My travels have opened my eyes and heart to other cultures. But sometimes it is a steep learning curve to communicate and function in a foreign land. As I journeyed to 4 Japanese cities in 12 days on teaching business, I felt way out of my element and clumsy in my efforts to behave appropriately in a vastly different environment. The image of a bull in a china shop kept flitting before my eyes every time I did something that felt dissonant and out of place. Thank goodness for the goodwill and generosity of my hosts.
Here are some of the many bloopers I made.
To begin with, everything is small, precise and beautiful in Japan. The people are orderly, fashionable, demure, and unendingly polite. Citizens stand in perfect lines, one behind the other, on train platforms. They speak quietly, if at all, in public places like elevators, restaurants and on trains. Children are quiet and obedient. The mere act of conversing with my travel companion, Marifer, made me feel like I was shouting in a place of worship. Never mind the times when we actually did have to call out to one another when we found ourselves separated in a store or train station.
The food everywhere is exquisitely prepared. At my first breakfast at Hotel Associa in Shizuoka, I was overwhelmed by the many dishes and the artful presentation of the bounty. I promptly whacked one of the dishes with my purse, sending a pair of tiny serving tongs flying. When I turned to retrieve them, I stepped on them and mangled them beyond repair. Oh no.
According to my guide book on Japanese culture, being punctual is highly valued and expected. In my everyday life, I pride myself on arriving on time to all appointments. But, on my first day of teaching at Shizuoka University, I inadvertently took a taxi to the wrong campus, causing me to be twenty minutes late for my first day of school. When I arrived, the University President, Dean and several lead administrators were waiting for me outside the entrance in the 95 degree heat. Oh no.
My embarrassment grew when I saw the students all dressed in suits. I wore my Eileen Fisher black dress pants, a lovely brightly colored tunic and sandals. But everyone else wore sedate, muted clothing, stockings and pumps. Oops again.
My first ride on the subway at rush hour had me looking like anything but the streetwise New Yorker I am. I was so busy gawking that I failed to note the announcement about which doors would open. When the doors shot open, the crowd poured out onto the platform. I was caught off balance and carried backwards at a terrifying pace. I screeched Wait! Wait!, but there was no stemming the tide. Oops.
I failed miserably at remembering to take my shoes of before entering dressing rooms in clothing stores. I did not carry a handkerchief to sneeze into and my elbow, while recommended for germ control in NYC, did not appear to be the preferred method in Japan. I learned quickly not to rub my wooden chopsticks together, as that implies that your host has supplied you with substandard chopsticks. I did not make enough noise slurping my noodle soup, but I made way too much noise in the bathroom, until I discovered the button on the toilet that turns on the sound of rushing water, so that no one else will have to hear you pee. Bodily sounds and smells are frowned upon in Japan, and for me, well, holding everything in became a full time job!
I think that the mistake that mortified me most, besides the lateness, happened during a conversation with the husband of my host at dinner. Sleep deprivation and earnest efforts to communicate beyond the language barrier had me grasping for a topic. Someone at the table mentioned soccer, and I blurted out, “Yes, it was so exciting when our team won the World Cup this year, with the parade and everything!” Then it hit me – oh no – we beat THEM for the title. Ack!
I have no doubt that I didn’t bow deeply enough or bowed too much. I complimented my host’s outfit one day, not knowing that she would then go out and buy me the tunic I’d admired. I said yes when I should have said no first to generous offers made by our hosts. It felt awkward to have them pay for everything, yet arguing about this felt very rude. I truly have never met a more generous or kind people. There were several times when we asked for directions, when someone would walk blocks out of their way to accompany us to our destination.
I wish to send thank you gifts to all of the people who helped us during out stay. A Japanese man on my return flight said, “Oh NO! Don’t do that. They will only feel the burden to send you another gift in return!” We could learn a lot from the Japanese about how to treat one another. I am praying that they remember more about my teaching skills than my American manners.