Friday, September 14, 2007

Avid Conversationalists

Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a Sunkus (a convenience store affiliated with Circle K) to pay some bills. Yes, in Japan, we pay bills of all stripes in convenience stores when we're too suspicious to allow automatic withdrawals directly from our bank accounts. Anyway, when I walked in, a woman was standing next to the check-out area having a loud and animated conversation with the very nice older lady who runs the place. We have known this lady since the days when Sunkus was an L & W liquor shop in the same location quite some years ago.

As I approached, I noticed the jabbering woman wasn't engaged in any sort of transaction but just standing there talking a mile a minute. I figure that this is going to be very annoying because the kind and friendly older lady isn't going to want to brush off the chatty woman to deal with me. As it turned out, I got immediate and very focused attention and I guessed the woman, who was growing more animated and incorporated gestures into her conversation, was directing her talk at a man who was down the aisle from her, particularly since she was looking in that direction at that point in time.

I noticed that the check-out lady had her eyes locked in front at the task at hand. She didn't even make a nod in the direction of the woman who was having a conversation. I also noticed the man was locking his eyes in front of him, seemingly totally absorbed in the drinks in the case in front of him. It was then that I realized this woman was having a conversation with an invisible person and the other two people in the shop were pretending she didn't exist.

This sort of situation wasn't my first experience of this sort in Japan or even in the U.S. Since I worked at a halfway house for mentally ill people straight out of college, I've heard my fair share of one-way conversations with non-existent listeners. In my experience, it's usually not like what you see on television though where a nutty person talks loudly enough so that the sane person who is overhearing the talk can hear it through a door. Most of the people at the halfway house tended to talk in whispers when they carried on with hallucinated voices. I'm not certain why this was but since many of the hallucinations were grandiose in nature (conversations with god or government agencies), perhaps they felt it was best to be secretive. Since mentally ill people are often unaware that their hallucinations aren't real, I doubt they were concerned about tipping their hands to errant listeners.

That's not to say that all of them are like that. I did experience one mentally ill person who had loud conversations with imaginary people which many people overheard. The strange thing about this person was that he was also in Japan and working as an English teacher. During the latter part of my time with Nova in Ikebukuro, a large, middle-aged American man was hired to work at our branch. At first, he seemed to be generally okay but rapidly something appeared to be very wrong.

The first indication that there might be a problem was that his hygiene lapsed quite badly. One point about people who are seriously mentally ill, particularly schizophrenics (who, incidentally are not people with multiple personalities...I want that inaccuracy laid to rest), is that a good many of them will cease bathing and brushing their teeth when they are deteriorating to a psychotic state as well as when they are actively psychotic. This teacher was growing ripe and his poor students were trapped with him in a closet-size cubicle.

If that weren't unpleasant enough, he soon started to actively hallucinate in his classes. He told his students (and teachers in the next cubicle who overheard) that his dead father was standing in the room with them and talking to him. He would carry on conversations with his father in the presence of students.

There are two more parts to this story which are testimonials to a couple of omnipresent Japanese tendencies. It so happened that a fellow teacher and I had encountered this fellow on the street in Ikebukuro about 3-4 months before he turned up as a new co-worker. We were standing on a corner waiting for a light to change and he walked up to us and started making racist comments about the Japanese. He said things about how they thought they were superior to us and that you could tell this by "the way they walked". My friend said something to him about how it was their country so they were free to do and think as they pleased and we moved on.

When this man was hired, I knew immediately that he was the fellow on the street so I went to the manager and told her about this encounter. I told her that I felt there was something wrong with him and he may not necessarily treat the students well given his attitude toward Japanese people during this random encounter. The manager nodded at me as if she were carefully considering what I said and gave me a patronizing smile and proceeded to do nothing. This is a good example of the Japanese tendency not to be proactive even when any other businessperson in any other service-related industry would be taking steps to monitor this man as well as perhaps interview him again to turn up any evidence that he might be dangerous. This was a typical case of what I have said before is "we'll cross that bridge after it collapses" thinking.

The second point was that the students, despite being shut away in a small room with a smelly, crazy man, didn't complain much at all. In fact, it took nearly 3 weeks before they had had enough and said something to the managemen. They finally fired him. Sometimes the Japanese just do not complain, even when they have every reason to do so and I guess especially when they may not be understanding what is happening because it's a foreign language situation. Of course, I'm guessing their noses could have crossed the cultural barrier in this case. The teachers certainly found his odor unbearable and we were all in an open area with him.

When I remember this experience, I wonder if this man came to Japan mentally ill or if something about the stress of being here drove him that way. I also wonder what became of him after he left Nova. While I felt sorry for him, particularly since I'm guessing he wasn't going to easily find care or help in Japan, I also did feel he never should have been hired by Nova and to this day am shocked that their interviewers didn't catch that something was amiss with him. I guess it's possible that he was lucid when he was interviewed and went off his medication or had a psychotic episode later but the encounter my friend and I had with him on the street months before hinted that this was less likely than him having had issues all along. I guess it either goes to show that Nova either had an awful interview process at that time or that sanity isn't something the Japanese expect when they encounter foreigners.


Roy said...

I know a lot of non-mentally ill English teachers who smelled really bad too. Thank god I was in charge of assigning classrooms to teachers because some of them left a nasty odor in the room that wouldn't go away for hours.

About your manager not doing anything about what you reported to her. A similar thing happened at the school I worked at. They hired some woman who was a complete nutter but seemed perfectly normal at the interview. Then a couple of the teachers found out since they knew this woman and claimed she was a kleptomaniac and compulsive liar. Anyways, since all the teachers I worked with were more or less reliable people, the manager took their word for it and fired her before she even started her first day. Well, she took the school to court and won. The school ended up paying her a pile of cash, equilavent to about a years salary. She was fired based on second-hand accounts of her questionable character. What my manager should have done was let her work for the first few weeks and dismiss her after her probation had ended or once she did something that could be grounds for being fired.

So, your manager probably couldn't do anything once the guy had signed a contract. Japanese labor law is actually very good in protecting workers although I'm not an expert in that area, some teachers who were very active in the union managed to get quite a lot of changes implemented in the few years I worked at the school.

On another note, this teacher you spoke of could also have been an alcoholic. I worked with a teacher who was like what you describe but he turned out to be an alcoholic who was normal when he wasn't drunk but then became hostile and irrational when drunk. Trouble was he didn't smell or appear drunk at all. It took everyone quite a while to figure it out. He was generally a nice guy and would ask me to lend him 300yen for train fare because his wife forgot to give him his allowance etc. Turns out he would hit everyone up for change to get some cheap booze after work because his wife keep him on such a tight lease.

Shari said...

Trust me, this guy was not the average smelly person. We're talking homeless man who hasn't seen a bar of soap in a year type of thing.

While I know Japanese labor law can be pretty strict on firing people, I also think that foreigners generally are no threat in this regard and that they were even less of a threat 17 years ago. At that time, there was no Nova union (or at least not one that reached very far).

I'm also just as sure this guy wasn't a boozer. I had more than enough experience with people who got psychotic to know though I did also experience alcoholics who had psychotic episodes. For the most part though, boozers don't have hallucinations or serious losses of touch with reality unless they have been off the wagon and suddenly go back on. Since my father is an alcoholic, I also have a good idea of the difference between a schizophrenic and someone who gets weird when he drinks. Mentally ill people see their dead daddies and have chats with them on a daily basis. Drunks don't do this unless they are also mentally ill. Besides, we ran into him when he equated the Japanese with Nazis at around noon so I doubt he was potted when he made his remarks about the Japanese. We also didn't smell any alcohol on him and, given his hygiene, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be going out of his way to cover it up.

FWIW, my job used to be interviewing people in the mental health ward at the local hospital (the sort of place where people are locked in and strapped down) and the local asylum so I have a really good sense of who is mentally ill after two years of that. I also "lived" with them 2 days a week (eating, sleeping, talking, watching T.V.) as part of my job so I had loads of first-hand experience with them (again, for two years).

Anyway, I appreciate the comment and I'm glad to see your hiatus, at least from reading, has ended. Welcome back. :-)

Emsk said...

I can see the point that Roy makes. The management has to be sure that the person isn't right before he/she goes firing anyone.

I wonder how much notice Japanese managers do take though when it comes to mental health issues. I had a ten year-old girl who I was teaching mainly on a one-to-one basis and from the start I could see she wasn't right. Her bully of a mother was pushing her to do everything she hadn't done and was always coming up to talk to the school about why her daughter wasn't speaking fluent English. The manager would turn into a mandarin, kissing this abhorrent woman's feet.

Having worked with kids before and having an interest in psychology, I gave my manager some feedback as to why this poor kid was not excelling in my class. IMO she was pushed by Mom and her school where she couldn't react, and playing up in a foreigner's class was the safest place for her to do so. I told the manager that however many times Mom came up and created havoc, nothing would change the fact that her daughter was heading for a breakdown. Every week the kid just stared, didn't do anything I asked (she understood me) and only spoke in an inaudible squeak. Manager just looked at me blankly. The next week Mom called and demanded that her poor kid see the other English teacher, who had no luck with her either.

Manager and Head Teacher, however, refused to consider anything other than my teaching - it must be the foreign teacher who is at fault, they said, because Japanese kids aren't wierd like this, conform to everying and work very hard. I was held totally responsible for this, sod the fact that I actually pointed things out to them that might have been useful.

But weeks later we heard that this poor kid had had her breakdown (the assistant manager called it 'mental problems'). As much as I was sorry for this little girl, I couldn't help but tell the manager that I'd told her so. I only hope this poor kid will be listened to now, but I doubt it.

tornados28 said...

Regarding people who have animated conversations with invisible people, I have encountered both those that talk quietly and those that talk loud enough with the imaginary person that everyone can clearly hear what they are saying. Especially prevalent in Downtown Los Angeles.

On a side note if your interested, below is a link to a site regarding Blog Action Day on Oct. 15 relating to supporting environmental protection.

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind - the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

Shari said...

Emsk: Hi there and thanks for sharing your story (which was quite interesting). I should clarify that I didn't expect the manager to fire him solely on my word but rather to at least monitor his classes to see if there was going to be a problem. She didn't do anything at all and waited for the car crash to come rather than having a look at the faulty breaks before the fact.

I'm rather surprised at how many Japanese people have "mental problems" from too much stress and over-work. This applies to studying and jobs. I'm actually surprised that more kids don't have issues given how much responsibility is heaped on them. My students seem to all tell me someone at work has had to take 6 months or more off because of mental health issues. I know that's anecdotal but it does seem to happen to at least one person in everyone's office.

tornados28: Thanks for the heads up. I've got the day circled on my calendar!

ターナー said...

I have had a similar experience with a old woman who was neither drunk nor an English teacher - same situation as you, just loudly talking to air in the middle of a convenience store. I wouldn't have noticed except she started the conversation before she entered. Strange.

I agree no one should be fired over heresay (if that had been the case, two teachers at my school could have backed themselves up for whatever lies they wanted about me), but it says something about the hiring practices of eikaiwa. Just who do they reject?

Shari said...

Turner: One thing I can say is that, when I was "interviewed" for Nova, it consisted of the (Japanese) fellow involved opening up my passport and looking at the type of tourist visa I had and saying, "we can sponsor you." Honestly, that was all he did.

Remember though that this was 18 years ago. I'm sure they are a bit more careful these days. ;-)