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A wanderlust at heart... captivated by the California Central Coast. Join me on my culinary and vino-infused adventures as I explore and discover the regional novelties of San Luis Obispo County that make living here...easy to stay...and hard to leave.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Getting Ripped Off in Japan

Following is a story I wrote way back in 1998, soon after I returned from my three-year stint living and working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher for the Japan Exchange & Teaching Program. After reminiscing about this story and putting it on paper, I suppose that's when I discovered I was a writer. Years later, here I am.

What can I say about three years in Japan? How to sum it all up? I guess I really can't. Each year was an experience in itself, helping me to grow as a person and change my outlook on life forever. I learned a lot of important lessons there, about kindness, graciousness, generosity, and maybe most importantly—humility. The ability to look back and laugh at myself is probably one of the greatest gifts I will ever receive. Life just isn't complete without laughter and humor. 

Everyone should have his or her own "most embarrassing moment story," and I am proud to say that I acquired mine along a country roadside out in the rice fields of rural Japan. It happened several years ago, but the memory is still as vivid in my mind as if it happened only yesterday. 

Thinking about that day makes me realize we all do stupid things. Sometimes we pay dearly for those mistakes and sometimes we do not. My misfortune could have been a lot worse—fortunately for me I just gave the passersby something to laugh about with their families that evening. I know I also caused quite a hysteria with my family and friends back home with my written tale of "the accident." My story is not all that bad, but it really is quite entertaining. Judge for yourself. 

The day was sunny and clear, a rarity in Toyama Prefecture. I left my job early that afternoon to attend a meeting held for the foreign ("gaijin") English teachers working in this rural area of Japan. My only means of transportation was a "granny bike," the norm of transportation for junior and senior high school students (and the occasional foreign English teacher). 

I rode swiftly, as fast as my one speed bicycle could take me, sporting sunglasses on this brilliantly warm fall day. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except for one noticeable oddity—I was not quite dressed properly for a jaunt on my bike. Actually, I was wearing a dress, and a long one at that. 

However, I wasn't stupid. I knew that a bicycle has turning wheels and spokes which could become entangled with loose flowing material and could cause a serious problem for a cyclist. So I did the smart thing. I hiked up the skirt of my dress so it wouldn't get gnarled. 

I pedaled along, happy to be relieved of my scholarly duties for the day, when all of a sudden the left temple of my sunglasses flew off and hit the dirt. I hit my squeaky brakes, came to a halt, put up the rusty kickstand, and retrieved the missing piece of plastic. The screw was not to be found, so I slipped the cheap broken glasses into my backpack. No big deal.

That's when I made my mistake—a blunder of huge proportions. I forgot one very important detail. I plopped back down on the hard uncomfortable seat of my two-wheeled clunk of junk, headed down the road again, and didn't give one single thought about pulling up my dress. I didn't have a care in the world. After all, I was a highly overpaid gaijin, teaching my native language to a group of naive, goofy high school boys who quickly became the joy of my life and made teaching seem more like entertaining. I was experiencing a foreign land, where the people were fascinated with me mainly based on the fact that I was different from them, and continually received red carpet treatment wherever I went. That's when I heard the ripping sound. 

The noise was soon followed by a sudden halt of my granny bike which forced me to stop on the side of the road. I knew what  had occurred and when I looked at the back tire, I saw the bottom of my dress twirled in the spokes. I naively thought it was no problem. I'd just untwist it and away I'd go to my meeting. Maybe the bottom of my dress would be a little dirty, but that was the least of my problems. I had only one concern: arriving on time at the education center in town. Punctuality is very important in Japan.  

So there I was, tugging and pulling and trying to get out of my tangled mess. Soon I realized the severity of my seemingly simple problem. My dress was so tightly wound up in the spokes there was no way I was going to easily get out of my dilemma. What to do? I stepped off my bicycle so as to be able to get at the dress from a better angle. But it was no use. The skirt was trapped, holding me prisoner along with it. 

I stood there dumbfounded, wondering what on earth I was going to do. I couldn't walk all the way home, tied to my bike, lumbering along with the rusty piece of junk. I could only move the front tire. The back wheel just wouldn't budge. Concerned thoughts about getting to my meeting were beginning to take over until I felt the crisp breeze move over me. It was a little too windy. I don't know how I could have failed to realize it, but I was horrified to discover I was not only standing there trapped to my bicycle, but was exposed below the navel! The waist of my dress was torn at the seam and  I was giving the passing traffic a terrific view of my blue underwear!

It is amazing what pressure can do to a person. Although I briefly panicked, I jumped into action. I had to do something, and fast! My school was just down the street. What if my predicament somehow got back to them? I would be the laughing stock! So I performed the unthinkable—I ripped out the hem of my waist even more so I could get that darn thing off of me. When I had enough leeway, I pulled my dress completely off over my head and ducked behind my back tire, wearing only my undergarments and awkwardly shielding myself with a jacket I had in my backpack. 

Cars continued to wizz by. No doubt the passengers were laughing. Thank God I also had a pair of shorts and a t-shirt in my backpack, my usual biking attire. I quickly slipped into those and breathed a sigh of relief. But there was still one problem. What to do with my bike and how to get to my meeting on time without it?

With my dress still caught in the spokes, I plunked along, guiding my bicycle on its front wheel until I found a spot up ahead where it might be safe to leave it until I could return later. No one could steal it, unless they found a way to remove the dress. Then I took off on foot for my apartment, running as fast as I could. I really wanted to change into more professional business attire for my meeting. After all, appearances are very important in Japan. 

My fear of being late kept up my endurance, and I made it back to my apartment, changed clothes, and arrived at the education center just in the nick of time. I hid my frazzled state very well; no one could have known the ordeal I'd just been through. I quickly shared my story with a close friend who was also in attendance, and managed to keep my composure through the whole two hour meeting. Unfortunately, I could not be part of the usual "after meeting get together" with the other teachers because I was still not out of the woods yet. A certain bicycle and dress had to be retrieved!

Being the clever person that I am, I had thrown a pair of scissors into my bag as I flew out of my apartment after changing. I walked back to the scene of the disaster and took out my tool. After laboriously snipping and tearing, the dress was let free. The man watching me from across the street must have gotten a kick out of my painstaking work. But I didn't care what he thought, I was heartbroken that my favorite dress was ruined, shredded beyond belief. 

I actually saved the dress. I boxed it up with some Japanese souvenirs and shipped it off to my family in California, hoping my mom could sew it back together (but!). At least they had a good laugh. Although the dress has long since disappeared, the memory of that day always brings a smile to my face. I think the real lesson I learned is simple. Whether you're riding high on top of your career, your fame or your fortune—or even your granny bike—try to take it all in stride. Life is full of unexpected surprises and you never know when you're going to hear the ripping sound. 

Oh, and don't forget to laugh along the way.

Tonami Technical High School, surrounded by traditional country homes, rice fields and clouds.

A view of the countryside from the second story of the high school.
Me and some of my students shortly before I left Japan to return permanently to California. I often think of them and wonder what they're doing in life.

All text and photos Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth White. All Rights Reserved.


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