Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Human Nature: Greenpeace days

We worked on a shoestring budget when I was in Greenpeace. After all, our money came from people who donated their hard-earned cash toward our effort, and we were careful how we used it. Still, we could afford an occasional meal out while we were in Japan, and so we accepted the invitation of some English teachers to a restaurant we'd never been to before.

But when we cracked open the menu, we knew we'd come to the wrong place. Nearly everything was more expensive than we could afford without obliterating our budget for the rest of the month. So we did what you have to in such a situation: we ate low on the financial food chain. I ordered a side of rice, someone else ordered a bowl of miso soup, one of the guys had beer, as I recall. 

The English teachers spent with abandon--in those days, English teachers were well compensated in Japan. It was a jolly party, a Friday, I think, and they were off for the weekend. We had a lovely time until the check came, and it was announced that we would divide it evenly--this, it turned out, was how the teachers always did it. Did we complain? I don't remember; I think we were too embarrassed to point out the obvious. Someone figured out how much everyone owed, and we Greenpeacers grimly ponied up our portion of the bill, helping to pay for everyone else's sushi and sashimi and sake and Sapporo.

And then we left, abruptly. Quick excuses, we would not be coerced into staying, we were out the door. Except Alfred. 

Alfred stayed, and partied on with the oblivious teachers, which the rest of us, back in our apartment, hungrily fixing dinner while bitterly complaining, could scarcely believe. It seemed to me that Alfred often had a unique take on a given situation, but this time he seemed practically a turncoat, willing to party on, spending more money that we couldn't afford. 

Our pal, Alfredo
Hours later, Alfred arrived back home, and took a seat, asking, "Why'd you all leave so soon?"

"Why did we leave?! Why did you stay?" I demanded. 

"They were really nice--" he tried, which caused the rest of us to boil up in indignation all over again.

But Alfred insisted, "No, no. I thought they were really very nice people." And then he began pulling yen out of his pockets. Bill after bill, from first one pocket then another and another.

The teachers, it turned out, had been puzzled by our abrupt departure, and had wheedled the reason out of amicable Alfred. As he explained our financial circumstances, so different from their own that it hadn't occurred to them to wonder why we'd eaten so little, they responded by pulling out bills and showering him with them.

"No, no!" Alfred showed us how he'd protested, while nonetheless accepting all the bills that were pushed on him.

The amount totaled far more than we'd spent, adding nicely to our budget for the rest of the month. We marveled over our change of luck--and over the fact that sometimes, you need a Alfred in your group.

(Want to read more about Greenpeace days? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the word Greenpeace.)  


  1. Such a funny, wonderful story.

  2. And he was right - they were really nice!

  3. It's so hard to be up-front and practical without getting defensive. Imagine being confident enough to say, as a soon as you opened the menu, "Oh, we can't afford this. So sorry. What shall we do?"
    All the teachers wanted was a chance to enjoy your company and speak English with some new people. Good for Alfred for giving them a chance to be the nice people they truly were.

  4. Such a good story of human kindness. I always think it is good to be upfront (Sure, we do not mind going out with you, but we are on a budget so...) but in this case, the lesson would not have been gained.

  5. Yeah, we thought we'd come up with a quiet way to deal with it without having to disrupt everyone...we just didn't know about their tradition of splitting the cost evenly until it was too late. Oh, and these were Americans & other native English speakers, living in Tokyo. They just really did make WAY, WAY, WAY MORE money than we did, but this fact was only obvious to us...

  6. Every group needs an Alfredo!