We all need to offer some small level of sympathy to people in difficult situations. In most cases, you couldn’t ever blame someone for causing the mess they find themselves in, not with so much in the world we can’t control or predict. That’s why it’s important to have a little compassion. That’s what I certainly had when I went to see Xunlyn the night before she left Japan. I learnt a great deal from her on that last night. Over the past year her belongings had more than tripled and it all needed to be packed, shipped, donated, trashed or catapulted from the window at people (5 points for children, 10 for adults, 15 for cyclists, 20 if you knock them down and 100 points if you hit Elodie). I watched in horror and the sheer scale of it all, and the multiple bags that were already full. It was in this moment I saw my own future; countless books, clothes and toys to be moved on the last day accumulated over an entire year. If not for this revelation, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the foresight to start shipping early (instead of the more ridiculous solution of limiting my book-off expenditure).
I arrived to take some books off her hands (Japanese language books. It was for my studies ok!) and she took the opportunity, as anyone who was drowning in junk would, to try and give me much more (it’s the only case of drowning where the victim is throwing stuff at you rather than the other way around). Among these things was money. Yes, she gave me money. Japanese currency, not fake, actual money that Book-off does accept in exchange for merchandise. How could anyone refuse that? Certainly not me; my funds had run quite low and I still needed to eat, so I discovered. There was one catch however. It was all in small change. But hey, money is still money right. You see, Xunlyn during her stay had started to accumulate an awful amount of small change but rather than painstakingly find ways to be rid it, she instead opted to bury it. The coffin in question, was a panda-shaped piggy bank (panda bank feels more appropriate). Her purse gradually became less of a cannonball as the panda bank greedily ate up all the small change over the months, but by the end of the year she still had a very overweight panda to deal with (it’s why pandas prefer bamboo over change. It keeps them slim). There was little sense in taking it home; it already weighed as much a real panda and it’s next to impossible to exchange foreign change into your own currency. Of course there was always the option to catapult it (it would have been an easy 20 points), but she decided to offer me the weaponised panda instead. Before you accuse me of hoarding, please know I did refuse her rainbow beach ball, an extra dozen koala toys and a horse mask.
First thing was to count up the plunder so I tipped it all out onto my bed. It came up to 2458 yen in total which is a substantial sum, especially for the starving among us but the denominations were the difficult part. You see, with the odd 10 or 5 yen coin here or there, the bulk of it was made up of 1 yen coins. I easily had more than 2200 coins scattered across my bed. I could have scooped it all back inside but the thing is, coins rattling inside the cute insides of a plastic panda aren’t much use to me. I needed to spend them. Without a Japanese bank account I couldn’t deposit it and frankly, I didn’t want the headache of going through the bureaucratic system just to get rid of some coins (in case you’re unaware, Japanese paperwork currently occupies the 5th circle of hell, only superseded by whiney protest singers on the 6th and people who talk in the cinema on the 7th).
You can’t carry over 2200 coins wherever you go and you certainly can’t count them on the fly. So I constructed my great strategy. I separated out the 1 yen coins and stacked them in piles of 10 on top of a piece of cardboard. Each column was 5 piles long, meaning I could easily and efficiently scoop up 50 yen at a time into my coin pouch, all of it already counted out. Standing out on my balcony I looked into the night sky and swore my pledge to every God, cicada and creepy Japanese guy hiding in the bushes that would listen; hence forth, I would not allow any future expenditure to made without the use of 1 yen coins. I had thousands to get rid of in under 6 months.
Now I feel like I should introduce Lin to you. Poor Lin was like myself; doomed by circumstance and a victim of a situation that he hadn’t caused, just as I had been when thousands of coins fell into my custody. I offered him every sympathy that he deserved for that, and I’m sure he did the same back for me. Lin worked the night shift at the convenience store beside the dormitory, the one we all visited for cheap (ish) food and ice cream. I’m certain that Lin never grew to hate me, just the situation that we both regrettably landed ourselves in. You see, in those days we used to study in the library every night and we developed a tradition of breaking for convenience food and later on a 2am ice cream run. What better place was there to spend so many coins, than a regular schedule to a convenience store less than a minutes walk from the dorm.
Of course I tried many other places too, experimenting to find the most efficient method. I tried it with subway tickets but the machine refused them. I tried it at book-off but the lady behind the counter took 20 minutes to count a hundred coins and I simply couldn’t afford to wait that long every single time. I tried it at the supermarket but the price would fluctuate so much with every visit that it became too hard to predict how many coins I would need to bring. No, the convenience store was easily the best option. If I didn’t bring enough, I could be back in a flash with the exact number of coins and at 2 am, no lines of waiting customers behind you to worry about. It was simply destined to be, and nobody can resist that.
It didn’t take long for the strain to show. The first night I placed 50 coins on the counter I received a surprised look but he dutifully counted them all. The second night the same again. On the third it was a mildly annoyed look. I didn’t reach a week before I felt the heat of his hate and pain radiate from behind the counter when he saw me enter. I suppose I must have been easily recognisable; barefoot, red poncho and always strolling in at the same time each night. I always brought exact change so I simply emptied my coin pouch on the counter; all he had to do was confirm the count. As I got more comfortable with the schedule, so did my shopping list increase. Some nights I’d be hungry for gyoza, or harumaki or maybe some chocolate to accompany the ice cream later on. His heart began to sink and his face visibly darkened as he watched me, the solitary customer adding more items to his list, and increasing the price steadily.
But all was not lost. There was hope within this unfortunate but necessary scenario. Behind the counter was a coin tray that would help him count. You simply stacked the coins into the slots and the tray would mark the figure at the correct height; it had a maximum height of 50 coins so that was usually all I brought with me, and supplemented the remaining cost with my standard change. Sometimes I’d bring more though, and it was a simple process of stacking 50, emptying it out and then stacking the next 50.
After a few weeks he refused to count it altogether. As I approached he would slam the tray onto the counter, step back and cross his arms and wait for me to stack the coins myself. I feel as though this was a sign of great trust and that we had reached a new level in our relationship. Not a word was exchanged in these encounters beyond the standard greetings and thank you’s but shared hardship bring people together I think.
There was only one truly awful moment and I was quick to learn from mistake. As the year drew to a close I still had many coins left so I made an active effort to bring more than 50 at a time. I brought 300 instead. Lin was not surprised when I emptied the coin pouch. He started at me in avid disbelief and all I could do was help him stack them up into the tray. Six fills later, it was ready to be deposited into the cash register which was now overflowing slightly with coins (but there’s no reason to think that was all because of me). Lin pinched 150 coins between a finger on each hand and lifted it toward the open register and then the unthinkable happened. Maybe he pinched too hard. Maybe he was distracted. One coin slipped and then all 150 exploded out of his grip, spraying across the floor in fountains of silver. The horror was black on his face and he stood frozen, surrounded by pools of coins. I couldn’t even help him pick them all up because they had all landed on his side of the counter. My nervous smile did not cheer him up.
The atmosphere was harsh in those months. Kara and Svetlana openly refused to enter the store with me any longer, fearful of being associated with the man with the 1 yen coins. As for Lin, he never said いらっしゃいませ again.
Now before you declare blame, please understand it was not XUGLUN’s fault, nor anybody else’s for this tragic series of events. It was simply a bad situation to be in for us all, so we shouldn’t compare our pain. We both deserved sympathy. But remember, 1 yen coins are still money and Lin was being paid to do his job. Over those 6 months I handed more than 2400 yen in 1 yen coins in that store, which is quite a feat. I was left with approximately 30 yen left by my last day, which I offered to Kara. If You ever read this Lin, I’d just like to say, I’m sorry I made your job ever so slightly more difficult than it needed to be. But let’s face it, there was a huge positive to all of this. When you accepted the night shift you guessed it would be boring right? I helped keep you awake a, kept you on your toes. Could you imagine Lin, just how bored you would have been without me?