Friday 10 February 2012

Fukaya 4 - The Girl Who Stares At Walls

The next morning, I had my first real hangover. The experience was not unlike walking two steps behind your real person, a kind of disjointed, out-of-body experience.

I decided to skip breakfast at the hotel and have it somewhere else instead. The fresh air outside would do me good.

After a short walk I found a Dunkin' Dougnuts near the cab stand, and sat near its glass partitioned entrance after collecting my order of doughnut and some American-style coffee. American coffee might not be as strong as the French but the Arabica beans were heaven to the nose nonetheless. It also reminded me of McDonald's back home.

Sipping the cuppa, I looked out at this foreign world waking up and getting to work. Surprisingly there wasn't any of that 'surge of humanity' so commonly seen on TV about Japan and its people in the cities. The pace today felt more like a weekend. Perhaps it's normal in place like this some one hour by train from downtown Tokyo.

I checked my watch date to make sure. It would have been disastrous if I had been comatosed from drinking for two straight days. Of course, I was only joking with myself. It would have been better to have passed out in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) with a geisha in each arm. Hey, it's not only ang moh guys who have such fantasies when setting foot upon the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time!

Speaking of ryokans, I had actually asked our department's secretary, Caroline, to book me such a place to stay in over the weekend (when I would be on my own). But according to Japanese regulations then, only locals were allowed to stay in such traditional inns (or so Caroline told me). I thought the rule was rather snobbish. But nevermind, Caroline did manage to find me a room instead at a three-star hotel that was clean, serviceable and with a small TV hanging from a ceiling corner.

It had a rather unusual feature though: a bathroom that reminded me of one in an Airbus 380, you know, the kind that's moulded from a one-piece fibre glass or some tough plastic. It even had a bathtub! I could imagine how splash-proof and easy to clean the thing would be. There didn't seem to be any seams at all save those at the door and ceiling.

Caroline was actually our department's top boss's secretary. There were actually three of them in the pool (the other two junior secs being Diana and Doris) taking care of six other managers altogether.

Caroline was a very sweet girl with big black eyes and sleek black hair and a body shape that induced men to think thoughts their wives might find objectionable. Although she was irresistably pretty, she had bite, why with one fierce look she could bring wayward men back onto the straight and narrow. She spoke with a lilt that's part girly charm and part nervousness. Or it might even be manja-ness. Yes, there were a couple of engineers who fell for her charm and would do anything for her, like lifting boxes or refilling the photocopier with paper. A guy from Hong Kong named Patrick was particularly susceptible. He sat within sight of her desk and I've caught him stealing glances at her more than once.

Of all things, Caroline hated to be rushed. She would go into a fluster and start to hyperventilate. She was young in that regard.  I found her pretty and liked her straight forward manner. We did go out for a while but it was nothing too serious. We had shared the same hair salon in her neighbourhood in Ang Mo Kio and nothing much else.

Eventually, I think it was because I found her rather odd. One day, whilst conversing with her in her bedroom, she suddenly told me she liked to sometimes stare at walls. I don't know why she told me that, but at the time, I knew some girls liked to tell guys strange stuff just to test them, like how this girl Wendy used to test me by asking: "Would you think me strange if I told you I liked to wrap two towels around my head instead of one after a shower?" I smiled at that, but inside, I was like, What??? Does it really matter?

Similarly, I did not know how to respond to this particular cracker from Caroline and so simply said: "Er, okayyy..." The funny thing was immediately after making that statement, she went silent and actually stared at the wall in front of us. Thinking back, it was rather an endearing trait. I mean it could have been worse. She could have said: "You know, I like to stand right next to people and watch them sleep."

In any case, we did go out for a celebration once, and she made me pierce my one ear - the one that actually had a natural dimple in the lobe - to commemorate an event. But because my trip to Fukuya was impending, I decided against wearing that one ear stud. At the time, the Japanese were still known to be rather conservative. Those in the Engineering trades would be even more so... Or so I presumed.

The coffee helped somewhat with my hangover displacement. When I reached the Toshiba office, I was early. I walked by a vending machine in the hallway and decided to check out its contents. They were mostly canned coffee and candy bars. I wondered if that meant the Japanese often worked late.

An innocuous dull green door opened to a very large open plan office with rows of low desks. The Japs didn't seem to like office partitions very much. Everybody set at the same kind of green colored metal desk with rounded corners and secretary chairs, all very 70s-like.

Tateshita's group was in another section visible on the left. Its layout and arrangement were the same: Manager in front, slightly elevated, with the rest facing him in pairs. Common workbenches were turned in facing one another. Unsure of where I would be sitting, I walked over to a workbench and sat down. Someone in T's group was already there. He was nice enough to introduce himself, but speaking no English, he pretty soon left me alone.

The workbench had a dot-matrix printer and a PC. I was piqued to see that it was from NEC. I wondered if it was similarly running Windows 3.1 like the one I had back in IVP, Singapore. Was this the same PC that T's men used to read the files I had transmitted over?

Turns out, that was the case. It was the only PC that could run Windows 3.1 and had Pagemaker 3.0 installed. The rest of the PCs and systems were all running on Japanese developed operating systems, mostly from NEC. I found that rather odd. Here is the world's most prolific consumer product developer and exporter and they were not running Windows like the rest of the world. How are they going to collaborate at an international level?

At the time, Windows was in ascendancy and version 95 was about to be launched. That would be a huge improvement to Windows 3.1. Apparently with Windows 95, foreign language scripts could be implemented easily so folks could begin to use their PCs in their own language.

But as I discovered later, it wasn't going to be as easy as typing 1-2-3. Yes, Win 95 was a vast improvement over Win 3.1 but not until Windows XP did the whole foreign language thing take off.

Back in the office, that workbench had the same fax-floppy drive machine that T and I both used to send files to one another. Back then, network speeds were still low (around 10 Mbs) and large files took forever to transmit over. At the time, we often shared CAD drawing files in large TIFF or DXF (an AutoCAD graphic format) sizes so that fax-floppy drive machine helped speed things up.

As time passed, I checked at my watch. It was nearly 9 0'clock and people were already filling up their desks and standing to attention. I stood up too.

Tateshita greeted his section and they bowed to one another. He then read out a list of things. Later, it was explained to me that he basically recapped the previous day's accomplishments and told his staff what was expected to be done that day. Back in Singapore, that's not how we worked. We had meetings and set targets. If a manager needed an update, he would call for a status report.

In a way, this Japanese method is quite open and it keeps everyone on the same page. Problems raised could be tackled head-on straightaway, or at least other colleagues could make suggestions. There is no hiding; everybody walks the same timeline.

After the briefing, Tateshita mouthed his thanks and they bowed again. Everybody then broke off to do their own thing. I noticed that T wore the same beige coloured workshop jacket as the other managers. They were uniform like that.

Lunch was precisely at 12 noon. It was the typical one-hour lunch but I noticed that people seemed to rush about a bit more. Curious, I asked my host Koide why that was so. He said most staff would have a quick lunch and then go about their extra activities such as sports like baseball, basketball, and even swimming. Swimming? Yes, he said. There's a pool on Toshiba's factory grounds.

The canteen itself was quite large. I went up to a stall and picked a tempura set. I was half expecting Jap-style 'chap chye peng'. Even the soup was the unmistakable miso with cubes of tofu inside. As a Cantonese who grew up with all sorts of soups, I am always surprised that the Japanese don't have more soup varieties to offer. IT IS ALWAYS MISO!

After the meal, I opted to walk around a bit and could see a lot of staff engaged in sports. They were really into it. At  home, the hot, humid weather prevented any activity of this sort. In fact, most people opted to stay indoors for lunch because of cool aircon.

At precisely 1 o'clock, everybody was back at their desk in their work clothes standing at attention. Some could be spotted with combed wet hair. Their respective managers were again standing at the front ready to address them. This time, their speeches were short. When the mutual bowing was done, they all broke off and carried on as usual.

For a non-conformist like me, I watched the proceedings with a sense of amusement. It was after all their workplace practice. It made me curious about the other aspects of Japanese work culture like tea-pouring for the seniors and the legendary long after-hours.

I was not to be disappointed on one account. Some lady engineers were seen doing the tea service for some of their senior colleagues. As for the long hours, I must hand it to the Toshiba folks at the time. They were trying to change. When I was there, there were compulsory Light's Off days to make sure folks left at 5.30pm sharp. An alarm would sound and the offices and factories would empty. I think it happened on a Monday and Thursday.

Well, there's also the after-office hours drinking and merry-making. I did go out with a few of them to a karaoke and a live-band bar once, but I am not sure if that was because of me visiting or it was something they really did when no guest was around. I suspect it to be the former. The younger folk in my group seemed more keen to reunite with their girlfriends and hobbies (one guy like surfing Tokyo Bay) than hang around the office or in bars more than necessary.

At the live bar, I was asked to sing. I had noticed in the shops and restaurants that although the Japanese spoke no English, they liked listening to English songs.

My group, which consisted of three guys and a girl, asked me to sing an English song. I had done Paul Anka's My Way at an office function before and so decided to reprise that. It would be a safe bet judging from past accolades. Well, they liked it too and asked for another. I next sang the Bee Gees' Massachusettes with its soaring chorus. The group sportingly sang along.

This last song brought the proprietor's daughter out. She was a rather chubby and sheepish looking kid no older than 18. The lady proprietor asked if I could sing an Elvis song as the King of Cool was her daughter's favourite singer.

By now, I was ready to quit on a high. But as Elvis was my favourite singer also I decided to give it one more go. I believed the song I chose was The King's Are You Lonesome Tonight. Back then I was pretty good at imitating a singer's style and so I sang Lonesome with Evis's typical timbre and vibratto. It turned out well and impressed the guys there.

What I did not expect was for it to move the proprietor and her daughter so much. She offered the girl to me for marriage! What??? Well, that's how my teasing colleagues translated amidst laughter at my predicament. I shyly said no...that I already had a girlfriend (not 100% true). By then, the poor girl was already thrust next to me. I could only do the decent gentleman thing by kissing her hand. She blushed pink like a Spring cherry blossom. After that, we finished our drinks and moved on to a sushi bar. We were laughing all the way.

Next: Fukaya 5 - Nightclubs and Parlours

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