Hello I Am Nice To Meet You
Chapter One - Surprise
It wasn’t what I’d expected. Anyway, for starters, it wasn’t like in the photos... It seemed darker. I entered the school grounds and could see that the main building was considerably older, almost decrepit. I liked it immediately. A dark, grey mold, spread over countless hot and humid summers, was visible across much of its exterior, giving it the appearance of wearing a tattered angora sweater. Somewhere off in the distance, rising above the cries of the cicadas, a chorus of young men screamed, “Baaaanzaai!” - the rally cry of baseball players throughout Japan, and also the shriek of choice for kamikaze. In my mind, with limited associations of Japanese history, the school seemed to be having a hard time shaking off the Taisho era.
This was my kind of place.
It was a cloudy morning. I passed through the main entrance and was escorted into the employees’ office in shiny green plastic slippers by my new, (almost completely incommunicative) immediate superior. I was given a cup of tea, and told to “please wait” for the kouchou-sensei. He would see me soon, I was assured.
There was a tension in the air for reasons I didn’t yet understand. I stood by the window and grinned stiffly while my new colleagues scurried out of the room. The secretary, a fierce-looking sixty-year-old woman with the eyes of a bald eagle appeared out of a door at the far end of the room ominously and made eye-contact with my immediate superior in a way that indicated their leader would permit the meeting, and for us to hurry. With a firm hand between my shoulder blades, my supervisor guided me down two rows of identical grey desks towards this door, as if I were a model airplane. It was as we neared this door that I caught the anxious smile on the secretary’s face. It seemed to say, “I don’t know if this is going to work…” Before I knew it, I found myself in the boss’s office, a dark grey, dimly-lit chamber.
Chapter Two - It’s a Pleasure!
The curtains and blinds were closed. The contrast in illumination was blinding. My eyes darted in all directions around the room but still it took several moments before they would distinguish anything in the black void. When they did adjust, I realized I was standing before a stern, older Japanese gentleman with a bushy mustache. He wore an immaculate dark blue suit and was ensconced in a swivel chair, behind a massive and immaculate oak desk. On the right corner of this desk and closest to me, was a humidor. Embossed upon its side was a logo I now recognize as belonging to the Ivan Von Noshrilgram Foundation. All of this (the man, the desk and the humidor with the logo on it) was at the very opposite end of, indeed, a very long room. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was simply too dry. Watching us suspiciously from variously framed photographs fastened to the wall just below the ceiling was a series of humorless men stretching back several generations, each growing progressively less distinct, more faded, until the first one, of Kenzaburo Nakayoshi, just above and behind me, which appeared less like a stern gentleman administrator and more a vast chaotic winter scene. I looked at the man with the bushy mustache behind the desk and he at me, but neither of us spoke. He simply nodded, and I was again guided closer by my superior - though now I was acutely aware of the angle at which I was leaning backwards, and the just noticeable hesitation growing within me. Still, with the grace of an aikido master, I was delivered up against the desk. The man and my immediate superior exchanged glances about me (I assumed) that I interpreted as, “…What in God’s name is this?!” And the gentleman indicated, with a look I understood as livid that, perhaps, I’d like to sit.
There was an exchange between the two men, followed by uproarious laughter, which was startling. The man with the bushy mustache behind the desk inhaled half a cigarette then immediately the mirth ceased and he locked eyes with me, his chin dropping. It was The Moment of Truth. His eyes said, “I know what you’ve done” and I swallowed hard trying to recall what that might be. As I did, he began to speak to me in Japanese at a pace that, for me, was rapid. He spoke at length. I nodded sagaciously, uncertain what he was talking about. When he finished I changed positions and sat upright to indicate that ‘Yes. I was game. I was the man for the job.’ He lit another cigarette and watched me. I realized some sort of response was expected. I listened to everyone’s breathing for a moment then rose and delivered the short formal speech I had prepared in Japanese, and as I did his expression told me much of the rich impression I was making.
“Good evening…” I began with an air of solemnity. “I am Canada. I traveled across an airplane. I have come, and I am very energy. I canoe. Can’t you? I, Alistair Vogan, aren’t I?” I said this all like a samurai from the Muromachi period. I don’t know; somehow, it seemed appropriate. I bowed deeply, heard a click and could feel my spine beginning to lock.
Straightening my back, I looked up and saw the kouchou-sensei grimacing as if I had been shrieking into a megaphone and that the megaphone, which had picked up my amplified voice, was now sending feedback throughout the room. In fact, at that moment I thought I caught the glass cabinets around us shaking just a little. Immediately the older gentleman jerked his head involuntarily to the right and gave me a full, un-obscured view of his large shiitake-like ear.
I nodded again, uncertain what else I might do. Already, it seemed, I had exhausted my bag of tricks.
Chapter Three - Translation, Not Required
My immediate superior stood to my right, slightly behind me. I looked up for some assistance. He appeared to be imagining that I no longer existed. The kouchou-sensei turned back and I could see he was considering a change of tactics. Then, in an attempt to bridge the language gap, because I had made it clear my Japanese ability was wanting - or that I was intent on breaking all the laws of Japanese grammar as some form of political theater – the man began to speak in English! And, when he did, he chose from a collection of common English phrases, one you might find in a small Berlitz pocketbook. (Also, I think he picked all the phrases at random.) Though in English, my immediate superior translated every word. I nodded.
A large orange goldfish rose to the surface in the moat surrounding the school grounds. Its mouth stretched open to take in a tossed bread crumb. The fish sparkled in the sunlight and disappeared into the depths of the translucent green.
The kouchou-sensei stomped out his cigarette and waved his hand before my immediate superior: translation was NOT REQUIRED! He paused, lit yet another cigarette and thought intensely for a moment, looking at his finely manicured nails. We held our breath. I began to sweat. The older man snapped his fingers and began to beam.
Something good was coming…
We could all feel it.
My superior asked me to stand up, but I already was so I sat down, confused. Once more he asked me to stand. I did. Then, the older gentleman pointed to the door with a half-smile like Hans Solo and said, to my delight, his voice dropping nearly an octave, “I love you...”
“He means ‘thank you’,” my supervisor said into my ear, not skipping a beat.
The older man shot him a look and my supervisor nodded obsequiously, noticeably shrinking several inches. I found my body turning in the direction of the door and moving towards it quickly, as if the room was on fire. This was despite the fact that I, and my superior, could see that the man had more to say.
The door jerked open and the kouchou-sensei stepped out from behind his desk, seemingly in slow motion, and looked at me as though I were on a cruise-liner, drifting out to sea, the distance between us growing heartbreakingly with each second. At the corner of my eyes I could see that in the staffroom the English teachers had gathered against the door, and were listening in. Still, I turned to the kouchou-sensei. He nodded, reached for the humidor and smiled confidently as Ricardo Montalban might have and repeated, as if to correct my superior, “…I love you Mr Vogan.”
And my immediate superior whispered, “Just bow, bow, …bow.”
…I bowed and said “kor-nichiwa!” and my body glided effortless into the employees’ office. It was going to be a good year. I just knew it.