Thursday, June 08, 2006

Living a Life Free of Irony

On occasion I get a late start and so am forced to ride in the duty van to the consulate rather than take the train. This was the case the other day. All piled in the van together, my colleagues began to do something that I feel happens far too often: making fun of the japanese guard who helps guide the van from its customary spot by the compound wall out into the street. This bothers me a great deal. Besides being, I think, rather mean spirited, it underscores what little interest we have in each other; once the subject of which American Idol singer is going to make it big is exhausted, there really is not much left to talk about -- taking out our stress and awkwardness on some hapless security guard is apparently the only bond we can share. It's one of the reasons I try and avoid the van.

Too be sure, the guard's level of enthusiasm is excessive. He motions vigorously, jumps about the van seemingly needlessly, and wards off generally imagined oncoming traffic. I figure at least he seems to gain real satisfaction from his job, which is perhaps more than most of us can say. And as he was the only guard who told me how much he enjoyed the oatmeal cookies I made for our security contingent after my partial HHE arrived (I was quite touched by this -- I didn't realize he even knew my name), I know he has genuine concern for us as well. His job is to keep us safe, and it's a task he undertakes wholeheartedly. Given that we've recently had threats directed at us, you'd think we'd be more appreciative than not. But sadly, no.

One officer made the comment that a person could only achieve such a state -- and by this, he presumably meant the naivety it would require to not think of your actions as lacking real value -- by "living a life free of irony." I've found myself going back to that comment over and over again as I slog through the same visa-related quasi-conversation 150 times a day and do my best to keep from giving in to utter apathy. Truthfully, I wish that I could effect a similarly guileless state. One of the things I enjoy about the Japanese is the general sense that you should make the best of any situation, no matter how barren. One has only to see the tents of the homeless, with the occupants' shoes studiously removed and left outside the door, to understand how deep this current runs in Japanese society. There is something heartbreaking about seeing shoes placed neatly and carefully outside of a cardboard hovel -- and something very dignified in it, as well.

I was also thinking about this comment over the weekend, when I had a chance to see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga, generally translated in English either as 'Caricatures of Animals and Humans' or 'Scroll of Frolicking Animals'. This work is a long, horizontally read picture scroll drawn in the 12th century, one of the three oldest such scrolls still extant, and is regarded as being the root of japanese manga. Being able to finally see it for myself brought about a moment of pure joy which I would be hard pressed to explain -- it was something like seeing the Gutenberg Bible for the first time, only perhaps more fulfilling because you can actually pour over the entire scroll, and the meaning is clear even outside of its cultural context. The pictures of the animals are touchingly funny and gently self-mocking, yet lack the bitterness or hopelessness that a western (or, to be fair, a post-war japanese) perspective might bring to such images. Our lives might be silly and lack deep meaning, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them and make the most of them; I suppose that's what it means to live a life free of irony. I don't think one can consider it naive when it's the result of conscious choice. I don't begrudge the guard his enthusiasm in the least.

To see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga in its entirety, please click here. The scroll is read from right to left; click on the numbers [1] through [18] at the top of the page to progress from one section to the next.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your fellow FS officers sound like shallow jerks, at least to me they do. If anyone took the time to learn the guy's name and something about his life, then maybe they could appreciate him at least a little!

Does the scroll tell a story? And how was it accepted at the time it was created?

Love,
mom

Anonymous said...

I think you're right about the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga... Seems a fair cross between Animal Farm and Winnie the Pooh. Like your mom, I'd like to understand the story a bit more (if there is one), but the images are delightful.

As I get closer and closer to becoming a real lawyer (or FSO, if the security clearance ever comes through), I wonder more and more what it must take not to think of law, in particular, as worthless. I've heard from other ex-lawyers turned FSO's that at least you only have one client, and if envisioned as the American People, not such a bad client to have. If envisioned as Congress and that byzantine labyrinth that is the INA, maybe that's another thing. Did you work in the private sector before becoming an FSO, and if so, can you compare the "existential questions" in both?

Ji Village News said...

Excellent post! The shallowness, smartassness, arrogance, self-centeredness, non-cooperativeness, and mean spirit of those jerks is just disgusting.

Please don't get me wrong and take me as anti-American. I've been living in the US for more than 10 years now, and I am deeply grateful to a lot of things and people from this country. Unfortunately, the thing described above is on display in many part of the world from the US. Taking as a whole, it can be dangerous.

Don't get discouraged. From reading what you've written so far, I think you represent the better side of America, free, compassionate, thoughtful, and eager to learn without pre-conceived notion of other people and culture. You may not realize it, but people like you and Prince Roy do make a big difference!

Anonymous said...

Not all FSOs are like that, but I do know the type of individual you have spoken of in this post.

I have struggled with the same issue of shallowness/fakeness from some as I adjust to FS culture too. There are some wonderful friends out in the FS world though, and those are the ones I cherish. It just takes a lot of time to find the gems hiding among the rest...

Best of luck!

Katie said...

I'm not sure that they're jerks. Actually, I KNOW that they're not jerks. This is just a really stressful, isolated post, and we're all struggling with it. Reactions under stress are always extreme and bizarre (I am certainly not at my best here). They don't wish the guard any ill-will, and I certainly don't wish them any ill-will by commenting on the situation. There are very few outlets for frustration when you're in a position like ours; I guess this blog is mine. As such, I'm probably painting a very lop-sided picture of this place. It's not all bad. Just stressful. (Actually, today we had a very nice going away party in my apartment, and everyone was great...)

My private sector experiences were limited to the similarly high-stress world of custom picture framing (a pretty good segue into consular work, actually). But from what I can tell, all the same cattiness you sometimes see in the private sector can also be found in government work -- but so too can you find quality, caring people, who are able to keep their heads above water and work to improve and maintain things. I don't personally feel the private and public sectors are so different as to warrant different sets of existential questions. But then, as I said, my experience in both is extremely limited...

I wish I could give a better account of the scroll -- it's part of a genre known as 'iruimono', where animals are used to parody the human world, but is unusual in that it contains no text. No one is entirely sure who created it (the monk Toba Sojo is often credited), but it is generally thought to be a critique of the decadence and self-importance of the monks and nobles of the late Heian period, an era during which occupants of what would eventually be Japan had made great strides in establishing their own identity (as opposed to merely parroting China). And in fact, that decadence contributed to a collapse into war between the nobles shortly after the scroll was painted.

These posts are getting awfully long; sorry! I'll try to rein things in, make them easier to read...

Anonymous said...

I like long just fine....they should be as long as you need them to be!

gk

Anonymous said...

I agree... Keep your posts long. Very enjoyable and enlightening reading.

I'm the one who posted above, about Animal Farm and Winnie the Pooh, and from what you've said, I stand by my post. Sorry I forgot to sign it before.

Josh

Mrs. Wrye said...

so like how long have you had a crush on this guard guy?

cheesu!

Katie said...

Hey Mrs. Wrye -- where've you been? I've missed you! When do you and Mr. Wrye want to come to Japan?

Anonymous said...

The way you described the homeless people who maintain their dignity and especailly the guard who tries his best and is enthusiastic about his job and his life and who genuinely cares about other people really touched me. Those are the kind of people I hope to be. I'm considering being an FSO... There's a lot to take into account. Though what you've described isn't what I thought it would be. I thought it would be more going out and interacting with people... exchanging culture and ideas on a daily basis (even living close to various cultural groups) so that when say, an ambassador came or US officials, the FSO would be experienced and connected in the culture and fluent in the language to help work out treaties in such. It's interesting how much impact that you have with the visas... I agree that with the underpaid workers you seem to be in a pickle... I think the best way to deal with the problem would be for the US governemnt to have high terrifs on goods from overseas contries that use under paid workers or make it illegal for American goods to be made by people being underpaid... I guess NAFTA gets in the way. I don't care much for that treaty, it is vague and allows companies to move production abroad and use slave/under paid/children workers. But though what you do isn't what I thought FSO's did, it makes a difference and it seems you really care about the people you're helping and for that "Thank You." :)

-Lune Fromage

Katie said...

FSOs fill a wide variety of roles, both domestically and abroad. For more information, you can read the State Department career website:

http://careers.state.gov/officer/index.html