I biked out to the interview in a week old haircut and a borrowed suit.
Last night Craig showed me the proper way to knot up a tie. My ties always end in warped and weird shapes, but Craig’s method produced a beautiful bud perched just below my Adams apple. Zoe sat giggling in the corner as her boyfriend taught me how to strangle myself in silk and wear her boyfriend’s suit. I tried the tie again this afternoon and when I gave the thing a sharp final tug to keep it in shape it fell apart into two strands of silk, dangling from my collar. I wondered if it would be possible to give a display of my knife skills slicing vegetables instead of having to show my confidence with basic competence with knots. I was back in the first grade, mangling with shoelaces and repeating rhymes about bunny ears popping through holes. And I thought this interview was supposed to test my Japanese.
Walking over to Craig and Zoe’s place last night I passed the corner sports bar, where a gaggle of English teachers I knew peripherally were spending hard earned tax payers money on beer and sake shots. Sat down for a pint and Molly told me how easy it would be to get a customer tailored suit in Vietnam. “Yieah, like you can fly there, get custom tailored a suit and fly back for the same price as a suit in Japan?” The freckly faced American in a gold chain a backward baseball cap and a freshly laundered shirt finished his mumbled Japanese cell phone conversation and asked what my interview was for.
“It’s like a resource center for foreigners, a place where they can get free counseling and legal advice in their native language. Looks pretty interesting, chance to use my Japanese for something positive, y’know?””
“That’s cool. I wanna move to Tokyo.”
Despite his freckled white boyish face he spoke with a faint black urban drawl. But after hearing his smoothly accented Japanese I don’t know if I trusted it or not.
“Oh, okay. Cool. You gonna continue English teaching or...”
“Naw, thought it would be really cool to like bartend, knowatam sayin’?”
What can I say, I left English teaching three years ago to sweat out life in the kitchen of a small restaurant, no place for me to judge. But the idea of this guy pouring my drinks was strangely unnerving. He might mix a perfect cocktail but his something about the ebonics was hard to swallow.
Unlike New York, where a white guy in a suit could mean just about anything, in Tokyo it usually means one of three things:
1) English teacher. Employed by a national chain of English schools. While resume shows a definite lack of skills relevant to English teaching in the interview he exuded certain zest for life. In lieu of teaching skills or knowledge of English grammar, the raw enthusiasm, confident smiling and steady flow of English words are supposed to whisk students away to the magical world of English speaking. Students are charged several hundred dollars a month to sit in the same room as this guy. They absorb English by photosynthesis and dubious textbook dialogues. The suit lends a strong professional cologne to the lesson. Unfortunately exuding a zest for life usually includes a zest for scoring with as many Japanese chicks as possible, and once the contract is up Thomas has flown back to Australia and Sachiko is left wondering where she can find her next spousal candidate.
2) Business Man (Corporate Drone). Spends daylight hours desk jockeying for the best paying firm that will take him. Occasionally an English Teacher (see #1) who has grown tired of carefully enunciating for a living, sometimes a family man who figured Tokyo was the place to be, sometimes just some rep in town for three days before flying to visit our partners in Shanghai. Unlike the English Teacher, who would rather be slicked out in a silk shirt and a pair of trainers, the business man actually knows how to wear his suit, and doesn’t think about wearing it, except when he passes one of those Armani ads where languid looking Aryans with pouty lips flash out suits that cost more than my rent. One of those would be nice. Yeah…
3) If there’s two of them, in their twenties, riding mountain bikes, with dull marble eyes, they are Mormon Missionaries. And there’re more of them than you’d expect. I used to share an apartment with a former missionary and continuing Mormon who had acquired his fluent and weirdly nasal Japanese by walking neighborhoods and getting doors slammed in his face. These guys wear their black suits unselfconsciously, like a second skin. God is their co-pilot, and the big J reassures any doubts. They also push each other to really learn the language, all the better to spread the good news about salvation and polygamy. (Note to no one in particular: That guy who played Napoleon Dynamite acquired fluent Japanese skills during his mission work in Japan. Huh.)
I’ve only just started to realize this, but suits are one of the world’s weirdest confidence tricks. A stocky set of overalls and steely toed workboots are pretty useful when you’re pouring concrete and smashing office buildings, but the funniest thing is how the business suit, that universal icon of business, money, trade, it could have been anything. By sheer historical accident that guy approving your bank loan has a dark grey coat slithered over a sheer white button-down and a cornflower blue tie, but as long as his fingers have enough wiggle room and nothing snags too easily on the copy machine, he could be dressed like Batman and it wouldn’t make a darned difference. AOL and Time Warner executives negotiating mergers in pantaloons and cone tipped Madonna bras. Open your door to twin Mormon missionaries in testicle hugging outfits from the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
It seems the only really distinguishing feature of suits is that you’re not supposed to get them dirty. You wouldn’t fix a flat tire or mow the lawn in a suit. You wouldn’t cook a pot of chili or go cherry picking in a suit. The fine cut and soft fabric screams “I do not dig ditches for a living!” I see all these new super fiber suits that don’t get wet and can deflect oil and blood stains, but that looks a lot like the first nail in the coffin. If it’s possible to operate a jackhammer or scale Mt. Kilimanjaro and be dressed like Donald Trump. To keep up appearances our CEO’s will have to conduct their business in ruffled layers of white silk, glowering round conference tables like Roman senators in togas.
So I left my interview shivering. I walked in with a decent resume a stomach full of confidence, the borrowed suit snappy and light. I walked out wondering how the hell people ever learn to conjugate verbs that dangle out to ten syllables. The interviewing chamber was stark white and slightly larger than my first apartment. Three career bureaucrats sat evenly spaced behind a folding table. Across from them a single collapsible chair was placed in the direct center of the room, with enough space left over to park a Volvo or two between us. I had to put down my bag in the corner and proceed to the lonely grilling chair, where absolutely no provisions were made for my hands. So I let them flap around on my lap like dying fish.
The questions were pretty innocent and straightforward. “How do you feel your experiences will contribute to this job?” “What do you see as major issues facing foreigners in Saitama?” “What do you think of Japan winning the World Cup of Baseball?” I answered in words and they nodded and seemed to understand what I wanted to say, but one question completely threw me. “Are there any recent news stories involving foreigners living in Japan that you found interesting or had an impact on you?” This is a slightly difficult for someone who doesn’t own a television and who receives most of their domestic news by reading magazine ads on the subway. After exhausting every Japanese synonym for “ummm” I mentioned that well, no, nothing, in particular, (I know stuff about foreigners in Saitama! More foreign English teachers than any other prefecture, right?), but the names, don’t come to mind, can’t recall the exact incident, but (Large Brazilian and Peruvian populations! All those Filipino ladies who work in bars!) dates, umm, well, you see that, I... (Isn’t the Chinese mafia well entrenched here? Why don’t you ask me about that sorta stuff!) We eventually determined that I did not have a television to receive news on, and I don’t know if they took it that I am cheap, weird, transient, or all of the above. For some reason the timing didn’t exactly seem right for one of my “Smash The Boob Tube!” speeches.
By the end of the interview they seemed mostly concerned about my reliability to stay in one place. Given that my transcript showed five different jobs in five different towns in three-and-a-half years they may have had a point. I gushed out my reliability credentials. They nodded and looked skeptical, and said how a young American like myself could easily get headhunted into some high paying corporate job in the city.
Craig’s suit fit me so well I’d forgotten I’d been wearing it.
The whole time I’d been worrying about the grammar my resume when all they’d really been looking at was my suit and my week old haircut. They’d seen the English Teacher and Corporate Drone on my resume, did my haircut make me look Mormon too? In a suit like that you could be just about anybody, but with my peachy white skin and cheese grater accent I was an American in Japan, and there are only a few slots those guys slip into.
The suit and I rode home on my screamingly orange racing bicycle, light fabric pants flapping in the wind. It was a warm Thursday afternoon and half the city was pedaling around the streets, navigating that thin gap between the curb and the delivery trucks. Chattering schoolgirls in blazers and plaid green skirts, sour old men in frumpy jackets and twisted baseball caps, young mothers with toddlers strapped into little passenger seats over the front wheel. I could feel their eyes on me as we waited for the lights to change. They took in the racing bike, the suit, the skin and the curly brown hair. I’d like to know who they saw there.