Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing English for south paws

On a scale of 1 to 10, it seems to me the formality of a document stating your resignation from a job --even if a near identical position is taken up with immediate effect-- should rate at least a 9. Maybe even an 11. To be handed a plain sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen to do the deed was therefore something of a surprise.

The instructions I received were quite specific: my resignation letter must be written by hand and copied word-for-word from a sample template. The latter was presumably so that it could be easily followed regardless of whether the author chose to express themselves in English or Japanese. I took both the blank sheet of paper and the template letter and arranged them on a nearby desk, lifting up my pen.

This staggering act resulted in a swift flurry of movement in which all the tools I had laid down on the table were rearranged. My paper was straightened and the template moved to the other side of the desk. I stared at this reorganisation, nonplussed.

"Ah, she is left-handed!" I heard one of the administrative assistants tell her colleague in Japanese.

"Ah!" The other man stepped forward and moved the template letter from the left side of the desk to the right.

I paused.

"Please write the letter exactly as it is here," the female assistant explained to me in English. "The same page orientation."

Light dawned.

"I will do!" I promised. "But because I am left-handed, I must tilt the paper." I rotated the writing paper 45 degrees clockwise and wrote the title. Behind me, there was a panicked intake of breath, followed by a sigh of relaxation as everyone moved away.

Since Japanese writing traditionally starts in the top right corner and moves down, I realised it was possible they had never seen a left-hander tilt the page to write neatly. Yet, if I didn't make such a move, my hand would press over the freshly inked letters and smudge. Before you ask, you would be quite amazed how much a dry ballpoint pen can smear. This sad sad fact confined me to pencil for years. Possibly, I wrote the world's greatest novel at the age of 8, but the non-permanency of my writing implement means no one will ever know.

As I finished, I dug in my pocket and produced my hanko; a personalised seal used in Japan instead of signatures. "Should I use my stamp?" I asked.

This produced a pleased babble of excitement around those seated nearest me in the office, possibly steaming from relief that they wouldn't have to deal with some freakish western signature. Carefully, I pressed down by my name on the paper. The woman next to me clapped.

I tried not to think exactly how low the general opinion of me must be to denote such an act an applause-worthy achievement.

"Can you come in again on February 2nd?" I was asked as I stood to leave. "To finish the paper work."

"Actually, I leave for Canada on the 2nd," I explained.

"Oh. How about the 3rd?"

...... OK, my travel schedule is crazy, but it's not THAT crazy.

"I.....," I began, hoping they would realise their error. They didn't. Or they thought it a completely reasonable turnaround.

"I'm sorry but I'll be in Canada," I said the last word carefully. "until March."

This achieved the desired communication and we agreed to complete all the paperwork on the 1st. I tried not to look too relieved.

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