Although it’s too shameful for homeless people to pester others on the streets asking for money in Japan, many large companies dispatch their most bottom-feeding staff members to the streets when business is slow, to do essentially the same thing. The only difference is that these bottom-feeding Japanese beggars do so by passing out crap with their company logo written on it, burdening you for the rest of your outing should you choose to accept the charges. Sometimes it’s just a little flyer, others, a pack of tissues. In the summer, some companies will hand out big plastic fans, the kind that you operate by hand so that the amount of heat banished is exactly equal to the amount of heat your body generates by doing the work. Some people like receiving these, but as advertisements go, they’re fairly large and unwieldy.
That said, I’ve been the bottom-feeding, walking advertisement before. Once. In my Nova days. Even if things were slow at the office, nobody was allowed to look unbusy, so they would give us busywork. The most dreaded variety of busywork given was “Tissue Distribution”. Most Novas were located above supermarkets, inside shopping malls, or adjacent to generally lively streets. Nova employees would thus be ordered to venture into these heavily populated areas, fully adorned in Nova garb (ponchos and such), and pass out tissues to the busy, disinterested denizens passing by.
I’ve known the pain of the bottom-feeding distributor, the desperation of trying to get rid of that one final tissue packet so you can hurry up and get out of the freezing wind. So generally I just take whatever people are passing out and chalk it up to empathy or someritanism or what-have-you. Yôko does this too, which I guess makes us Democrats or something, but the point is that we do it foremost as a charity to the hardworking.
Today, I parked my bicycle illegally in the lot behind the local supermarket as I do every day (to avoid parking at a pay garage) and walked through the supermarket to make it look like I might be a customer, again as I do every day, and I saw someone out front in a poncho, passing out something. The few customers in front of me soldiered on through without accepting whatever was being thrust at them, without even acknowledging the existence of the desperate distributors currently marauding them with scripted begging. Out of pity, mixed with the guilt of using the supermarket’s parking lot without making a purchase, I decided to be nice and accept the ponchoed beggars’ junk. Not that they were affiliated with the supermarket. Just standing in front of it. But you know, pay it forward and stuff.
I extended my hand–this is key–and smiled at one young, ponchoed woman. Let us dub her the Ponchorita. She extended her handed towards mine, tissue packet gripped. Or maybe it was just a piece of paper, I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure because she took a look at my face and then retracted her hand.
My eyes and cheekbones bulged as my jaw dropped and veins threatened to burst all across the forehead-and-neckal area. Not really, but I was amazed. Impressed, even. “What is it this time?” I thought. I kept walking to avoid anyone becoming embarrassed by any sort of interpersonal exchange that might not go exactly as dictated by the guidebook. When I’d reached a fair distance of about three yards, I looked back. They were employees from Aeon, one of the major English Conversation Schools in Japan, and one of Nova’s prime competitors back when Nova had money to squander on things like advertisements and tissues.
“A-ha,” I eureka’d. About a year ago, a different young Ponchorita from that same Aeon had indiscriminately handed me the tissues. I probably still had them somewhere. This time, our lovely Ponchorita had noted that I was white and thus probably didn’t want to learn English at Aeon. Last year, I had scoffed a bit at the silliness of me, an English teacher, being handed an ad for English lessons. But this year’s Ponchorita made me realize how wrong I was. This time felt much worse.
To explain, let us look at the instant replay, in slow motion. The key here, I repeat, is that I extended my hand. “I accept your desperate plea for business and will dutifully look to your tissues next time I wish to expel the mucus from my mucus-ridden, fifty-percent Jewish nose.” I said this, was looked at, judged, and subsequently denied. Slow motion. “At last, a taker!” the Ponchorita beamed gleefully. She extended her tissued hand, and for a sliver of a moment we were, beautifully, reaching for one another. Our eyes met and she made a grim realization. “This is not the face of a customer, this is the face of a teacher!” Glee transformed to shock to embarrassment. “ABORT! ABORT!” she screamed. Her hand snapped back like a snake from the proverbial English-teaching mongoose. This was one Ponchorita who didn’t want to tango. Baffled and with nothing but momentum to guide me, I too retracted my hand, arced it towards the itch on my head so as not to embarrass my hand, not to mention the itch, and feigned as though I had never even extended my hand in the first place. In a hair’s pluck of time, we’d lived out the fundamentals of a tragic romance. The pitiful damsel in distress. The compassionate male courter. A moment of cosmic, mutual longing–her for freedom, me for a snot rag. An epiphany–it was never meant to be. Withdrawal. Denial in all its futility. I was never that into her ass anyway.
Without even a memento of our encounter left to cherish, I was instead left with questions. What if I just wanted to pass the advertisement to an interested Japanese friend? Was that so unthinkable? Wouldn’t I have been exercising the same exact concept as the Aeon employees themselves? It would be one thing if I didn’t even look interested, but I extended my hand. What if I was a Frenchman thinking of learning some English? What if I was Dutch? They’ve been in Japan far longer than any English-speakers.
Granted the reality is that I’m an English teacher. But she sacrificed an opportunity to get rid of one more tissue packet in favor of an assumption, and on behalf of Dutchmen everywhere, I’m vaguely miffed.