine buzz properly every week.

Halfway through the course-year we were herded into a room of tables piled high with boxes and wires and cases of green tea in cans. ‘We are taking your picture for your new ID cards.’ These efficient little beauties (not a reference to my picture), once we got them two weeks later, acted as both our personal ID and our buzzing machine tester. No more wasting class time fumbling for the correct card at the gate. We were our own buzzing machines now, on the job, working to get our students to stop answering ‘How are you?’ with ‘Yes.’

This one-card system lasted exactly one week.

‘This gives you access to the hallway,’ Old Security told me, handing me a new type of card to stick into my backpack. I actually needed it though, as there was for the first time no one standing by in the lobby to guide me to the same classroom I had been using for six months. A beep and a click and I was alone in a first stage restricted area. I peeked into my classroom; no one had shown up yet. So I decided to see how deep this little card could get me into the bowels of the Kaisha. But I only made it through a second door and around a corner when I encountered a man who had the acuity to see I wasn’t a regular employee, certainly not one with second stage clearance. It must have been the lack of stress lines on my face. Bouncing on my toes I asked him for nearest rest room – denoted clearly by the blue and red figures on the white sign halfway down the hall behind him but he turned me around and marched me back out to the first stage boys room. He waited by the door as I faked taking care of business so he could show me the way – all the way – to the classroom I had been using for the past six months. Then he told me to please sit down, walked out of the room and closed the door.

The following week the tsunami warning machine was gone, with no explanation.

With this superhuman mindset driving efficiency through the roof at Der Kaisha, it should come as no surprise that the start of our year-long course has been indefinitely delayed. Just like last time there are three classes planned, for three levels of English ability. Some of those from the previous groups will be returning (though all six of my former students are nowhere to be seen). Each of the new students has been assigned to a class based on his or her TOEIC scores, by no means a reliable barometer of anyone’s English skill but still the litmus test in Japan for determining who gets promoted faster through the company ranks. (‘True, Kazu has a way with people but Hiro over there in the corner scored forty points higher, he’s obviously the guy who will help us better compete both domestically and globally.’) The Firm, though, in their incisive wisdom, set up ten-minute one-on-one interviews with yours truly to make sure each of these newbies ends up in the right room for their skills. Miraculously all eight of them would be available on the same morning, and I was going to rip through them and get everyone in line and get this course started and ended before someone with a GED and an intact tongue made it to Florida.

The bummer was that I was going to have to get going on that English resume – until someone in a nice chair in a nice seventh stage office decided more meetings were in order before these crucial interviews could take place, potentially shifting the future of the company in an unanticipated direction, or in any direction.

Mr. Sato and I are standing by.

In the meantime, I have put my own razor-sharp brand of efficiency into effect. Surfing this particular law enforcement agency’s website, checking out all the nice photos of the beach and the sun setting over the Gulf, I happened to notice there was a 3-5 years experience requirement for the job I wanted. Normally I wouldn’t pay such brazen statements any mind, but somewhere in the application papers sitting under the lemon cookies on my desk it said I was going to need to get three separate pieces of paper officially notarized before sending them in. Evidently they needed me to totally swear I didn’t have any recent DUIs or mutilated body parts. Living where I do, this notarization process was going to take a bit of time and money. So while I was waiting one evening for my buddy to text me back I whipped off an email to Florida, asking them if a Master’s degree was an acceptable substitute for 3-5 years experience in saying ‘no these fingerprints don’t match’, and oh by the way can my mom come down from the attic now.

The answer was a polite and firm no (to the Master’s, not my mom, she can come down anytime).

So now I’m in no rush to rock the Kaisha and get this course finished. As a matter of fact I’m not all too keen on getting it started. If and when these inner stage meetings end and I can finally sit these new students down and ask them for ten minutes if they know of any good ramen shops nearby, I think I’m going to nix the Fuhrer on the English resume idea. This will set off a whole new slew of meetings and tsunami warning machines - which will give the polite, firm folks in Florida time to realize that no one with a GED and a normal tongue is coming their way in the next 3-5 years and they might as well hire me.

I hope they are as efficient as I am; my open ticket to Tampa is only good for another eleven and a half months.