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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 11


November 13, 1988   -   KOBASHI TO THE RESCUE


When Elin and I first moved into Maruyama we were running out of money, which is sort of the way we'd planned it, me enthusiastically and her reluctantly.  If we were going to be fiscally responsible, then she wouldn't have been able to spend her first three weeks in Japan traveling around, seeing things and meeting people.  I had assured her that work opportunities would be plentiful and not to worry.  I'd already been in Japan for half a year when she arrived, and I had watched with a keen eye those gaijin (foreigners) who prosper and enjoy themselves as opposed to those who just get by.  The former have faith in Japan.  I had faith.  After all, when Kelly and I had returned from Thailand, we had flown into Narita with less than $100.  We had friends to stay with and knew how to get by on very little, but when he left two days later, I was down to zilch.  I couldn't even afford to go to the airport with him.  I survived for the following five weeks on a few days of sheetrocking for an American friend in Tokyo (who made me spend my last coins of yen so I'd be down to zero before he paid me), eight hours of writing advertising copy in Osaka, and twelve hours of English conversation class substitute teaching in Yaizu.

Since that time I had also traveled twice back and forth to Maruyama from Tokyo, a sizable distance, and still had five hundred dollars worth of yen on me when I met Elin at Narita.  All it had taken to remain solvent was some hitchhiking, staying with friends, and eating cheaply, which is surprisingly easy to do.

Even though our helpful and industrious English-speaking neighbor Ishitaki-san said she'd have some kids' classes for us in December, there was no bird in hand and Elin was getting more and more nervous and eager to secure a regular income.  I had no interest in working for one of those slimy language schools that don't pay well and make you hang around between classes.  I don't like to work for other people unless they're very understanding and don't take a big cut.  So I was looking for noncommittal substitute work or private classes and had to convince Elin to be patient.  It was frustrating that we couldn't advertise and had to be discreet - we were still on tourist visas and it is illegal to work on a tourist visa.

So I was pleased when Jessica, our best friend at the temple and Hojo-san's translator, told me that one of the lay members of Daianji had asked her if she knew someone who could substitute for a few English classes at a local shipbuilding yard.  He was a regular at the Sunday zazenkai (a zazen group for the lay community).  Elin and I had started attending this Sunday zazen meeting in the hondo, the large hall at Daianji where services are held.

His name was Kobashi-san.  I knew his son, the only lay Japanese who lived at the temple.  He was the gardener, a very sweet and painfully shy fellow who never said a word, and either couldn't or didn't want to make it in society's rat race.  Pop Kobashi is short, stout, gray-haired and wears thick glasses.  We had seen each other on the previous Sunday but we hadn't formally met.  Jessica introduced us during the tea following zazenkai.  The two of them standing together were such a comic combo.  He was all pinched tight and proper in his Western suit and tie, and she in her baggy, faded and patched grey samue, looked out of some oriental hobo tradition, like chubby Hotei, the so-called Laughing Buddha.

Kobashi started off as a lot of people would if there was some prior relationship with one of their family members: "Itsumo osewa ni narimasu" (you're always doing us favors).

"I never did anything for him," I told Jessica.  "Does he have me confused with someone?"

"Just say 'kochira koso.' It means 'no, no, it's the other way around,'" she explained.

"Kochira koso," I said.

He gave me his business card and said my Japanese was very good and I said oh no it's very bad.  He was polite and nervous (really nervous - as if he were naked on stage).  He asked me a lot of questions like where did I come from in America and was Japanese harder than English.  He said we could talk again the next week and asked me if I would prepare a resume for him.  When the tea was over, we bowed and said thanks a few times.  He apologized for having rudely bothered me and I said please be good to me in the future like I was supposed to.  Then we parted.  I was very pleased and I think he was too - after he calmed down.

I talked to our neighbor and advisor, savvy Ishitaki, about the resume and then called up Bop, our generous host in Kyoto and mentor in threading the natives' sociopolitical needles.  He gave me further advice on how to write the resume.  I appreciated his suggestions, many of which I followed.  I did not, however, say that I had a PhD from Harvard in teaching English as a second language.  This disappointed Bop but I have some scruples.  He agreed with Ishitaki that it should be written in English.  "Otherwise you may insult them," she'd said.  "They have all studied English many years."

The next week, at the get-together after zazen, Kobashi was pleased to get the resume, which he glanced at quickly and tucked away.  Bop had assured me that I could have written nothing but profanities on it - no one was going to read it, only look at the piece of paper and file it.

After we'd drunk our tea, Kobashi showed me the schedule of the English classes.  There were only three of them to be taught three times each.  He asked if it was alright as is, or if I would prefer to make some changes in the schedule.  Either way would be fine he said.

"Oh," I said.  "Well, let me see."

"Do you want it as is," he repeated, "or, would you like to make some change.  Which would be the most convenient for you?"

"Alright," I said, looking at the schedule to make sure I understood it.  "How about having the Tuesday class on Monday instead?  That would be better for me."

He paused seriously and breathed in and said, "So desu ne." (Yes that's so, isn't it?)

Oh good, I thought, it's okay with him.

"Oh," he said.  Long pause.  "Hm," he moaned looking deeply into the schedule he had brought.

I soon sensed that maybe that wasn't such a perfect day for him so I said, "How about Saturday?"

He breathed deeply and said, "So desu ne."

After a while I thought to myself, I don't understand this.  I was just learning that 'So desu ne' frequently means 'Oh isn't that too bad.'

"Let's just leave it like it is," I said.

He beamed.  "Okay," he said.  "If that's what you want."

"Yes," I said.  "That's fine."

"Well," he said, "if that's fine with you then that's fine with me too."

It was a little weird but I enjoyed talking to him because it was all in Japanese.

He also brought train and bus schedules, neatly underlined in the appropriate spots.  It would take me about an hour and a half to get there by bus, transferring once, or about two hours if I went by train.

"Either way," he said, "It makes no difference to me."

"I'll take the train," I said instantly.

"The bus is more direct and faster," he said.

"I don't like buses.  I love trains." I was adamant.

"Very well," he said.  "Then take the train."

Oh good, I thought.  He had me worried there.

Then he lowered his voice and said that my fee would be 15,000 yen a class.  That's $120, I thought.  Less transportation costs it was about $98 for teaching an hour and a half class.  He asked me if it was enough and I replied carefully that it was adequate.  Adequate?  I was desperate for work and I'd never made that much money in my life.  And he seemed so grateful.

I looked beyond him to the pond and temple garden.  A fish leaped into the air and splashed down into the cold water.  I knew then that we would pay the rent, I would catch up on child support and that eventually my debts would be taken care of.  All my anxiety fell away and Kobashi appeared as if bathed in a subtle light.