by Sue Brennan
Two weeks shy of my twenty-third birthday, with a brand new passport in my hand—the only person in my immediate family to have one—I said, “I’m off to see the world.”
“Take care, son!” my parents replied. “We’ll be sitting here comfortably watching it on TV and spending a tenth of the money. Your friends, meanwhile, will be getting on with their careers. Making something of themselves. Settling down.”
Fools, all of them. Parochial fools. Good riddance to every last cousin, second cousin, great-uncle, nephew and niece. No—I take that back. My sister’s boy has a sweet way of presenting his scribbles to me as gifts.
As for the continent of Straya, I couldn’t wait to get out. The Brits and Europeans were still heading over in droves, and they could have it. I’d wave to them as we passed each other by. They’d all realise soon enough. They’d find themselves in a three-bedroom fibro house with a secondhand car to drive to a red-brick church on Sundays and cry: where are the flying buttresses? Where are the piazzas, the palaces and palatial museums? The medieval marketplaces? Where are the Vespas? The gelato?
I wanted to get jostled in Coventry Market, drink Cognac at a bar in the 18th arrondissement, and tramp the arid hills around Madrid. The white buildings and black sands of Santorini beckoned. There were bougainvillaea-laden cottages to be rented. I hankered for smoky souks and dark-eyed lovelies.
It took three months of diarrhoea, hard beds, self-involved weird fellow-travellers, and days on end of no meaningful communication to wash up in Japan, skint and a little desperate.
“Thank you for the postcards,” Mum said. Her voice was tinny and small. There was no inquiry as to my physical health, mental state or financial situation even though I’d called reverse charges out of the blue close to midnight. “They’re on the fridge, but your father keeps putting the Chinese takeaway menu on top of them.”
She went on to inform me that her recent checkup had been clear, Dad’s heartburn was no better, and, in case I couldn’t get news of Australia where I was, Paul Keating was still prime minister.
“Where are you, anyway?” she asked after petering out.
“Japan,” I told her. “Tokyo. I already…Mum, listen, I don’t have enough money to—”
In the background, I heard Dad say, “What the hell time does he think this is? Some people have to work in the morning.”
“He’s in Tokyo, honey,” she said.
“Tell him to get back here and get a goddam job.”
“Sweetie?” Mum said in a whining tone. “Your father says—”
I’ll get a job alright, I thought as I slammed the phone down. Screw them all to hell.
Mary felt about England the same way I did about Australia—it could be wiped out by an asteroid and we wouldn’t shed a tear. But, like many of her countryfolk, she had grand and fantastical ideas about my homeland—kangaroos in the street, unfathomable expanses of land to be explored, an egalitarian peace-loving nation. I set about trying to disabuse her of these notions.
“Imagine, if you will, being surrounded by men who appear to be on the verge of giving birth. Enormous bellies hanging over their shorts.”
Mary giggled and called for more sake.
“You can hear the beer inside them sloshing about when they walk.”
We were sitting uncomfortably on the floor in our suits. I had the luxury of being able to cross my legs, but Mary’s narrow skirt didn’t allow for that. She sat mermaid-style and complained of a constricted gallbladder. I’d landed a job with a company that dispatched English native speakers to teach English to Japanese business men and women. The orientation was strange and overly formal. We were given name tags despite there only being five recruits and were forced to watch a presentation by some underling about the inner workings of the Japanese mind. At the end of the first day, we were taken to a restaurant. I’d already sussed that Mary was a kindred spirit and sat near her. Our fellow newbies, Americans, were sycophants. One even had a degree in Japanese Studies, or some such thing. Out on the street, once all the bowing was completed, Mary and I peeled off, found an izakaya and got hammered.
“Imagine, if you will,” I said, “a cake so dry as to make your mouth utterly desiccated. There you have the height of Australian cuisine: the lamington.”
“You haven’t tasted my granny’s scones,” Mary said. “Bricks, they are.”
“Imagine a building so ridiculous looking,” I said, uninterested in her grandmother, “and yet so revered, and there you have the pinnacle of architecture: the Sydney Opera House.”
“I’ve seen pictures. It looks nice.”
“Not quite the Sagrada Família, though, is it? It’s no Notre Dame, hey?”
“Whatever,” she said.
We turned up at the next day’s orientation a little worse for wear, but the pattern had been set. Each night, we heaved our training manuals to an izakaya, dismissing them as ‘dated’ and not worth the copious paper they were printed on. Our trainers were hard to read—were they envious of our special status as English speakers, or pitying of our feeble attempts to speak Japanese? We decided they were both. Eventually, we returned to our favourite topic.
“Imagine, a bunch of people too lazy to even speak properly. G’day, instead of good morning or even hello; I’m gunna instead of I’m going to—”
“I like it. It’s unique,” Mary said, but I wouldn’t allow it. Since my late teens, I’d cultivated an accent that approximated a distant relative of the Spencers themselves.
“Everyone has an accent,” Mary tried again. “Listen to me from Bristol. I sound like a pirate.”
I would cede no ground; the Australian accent was an abomination and that was that. I was particularly piqued about the subject since I’d overheard one of our trainers, Endo-san, gushing over the three Americans.
“You’re so easy to understand. I’m sure our students will learn great English from you.”
And Biff and Chad and Duke, or whatever their stupid names were, said, “Well gosh darn, that’s mighty kind of you, Ma’am. We sure are pleased to be here.”
It was enough to make me throw up, which is exactly what I did every night of that interminable fortnight.
The company housed—oh, there’s a misnomer if ever there was one—teachers in an apartment building in Shinjuku. Narrow rooms they were, with no window apart from a sliding door at one end that opened onto a balcony one metre wide. My room was on the fourth floor, thankfully the top, as Mary, on the second, complained of heavy footsteps and mysterious noises that kept her awake. This was confirmed by me a week after we moved in. We lay side-by-side on her futon at 2 am staring at the ceiling.
“Every night,” she inexplicably whispered. “He comes home the same time every night.”
“You’ve seen him?”
She didn’t answer. We followed the pounding footsteps from the front door to the bathroom, the balcony to the kitchenette, back to the bathroom, over to the balcony, and then, thump, as, we assumed, he hurled himself onto the floor to finally sleep.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Mary said and cried into my neck. “I can’t live like this.”
Thereafter, she slept in my room.
The work itself, initially, was engaging. A financial company with offices in Shimbashi wanted its four hundred employees to be more globally-minded, so ten of us delivered an intensive one-month programme called English for Business Purposes in the International Financial Sector and for the Fostering of Good Relations. It was 1993—two years post-bubble—and we were instructed not to mention the economy. At all. Ever.
My allotted forty students were reserved but keen. Three had spent a week abroad on homestays as high school students. A few had studied at obscure universities in the States or Britain. For the majority, though, I was their first foreigner and, disappointingly, Australian. I could feel them observing me closely, watching for differences in the way I wrote on the board, drank my tea, or sat on a chair. I was constantly asked if the way I’d said something was the way Americans said it.
Each lesson developed by the Curriculum Development Team (CDT) comprised lesson objectives, must do and suggested activities. One prescribed must-do ice-breaker involved me greeting each student with a firm handshake, a smile, and the phrase, ‘nice to meet you.’ I hadn’t shaken hands with anyone before setting foot outside Australia, but obviously I was here to teach them about doing business with Americans, not Australians. Some students were excited by this activity and went to the back of the line to do it again. They wanted pointers on how to improve.
“It’s more of a thrust,” I told them. “From the hip. Like you’re pulling something surprising out of your pocket.”
I got much pleasure imagining them afoot in the business world.
“Too soft. Harder. You’ve got to crush my hand or they’ll think you’re weak. Even the women.”
In the evenings, Mary and I got into a habit of eating dinner in her room and then moving upstairs to mine. It seemed only fair. Our nighttime visits to the izakaya were curtailed once we realised how much the company was deducting from our salary to cover the rent. To begin with, Mary tried to prepare interesting meals on the one-burner stove. Food preparation was done precariously on top of the microwave oven. Eventually, we fell to toasting thick slabs of sugary white bread, smothering them with butter and folding them over hunks of orange cheese. On Friday we’d treat ourselves to convenience store bentos and beer.
Disparaging our countries became a game of one-upmanship—to identify the most absurd, banal or obscene aspect of our respective homelands. Mary was so good at it, that I crossed England from my list of places to visit and most of Wales, too. It was hard, though, to dislodge the image of endless sunny days and barbecues from her mind. She clung to it like a shipwreck survivor to a bit of floating debris.
When we weren’t out on assignment in office buildings around Tokyo, we were given meaningless tasks in head office with the expectation that we would do them enthusiastically from 9 am to 6 pm. This brought me into closer contact with my co-workers than I desired, and one in particular that I came to detest.
Brent was from New Zealand. Everyone assumed we were mortal enemies, vying for supremacy in the fields of sport, film, music, and natural beauty, much as the Canadians and Americans were renowned. The reality was that we each viewed the other as an interloper. Among the twenty-five foreign staff, we were the only two representatives of the southern hemisphere. While I was critical of my homeland, I still relished being the only Australian around. Luckily, he dug his own grave with the nauseating habit of trying to imitate the accent of whoever he was talking to and displaying his knowledge of their pop culture.
“Howzitgoin, Dundee?” he’d greet me in the morning. Or, if he saw me in the break room eating my lunch, would say, “You call that a knife? This is a knife!”
If an American—one he knew to be from New York or thereabouts—asked him a question, he’d say, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”
His impersonation of Michael Caine whenever he talked with Ed, from London, was incomprehensible not to mention wide of the mark. Ed was clearly the progeny of aristocracy, not shipwrights and shop girls. The Japanese staff looked on, bemused.
Mary and I began to argue, and I ate and slept alone. It all turned sour when I posited the idea of us going to Portugal when our contracts ended. Five months in, I was tired of Tokyo—it was grey and shabby, the culture impenetrable. My American coworkers were joining martial arts classes and dating students they’d met on-site. They called otsukare to each other at the end of the working day.
“Why would I want to go to fucking Portugal?”
“The ocean? The architecture?” I suggested. “The fucking history? If not there, how about Spain?”
She narrowed her eyes and shook her head, pitying me.
“Spain and Portugal are full of Brits. I’d probably run into my fucking auntie.”
“Well, what about Germany?”
“God, that’s the worst of the lot!”
“Romania?” I’d asked, desperate. “Hungary?”
And then she told me that being from down under—I hated her at that moment—I had no idea what it was actually like living on Europe’s doorstep: she’d been to Paris for her eighteenth birthday; her cousins live in Bruges; her family had driven through Italy when she was nine.
I excused myself from her apartment and trudged upstairs to cry.
In preparation for our next intensive course, the CDT decreed that we prepare a ten-minute presentation about our homelands. These would be used to introduce ourselves to the students and give them some inspiration. Yes, those were the instructions: Please inspire the students to want to go to your country. Give them something to dream about while they study English.
We had two weeks to prepare and present for peer critique and were directed to a box of resources: cardboard, coloured and fluorescent markers, and assorted pictures of landmarks and world heritage sites. The Americans, Canadians and Brits divvied the pictures amongst them and headed to the photocopier. Brent and I looked at the empty box.
“Seriously?” he said. “Haven’t they heard of the Moeraki Boulders? Mount Cook? Milford Sound?”
I only added to his anger by telling him that I hadn’t heard of any of those things.
“Are we in fucking kindergarten?” I asked Mary, cornering her in the lunch room despite the chill between us. “It’s a joke, right?”
“Just do it,” she said and rolled her eyes. “We’re getting paid.”
“We have university degrees,” I called after her.
I spent my time doodling Uluru, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Centerpoint Tower. They looked, respectively, like a red turd, an inverted toothy smile, and a dick. Around me, everyone was busy cutting, glueing, decorating and conferring. Brent was strangely calm, writing on a notepad and looking thoughtfully into space. Mary joined forces with her fellow countrymen and flirted outrageously with them, Ed in particular. Staring out the window at the wall of the building next door, I dreamed of eating sachertorte in a Viennese coffeehouse, strolling along the Vltava River, sitting in the Musée de l’Orangerie awash in Monet’s waterlilies…but all with Mary, goddamn it. She’d snuck into my heart and wouldn’t budge.
I had the advantage of surprise. Everyone—Mary most of all—expected ten minutes of snark and hard-to-identify hand-drawn pictures. Also in my favour was following on from Brent. He’d decided that his ebullient personality and oratory skills were sufficient. He rambled about soaring mountains and sulphurous springs and said something in Maori, although we had only his word for that. Everyone agreed that he needed pictures, and he complained that he’d asked his mother to send some but they hadn’t arrived in time.
While he was being humiliated, I tacked my posters to the board. There was an audible gasp—I believe it was Mary, though my back was turned.
“Where the hell did you get those?” Brent asked.
He was referring to the twelve colourful glossy pictures I’d pinned up. At the back of a bookstore specialising in foreign languages and related paraphernalia, I’d found an inordinate number of calendars depicting the French countryside, German castles and British pubs. Among them was one from Australia.
There were all the expected images—the bridge, the rock, the ocean, the reef, the desert, a row of taut bottoms belonging to Bondi beach lifesavers. There was no Aboriginal art, so I’d done a fair job of replicating the Rainbow Serpent in dot-painting style. It added cultural depth to what could have otherwise been considered a shallow, colonial perspective. I quoted statistics about median house prices, employment rates, immigration, and levels of education. I made sure they understood just how big it was.
“About thirty times bigger than that patch of dirt you lot come from,” I said to the British contingent.
I talked a little too much about cricket, swimming and rugby, and threw forward the names Dame Nellie Melba, Patrick White, Errol Flyn, Kylie Minogue and, God forgive me, Paul Hogan. I sang the praises of Vegemite, pavlova, summertime barbies, and beetroot on hamburgers. By the time I was done, they were ready to book their tickets. Their eyes shone with wonder and none more brightly than Mary’s.
The boy on the seat in front was rambunctious from the moment we buckled up. He was silenced by the announcements in Japanese and English, but as soon as they stopped, he started caterwauling about a sippy cup. The parents—as all parents do—tried to distract him by pointing out fascinating features of the immediate environment.
“Look,” the father said. “A magazine. An air-vent.”
“Look,” the mother said. “Can you see the terminal? Can you say terminal?”
When the plane began to taxi to the runway, the child yelled, “Going!” and scared the crap out of the passing cabin attendant. The plane surged forward, and as it tilted gently upwards the child screamed, “Up! Up!”
Mary leaned across me to look out the window and waved to the disappearing ground. For the next nine hours, we watched movies, played backgammon on a tiny plastic set, and tried fruitlessly to sleep against each other. At 5 am we were bullied into eating breakfast. We cued to use the toilet and tried to freshen up. The boy, perhaps excited by the bustling about the cabin, resumed his demands.
He stood on the seat and we got a look at him—wild-eyed, tousled, ecstatic.
“That’s what we must look like,” Mary said, and she was right.
He gripped a red metal Tokyo Tower in his fist. Mary had five of them in her bag as gifts. We waved, and his mother yanked him into the seat.
When we began to descend, the boy yelled, “Down! Going down!”
“And so we are,” Mary said and squeezed my hand. “Down to down under.”
I hoped she’d love it. I hoped, with her, it would be tolerable.
“Yes,” I said and squeezed back. “Going down.”
I’d give it a year.