Monday, July 11, 2011

The Unexpected Go-Between

A few months after Ren and I started dating, I got called into an unexpected meeting with the head English teacher, Mori-sensei. At that point, Mori-sensei had been teaching for over thirty years, making her just a few years away from retirement. She was under five feet tall and had an annoying(or endearing, depending on your mood) habit of singing to herself. Not only was she the de facto head of the English curriculum at the school, she was also someone I taught with regularly (regularly enough to know that she was by nature unassertive--not the best quality for teaching junior high students). Compared to the other English teacher (Matsuo-sensei) though, teaching with Mori-sensei was a walk in the park. Matsuo-sensei deserves at least one blog entry of his own, but suffice it to say that he had employed the tactics of fear and humiliation to teach English to three generations of students living in that small mountain hamlet, and like frat brothers who love their fraternity more after enduring brutal hazing, every man, woman, and child over the age of 13 demonstrated a deep sense of love and gratitude for Matsuo-sensei's unorthodox teaching methods.

Anyway, on that particular day, as I prepared handouts for the day's lessons, Mori-sensei invited me back to the tea room. In Japanese schools, the teachers' desks are all gathered in one room. There they keep all of their teaching materials which they carry back and forth to the classrooms. Students don't rotate, teachers do. In smaller schools like the ones where I taught, all of the teachers' desks were in that room organized in clusters by grade taught. Since the teacher's room is a very communal space, every school has some kind of tea room/break room suitable for the occasional private conversation. I'd never been summoned to the tea room before, so I followed Mori-sensei with a deep sense of intrigue.

The conversation went something like this:

Mori-sensei (haltingly):
"The principal wanted me to speak to you about something...."

Me (perplexed--I wasn't sure the principal even knew I existed):

MS (stalling): "Someone called him."

Me: "Okay."

MS (even more haltingly, face increasingly reddened): "And they are worried because (pause, pause, pause)....(pause, pause) sometimes you don't come home at night."

Me (in my head): What the heck! Which of my nosy neighbors has it out for me? Ugh, it's probably the bitter divorcee Koga-sensei(who happened to be the school nurse at the other junior high where I taught).

Me (out loud): "I see, so one of my neighbors is worried about me? Do you know who called? I'd be happy to talk to them."

MS (with a certain amount of resignation):
"The principal didn't say. He's just worried. You see, everyone knows you have a new 'friend.'"

Me (in my head): You've got to be kidding me. I'm 25 years old. Even my mom wouldn't be this nosy.

Me (out loud, as tactfully as possible): "Yes, sometimes I do stay down in the city. Many of my friends live there, you know. I thought it was safer than driving on the mountain road late at night."

MS (dubiously): "So, you are staying with your foreign teacher friends?"

Me (vaguely): "Yes, various friends..."

MS (gaining her footing): "Because, you know, since you have come all this way so far from your family, everyone feels responsible for you. And you do have a new male friend."

Me (keeping my cool despite my desire to do otherwise and dismayed that I actually have to say this to a work colleague):
"You don't need to worry, I am not doing anything inappropriate. Besides, my parents know about my 'new friend' and they are not worried, so you don't need to be either."

MS (relieved--not by my explanation but because the conversation was clearly nearing its conclusion): "I'm glad to hear that. I will let the principal know he doesn't need to worry."

So let me say here, that my response to Mori-sensei's line of questioning went against every fiber of my being. What I really wanted to do was chastise her for prying into my private life and attempting to squelch my sense of independence. After all, what I did on my own time was my own business. Fortunately, though, I had lived in the town (and in Japan) long enough at that point to know that a) my business was not my own, and b) reacting as a strong-willed foreign woman would get me absolutely nowhere. I had also managed to do the don't-say-exactly-what-you-mean-and-let-others-think-what-they-will dance successfully for the first time, so, it probably sounds funny to say this, but I was proud of how much I'd grown.

That night, I told Ren about the conversation, hoping to vent my frustration at having every aspect of my private life analyzed by meddling neighbors. Ren patiently listened to my account, and then said something that totally shocked me:

"I think I should talk to Mori-sensei."

Me (in my head): Whaaa~t??? I totally did NOT see that coming!

Me (out loud, not at all sure how this would pan out): "Ummm, okaa~y."

So, we called Mori-sensei (awkward), and we invited her to dinner (even more awkward), setting up a date for the next night. (Whaaa~t?)

Have you ever seen those "meet the parents" movies where the young adult child brings home her unexpected betrothed and all sorts of chaos ensues? That's kind of what the dinner date was like. Only, the meeting wasn't with my parents. And we weren't betrothed. There was no chaos (Japan is almost always notably lacking in the chaos department). And the food wasn't all that great, either.

It was a very, very uncomfortable meal. I had no idea what to say to either Ren or Mori-sensei, both people I like very much, so I said nothing. Ren and Mori-sensei tried to forge casual conversation, but failed. Finally, Mori-sensei got to the point, in one of the most mortifying moments of my existence.

She said, "So, what are your intentions?"

Ren, not missing a beat, replied, "My intentions are pure. Please know I am not playing around. I'm serious about her and will take good care of her."

Holy shit! This is like where the guy meets the girl's dad and asks for her hand in marriage. We're just dating for goodness sake! And then it hit me. Since my folks were thousands of miles away, Mori-sensei had been appointed to be the unofficial go-between in this most unorthodox of o-miais.* Both Ren and Mori-sensei were in the middle of a necessary formality and nothing I would do or say would halt the inevitable.

Now, many years later, we are still friends with Mori-sensei. We exchange new year's cards, and whenever we are in Japan, we drop in for a visit. Still, I will always wonder how she felt about being assigned the task of being our unofficial go-between.

* An o-miai is a formal meeting between two families to determine whether they will proceed with an arranged marriage. In the past, the potential marriage candidates would be meeting for the first time. These days, in the era of the so-called "love marriage" (as opposed to an arranged marriage), the o-miai has taken on a much different feel and, indeed, is usually absent.


Joe said...

I'm glad you had someone to negotiate between the two of you. Otherwise who knows what Ren might have tried to pull. ;)

FMBMC said...

Ren is a wily one...