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Meet the Empress

For my very first official job in Japan, I worked without pay for the first 30 days. It was an agreement I made with Lena, the owner of a language school called Vidal English Academy. Lena sponsored my visa in exchange for the free work. So, for 30 days, I was an indentured servant. I don't remember how I survived. I was 22 years-old, struggle with hunger and poverty was an extension of the life I had left behind in Cleveland, OH. In many ways, it prepared me for becoming a survivor.

I sometimes wonder if poverty wouldn't have been better for my children. Not that I was extremely wealthy or anything. They don't know the pain of struggle and the spirit of the hustle. That's what turns you into a survivor. When people ask, "what do you do?" it always sounds ridiculous when I answered that I am a photographer, poet, musician, graphic designer, corporate creative thinking coach, clinical communication trainer, English teacher, radio announcer, narrator, and associate professor. Jesus! Writing it all out looks even more ridiculous. It can't he helped. This is one of the hallmarks of being a hustler. I don't mean being a scammer, though I have mastered the art of faking it till I make it. My list is long because I had to learn how to do many things to survive. When you don't have a safety net, you have to weave one yourself.

Unfortunately, in every working environment I have been in there has always been at least one person who was unhappy with their own life and determined to make other people's lives miserable. It's a strange phenomenon. During my work life I have experienced blind hatred, sabotage, power harassment, bullying, and fake smiles while someone secretly works in the shadows to spread false rumors to undermine me. I must have been really mean and petty in a past life to create this kind of karma.

Although Lena was kind enough to sponsor me, she was very abusive to some the staff. I did my best to keep my head low and do my job to the best of my ability. The sanctity of the professional contract is something I hold sacred. If I agree to take a job and receive money for it, then it is my moral obligation to do the job as best as I know-how. If my knowledge happens to be limited or my ability insufficient, then my next moral obligation is to learn whatever I need to get where I have to be. There!!! That's it! That's the trigger that may have caused the string of workplace conflicts. The go getter is one of the most hated people on the planet. It ranks right up there with teacher's pet. Most people believed they should get the maximum benefit for the least amount of effort. To my tormentors, I must have seemed like the biggest overachieving asshole in the world.

Although Lena ruled over Vidal with a Machiavellian demeanor, I was bound by my moral code to do the job as best I could. I didn't know it at the time, but Lena's school was struggling. She did not have enough money to keep three full-time teachers. There was me, Lisa, a happy-go-lucky girl from Minnesota, and Monique, a wonderfully kind woman who was engaged to be married. Although Monique had a contract, Lena decided to fire her so she could pay me. Monique was planning to quit at the end of her contract anyway. She wanted to go back to the US with her fiancé and get married. Instead of being honest with Monique, Lena made a big stink about some imaginary transgression then fired herr. Although I was happy to finally get paid, I was not pleased about the circumstances. The other thing you should know about me is I would never sacrifice anyone for my own personal gain.

Lena liked to dominate. She had to be the center of attention and the empress of her domain. When Lisa and I started to become good friends, it bothered Lena. Soon she began to harass Lisa by making up all kinds of arbitrary rules like no sucking on candy during working hours because the time it took Lisa to unwrap it and put it in her mouth was costing Lena money. She forbade me to ever see Lisa outside of work. Of course I ignored that rule. Lisa and I hit it off immediately, which irked Lena. Although we were only ever just friends, we had a deep affection for one another. We are still close today. Eventually Lisa went back to Minnesota and married a guy from her hometown named Chad. I am going to make this weird by saying I love Chad very much. He really is a good soul.

Lena had a Korean husband named Woo who worked for her. He was a quiet man who did all of the manual labor. In many ways, he was Lena's manservant. When it was time for me to leave the country again to renew my tourist visa because my work visa was still pending, Woo went with me to Seoul. He arranged for all the accommodations and took me around town for food and drinks. In Seoul he transformed from a lowly manservant into a well-connected mover and shaker. At one point, to my horror, Woo had decided to treat me to a prostitute and would not take no for an answer. I had never been with a call girl, and the idea was unsettling. I couldn't get past the thought of all the dozens of men before me who might have left their pathogens behind.

The only hope of escape I had was to get so drunk I would be useless. A bottle of rum became my friend, and I drank it with extreme prejudice. At the end of the night I was properly wasted. It turned out I didn't need the rum because Woo was never able to find a hooker who was willing to service a young black American. Maybe he was looking in the wrong part of town. There is a large U.S. military presence in Seoul, so I'm sure there were establishments in the city that did't mind providing services. Lucky for me, Woo didn't know anyone in that part of town.

In two days, we returned to Tokyo without any problems. It was dramatically different from being in Seoul just three months prior. In the second go around, I was not homeless on the steps of a church in sub-zero weather. I didn't have to wake up to machine guns pointed at my head. No one in the Japanese immigration office screamed spit on my face. No books were flung at my body. When the officer stamped my passport, he simply smiled and said, "Welcome back to Japan."

Although Lena was a brutal dictator, I was grateful to her for helping me get established when no one else would. That's why it was regrettable that I would have to ghost her a few months later. Less than half a year after I had gotten my working visa, I received notice from Lena that the school was suffering financial difficulty and she could only afford to hire me part-time, but she still wanted me to do a full-time workload. She also said that I should start looking for another job but keep her as my main priority. I had already done my time as an indentured servant, and I did not want to go back. On the day I was supposed to report for work after summer vacation I didn't go. Instead, I went to the Asakusa Samba Festival with my new girlfriend and future wife, Naomi. I didn't call or write Lena. She was too scary to face, so I just vanished into bitter smoke. Even for a 23-year-old, it was a dick move. I felt guilty about it for years. A few short years ago, I tracked Lena down and emailed an apology. She said that she didn't even remember the incident, but I'm sure it was a lie. I had run into Woo at a supermarket once. He told me how hurt Lena had been by my disappearance.

After reconnecting with Lena, she came to my house with Woo. They were no longer married but still very close. He had become quite a successful businessman. Lena also made quite a bit of money of her own. Over Thanksgiving dinner, they met my children, and we all talked and shared a meal. Woo insisted that my daughter become a model and was offended when I told him I didn't want that path for her. I wanted her to be someone who could survive on the power of her mind and her skill. I didn't want her to rely on her looks alone. Woo never understood. Lena did. She put her hand on his shoulder then calmed him down with another slice of Turkey.


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