Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Refrigerator For Jacob

I first heard about Jacob from Michael, one of my American colleagues in Tokyo. Jacob was a Nigerian, a fellow worshipper at Michael's largely Japanese church.

"He works in a factory doing crap work no one else will do," Michael told me. Jacob wanted to save enough money so he could go back to Nigeria and buy a house for his wife. They had only been married a few months.

When it turned out that Jacob's wife would be able to join him in Tokyo, Jacob was beside himself with joy: the lease for the tiny apartment he rented would allow two people, and he had already found his bride a job as a cleaning lady at a chemical company. With both of them working, they would be able to earn so much money!

Michael felt sorry for Jacob, a trained teacher with a sound education and hopes for the future. Unlike us, Jacob had little chance of finding a teaching job in Japan. Instead, he had to work with chemicals that burnt his hands and made him cough. His eyes watered constantly, and he had tiny scars on his face and arms from the spattering acid he used. His work conditions were poor, and of course the job was illegal, so he had no benefits, no holidays, no health insurance, and no pension.

But Jacob was very optimistic about his life and prospects. When his wife finally arrived, he might have been the happiest man on earth according to Michael. They were both earning fabulous salaries -- and they were finally together! If they were careful with their money, they would be able to take plenty back to Nigeria. Truly, God had been good to them.

"If you've got any stuff you don't need, I know they'd be grateful for it," Michael said.

I brought in superfluous cutlery and bedding and and Michael always reported how thrilled Jacob and his wife were with everything. When my husband and I bought a larger refrigerator from a sayonara sale, I mentioned to Michael that our old, smaller one was available if Jacob was interested. He was, so I cleaned out the refrigerator and Michael paid to have it shipped to the outskirts of Tokyo, where Jacob and his wife lived. The next day he reported how delighted they were with it.

For the next several months, I heard about Jacob from time to time. That his wife's job was long and difficult; she too had to work with strong chemicals with poor ventilation, and was on her feet all day long. When she or Jacob got ill, they still had to work. Their bosses did not treat them with respect. Jacob spoke good, though heavily accented English, but almost no Japanese, so Michael ended up serving as his interpreter. "I couldn't work for a guy like that even one hour," he confided. "He treats Jacob like he ought to be grateful to have the job, when it's really Jacob who's doing him the favor."

One day I asked how Jacob and his wife were doing and Michael told me that our donated refrigerator had broken down. It was summer, and a very hot one, too. I was appalled: true, the refrigerator had been old, but we'd had every confidence it would last another few years.

My heart went out to Jacob and his wife. They had recently been ill and his wife had just lost her job. It must have been hellish, the both of them stuck in their cramped little apartment without even a refrigerator to keep their drinks cool. But Michael insisted that Jacob was still in the best of spirits. "He thinks he can find another job for his wife. And the day the refrigerator broke down, they went out and found that someone had dumped the exact same model -- they couldn't get over the coincidence. It was filthy inside, but when they got it home it worked just fine. Since yours was nice and clean, they just replaced the stuff inside, and now they have a brand new refrigerator." He smiled sadly. "Jacob still thinks he's well and truly blessed."

In many respects, he really was.


Kelly said...

Mary: This is a beautiful story. And it makes me thing a lot about the situation I'm now in. My 2nd child, my son, has epilepsy.'s a rare, survivable kind. We have access to great medical care because of my job and location. It almost seems not fair :(

laura said...

When all is said and done; ending a hard day's work, knowing that the person you love is working as hard as you, so that you can survive together? says it all? A moving story indeed.

Carolie said...

Oh my. I needed that today, to remind me how very blessed and "wealthy" I am. I was stewing about something very petty, over which I have no control, and which doesn't really even affect me other than my ego.

Your story slapped some perspective into me. I'm healthy, I'm loved, I love my work, and I have FAR more material goods than I need. Thank you, Mary! I really love your slice-of-life stories, told so simply and so very well.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Wonderful spirit, but I hope his health wasn't permanently damaged. Were the couple religious?

Alice said...

Great story - I get really pissed at folks who take our luxurious lifestyle for granted.

I still remember a chick who was forever complaining that she was so poor and had no money. When I mentioned that everytime I saw her, she had a McDonald's soda in her hand, she said, "Well...what should I be drinking?"


"Why should I suffer?"

(Must hold back smacking hand.)

Mary Witzl said...

Kelly -- I am so sorry to hear that and this really does seem unfair. Both of my parents had family members with epilepsy, so I know a little about what a worry this is. But I can also imagine that if you were expecting a worse diagnosis, this might not seem so bad -- particularly if this is the kind of epilepsy that can be managed with anti-convulsants. I shocked my doctor by responding with joy to his diagnosis of osteoarthritis. I'll take that over rheumatic arthritis any day.

Laura -- Yes, it's just remembering this that is the trick. I am convinced that the ability to enjoy and appreciate life's small pleasures is far more valuable than anything we might hope to obtain.

Carolie -- I stew about petty things every single day, so I sympathize! The good thing is, I am doing much better over this than I was, say, 20 years ago. If I had been raising teenagers 20 years ago, I could not have survived. Far more piddling things than I cope with on a daily basis would have had me hysterical.

My ego amuses me most of the time. I take my eye off it for five seconds and it is prone to get out of hand. Fortunately, it doesn't take much to deflate it. As for YOUR ego, I think you're great! (Now you can work on trying to deflate your own ego!)

GB -- Yes, they were religious. I would do a lot for the kind of faith they had. And I worried the same thing about the permanent effect Jacob's job might have had on his health. He took it so much in stride. I'd have been reduced to a blubbering hypochondriac in the same situation.

Alice -- Oh, I know people like this too! I feel like showing them real poverty, wondering if that would shake them up enough to feel grateful for what they have. But I actually don't think it would. Some people are so obtuse, so impervious to common sense or empathy, that you wonder what it would take to reach them. I think this is something parents really have to try to develop in their kids -- the notion that the world is not there for our own convenience; that even if we don't get everything we want, our blessings are many. Sounds smarmy and bromidic, but it is so true.

Kanani said...

I really dislike bosses who don't understand that if it weren't for the people working with and for them, they'd have no job themselves.

I hope at some point, the boss learned this. On the other hand, maybe Jacob has moved on, and the boss is stuck in that hellish existence.

Merry Monteleone said...


Sometimes your stories give me a case of the guilts for how little and petty I can be... or how depressed I am on occassion over things that are no where near as bad as it could be.

I hope Jacob and his wife find an easier road, and get their house and a little relaxation... they certainly deserve it.

Christy said...

With all the discussion in the states these days about illegal immigrants, I think we all could hear more stores about Jacob and other people in his situation. Compassion is always a better choice than fear.

Robert the Skeptic said...

When I was in college, my father finally convinced me to get a PT job. I worked in the commissary washing pots and pans. I was reluctant; for me, college was all about focusing on the freedom to be hedonistic and self-indulgent.

It was hard work, but worst of all, I found it "beneath me" to scrub other peoples congealed oatmeal and chicken grease from pot and pans. So I quit, giving my parents some lame excuse.

It wasn't until several years later that I discovered my parents depleted their savings to send me to college. How hard my parents worked to send me to college.

No matter how humble, pride can always be found in the the acceptance of having accomplised a job well done.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I can almost guarantee you that when Jacob finally left that job there would be another Nigerian or other African waiting to take his place. Jacob worked hard to please the boss and tried to do a good job, but the boss knew that there were more where he came from and that he didn't really need to exert himself to be a good boss.

Merry -- They give me a case of the guilts too! I am just as petty as anyone, and I sometimes worry that by posting these stories, I might give people the impression that I am above it all, or that I think that I am. Quite the contrary! But I was very moved by Jacob's attitude and felt that I ought to try to be the same -- tolook at what I had as though it were special and a gift from God.

Christy -- In Japan too many people fear and despise illegal immigrants. Tokyo's racist, sexist, revisionist governor Shintaro Ishihara has made some depressingly obnoxious comments about African immigrants in particular. Some of them are involved in illegal activities, but so many of them do the work no one else will do, for a pittance. They are a lot like the Mexicans who virtually support California agriculture.

Robert -- If I had it to do over again, I would be a lot kinder to my parents. I was not particularly cruel, I was just insensitive and callous. At the time, I thought I was a very good daughter. Now I feel differently.

I would have HATED doing kitchen work in college! I was lucky in that I always found part-time jobs that were well paid and fairly easy. I did work as a cleaner once, and I did a lot of babysitting, but the jobs I had were generally good.

You are right about doing a job -- any job -- well. This is something I am trying to teach my kids. I think I've gotten through to the eldest; at least she is careful and thorough when she works for others.

Angela said...

Mary, thanks for such a heartwarming story. Caused me to count my blessings:)

Carole said...

Another excellent story, by an excellent story teller. It always surprised me how human beings can be so unkind to other human beings.

Kara said...

it's all in your mindset, isn't it. optimistic people are amazing to me. like pixies. only real.

Eryl Shields said...

Sounds to me like Jacob actually was blessed, with the kind of attitude we could all use. That he thought everything was marvellous means that for him it was.

So speaks Mrs. Why is it always me who has to take out the rubbish!

problemchildbride said...

Wow, that flings some perspective into the day. What an admirable spirit. I hope their plans worked out for them.

Are there many African immigrants to Japan? I hadn't linked the two economically like that for some reason.

debra said...

Simple gifts and blessings...
It sure can be hard to maintain perspective and differentiate between (true) needs and wants.
I used to work for an agency that served truly poor people. I remember bringing 3 cupcakes to the family's house since we hadn't seen them that day. The cupcakes were dinner for the family of 6. Humbling.
Thank you for reminding me to think about my blessings.

A Paperback Writer said...

Y'know, maybe the folks who dumped their refrigerator on that day were actually inspired. Who knows?
Thanks for sharing.

ChrisEldin said...

You are waxing philosophical these days.

Yes, it is all in perspective. And ditto Carolie. I go through phases where I nurse a good anger about something, but have to make the effort to ground myself. I am in the lucky category, when I really look at things from all angles.

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Me too, and thank you!

Carole -- Thank you! From the way Michael described it, Jacob was just happy to have so many Japanese friends. The congregation at his church were largely supportive, I believe, and did a lot for Jacob and his wife.

Kara -- I find truly optimistic, intelligent people easily as astonishing as trapeze artists or magicians. Or pixies.

Eryl -- Yes, and guess who got stuck with cleaning out the entire disgusting not-my-fault-it's-like-this refrigerator? (Yes, it has conked out on us AGAIN, and who can blame it?) And guess who had to throw out all the junk that no one else will discard? Believe me, I can and do whine with the best of them. That's why I write stuff like this.

Sam -- There are just under 30,000 Africans in Japan, as opposed to about a million North Americans, five and a half million Asians, and 700 thousand Europeans, excluding Russians. Africans in particular get stuck doing jobs no one else wants, especially dangerous ones. Some of them get jobs as bouncers in dubious nightclubs in Roppongi, (Tokyo's big entertainment district) and engage in questionable activities. They have become the focus of many right-wing politicians' diatribes on how Japan is being ruined by foreigners. To hear those politicians talk, Japanese people never commit crimes and before foreigners entered the country, it was a land of milk and honey.

Debra -- That is a good story, and you should write about it!

I once volunteered at the Catholic Worker's soup kitchen in New York -- a real eye-opening experience -- and yet from what I've heard from friends who've lived in very poor countries, the people who patronized the Catholic Worker were living a pretty good life, by comparison. If I can teach any one thing to my kids, I hope I'll manage to teach this -- that a lot of very bright, good people in this world don't have anywhere near our material gifts, yet manage to cope admirably. We can certainly learn from them.

APW -- I want to believe that this sort of coincidence is for the best. And I try to ignore the negative coincidences and pretend that they too have occurred for good reasons.

Chris -- Yes, I have been feeling mighty philosophical lately. I think I'll need to write about something more, ah, earthy so as not to get a reputation as one of those dime store philosophers with a lesson for a day. And yet I LOVE and admire Mr Rogers. What a quandary!

Ello said...

Oh Mary, I must be emotional today because that made me teary. What a lovely story. What a lovely man! God bless him and his wife.

Kappa no He said...

When I lived in an international dorm I met so many people from all over the world like Jacob. My favorite was the woman from Myanmar who sent almost her entire monthly stipend to her husband and daughter back home. One day she had tears in her eyes...he husband was able to install electricity into their small house. Now her daughter didn't have to study by candlelight anymore.

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- There are some people you can't bear to see let down or hurt, and the more hopeful and hard-working they are, the more this is so. Every time I heard about what was going on in Jacob's life, I was humbled and shocked, but my colleague insisted he'd never met anyone happier or more delighted with his good fortune. And he wasn't stupid. Weird, isn't it? Wish I had more of what he had.

Kappa -- That is a great story. I knew people like her. While those of us from wealthier countries blew our stipends on fun stuff, they lived simply on a fraction of theirs and sent the rest home. They made the rest of us feel pretty spoiled and shallow. A Chinese woman I know mourned that the one thing she could not send home to her daughter was books -- she couldn't get over how many books she could buy in Tokyo, and how wonderful they were. We Americans took them so much for granted.

You must have been a stippy! Right?