Foreigners in White
I’ve been living in Japan for over three years now and had thought – up until now – that I’d seen just about everything. One early morning last September, I was about to be proven wrong.
Before last year, I had been maintaining the life of a night owl. Work late, sleep late, wake up late. Everything was late. So needless to say, I missed most of the things that went on in the morning. At least until the garbage or recycle truck came around and then I had no choice but to get up.
For a while last year, I had a temporary change in my schedule which required me to wake up early while still going to sleep late. This hectic all-hours routine soon exhausted me to the point where I had to admit to myself that I needed a change in lifestyle. A new job would be nice. Something with a positive environment, less stress, and happy faces.
Musing over what kind of job I would like to search for at 7:45 AM was a trial, one that I didn’t dwell on for too long. I was in too much of a hurry to get to the station in time to catch the next train. The moment I reached the intersection I could see the flyer distributors on the other side. My station isn’t one of the major ones so I’m never lucky enough to get the free tissues or paper fans. I never pay much attention to the flyers because they’re usually advertising for Izakayas and Karaoke clubs. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an interest in either establishment.
As I rushed to make the light, I noticed something strange. There were two foreign men standing a distance from the regular flyer bunch. These men were also handing out flyers but in English! I could hear them up ahead, “Good morning!” They called cheerfully to everyone who passed, offering a flyer to each person with a friendly smile. As I got closer, I noticed that they were both wearing clothing that advertised for the place where they worked. One man wore a white jacket and the other a white t-shirt. The only word that I managed to read was ‘Smith’s’ before I was also passing between the two men with the rest of the crowd.
“Good morning!” One of the men turned and smiled to me, passing me a flyer. Due to an automatic reflex, I took the flyer and returned the smile. Since I was wearing sunglasses and it was pretty busy, the man probably couldn’t distinguish me from anyone else in the crowd. However, when I returned his “Good morning!” with one of my own, he did a double take. He laughed a little and apologized for giving me a flyer, although at that time I couldn’t understand why. He then said, “have a good day!” and I replied with, “you too!”
After getting through the ticket gates, I glanced at the crumpled piece of paper in my right hand thoughtfully. No wonder the man had apologized to me. It was for an English school that I’d never heard of – Smith’s School of English. Imagine handing out a flyer for English conversation lessons to an English speaker! I thought that it was rather odd that foreigners were handing out flyers for an English school because all the other Eikaiwas had their Japanese staff do it for them. Not that I minded at all as it had been refreshing to see some friendly faces and trade a greeting in English at the start of the day.
I rode the train to the school where I had been studying Japanese at the time, still deep in thought. I wanted a new job. Smith’s had just presented a new potential opportunity for me. But if I wanted a long-term job that would fit around my schedule and have a pleasant enough environment for me to commit to, I would need to do a lot more research than looking at one flyer. Anyway, it was still too early to be thinking about a job and I had homework to finish before the train reached its last stop.
Putting Smith’s out of my mind, I stuffed the flyer into my pocket and pulled out my Japanese grammar book.
A few days went by after that and I spotted Smith’s flyer men on two more occasions. On both, they recognized me (me being the only person wearing sunglasses) and shouted out “Good morning! Have a nice day!” and I responded likewise.
A call from Mark Smith?
I think it must have been a Friday afternoon that I decided to look up Smith’s website on the internet. I found it without difficulty and browsed around, checking out the history of the company, the work ethics etc. A small picture with a group of English teachers wearing white Smith’s t-shirts and grinning caught my attention. They truly looked like they were happy and enjoying themselves. I decided that the best way to find out more about this company was to request an interview. So I filled out the online application form, sent it, opened up an anime mpeg on my computer and pulled out my latest essay assignment. I would most likely be hearing from Smith’s the next week, at the earliest, I figured.
Within minutes, my cell phone rang. Usually, I ignore numbers that I don’t know unless I’m expecting a call. And I wasn’t expecting a call. It continued to ring and I continued to watch it. I glanced back at my computer screen and then the cell. What were the odds…?
I heard this little voice in the back of my head urging me to answer the call, which I did. If it was a crank caller I could just hang up and ignore it. However, if it was regarding a job interview…
The caller spoke in English and asked for me by name, at which point I hesitantly told him that he had the correct number. Then he went on to identify himself as Mark Smith and told me that he’d just been in his email box when he’d received my job application. What an interesting coincidence! And Mark Smith…? If the company was named Smith’s, then I must be speaking with the owner! We discussed interview details for the following day, including directions to the Kyobashi head office. These directions were so detailed that they took up a whole page in my notebook! Mark didn’t want me to get lost seeing as how I’d never been to Kyobashi station before. I hung up with a twinge of excitement, writing down the name ‘Gavin’ in my notebook. I would be having the interview with Gavin at Kyobashi on Saturday.
Within minutes, my cell rang again with yet another new number. Wondering what this could be about, I answered it yet again and was told that I was speaking to Gavin who was calling me at the request of Mark Smith. He offered to meet me at the station so as to prevent my getting lost somewhere between there and the school. Sounded like a generous offer so I accepted and we chose a time to meet.
That night, I rushed out to buy a new pair of dressed shoes because the last ones had met an untimely demise after doing a number on my feet. Just the thought of those hellish heels gave me the shivers. The new pair I bought weren’t much better for me because I preferred casual shoes over pumps and anything else that scuffed away at my heels or bent my toes backwards.
Kyobashi and my aching feet
I reached Kyobashi station far too early – as was my usual habit – and wandered around for a half hour before returning to the station. I don’t know what I was expecting but I kept searching the crowd for any foreign men wearing business suits. From past experience, all English teachers wore business suits in Japan, complete with the uncomfortable shoes.
Suddenly, I saw a blur of dark blue and a tall foreign man came up to me, introducing himself as Gavin. Gavin was dressed very casually in a pair of jeans and a blue t-shirt advertising for Smith’s. He seemed to be very down-to-earth and I immediately felt out of place wearing my business suit and shiny new toe-crushing shoes.
We walked along to the school, chatting a bit about Japan and the Japanese language in general. As we entered the school – a very clean and professional looking office on the 7th floor of a nearby building – Gavin turned on the air conditioning and offered me a drink. I was able to choose between coffee, hot or cold tea, and water. Sounded like a coffee shop! We sat down on one of the comfy couches situated against an expansive window installment overlooking the city. Nice view!
Gavin took quite a long time thoroughly describing Smith’s, the criteria for what they referred to as ‘Coaches of Conversation’, and answered all of my questions. From what he described, Smith’s was a very relaxed environment that allowed students to feel at ease while boosting their confidence levels. This, coupled with a handful of properly trained teachers possessing helpful, friendly personalities, was what made both the students and staff happy. Gavin explained that Smith’s had a wonderful support system in that they continued to train their teachers and keep them up-to-date. Not only that, but also that the teachers themselves were the ones who controlled the environment. What the teachers had to say mattered.
To top it all off, aside from the Kyobashi head office, all of the other schools were owned by teachers! I hadn’t realized that Smith’s was a franchise operation. But after hearing this I began to wonder what it would be like to take charge of my own English school sometime in the future. Prior to this meeting, I had never considered the possibility. For one thing, I had no idea how to start my own business never mind run it on a daily basis. For another, I had just dropped my savings into that Japanese school so I was kind of broke. However, after Gavin outlined the requirements for owning one’s own Smith’s franchise along with the support system, it didn’t seem so impossible a feat in the foreseeable future. Definitely something to think about!
One big happy family
During our conversation, staff, teachers and students began to filter in through the front door. Everyone was met with a smile and a beverage offer. I could sense the genuinely peaceful atmosphere of Smith’s through the way the employees mingled with one another and the students. And also by the anticipatory smiles of the students who were eagerly awaiting their lessons. Gavin excused himself for a moment to help the staff get a few drinks for the students. At this point, I was able to chat a bit with two of the students who were very curious about my country of origin. That and probably because I stuck out like a sore thumb wearing a black suit in a room filled with casually dressed people.
I thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if I worked in such a friendly English school’. After all, it would be a welcome change from some of the other, stricter schools that I had worked for in the past. Smith’s actually cared about their employees and students and put people before profit. I considered this to be a very rare, and yet important quality that got overlooked far too often in the Eikaiwa industry.
Making up my mind, I confirmed to Gavin that this was indeed the job that I wanted. He assured me that I could relax at Smith’s and leave my business suit and hideously painful shoes at home. Better yet, he helped to organize my new work hours so that they would match up perfectly without interfering with my school hours or homework time. This all worked out beautifully for me!
To this day, I’m very happy for having decided to give Smith’s a try and look forward to seeing those familiar t-shirts at either the train station or walking along the street up ahead. I’m sure that Mark Smith never intended to pick up an English teacher with those flyers meant for would-be English students, but then again, stranger things have happened.