Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tales From a Japanese Office — Bad Smells Follow Me

Earlier this week, I made paneer butter masala (from homemade paneer no less) at around 3:00 pm in the afternoon. The idea was to complete it between a few lessons and throw it in the refrigerator for dinner later. Indian food always tastes better to me when it sits in its sauce and the flavor develops for several hours (or a day). If you're in the mood for some vegetarian curry which is cheap and tasty, I recommend you give it a try. It's delicious, though I'm going to cut back on the chili next time.

Getting back to the point though, 4 hours had passed since I'd put the curry in the refrigerator, but the apartment still smelled like an Indian restaurant when a student showed up. It smelled good, but I apologized to my student because I'd been told that Japanese people are sensitive to food smells and are upset when they're subjected to intense ones. My student said that she wasn't troubled at all and liked curry. I didn't know if she was being polite or sincere, but I was glad she didn't get worked up about it.

The notion that Japanese folks get worked up about food smells was instilled in me by the president of my former company. He carried on quite often about any food-related odors that were caused by the foreign employees heating their lunches in the office. In fact, he got on my boss's back about heating dishes made with garlic and carrying them from the kitchen to his booth to eat. My boss was pretty irritated by this, particularly since he said the Japanese staff had dishes made with various Japanese pickles in them which, in his opinion, filled the office with a funky flatulence-like odor.

Since bugging the foreigners over trivial matters was one of the president's main tasks for the day (and I'm pretty sure it was a job he relished), I didn't think much about the food odor issue at first. My main response was to develop a near compulsion about keeping the kitchen door closed and the kitchen window open when I heated my food and to keep a lid on any food as I carried it from kitchen to cubicle. Even though customers did not come in to the office, the president acted as though one of the rudest things we could do was subject the Japanese to our disgusting gaijin food vapors.

The building the company occupied had a convenience store on the first floor when I first started working there. Times grew lean for the store when a 7-11 opened up not too far from it so they changed their business from convenience store to cheap bento shop. This is when the intensity of the president's dislike of food odors really showed itself. It turned out that it wasn't just foreign food that got his undies bunched, but all food.

We were working in an old building with a relatively small floor space just off of Ome Kaido Avenue in Shinjuku. Given the age, size and location, I'm sure that it wasn't as expensive as Shinjuku locales can get. In fact, I'd guess it was 700,000 yen a month for that office, possibly a bit less. Once the bento place started doing business, the president went ape about the cooking smells wafting up to our office. All windows had to be kept shut at all time. This made the small, cramped space incredibly stuffy. His solution was to turn on the fan function of the ancient air conditioning. This circulated warm, vaguely musty air around. When the president found that he couldn't use his personal air conditioner to more effectively cool his area without sucking in cooking odors, he decided to move the office to a different building.

We moved to a larger, newer office right on Ome Kaido. It was actually just around the corner from the old office, but the cost was a million yen a month. The first floor was a tiny tea shop that did not brew tea and some sort of real estate agency which occupied most of the massive first floor. Before the move, the president filled his days drawing up office plans to give him a bigger office, stick all the foreigners on the side with no windows just outside of his office where he could keep an eye on us, give his wife a massive amount of space for the few hours a week she showed up at the office, and draw up diagrams of islands of desks for the salesmen and Japanese support staff. His second favorite activity after harrassing the gaijin workers about minutae was to rearrange the office furniture. Moving gave him a whole new level of pleasure at moving his employees around like dolls in his own personal dollhouse.

Several months after we moved to the new building, the real estate company that occupied the vast majority of the first floor announced that they were moving. The word came that the vacant space would be occupied by a Chinese restaurant. The president was not a happy camper and I'm sure he nagged the owners of the builder about what was to come. They assured him that our spot on the 4th floor and the location of their kitchen exhaust would make it such that he wouldn't be in the path of any objectionable odors.

When the restaurant was built, only the slightest bit of smell leaked our way but the president was still seriously put out. After all, he hadn't wasted all that money to escape cooking odors only to be faced with them again. In the end, the owners of the building (who ran the first floor tea shop) had to build an exhaust pipe all the way up the side of the nine story building to placate the president. He still wasn't happy, but he had no choice but to accept it.

Shortly after word arrived that the new office would be faced with yet another restaurant on the first floor, my husband, who was working as a temporary worker at my office at the time, remarked on the president's bad luck. The president responded by saying, "bad smells follow me" (in English). Given how much crap he put us through during the time when I was employed there and under his neurotic eye, I felt this was a bit of karma paying back some of the misery he put us through on a regular basis as a result of his distrust and idiosyncrasies. I hope bad smells continue to follow him.


Akira said...

Should pass him a durian, very pleasant smell indeed! LoL

Orchid64 said...

I first saw Durian in one of Michael Palin's travel documentaries and, despite being an open-minded fellow, he found the smell very hard to get past.

If I could get my hands on a durian, I'd happily send it off to the old coot in an act of revenge. ;-)

Thanks for commenting!

Girl Japan said...

OH my goodness this was so funny but I am so sad you had to endure this- it sounds like he had far more other issues going on that food odors!

Akira.. haha Yes I am also sending vibes of durian his way!

Girl Japan said...

opps I meant, than sorry... "wink"

Orchid64 said...

Oh, he had issues. Many tales await to be told yet about his issues. ;-)

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Darryl said...

Hi Shari! Bet you're surprised to get a comment from me! I just wanted to put the record straight. I think you were too kind on the old coot! I think my "Cilantro Pesto Potatoes" were simply incredible, and he had the audacity to complain about the smell! Really! What a pleb!

However, having said that, you've got to admit, he gave us some memories, good or bad, that we can still share.

Thanks for reminding me of the fun we used to have.


Orchid64 said...

Hey! You have blogs! You never told me that!

Of course, I think I know why you never told me considering the awesome power of my badgering abilities!

I'm going to subscribe to them via RSS and make sure to drop in and bug you. :-)

Ah, I do miss our working together. In fact, it's pretty much the only reason I stayed as long as I did at the old office.

I very much appreciate your commenting and reading! I hope to hear more from you in the future now that Joseph is in the office and can remind you of what I'm saying! :-)