Should I Stay or Should I Go?

To say I was too busy to post anything in the last couple of months would be kind of a lie. Yeah, work’s been busy, but not that busy. Spending a lot of time in the office is never an excuse for doing nothing with the time you spend outside of it.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve sold my soul to the finance industry and I’m currently supporting an online spread betting system for people with so much money they don’t know what to do with it. What’s spread betting? It’s based on normal stock market trading, so if the price of a unit of gold is £10 and you buy 5 of them for £50, then the price of a unit goes up to £15 and you sell what you’ve bought, you’ve made yourself another £25. In spread betting though, you don’t actually buy any gold; you buy a contract that says we will pay you the difference if the price goes up, and you will pay us the difference if the price goes down. Oh and we’ll loan you a load of cash so you only have to pay a percentage of what you buy.

That means that you could buy 1000 units of gold at £10 a unit for only £100 (normally £10,000). We put up the other £9,900 and if the price goes up to £15 a unit then you’ve just made 5 grand! FROM £100! But wait, there’s a catch… If it goes down to £5 a unit then you owe us 5 grand. Not so keen on the idea now are we?

Suffice to say it’s a very complex game with rules, patterns and strategies like any other, but with the potential for going bankrupt. People who do it successfully will sit in front of their 4 widescreen monitors all day looking at hundreds of numbers flashing yellow and red, watching 24 hour market news updates and reading nothing but the business columns of various newspapers and websites while they sip on their lattes, smoke their Davidoff cigarettes and dine on sushi served from gold platters balanced precariously upon the collective breasts of 12 virgins lying naked on the snow-leopard rug in front of the fireplace. I’m a troubleshooter though – the man who puts out the fires and greases the wheels that keep this machine running. I will often pick up the phone to hear some bloke going on about how “there’s no pricing on UK Equities. Legacy looks alright but the tick data doesn’t seem to marry up. Can you take a look please?”

“Sure, um, tick data? Let me just… Mmm… No it still looks like it’s still ticking.”

“What? Did you even hear what I said?”

“Yeah man, Equities… Equities… Legacy and shit innit. *long pause* Can I just put you on hold for a minute?”

I am actually getting the hang of it now, which is comforting because I’ve been here for nearly 3 months. The learning curve is massive, the pace is frantic, the atmosphere is professional… It’s a very exciting place to work and I frequently look at my watch at 16:30 only to wonder where on earth the rest of the day has gone.

So you must be wondering what the title is about then. “If he’s happy here then what’s all this about going somewhere?” I hear you ask. Well, my company allows its clients to trade on many of the markets around the world including NZ, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Europe and the US. That means we need to offer 24/7 support as well which, at the moment, means night-shifts once every 4-5 weeks. Very soon after I joined however, my boss announced that they are opening an office in Singapore and would any of us like to go there to live…

My initial reaction was no, definitely not. I’ve only just got back from Japan and got a house, job, mobile phone contract, etc. I’ve been moaning about the lack of sausages and mash for months and now I’m going to throw all that away again!? Yet over that weekend I got to thinking about it. The main reason I came back from Japan when I did was to get into my career and start to take it seriously, but now I’m firmly within my chosen career and they’re offering me the chance to go and live abroad again. Ever since my trip around the world in 2006 I’ve been banging on about how travelling is the holy grail and how it makes you into a better person, and it was in these very pages that I spoke about comfort zones and how important it is to shove ourselves out of it every now and again, so why does my mind just seem to want to buy a rug, a lounge chair and a sideboard, and stack it full of vinyl, vintage memorabilia and lava lamps?

Now, I can see you there, reading this and getting all excited about the prospect of a whole new adventure to read about. You’re probably peering through your hands at the screen barely able to read for fear of what I might say but completely unable to stop, quietly chanting…Whispering… “Go Bobby, go. Do it. Go.”

Probably.

It’s true that from a blogging standpoint, a move to Singapore would be the refresh that Ramblin’ Man needs; the next adventure that stops it from becoming a relic; an archive of all the interesting things I used to do before I bought some long-johns and an egg poacher, but I can hardly go to Singapore just to keep a blog going can I?

Ultimately the decision will have to be based around what is best for my career, and what is best for my happiness, and at the moment, I’m sorry to say, the sausages and mash seem to be winning.

One more week to decide…

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House Hunt

I hung up the phone and walked along the road towards the house, running through the usual nonsense in my head. Be charming and funny, I thought to myself, but are they gonna be weirdos? Will I like them? Will they like me? What kind of state will it be in? Will I walk into a room to find them pouring wine from a monkey skull and dancing around a teapot in the dark? As I approached the house itself I saw a figure waiting outside staring solemnly at his phone. He was tall and gangly, with long brown hair and a nervous disposition. As he heard my footsteps approaching, he looked up at me like he’d just been caught masturbating by his mum. He quickly looked the other way as if to make out he was just taking in the surroundings. Is that one of them? I thought. I hoped not. As I got closer I figured it out.

“You’re here for the viewing too are you?” I inquired.

“Yeah. They said 19:00 though so I thought I’d better wait outside.” Sitting on their wall like a weirdo I thought. I looked at my watch; it was 18:58.

“I’m sure they won’t mind,” I said, “let’s ring the bell shall we?” At which point a third man dressed in skinny jeans, pointy shoes, NHS glasses and a beard turned up as well. The door opened, and everyone put on their best Ooh-Look-How-Friendly-I-Am faces.

It’s hard enough to be funny and charming at the best of times but when you arrive at a house occupied by four people you’ve never met before with two people you just met on a doorstep and then attempt to have a meaningful conversation with any of them, it’s all a little bit… well… strange, shall we say? Normally when you go to view a house people will set aside timeslots – half an hour is a safe bet – so that they can actually have a proper chat with their prospective housemates. Occasionally you’ll get someone who just hasn’t thought about it, names a timeframe, and tells everyone to come at some random moment during that timeframe. Chaos ensues.

It was a French guy that opened the door. Nice enough chap; dealt with the situation pretty well. He led us – all three of us – through the hallway and into a kitchen about the size of a skip, stuffed with 4 people cooking, and 3 of the biggest house flies I have ever seen lazily swooping through the air in the same way a tired commuter’s head bobs in and out of consciousness on the tube. They burrowed like moles through the dank, sweaty air as I took in the scene around me. The housemates seemed nice enough and, when led upstairs to view the room I thought it was a good size, but the place as a whole was old, dirty and crowded. I decided there and then that I couldn’t live with 4 other people again – I’m too old and grumpy for all that nonsense. I made my excuses, said thanks very much, and left.

A couple of years ago when I was looking for a house in London it was a piece of cake; there were plenty of rooms going that were of good quality at a low (for London at least) price. In 2007 I was able to get a sizeable double room with an en-suite bathroom in zone two with all bills included for £550 a month. Supply and demand was pretty even back then but now, as I’ve been informed by every newspaper I’ve read in recent weeks, the house-sharing market is saturated with people who have been pushed out of rent-on-my-own market by rising rental costs in London. Every estate agent I walked into had a sign on the door saying “CALLING ALL LANDLORDS. PROPERTIES DESPERATELY NEEDED,” and when I went in asking about any 3 bedroom properties that might possibly be available you’re greeted with a tired shake of the head and a look that says “nor will there be. Ever.”

To increase my chances of ever being able to live in a room in someone else’s house, I raised my limit to £650 per month including bills. This was somewhat galling considering that for the past year I have been living in a 2 bedroom flat on my own; I had my own walk-in wardrobe, I could walk around naked all day (as long as I kept an emergency tracksuit near the front door), and I could have a poo with the toilet door open; all for little over £230 a month.

Increasing my budget made no difference though. Hundreds of people have obviously done the same; competition was still fierce and the situation wasn’t helped by the few adverts that trickled through which contained such gems as “I am quiet, into meditation and have cats.” Just who, exactly, is she trying to attract with this kind of statement? Within a microsecond of digesting this my brain had already constructed a complete and detailed image of a woman with dirty, matted brown hair dressed in an Indian sari, and sat cross-legged in the middle of a living room filled with pictures of elephants, spirit crystals, burning incense, and cats that crap on the antique bureaux in the corner. Of course with me being someone who is a bit noisy, who finds the prospect of emptying my mind for an hour about as enjoyable as sticking pins in my eyes, and who finds cats a little bit annoying, I’m probably more prejudiced than most.

In the end though, it has all worked out beautifully. My sister and I have found a delightful maisonette in Wood Green opposite a park, newly refurbished for £450 a month each. It came on the market on Friday – the only 3-bed on the market in all the estate agents around Finsbury Park – we viewed it on Saturday, and told them we’d take it there and then.

After 2 months of searching for jobs and houses, everything is finally coming together. Now that I have a home base I can join a gym, change my diet, meet up with old friends; basically do all the things I felt like I couldn’t do before. I also have a great, challenging, techy job a world away from teaching with a steep learning curve and plenty of opportunities for progression.

Now all I need is to find a decent ramen shop and my life will be fulfilled.

I Predict A Ri… Oh, Too Late

Whoa! England’s going mental! One week back and a man is shot by the police, a peaceful protest is made in reply, a couple of idiots start a riot, and the media causes a bunch of riots over the whole of England for the rest of the week. Oh, no, wait… It wasn’t the media it was the parents. No, wait, it was the government. No, it was society, and actually, we’re not surprised this happened at all.

Hmm.

Everyone’s talking about it and everyone has a point of view. Debates are raging on Facebook statuses and more people have been defriended this week than during any other (complete speculation but probably true judging by some of the heated debates I’ve seen). People seem to think that there are only two, clear-cut points of view on this. There are those who believe that this is the government’s fault for years of alienating the working classes and that, rather than punish the looters, let’s give them a hug and tell them that we all understand why they did it, that we are sorry our society is built on material wealth and they feel they have to keep up, and that if we weren’t all so middle-class and well-off then we’d probably be out there looting with them, side-by-side, like brothers. Then there are those who believe that this is the fault of the parents and the individuals; that people are responsible for their own actions; that they know stealing is wrong but did it anyway and for this they should have their hands cut off, their eyes gouged out, and be sold to market as drones that roam blindly on their knees, forever scrubbing the pavements of the Big Society with the brushes now strapped to their stumps.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ might seem like a great idea in the predominantly white middle-class majority that voted him in but, as has been widely suggested in the news, many of the people who were part of the riots probably don’t feel part of ‘the society’ and so feel that they don’t owe that society anything; after all, what has it given them? This would seem to be a logical assumption, but it is just that – an assumption – coming mainly from the liberal middle-class. Or coming from a bunch of kids in hoodies after the reporter has asked them a question like “do you think that the rioters feel that they are not part of society and that this is why the riots started?” instead of letting them form their own answers to an open question. “Yeah, definitely,” comes the inevitable answer.

Who really knows what the cause was? I’m willing to bet that most of the looters don’t know themselves. They’ll probably say “oh yeah it’s cos that bloke was shot innit,” but only because that’s the sequence of events they saw on the news.

Seumas Milne from the Guardian writes:

The London mayor and fellow former Bullingdon Club member Boris Johnson, heckled by hostile Londoners in Clapham Junction, warned that rioters must stop hearing ‘economic and sociological justifications’ (though who was offering them he never explained) for what they were doing.

This just before he launches into a diatribe about how the reason for the riots were due entirely to the economic and sociological failings of the government. Well we know they didn’t hear them from you, Seumas, but I’m pretty sure there are scores of other journalists who have already expressed your point of view far and wide enough for them to hear. Had every reporter on the planet not rushed at once to give their own personal, and often completely unfounded, opinions on the underlying problems with the government or society or parenting or cuts or individual responsibility, then I imagine that the looters would have more trouble coming up with excuses as to why they felt compelled to go out, smash a shop window and steal a bunch of Paul Smith watches.

Home Again

I woke up this morning not to the sound of 1,000 cicadas bent of the destruction of every human eardrum in the vicinity, nor to the paper boy marauding around on his motorbike at 3 in the morning. Nor did I awake to the heat of 12,000 suns bearing down on my flat and threatening to melt the very fan that kept me alive. No. This morning I awoke to the sound of silence, but for gentle birdsong and the whisper of a cool breeze that brushed past the curtains carrying the sweet scent of the country air. “Welcome back,” it said, and I slid out of bed, made a nice cup of coffee and began to write.

When I came back to England in December it was sincerely worse than Japan. Apart from the few lovely days I had in and around Salisbury, the trip was mainly a disaster; I’d split up with my girlfriend a couple of weeks before, there was snow clogging all the transport systems, it was freezing and dark, my best mate broke his arm and couldn’t come out for drinks, and everyone was grumpy and sick, which subsequently gave me the flu and made me bed-ridden for 5 days. Going back to Japan at the end of it was something of a blessing, and I was rewarded with uninterrupted blue skies for 2 months, a skiing holiday, and a trip to the wonderful city of Sapporo during a snow festival. Life since then has gone from good, to better, to great; I got more involved in the language, more involved with my students and the culture, and met some new Japanese friends separate from the big group of wonderful gaijin friends I already had. I had come to a point in July where there were so many people in Japan who I loved, and things that I cherished, that leaving was both something I couldn’t contain my excitement for, and something very sad that I won’t fully understand until it sinks in properly.

And it hasn’t yet. Outside of the comforting bubble that is my father’s house, the world that was once so familiar is now rather surreal. Everyone is white, and as tall or taller than me. It’s unnerving. I can no longer walk around in large crowds without having to stand on tiptoes to see what is ahead which is, let me tell you, a huge advantage when you’re sucked into the myriad of people wandering through Shibuya, or scoping for hot girls in a club. Also, everyone speaks English (stop me if I’m stating the obvious here) which means that I am constantly tuning into other peoples’ banal conversations without any conscious decision to do so. In Japan I had to make a very conscious effort to understand what people were saying to me, and so background conversation was usually just a comforting, somewhat familiar string of syllables used as a backdrop to my English thoughts. Not so here; there I am in Burger King (shh, it’s been over a year) having a meaningful chat with my dad when the young lad behind us proclaims “…well now I feel like shit,” after he finishes his XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I knew where he was coming from – the “XL” part always seems so right until you’ve finished the thing, then your stomach starts to question whether you really needed a 933 calorie burger, a large fries and enough coke to put out a house fire – I just really didn’t need to hear it. There I was thinking I’d become a better listener this past year and all it really amounted to was the lack of other conversations for my over-excited brain to tune into.

The social differences were always going to be difficult to revert back to, but one thing that has taken no effort in reverting to is the English countryside. It’s beautiful, there are no two ways about it. Miles and miles of rolling hills and fields only give way to the occasional village populated with thatched stone cottages, churches, local shops and village greens. Motorways connect towns and cites rather than just running through them, and are bordered on either side by green fields, while in Japan you have the pleasure of staring at a 30ft wall for the duration of your journey. I’m not saying a motorway is a particularly inspiring place in any country but still, anything that makes it more bearable is welcome.

My plans for this week are simple; relax, spend time with the parents, then make my way to London to spend time with my friends. It remains to be seen how much I’ll be affected by the dreaded Reverse Culture Shock, but initial reactions are good. I suspect the coming weeks will be subject to a lot of reflection and adjustment.

A Random Anecdote

I went to the burger place today. The burger place that is 5 minutes ride from my house and directly opposite the 24 hour internet cafe I used a few times a week for the first month I was here. The burger place that my (and Ashley’s) students rave about constantly. The burger place that I didn’t even know existed until last week. For a while now I’ve considered my neighbourhood to be somewhat lacking in good food options. When I first got here it was far too hot to keep any of my clothes on, let alone cook, so I spent most of my time eating at establishments in the nearby vicinity. This more-or-less meant some ok ramen, some awful ramen or some sushi or deep-fried-you-name-it-because-I-don’t-know-what-it-is from the local supermarket. But then, I didn’t know about the burger place did I? Or the yakitori (meat kebabs, basically) place at the end of my road which is always full and apparently, rather amazing. Or indeed, the Korean-style grill house a couple of blocks over which I visited on Saturday night and ate my body weight in delicious marbled beef steak.

Now I could get annoyed about this. Why do I keep missing out on the things that are important to me, I could think to myself, and it would be true in my case; relationships torn apart, friendships put on hold, funerals, weddings and birthdays missed, finding burger and yakitori places too late. My own answer to this was just an argument to support the reason I’m out here – for a challenge – but a rather brilliant and inspiring article I read recently seemed to acknowledge the above question:

To reach your goals, you must move forward, which necessitates leaving some things behind. But the man who believes he can get whatever he desires without sacrifice tries to hold onto everything in an attempt to have it all. Instead of moving forward, he is stretched out horizontally and sitting on the fence.

You cannot do something huge or become great at something if you do not sacrifice something important to you in some other area of your life; in my case, time with my friends and family in the UK, a friend’s funeral, another friend’s wedding and a whole bunch of birthday celebrations. When I leave here, I do so because my life must continue to move forward rather than stagnate; this is the greater goal.

Anyway, believe it or not I didn’t come on here today to get all deep (how does it always happen?) but rather, to tell you a humorous little anecdote about what happened on the way back from the aforementioned burger place.

You know how sometimes your mind drifts to things that are funny, and you smile, or even burst out laughing to yourself like a crazy person? I think about funny things that have happened of course, but I often make up stuff that has never, and probably will never happen. Yes, life inside my head is a riot.

I was riding my granny bicycle back home and I began to remember when I was 14, and went on a trip to Germany with the church choir. The boys among us would walk around and talk very loudly in English, boasting about how we could say anything and no-one would no what the hell we were saying! Oh the freedom! The boyish mischief! Just think of all the bold and naughty things we could say! That was of course, until a German gentleman approached us with a grin and told us that actually, most of them understood at least 50% of what we were saying. Cue red cheeks and sheepish side-glances. I then started to imagine a situation where I was back in London and walking around the tourist areas stalking Japanese people and trying to hear what they were saying. I thought about how they probably do the same thing as we did when we were 14, and about how so few people speak Japanese in London so they could probably get away with much more. To cut a long story short I heard a bunch of girls taking the piss out of me and joined in (something that I like to do frequently to the kids in my school who think I can’t hear), at which point they all start going “HAZUKASHII!” which basically means “EMBARRASSING! WE’VE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!”

Back in real life, I found this hilarious. I started to grin like a mentalist, and then even had a little chuckle completely failing to realise that, at the same time, I was staring directly into the face of a 70 year old lady on a bike coming towards me from the other direction. Rather than pedal slightly faster and stare straight ahead like any sane person would do though, she creased up her entire face and shot me a grin twice as big, threw her head back and cackled joyously. Obviously, this only served to make me laugh even more, and the result was a picture; a young gaijin and an old lady bent over their granny bikes, riding past each other at a snail’s pace and pissing themselves laughing for no apparent reason whatsoever. Passers-by looked sincerely puzzled at this little display, some visibly quickening their step; doubtless wondering what was happening to their beloved neighbourhood.

Eighteen Days Left

As he struggled to think of the word ‘sky’ and then scribbled an incomprehensible version of said word on the board, the student next to him thrust up his hand, straining on his tiptoes as he proudly displayed the word ‘sea’, gaining the first point for the other team.

“No! Sea is green!” the first boy protested.

“Sometimes blue,” I replied, and at that he stalked off to his desk muttering the word “green” under his breath before staring at everything as if he wanted to murder it all with a blunt spoon.

Such is the emotion you can generate from a game of Scattegories apparently, where I summon a student from each of the 7 makeshift groups to the board, tell them a letter and a category, and have them write a word beginning with that letter and related to that category. Cue the noisiest lesson I have ever supervised. I’m actually amazed none of the other teachers came to protest.

There’s a reason for this madness of course; I am doing my last lesson with all my 1st years. This, as it turns out, is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Usually, trying to get anything out of the students in two of my classes is like trying to draw blood from a particularly dead stone, yet both of them have woken up a bit in my last two lessons. People often say that you should have no favourites, but classes are so inconsistent anyway that it’s almost impossible for one to be on top the whole time, and others are always moving around the rankings. How well a class goes depends on so many factors, only a few of which you can control. You can only make your lessons so enjoyable (or try, anyway), but in the end you’re dealing with 42 independent personalities who might be tired, run-down, happy, genki, clinically depressed or a mixture of them all. One week you’ll have a lesson filled with joy, hard work, chatter and playful banter, and the next it’ll be like a tramp just climbed into the window, crapped on all their desks and told them to f**k off.

So the usually quiet classes have livened up. What else? Well the great classes have got better. And I mean “better” in the most self-indulgent of senses in that they were visibly and audibly upset when I said that this was my last lesson with them, oohed when I left them my email address, said “thank you Bobby!” in unison, and clapped before I left the classroom. My head swelled up so much I could barely fit through the door.

Outside of school things are moving very, very swiftly towards my departure. The plane ticket is (nearly) booked for the 1st of August, all the furniture in my house needs to be got rid of, I have to fill in a billion forms, send boxes back, practice a Japanese speech for next week, look for a new job, make sure I say goodbye to everyone, etc, etc. Fortunately I have received a replacement passport for the one I lost in January so I’ll at least be able to leave the country.

It’s the life outside work that I’ve enjoyed the most, and if I didn’t need to save money to set up back home I would certainly be staying until the end of August doing some travelling, sightseeing and “famous for” meal-eating. I didn’t get to see Osaka or Hiroshima, and I would have liked to go to Hokkaido again on account of how much I enjoyed it the first time around. One of my goals for the future is to take the train from London to Japan, and on that trip I’ll be sure to visit everywhere I meant to this time around. But that is a long way off. In the meantime I’ll keep as many connections with Japan open as possible. I have many friends here of course, and I’ll be sure to keep in touch with them, but I will have to make efforts while I’m in the UK too.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to surrounded by “foreigners” again. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 there were 34,000 Japanese people living in the UK, which is approximately 0.05% of the entire population. 0.05%! I knew it was going to be hard to stay in touch with the culture but seriously; needle in a haystack. I may have to rely on hanging around major tourist attractions accosting people who, because they are Japanese and hence some of the most efficient people on earth, don’t really need directions, but forcing them to listen to my migis and hidaris like an excitable geographer fresh out of a month of solitary confinement. There are meetup groups in London too, so I’ll try and get to a couple of those.

I really have no idea what to expect when I get home, but I’ll be sure to post my thoughts and ramblings here as and when they come to me.