Tales from Boot Camp

Chaos in Print

For the past few months, now, it has been my intent to write an article of epic proportions entitled Boot Camp. See, when I arrived in Japan, the company didn’t send me out to Kumagaya to start teaching right away. Oh, no. First there was an intensive, one week training course where they drilled everything there is to know about teaching into my eager little head, and the eager little heads of about a dozen other trainees. I knew that it would be prime storytelling. But, it is now officially two and a half months since I’ve been in training. Putting pen to paper on Boot Camp has been a difficult process and now, I fear, the time to write it has passed. I just do not feel inspired to write an epic on the subject of my training. Still, there were so many noteworthy incidents that happened to me in training; so many encounters with the people that I met, that I would be amiss if I did not share them.

I remember the Australian in our training group. She was a delightful young woman, but sadly, victim to some stereotypes about Canadians. We were walking to the downtown center of Omiya (the town where our training was held) when she lowered her voice to a hush and motioned for me to come closer. I walked up to her, and she looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot. Then, she asked me a simple question. “Have you ever seen a moose?” I tried not to be offended when she asked that. I mean, sure, the part of Canada I live in is moose country, but the way she asked it? Though, she did seem delighted when I told her the tale of an old cow moose that wandered into Entwistle back in February and was roaming the streets for most of the morning. I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice when I finished telling my tale and shot back, “So, have you ever seen a kangaroo?”

Sadly though, I was also victim to stereotypes from my own countrypersons. Also in training was this tall, beautiful blonde from Ontario. Right near the training compound was this 100 yen sushi restaurant. Everything for 100 yen! Naturally, that’s where groups of us would go for lunch. On the first night, about six of us went to this sushi place for dinner. As I picked up my chopsticks and began shoveling sushi into my mouth, the tall, Ontario blonde took a look at me and said, “Oh, my, God. An Albertan eating sushi!” She was just amazed that I was eating sushi and liking it. She said that if she brought her camera, she would have taken a picture of this Alberta sushi eater for her mother. She was twice as shocked when I told her that I believe Ralph Klein is a bad, bad, man and showed her my Alberta Liberal membership card.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I wasn’t always the victim of Canadian and Albertan stereotypes. There was also this one woman, a truly gorgeous creature. We were at arms length from each other for most of training. I didn’t even learn her name until the final day. But about halfway through the week, we had a bit of a humorous encounter. Our training session for the day had just ended, and I had just come back from the local convenience store with my supper in hand. I had fallen back into some old college habits, so supper was a bag of Doritos and a bottle of Pepsi. I flopped down into one of the big, comfy chairs in the lobby and began tying into my supper. She was in there, sitting by the payphone, waiting for a call. She took a look at me and what I was eating and said, “A bag of Doritos and a Pepsi? That is not your dinner, is it?” I just looked up at her and said, “Yup!” An expression of mock horror shot across her face, and her voice was dripping with sarcasm as she said, “I am going to write a letter to your mother!” So, Mom, if you got a letter from her, rest assured that I have found McDonald’s and KFC and am eating a lot healthier now.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my fellow trainees weren’t all gorgeous women, although all the women were gorgeous and I developed crushes on them all. There were some men in the group, too. There was this one day in training where our trainers treated us to lunch at this really ritzy restaurant down the street. We were asked to pre-order our lunches, so I ordered the fish. I was feeling in a fishy mood. So, we get to the restaurant, and we’re all laughing and having a good time. It’s not long before our food comes, and they start putting our plates in front of us. I was starving! I just couldn’t wait for my lunch. First, the beef meals were brought out. Everyone who ordered the beef tied into their lunch with gusto. Next, came the fish, but there was no plate for me. Lastly, there was the chicken, and the waitress dropped a plate of chicken in front of me. Now, I was really hungry, so I just picked up my fork and started eating. At this point, the man sitting next to me looked up from his beef and said, “Hey! Didn’t you order the fish?” I looked at him and said, “Yes, I did, but I’m starving, man, and when someone puts a plate of food in front of me, I’m not going to turn it down.” He just looked me square in the eye and said, “You know, that’s a very healthy attitude.”

And my roommate! My roommate, who instantly became a god in my eyes. He was originally from Los Angeles. On our first day of training, we were told to stand up before our fellow trainees and introduce ourselves. Well, in his introduction, my roommate mentioned that, in his previous job, he worked for Paramount Pictures. My jaw dropped. That night, as we were making up our beds, I just had to turn to him and say, “Dude! I’ve got to know. How close did you get to Star Trek?” Well, ladies and gentlemen, he was on the set of Star Trek: Nemesis. He tells me that he was there to do a routine audit. The man stood on the bridge of a Klingon battle cruiser! And now, he won’t answer my e-mail! But, he did mention that I was the first roommate he ever had, and I was a darn good one.

Then, there was this other guy. His big catchphrase was “Too cute!” Whenever he saw something new, or something that caught him by surprise, he would simply say, “Oh, that is too cute!” He was just a cool guy.

That was some of the people. I’ll tell you more about them later. But now, let me tell you about some of the incidents that happened to me. On the first day of training, when we were up there giving our introductions, there was a bit of a formula to them. Most of the people were saying, “Hi! I’m (name) and I’m from (big city). I wanted this job because the money is good, and my goals in Japan are to climb Mt. Fuji and/or learn Japanese!” My turn came, and well, the Scarecrow came back to me. I stood before those people and said:

Good Morning. My name is Mark Cappis, and I come from a very tiny flyspeck of a town called Entwistle. It is in western Canada. I chose this job because many people have told me that I have a knack for teaching, so it was finally time to put my money where my mouth is. As for my goals while I’m in Japan, well, I’m hearing a lot of people saying that they want to climb Mt. Fuji, but I personally have no goal greater than going to see Pokémon 5 when it comes out in the next few weeks. Thank you.

As I was returning to my seat, I heard one person mumble, “Wow. That was good.”

Sadly, though, not all of my first day went that well. Later that day, we were all given a Japanese lesson in our company’s teaching method, to convince us that the company’s way is the best way. Well, folks, that experience just about left me in tears. It was probably the toughest 50 minutes I had to endure in training. It just made me feel so…stupid. Everyone else was grasping the rudiments of the language from that lesson, but not me. That was the closest I came to quitting. I just didn’t want to put people through that feeling every day. You need a strong constitution to teach, and somewhere, deep inside, I felt as though I should keep going. Probably, mainly, because of Chuck and L.

It was weird. I could feel their spirits in the hallways of the training compound. Every graduating class makes an inspirational poster to decorate the halls, and as I was roaming the halls, looking at the posters, I found the message Chuck left behind. He drew a comic strip, in his very-obvious style (both artistically and humorously). I continued roaming the halls, and I think I found L’s poster. At least, it looked like her handwriting that wrote, “Canada kicks ass!” It kind of felt like that X-Files episode, where Mulder found the military compound where his sister was raised. Eventually, he found his sister’s diary and proclaimed, “She was here, Scully, she was here!” So, it was comforting to know that my friends had been there and endured the same hardships that I was going through.

And my nightly phone calls to Chuck and L helped, too.

The training sessions themselves were uneventful. We were shown a model lesson, told how to do it, then given a textbook and told which lesson we had to prepare. We then taught a portion of our lesson, and the trainers critiqued us. That went on for a whole week. I survived, thanks to some nightly excursions to downtown Omiya to let off some steam.

I remember the first night out to let off some steam. A group of us went to the closest convenience store to get a drink, and, not feeling very adventurous yet, I grabbed a Pepsi. Upon seeing me sipping a Pepsi, my roommate looked at me and said, “It’s your first night in Japan and you’re drinking a Pepsi?” Of course, it was three nights later or so that he and I and a couple of others went out to a Japanese McDonald’s. My first time in a Japanese McDonald’s and I was starting to feel adventurous. Forget the Big Mac! I had myself a Teriyaki McBurger. This is a pork patty smothered in teriyaki sauce and topped with lettuce and mayonnaise. It’s actually pretty good, and starting to become my standard at Japanese McDonald’s.

But my favorite night of dining out had to come about halfway through the week. One of the trainees in our group, a really cool, loud, brassy New Yorker, was feeling glum and needed a release. She and her two roomies were going to head out and try and find this Italian place that some other people were talking about, and since I was in earshot, I invited myself along. Or maybe they invited me. I’m not too sure. Anyway, I went along. Eventually, we found the place, and we found ourselves a table. Since I had made my non-drinking stance quite clear earlier in the week, they made sure that I wouldn’t be offended if they ordered their beer, Zima, and Long Island iced tea. I told them to go right ahead, and I made do with a tall glass of Coke. Since this was all happening at the time of the World Cup Soccer finals, the TVs were all tuned to the World Cup. So, our food came, we talked, we laughed, and the New Yorker had her release. It seems that the trainers had reamed her out earlier in the week. They didn’t like how she was always asking so many questions of the company approved teaching methods. So, they pulled her aside and asked her to keep quiet. She complied. She kept quiet. A day later, the trainers pulled her aside and reamed her out again. Seems they didn’t like how she got so quiet all of a sudden. She was making the trainers paranoid with her silence. So, they asked her to start speaking up again. That’s why she was in need of a release. She wanted to know what the hell the trainers wanted from her.

So then, a few hours later, last call was called, and it was time to head back to the training compound. Of course, being the only one who had stuck with Coke, I found myself in the enviable position of having to escort three drunk chicks over 30 blocks or so. They were laughing! They were singing! They were stumbling! And I, ever the gentleman, just kept trying to herd them in the direction of the training compound. But it was a night that I’d remember for a long time.

The next day, the New Yorker was fired. She had just made the trainers too paranoid. I don’t know the whole story there, and I probably never will. All I know is what I heard and what I saw, and I don’t think right decisions were made on both sides.

There’s not much to say about the trainers. They were all good company men and company women, constantly praising the glory of the corporation and how we’ll be assets and stuff like that. Although, there was this one, that I didn’t have much to do with, but a run-in with him on my final day gave me an instant dislike to him. Since this was a grand adventure, my Tilley hat was proudly upon my head. On our final day, as we were being shown the door and told which trains we had to take to head to our assignments, I put on my Tilley hat. At that point, this one trainer took a look at me, pointed to my hat and said, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yup.” He started going on this rant about how the Japanese see wearing a hat when you meet them for the first time to be a great insult, so if I didn’t want to piss off my boss, I’d better take it off now. I ignored him and kept my hat on. Little did he know that I am a gentleman, and as such, I remove my hat when I enter a room, and since I met my boss indoors, my hat was off. I guess if I really wanted to annoy that trainer, I should have said, “Oh, of course I’m not going to wear this! On the train, I’m going to slip into my cowboy boots and bolo tie!” Maybe that trainer was just upset at my analogy that working for this company was comparable to my old job working in a grocery store.

That comparison came about at our final training session. For our final session, they threw a bit of a graduation ceremony where we were all given the official company pin that we have to wear whenever we’re at work. When I was given mine, I just muttered under my breath, “I’m a company man again.” Of course, several people asked me what I meant by that, and I shared with them the countless similarities I had seen between this company’s structure and the structure of Extra Evil. But what can I say? It’s there.

And as for my attire, for most of training, I wore my classic double-breasted suit that was given to me for my high school graduation present. I am quite amazed at how it still fits. That got a lot of comments, too, as a lot of people noticed that I was the only one in a double-breasted suit, and how they seem to have fallen out of style. In fact, if memory serves, quite a few of those ladies mentioned how stylish I looked in it. Of course, that was ruined when one of them said, “Hey! My dad wears double-breasted suits too!”

And then, there was the final night of training. That was just one crazy night. You know how when you were in high school and your parents tried to act cool by attempting to hang out with you and your friends? Well, it was kind of like that. The trainers had it in their minds that they had to take us trainees drinking. So, after the aforementioned graduation ceremony, we were all off to this bar called Riki-Riki’s. That was an experience and a half. As I said, the World Cup Soccer games were on, so the bar was packed with people watching the game. There were no places inside, so we all had to stand out on the street. They had TVs out on the street and a little window where you could place your drink and food orders. The street was just about closed off with all the people that were there, crowding around windows and TVs to watch the game. Still not being the drinking type, I went to one of the nearby vending machines and got myself a Pepsi. I casually asked who was playing and who we were rooting for. I forget who was playing, but I was told, “You can’t go too far wrong by shouting ‘Go Japan!’” So I just hung back and watched the crowds. Occasionally, one of the trainers would ask me what I was drinking, and I’d just hold up my Pepsi can, and they’d ask why I wasn’t drinking. I’d just say, “Because I don’t want to,” and they’d hang their heads and walk away. As is my fashion, I was wearing my jacket like a cape, and soon that gorgeous creature who was going to write my mother came up to me, grabbed my jacket, and said, very slowly and very sexily, “Ooo, Mark, are you some kind of superhero? Are you going to fly away on us?” Suddenly, I had flashbacks to many a family gathering. I could always tell how drunk my cousins were when they finally approached me to talk to me. I just smiled and took it all in stride. Soon, though, the game was over, and the group started splitting up. Some of the trainers were going home. Some of us trainees were heading back to the training compound. I wound up with the group that was heading off to the karaoke bar.

Now, karaoke in Japan is different from karaoke back home. Back home, if you want to sing, you’ve got to get up in front of the whole bar and sing for everyone. Well, in Japan, karaoke is all in private rooms. You go in with your group and you get a private room where only your friends can heckle your bad singing. It seems to be a much better idea.

So a group of us gathered in our private room at the karaoke place, and I was all primed to get up there and sing a few songs. Now, earlier in the evening, I had jokingly said that I was going to sing all the ladies a love song. At this point, the Australian had a few beers in her, so she was occasionally turning to me and saying, “Sing me a loooooooove song, Mark.” The one trainer who had come with us to karaoke also had a bit of a twisted sense of humor, so, in an attempt to get the Australian up there and singing, he kept punching every Olivia-Newton John song into the karaoke machine. And, whenever an Olivia-Newton John song came up, the Australian would always say the same thing. “No! I hate Olivia-Newton John!” Then, the mad scramble would begin to find someone else to sing the Olivia-Newton John song. When one of these incidents went on, the mike got passed to me, so I stood up and did my best to warble through Let’s Get Physical. It was…disastrous.

My first song of the night didn’t go so well, either. I had chosen the mid-1980s classic Ghostbusters, but, when my turn to sing it came up, that’s when a dispute arose over what to order, so no one really sang along at the “Ghostbusters!” part. But, for my final song of the night, most agreed that I brought the house down. I saw it in the catalogue, selected it, put on my best angry young man voice, and yelled my way through the Offspring classis, Pretty Fly (For a White Guy). When I finished, most stared at me disbelief, and the only comment given was by the lone trainer. “Dude, that deserves a 10.” Of course, also around this time, folks were starting to get pretty hammered, so I decided to leave them wanting more, and headed back out to the training compound.

But, I would be greatly amiss if I did not mention my favorite person from training. She was this very tiny woman, also from New York if memory serves. It was the day that we were first presenting our lessons. She was getting all worried and stressed out about it, and as is my nature in such circumstances, I gave her a hug. I also may have spoken an inspirational cliché or two. She was taken aback by this, but did enjoy the hug. Then, as training went on, she began to notice something about how I was acting in training. No matter how tough things got, no matter how stressed everyone got, I just never stopped smiling. So then, for the rest of training, whenever I cracked one of my typically lame one-liners, or just did my best to keep spirits light, she would proclaim to whoever was within earshot, “I love Mark!” Things like that kept my spirits light and helped me not to get stressed.

This all happened so long ago, now, and already I’ve drifted apart from so many of them. I’ve got them on my monthly spam list, so they might read this. Occasionally, I get a reply to the spam from one of them, and there have been a few moments in Tokyo where we just happen to bump into each other on the street, but for the most part, they are becoming a memory. They were all a very nice group of people, but we were all just ships passing in the night. I am certain that they are all on their way to becoming just as successful in the job that I am. I just hope that, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, they think back to that week in boot camp every once in a while, pull me out of their memories, and smile.

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