Cultural differences. We all hear about cultural differences. Throw in a healthy dose of buzzwords like cultural relativism and we either have a training session for studying abroad, an introductory sociology course, or a bad conversation.
You can go very far in another culture by just remembering that your preconceptions are irrelevant. By trying to see with eyes unclouded by everything you have ever done or known. That works. For a while.
You can use chopsticks?!?
This is a comment that a lot of foreigners get in Japan. Its kind of a constant. It started to bother me when I studied abroad here, but its not bothered me at all this time. The secret? I read about this being a frequent conversation starter, and not necessarily that the person saying it actually gives a damn about your ability to use chopsticks. I have to admit, I think that there is a bit too much unmasked awe in the voices and faces that witness my chopstick usage, but I'm willing to believe in this concept anyway. I am pretty sure its at least fifty percent true.
It should be known that there is a hierarchy to these complements.
- Aww. Let me show you how to use chopsticks.
- You can use chopsticks!
- You're better with chopsticks than my son. He's four.
- You're better than my first year elementary students!
- You're as good as my second year junior high students!
- You're better than me! (Note: no adult will ever say this. If an adult does say this, look for their angle, immediately.)
Your Japanese is so good!!!
Another favorite faux-compliment. In the same vein as chopstick skills, its mostly a filler comment, but... sometimes it isn't, and it can be frightening. The worst was watching an older lady continue to compliment a friend on their Japanese when the person hadn't spoken any Japanese. It was just awkward to watch the situation unfold.
In the Intermediate Japanese textbook that I used for my third year Japanese class, in one of its invaluable cultural explanation segments it says that Japanese are still unable to believe that foreigners can speak their language because ninety years ago, and during the Meiji Restoration, no outsiders could adequately speak the language. The textbook then goes on to describe how some individuals may be so shocked by a foreigner speaking the language that they will simply freeze and become incapable of responding.
I haven't run into the "frozen with fear" response, and hopefully I never will. Something that is frequently remarked upon is that compliments about Japanese and actual capability with the language tend to exhibit an inverse relationship.
Manners and Transportation
People can compliment my Japanese, they can discuss my chopstick abilities as if I were an inanimate lump. They have my enthusiastic permission. Just tap me on the shoulder when you change conversations, if don't mind.
But. But. But. There is something that befuddles me in my daily life here in Japan, and its how people act while going places. You may have heard that in Japan people drive on the left side of the road. That is actually a technicality, which you shouldn't bother remembering. The reality is that people drive wherever the hell they want to, when its convenient to them. An intimately connected corollary is that people pause wherever they want to, regardless of others in their vicinity.
Now I will present a quick little pop quiz about transportation in Japan. I have been told it closely resembles the driving test you must pass to obtain an official Japanese driving license, but actually it ranges a bit more broadly than that.
Choose yes or no for each questions.
- Driving on the left side of the road is encouraged, but not mandatory.
- If, while driving, you receive a call on your cellphone, you must stop without warning and answer the call, and may not proceed until speaking leisurely for a minimum of five minutes.
- If you are passing through a ticket turnstill at a train station, it is appropriate to pause, regardless of any number of individuals trying to use the same turnstill.
- It is appropriate to stop walking anywhere at anytime, irregardless of causing inconvenience to all others nearby.
- It inappropriate to turn on lights when it is raining. If the glass infront of the headlights was cracked, and rain happened to come into contact with the bulb, then it would cause substantial damage to the bulb and the rain. Be safe, and don't use headlights during inclimate weather!
- After reaching the respected age of fifty, laws no longer apply to you, and infact are exist at your convenience. Please enforce them with reckless abandon on anyone who has not yet acchieved post-legal nirvana.
- There is always one more parking space.
- Police will persecute violators of traffic laws. Espectially during the hours of 9-5 in large cities.
If you answer yes to every question, and only if you answer yes to every question, then you are fully certifiable for life in Japan. Otherwise you are not. Its that simple. I don't really know why this gets to me, but its one of the few cultural issues that has on occasion actually caused me to get a bit frustrated. Its just... so inconsiderate. And then I realize that it isn't inconsiderate here, its just normal. Nothing to worry about. But sometimes it gnaws at me a little bit.
I think perhaps its because its so hard to anticipate. In a conversation you can see the chopsticks or Japanese comments approaching, but inconsideration is random and unplanned. Sometimes the abruptness shocks me.