"I thought of Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek poet [who wrote the story behind "The Last Temptation Of Christ",] who said one time: 'When a man dies, that particular vision of life which is his and his alone dies with him. It therefore behoves every man to tell his story."
- Liam Clancy
Late in 1988, the Irish industrial training authority (FAS, as it was known then), began that year's recruiting drive for an Overseas training program which it had been running for several years. At the explanatory meeting, the organiser told us that new college graduates would be introduced to companies from overseas, suitable candidates would be selected for two years training in those companies in Japan, the USA or Europe, and would then come back to Ireland to apply the skills and knowledge gained in those two years to the Irish workplace.
Given that the employment situation at the time in Ireland was terrible, with the majority of graduates wondering about where to go abroad, rather than whether to go abroad, this was one way the government could look like it was on top of the problem. Ostensibly the point of the exercise was to introduce Irish graduates to the international market, and attract that market to invest in Ireland, (and this has in the course of time worked to an extent,) but at the time it was well rumoured that many who went out on the program did not come back, but stayed with their host company longer than planned, or moved on to better things.
The first part of the selection procedure, we were told, involved writing a short essay on our country of choice, explaining our motives for wanting to go there, to be discussed at the first interview. This struck me as being fishy. I reckoned it was more an exercise aimed at causing potential candidates to research the country of their choice, in order to cause them to seriously consider the prospect of living in a foreign country, and the upheaval that would be involved in moving to a country such as Japan, which was the destination of the large majority of candidates at that time, rather than demonstrating how much was actually known about that country by the candidate. This opinion was reinforced later, on hearing that a classmate, who had in his essay simply copied the first 600 words in the entry on Japan from the encyclopaedia in the college library, had not passed the initial screening process.
What interested me about this program was not so much that it gave me a chance to go somewhere I've always wanted to go and work there, but that it gave me the chance to go somewhere other than Ireland, and work in a very different environment to that which I had known so far. Not so much to go somewhere I'd never been, but to go somewhere other than where I'd always been. I had lived my entire life in the same house, and had never been away from it for more than a week at a time, and I did not like the prospect of starting my adult life there, since there was no opportunity on the horizon to break out of the routine that would surely make it more and more difficult for me to leave in the future. (I admit, it also made sense to keep one's options open, so I was applying for just about everything that came along.) So I sat down at a PC and typed in the required 600 words that explained what it was about the program that attracted me, and on the application form I ticked the box for "No Preference" in the section on desired destination.
When it came around to the first round interview in November, I was pressed on this point. Apparently the classmate who had copied the encyclopaedia was interviewed a while before me, and when questioned on his essay, he had tried to evade the issue by claiming that the PA system used in the explanatory meeting was hard to hear, and thus he had misheard the instructions. So when I was asked why my essay, which the interviewer graciously admitted was very well written, was slightly off the given topic, I assured her that I had heard her clearly, and that since I did not specify a location I was left with the option of presenting either a 600 word summary of all three regions, which would be shallow in the extreme and serve no useful purpose, or a detailed clarification of my real interest in the program, and my motives in applying. She seemed to accept this as genuine and moved on to my academic aspirations. The rest of the interview went reasonably well. I was informed about a week later that I had been accepted into the program, and that my resume would be forwarded to the participating companies. The first step of this journey had been made.
In February of 1989 I was informed of the first interview. The company was Pioneer Electronic Corporation. The interview itself, which took place on a Friday at the beginning of March, was a mild mannered affair. Looking back on it now, it was a breeze compared to the grilling I got in an interview with the BBC the previous day. The BBC prided themselves on having the best engineering training programme in Britain, and liked to pick people who would do it justice. Within minutes of entering the room, I was undergoing what seemed like a verbal exam on a range of engineering topics, from TV bandwidth to satellites. I staggered out of the room just over an hour later feeling like the mental equivalent of the ball on Superbowl Sunday.
By comparison, the Pioneer interview was like tea and biscuits with a visiting aunt. They discussed my family, did I know much about Japan or have any Japanese friends. I mentioned that there was one fellow in my class from Hong Kong, and that I had worked in a Japanese owned factory the previous summer. I honestly do not remember discussing my academic record, but my recollection of the whole interview is clouded by, I suppose, my nerves on the occasion. Anyway, it ended with smiles all round, and they said they would get in touch. I left the room, and one of the panel, an Englishman, came out after me to assure me it had gone well. As soon as he had gone back inside, the FAS representative came up to me and asked if I was interested in an interview with another company the following week. Still keeping all options open, I said yes.
The results came the following Monday, while I was at college. I entered the lab on the fourth floor for the afternoon session of individual project work, and Sean, a classmate who had been eating his lunch there, told me that my father had come in looking for me. He said I should ring home, so I did. I was informed that FAS had rung my home, and my mother rang my father, who came down on his lunch break to look for me. I rang FAS, and was told that the interview I had with Pioneer the previous Friday had been successful, and they were offering me a Job in Japan. At the time I decided that I would accept the offer, but not stop looking elsewhere. The fact that I would spend a large portion of my life in Japan did not really register with me at this stage, partially because the original offer was for a two year period which could be extended to "maybe five". (Though I remember thinking when this was said to me that at least I wouldn't have to look for a job again after the two year stint was over.) When I got home that night, my mother asked me what the phone call was about, and I responded cheerily that I was going to Japan. She threw her arms around me and held me for what seemed like an age, saying nothing.
In the months that followed, my studies took up practically all my time, and I came to the conclusion that I would have to put off serious job hunting until after the exams. All other possible positions I was pursuing eventually fell through. In the midst of all that studying, I received notification from FAS that if I didn't have a valid passport, now was the time to get one. This event in itself was the first step in crystallising my realisation that I would leave Ireland.
Since I was studying every night at the college library until it closed at ten o'clock, and my father was doing part time teaching work most evenings, it was almost one in the morning when we had finished eating and hopped in the car to go to the local Garda station to have my passport application countersigned. When we knocked at the little window, a sergeant whose name I recall to be Thomas Leary appeared, and when we stated our business, we were informed in an indignant tone that this was "an awful queer time to be getting a passport application". An exchange of opinions on this subject followed between my father and the officer, during which, when my father offered the names of a couple of officers he knew through work as character references, he was informed that he " should have come in when they were here". The officer was required to assure himself of my identity before countersigning the form, which he eventually did by checking my knowledge of my neighbours’ names through the voter's register. Having got him to sign the form and photographs, we informed him of what "warm and friendly" people the police proved not to be, and went home. Once we got there we realised the photos were nowhere to be found, so my father had to sheepishly go back to the police station to see if we had left them there. This would of course mean disturbing the presumably slumbering sergeant, so it was with some relief that he found them in the driveway.
A lecturer in my university who knew of my plans offered me a short term job over the summer, which proved to be a good source of finances as well as an easy introduction to non PC-based software design, which was what I would eventually end up doing in Japan. We agreed that I would start two days after finishing my exams, and I would finish the project in the week before the Japanese language and orientation course started, so that filled up the summer, leaving me a grand total of one day off.
The first day of the course, held in Glasnevin, the organiser from FAS made an introductory speech to the 65 of us who were going to various companies in Japan. She then introduced the Japanese lecturer who would be running the course, and when he started to address us in Japanese I had my first panic attack, and it really hit home what I was getting myself into. "I DON'T SPEAK JAPANESE! I'M GOING TO STARVE"; I remember thinking, by which time the lecturer had switched to English, and I regained my composure. I still had a chance.
My progress through the course was smooth. In the course of the next six weeks, we covered simple grammatical structures, Hiragana and Katakana writing systems, and an introduction to Japanese culture. Among the highlights of this were the video showing of some Sumo bouts, with the whole class cheering when Chiyonofuji, by far the best wrestler of the time, half lifted and half pushed the giant Konishiki (the heaviest wrestler in the sport's history, peaking at 280kg) from the ring, and the evening at a Japanese restaurant, where my experiences with sake were less than pleasant but not quite as extreme as one girl's experience with the hot horseradish sauce Wasabi. While she immediately left the table upon accidentally chomping into a large lump of the extremely spicy garnish and did not return from the bathroom for 20 to 30 minutes, I had to wait till the next morning to "ride the porcelain bus". This resulted from myself and a fellow course member Colin deciding to have "another bottle" between the two of us. It was also during the course of that evening that I learnt how to use chopsticks correctly. Instructions on how to hold them were written on the back of the paper sleeve they came in, (For what it's worth: clasp one stick between palm and base of thumb, and use tip of ring finger and little finger to hold steady; place second stick across base of index finger and tip of middle finger, holding it in place with the tip of the thumb and tip of the index finger lightly like a small paintbrush; use thumb and index finger to manipulate second stick while holding first stick stationary:) and once I had figured this out, they proved remarkably easy to use. (It still amazes me the big deal Japanese people make when they see western people using chopsticks. My standard response to being complemented on my dexterity now is to say that if a six year old child can do it, so can I! Others respond to such fawning by congratulating their interlocutor on their skill at using a spoon.)
Wednesday afternoons were for "orientation" lectures. At the first of these the program organiser asked for a show of hands of those who possessed a driving licence, to which about one in 6 raised their hand. When she pointed out that at the initial interview she had been assured by every candidate that it was their intention to obtain one, she received a very simple explanation from the back of the room which was greeted with barely suppressed howls of laughter - "We lied". She went on to introduce the day's lecturer, who was a specialist who would deal with the topic of culture shock. He began his lecture by asking for a volunteer, whom he then proceeded to lead around the room by the hand while reciting the Our Father in Indonesian. His point, which he explained afterwards, was that in a foreign culture we were going to see some behaviour which we were not used to seeing, and it would be important to be ready to deal with this. I dealt with it by initially assuming he was totally off his rocker, but waiting to hear his explanation before actually expressing that opinion. I have found this approach successful since then, in that sometimes I did observe behaviour which I found to be strange, and which was sometimes simply the result of a different culture or my failure to understand the situation, but was often because the perpetrator was quite simply nuts. But I must admit he did have a point. It was proven very early on in the course, when the native Japanese who was in charge of the course interrupted one class to say something to the Irish woman who was giving our class. He spoke to her from the doorway in Japanese for about three or four minutes, and she listed, nodding her head and responding with "Hai" every few seconds as is done in Japanese to indicate one is following the conversation. To the rest of us who had no idea what he was saying her behaviour appeared weird, and elicited chuckles and giggles from several people. Now I see this behaviour so often I usually fail to notice it.
During the course, my former classmate Gerry, who was also going to Pioneer, received a letter from a friend of his, Eamonn, who also worked in Pioneer, having gone to Japan a year earlier, and who coincidentally had been at school with my brother. This was basically to Gerry telling him what to expect because Eamonn had found out that Gerry would be working in the same facility as he, but it contained other first hand information about life in Japan that was considered so valuable that it was copied and passed around like military intelligence from a spy behind enemy lines. It was from this letter that I first learned I would be working in a town called Kawagoe.
Initially, my flight to Japan was scheduled for four days after my twenty first birthday. (It was eventually delayed by two weeks due to visa technicalities). My mother suggested a twenty-first birthday party, which I decided would double as a going away party. I decided to invite everybody on the FAS course, which proved extremely popular. Many people expressed delight at being invited to the twenty first birthday of someone they had barely met, and I in return was surprised by their generosity in the presents I received. The night itself was a great success, and it was good to see many relatives and old school friends, in many cases for the last time. But it was also home to one of the greatest regrets of my life. Towards the end of the party, a cake was brought out and after I blew out the candles, I was called on to make a speech. I had completely forgotten I would have to do this and had nothing prepared, and accordingly babbled on awkwardly for a few minutes, saying nothing of any substance. As I passed the microphone back to the DJ and walked away, my brother chided me by saying "You should have thanked Mum and Dad". I realised immediately that he was right. I should have thanked them not just for organising the party, but for my whole life. I should have taken that opportunity to tell everyone I knew what wonderful parents I have, but I blew it. I have gone over that night in my mind time and time again, and now I have the speech down pat. I merely have nowhere to say it.
The remaining days were spent quietly, buying things I would need for living alone. Brushing my teeth, shaving, any such simple activity, would prompt me to think "I need one of these" looking down at the utensil in my hand as if I had just realised it was there.
But it did not really feel like I would be living alone. All the attendants on the FAS course had exchanged addresses amid promises of "meeting up over there" and Eamonn, the classmate of my brother who had gone to work for Pioneer a year before would also be a link to home. In fact I think I had no real feeling at all for the upheaval that was to come. From the very beginning this was not like stepping off a cliff for me, there was no sense of risk or anticipation. It was just another step along the path of my life, a path I always felt was pretty much set out for me. I had never felt that I was really in control of my life, but that decisions were being made for me, or any decisions I seemed to make myself were based on expectations I believed people had of me, which is itself an external influence. I did not have a long term plan of what course my life would take, and was content to take each day as it came. I did not make the conscious decision that I wanted to go to college, but it was expected of me, and I had the chance, so I did go. I chose to study electrical engineering, but had no way of knowing if the complicated points system used to determine college places in Ireland would allow me the course of my choice or one of my lower preferences, or deny me a place at all. And in going to Japan, I initially accepted with the intention of looking at other options as well, but since none came along, the offer I had taken as a "safety net" would turn out to be the place I landed in the end. So none of these decisions were part of a prearranged "life plan", but merely reacting to the situations that arose. I do not wish in any way to complain about how things turned out, just to explain that I felt no anticipation, no nervousness about leaving, possibly because I had no scale of reference for the magnitude of the change that was to come.
And so it was that in the final days before my departure I did little outside of the necessary logistical preparations. I bought things I thought I would need, packed and shipped them. Maybe I should have travelled around to relatives to say goodbye, or visited friends more, but I didn't.
As it happened, four days before my eventual departure date was my sister's birthday. To celebrate that and my departure, we went to a local restaurant for a last family dinner out. My father had moonlighted as a maitre d' at the place, and was proudly telling the waiter who was serving us, whom he knew well, that I was going to Japan to work for Pioneer. The waiter responded in a perfectly unfazed manner that he had a school friend who had gone to work for Pioneer in Japan. I was casually told to look up a guy called Niall Berkery when I got out there. It would turn out that his desk would be about ten feet from mine, a fact which helped appease my mother's nerves.
On the very last day before my flight, I arranged to meet a few closest friends from college in the bar where most of our college days (or nights) were spent. Having popped in to say goodbye to the lecturer who gave me the summer job, I joined the others in the afternoon, and we discussed where everybody had ended up working. My father joined us late in the evening to watch an Ireland vs. Northern Ireland soccer match, and it was closing time when we left for home, giving a lift to my best friend Paul, on the way. Paul had been my project partner, consistent bar stool companion and provider of good counsel and advice; (typically, "Quit fucking around, we have a schedule to keep!") and we pretty much kept each other sane going through college. As we said goodbye outside his house, I had the first realisation of the giant step that I was about to take. As we got back in the car and drove off, I was fighting back the tears. I would probably have managed to suppress them, but my father then started telling me how he hoped he had lived up to my expectations, and I broke down. I assured him that he had far exceeded any expectations I had, and we finished the journey in silence. When we got home, my mother appeared concerned that we were so late, since I had an early flight in the morning and had not yet finished packing my suitcase. I think she was also upset that I did not spend more of my last day at home. After an hour of repacking and an urgent search for an additional carry on bag to hold my extremely underestimated volume of luggage, I went to bed around two in the morning.
The following morning the atmosphere in the house was awkward to say the least. It felt like someone had died, or was about to. Very little was said by anyone during the drive out to the airport, and by the time I had checked in for the flight I felt like a death row inmate having his final visit with relatives. I met up with some other people from the same flight, and we agreed to go through the security barrier. I hugged my family and said goodbye. I know I should have said more, but I didn't know where to start. Tears welled in my eyes as I walked through the gate, but part of me felt it was a relief to escape that funereal gloom. I did not look back.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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