Drinking With Coworkers

Last Friday, I had an enkai, which is a drinking party among coworkers. Coming from America, I was surprised how untaboo this sort of thing is, but it’s pretty much a requirement here. Like, the morning schedule practically reads: Meetings, Classes, Sports Activities, Organized Getting Drunk With Math Department.
I’ve only been to one other such party, last year. I didn’t get too crazy, despite teachers’ constant refilling my glass of sake in an effort to make me so. But I do have some pretty awesome pictures of karaoke with my 80-year-old principal that are sure to surface as soon as I’m back on American soil.
This one was a little bit smaller, though. It was just the English Department saying goodbye to me and another teacher who moved schools, and a welcome party for the man that replaced her. I ate various fish and tentacle-based foods, and different colored sludges of mysterious origin. I happily popped something that looked like BBQ chicken into my mouth, and while my face clearly showed that I was incorrect in my assumption, two other teachers debated whether it was a chicken LIVER or chicken INTESTINES. I simultaneously debated whether to spit it into my NAPKIN or out the WINDOW.
Many Japanese get-togethers have a structure, starting off with a kanpai speech: a speech to kick off the night, usually by the person who organized it. You’re supposed to listen and pretend to understand Japanese, and you are not allowed to look longingly at your beer, imagining how good it probably tastes, and how warm it’s getting for each of the 15 minutes that pass during this traditional talking time.
It occurred to me somewhere around minute 13 that I was probably also expected to give a speech. Maybe right then, or maybe at the end, but I should have known they weren’t letting me slip away that easy. I had to give a speech at my Aikido enkai, and in the 3 minutes I was given to prepare, I somehow crafted the 11 Japanese words I know into a hilarious joke. “I like Aikido. The sensei is great. I don’t speak Japanese. But I am really good at speaking English.” [pause for laughter and high fives]
Luckily, because I was with the English department, I had an excuse to speak the language I know and not resort to prat falls for laughs, like I often do in class. But what is it supposed to be about? I’m given nothing here! I need to prepare. I CAN’T JUST TURN THE FUNNY ON LIKE A FAUCET. After hyperventilating into my beer, which I was finally allowed to drink, I realized that I had a whole meal to compose my thoughts, which I did, in between interesting questions about my life and slightly irritating questions about why Americans like anime so much. (My answer: Um, they’re pretty? What do you want, buddy? We’re a country of nerds. Happy now?)
After eating a frightening mysterious black ice cream for dessert, I gave my speech. I was able to throw together a few jokes that could be understood by all levels of English speakers. The opening kanpai speech had, of course, been given in Japanese, so I joked that I understood what was said, and “translated” ridiculously hyperbolic compliments about the other two guests of honor. Polite laughter abounded.
Then they ceremonially handed me and the other two elaborately wrapped presents. I blushed and whispered to the girl next to me, asking if I should open it then or later, and we kind of shifted our eyes around until the next person started to speak, and the crisis was averted.
As I was getting on my bike, my new supervisor reminded me that “biking under the influence” was treated the same as driving, and they have a zero tolerance policy. She seemed truly concerned and begged me not to stand out or weave or bike too fast. I wanted to slap her back playfully and tell her “Honey, if 2 tiny beers prevent me from driving in a straight line on an empty huge sidewalk, I’ve got bigger problems to worry about.” But I thought calling her “honey” and the back-slapping might be counterproductive to my argument.
I got home safely and opened my gift in my entryway. I’m glad I didn’t do it there in front of them, because I busted out laughing. Three crisp 1,000 yen bills. 30 bucks. It was sweet. I shouldn’t laugh, and I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful. But it was so Japanese. Like, I would have been happy with a card or a 5-cent piece of origami. Hell, I would have been happy with a high five. I’m not like an 18-year-old stepdaughter you don’t know what to get for Christmas. I love everything, but a pile of money feels strange and cold.
While I may not miss the confusion and cultural ignorance I feel on a pretty much constant basis, I feel honored with every piece of the puzzle I get about this crazy country. I won’t ever be able to fit them all together, but I’ll always cherish my big messy pile of pieces.