This week, I walked into a hotel and was handed an envelope of cash and an empty tube.
I was at a presentation ceremony for a research grant I had been awarded, the proceedings for which would be carried out entirely in Japanese. The initial confusion is therefore less of an opening sentence and more of a theme.
The Suhara Memorial Foundation was established from legacy funds left by the successful business man of the same name. Each year, sizeable grants are awarded to young researchers in Hokkaido in the fields of science and technology, biology and medicine. The empty tube —it would transpire— was to hold the award certificate I would shortly be presented with; an elegant sheet in hand calligraphy. The money was not the grant itself but 2000 yen (about $20). Its origin remains a mystery.
I should add that while I'm really delighted to be awarded this research grant, I cannot take the lion's share of the credit since I did not write the proposal. This particular award required all applications to be in Japanese, resulting in the head of my research group submitting the forms describing our joint work on my behalf. Had I done so, the grant proposal would have looked like this:
I was therefore forced to sit back, have a martini and let another do all the work. Totally studying up on those language skills. Honest.
The presentation ceremony was held in two adjacent rooms in a city hotel. In the first of these, we received our certificates and in the second, each recipient was to give a short 5 minute speech.
Evidently, the organisers considered the use of powerpoint to be ludicrous for such a talk length, which proves they’ve never been to an American Astronomical Society meeting. While I understood their view point, this was panic inducing. IF THERE ARE NO VISUALS, DO WORDS EVEN WORK?
Actually, in my case ... no ..., which is why my head of group was accompanying me to provide an on-the-fly English to Japanese translation.
Roughly 12 scientists were receiving awards that day and I was up second, giving me one person to copy (having been completely oblivious to all instructions and suspecting ad libbing was a bad idea). The awardees were seated in-between two long rows of tables at which the 20-strong selection committee were placed. The person before me stood, bowed to each side and then to the podium, before taking his certificate and bowing again.
How many bows was that? Did he bow individually to all groups after receiving his certificate, or just one group motion? How deep did he bow? Where did he have his hands? How about his feet? DID HE EVEN HAVE FEET?
I scrubbed sweaty palms on my trousers and tried to remember to breath. I confess to always feeling awkward bowing: I’m concerned I’ll either do it wrong (for a movement that involves only one bend, it’s surprising how many permutations you can think up in 10 seconds) or find that no one expects a foreigner to bow, and I’m making a cultural mockery by doing so.
Hind sight suggests it is in fact deeply unlikely I could offend an entire nation in the 30 seconds available to me, but nerves greatly inflate my opinion of my own ability. At least 6 of the 1056.2 scenarios I considered had me fleeing the country in a kayak made out of disposal chopsticks.
The actual result was a somewhat random range of awkward bends to anyone who looked like they might care. Then I resisted the urge to run from the room cheering with my certificate.
The next room had cake in it. Individual slices of a strawberry sponge, wrapped in cellophane. I wanted to bite it but I thought perhaps licking my fingers during my 5 minute talk might be frowned upon. On the other hand, since I didn’t need to hold a pointer for the slides…
I began to suspect there was a reason I was always presenting in second place. There wasn’t much time to think through these plans to fruition.
The 5 minute duration slot was blown clean out the window by everyone apart from me; a rather unfair outcome since I had to have each statement translated by my colleague. However, he did remember to introduce me which I had forgotten to do since… well, everyone had printed programs.
Introductions were also somewhat unnecessary since I was also the only non-Japanese person in the room, a point confirmed by the chair who told me I was the first foreigner to receive this award during its history. I strongly suspected this was because of the language policy that led many outside applications to look like the above pictorial contribution (although that is one mighty fine star with some impressive diffraction spikes, even if I do say so myself.)
The upshot of having my brief talk in two languages was I only managed to describe the main question of my research before it was apparent my spotlight was over. Alternatively, it could be the chair was also a researcher and knew results rarely live up to the hype. After the excitement, I ate my cake and then entertained myself by looking at the program. While not able to understand most of the Japanese, I was able to scan through the other applicant’s resumes, reading the names of the overseas institutes they had attended in katakana, the phonetic script for foreign words. There were Oxford and Columbia alumni as well as someone who went to Haa-baa-do. Probably some dead end, low-level sort of place.
Later realised it was Havard. Bygones.
The other talks were largely on medicine, with an emphasis on cancer research. They were also predominately given by men, with only one other women recipient besides myself and no female representative on the selection committee. Gender balance isn’t typically something I’m strongly aware of, but it becomes more obvious when everyone wears suits. (In fact I wasn’t wearing a suit, but I had taken off my yellow doc martens for fear they set the wrong tone). Encouraging women in higher roles within the work force is something Japan has previously been notoriously bad at, although Government led funding schemes have begun to readdress that balance in certain areas.
When we finally left, I had a shiny certificate rolled up in its poster tube, 2000 yen and a (devoured) piece of cake. Someone asked me how long I planned to stay in Japan. I replied, long time.
I’m not leaving until life makes a boring amount of sense once again.