Tag Archives: culture

This Is How We Do It

All cultures revert to patterns and prescribed ways of doing and acting. Some cultures highly value tradition and some highly value innovation. There are pros and cons to each path.

On graphs that show typical cultural mindsets, Japan and the U.S. often fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One example of this is that the U.S. often embraces a new and unique way of doing something. Whether it is wearing jeans backwards or having pancakes for supper, the person who implements such change is considered “cool” or “innovative” or “pioneering.” Japan, on the other hand, values doing things a certain way because “This is how we do it.” Following you will find three examples of things that don’t quite jive in my brain, but which I accept are part of the culture and won’t change just because they befuddle me. 

1. Last Friday brought new reminders of the way things are done in Japan.  In the morning a group of five visitors came to see the principal. A couple of us scurried off to the kitchenette to prepare six cups of tea. Serving tea to a guest is pretty customary in Japan, especially in business situations, but I’ve also been served complementary tea at a pastry shop and at the jewelry shop I stepped into to have the screws on my glasses tightened. Serving tea at the school isn’t my job, but it was an especially slow morning and the woman whose job it was had stepped out of the building to run some errands. So there we are: the counselor, the interim math teacher, and me. The counselor was frazzled because she couldn’t find six tea cups that matched. 

“What about these?” I asked. There were six simple white cups that all matched. 

“Those are coffee cups,” she replied.

“Could we use them for tea?” I asked.

“No, they’re coffee cups.”

Okay. Well, I didn’t want to bring it to this, but, 

“In the U.S. we sometimes serve tea with cups that don’t match.”

“Really?” 

“Maybe we should just serve them coffee?” The young math teacher has now chimed in. The search for six matching tea cups has proved fruitless. Coffee it is. 

This was all taking place late morning, and the coffee had cooled down. To freshen it up, the counselor added boiling water to the pot. The math teacher set out saucers and packets of cream. I grabbed the sugar sticks. Some were blue and some were pink. I was hoping they wouldn’t care about that minor fact, but just in case, I put all of the blue sticks on one tray and all of the pink sticks on the other tray. 

As there was a good chance I would make a mistake in serving the coffee, I let the counselor and the math teacher go in with the trays. But as I sat pondering what had just happened, I realized it cleared up an incident from seven years ago.

Back in 2007 my family visited my older sister, who was living in this same town in Japan. At the time, she was working at this school. When my family came for a visit, we were all served coffee. I though this was because we were Americans and they assumed we liked coffee better. In fact, none of us drink coffee on a daily basis, and three or four of us downright despise it. Still, I got a few slurps down in order to be polite, but I remember thinking how weak it was. I barely could taste the coffee. Teachers rotate schools at a rapid pace in this district, so I don’t believe any of the faculty present seven years ago still works there today. But the cups may not have changed. And perhaps that is the entire reason that we were served weak coffee one hot August morning seven years ago.

2. Friday at lunch time another difference arose, albeit comparatively minor. While usually a school lunch was provided, because of a crazy schedule, we all brought our own lunch that day. One student had grapes in his lunch. I watched as he systematically began squeezing the pulp into his mouth and neatly laying the skins to the side. This wasn’t a personality quirk. I had heard this is how Japanese eat grapes, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. “You know, in America,” I remarked casually, “we eat the skins. My mother is a dietitian and she always told me the skins are good for me.” The students all looked appropriately amazed. “Here, give me a grape, and I’ll show you.” The boy obliged and I popped it into my mouth. A couple other students wanted to try too. They didn’t make faces or anything. But I can almost guarantee you that they will keep squeezing the pulp out every time they eat grapes. 

3. On Wednesday a student came into the teacher’s room (in Japanese schools the homerooms stay together, teachers revolve in and out, and when teachers aren’t teaching they return to a general teachers’ room). It almost looked like he was wearing makeup. Now, Japan does have makeup for men, but junior highers, male or female, aren’t allowed to wear makeup to school. I thought some more about what was different and realized his lips had a bluish tinge. 

“Have you been swimming?” I asked him. 

“Yes.”  

Japanese elementary and junior high schools, at least the ones around here, have pools and swimming is part of the P.E. curriculum. The temperature outside was about 23 C (73 Fahrenheit) and it was a cloudy day. I don’t know if the pool is heated or not. But the kid’s lips were blue. 

Now, I completely understand that they probably need to finish up their curriculum and the sudden drop in temperature (we lost about 10 Celsius/20 Fahrenheit degrees in a week) was unexpected. The thing that doesn’t quite work in my brain is that in the hottest part of summer, Japanese people become quite anxious if they see someone going for a run in the rain. Or a walk in the rain without an umbrella. One time some friends and I were hiking, got caught in a downpour, and began biking back. A woman pulled over and insisted we take plastic garbage bags and put them on. We were already soaked. And it was warm out. I just don’t quite get it. And mind you, this rain fear is not new from the radiation. It was present long before 2011. 

There are certain ways things are done. They may or may not make sense to me. But in fairness, most people in the world don’t understand why Americans will remain stopped at a red light when no one else is around. And that is a rule I faithfully followed, even when I recurrently finished a shift at 10:30 p.m. and had to wait on empty streets for the lights to change. We all have our own comprehension of the rules. I understand that, even if I don’t understand the individual customs.

 

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Strange Bedfellows

People say that when you live in a foreign country you change. It’s true. Naturally you pick up some of the culture of the inhabitants, your food and clothing preferences change, and you are stretched by having cross cultural interactions. 

But there are other ways you change that people don’t always tell you about. You change to accommodate what is available to you from your own country within the limitations of the local environment. 

Let me explain with the following examples, brought to you by the letter “M“:

A. Milk – I love milk. I am a die hard skim milk drinker. Through and through. And in the states, while I will occasionally drink 1%, given the choice between 2% and another beverage, I’ll pick the other beverage. Or go without. Whole milk is entirely out of the question. I don’t like the fatty taste or the way my stomach feels after drinking enormous quantities of fatty milk. It isn’t the lactose, as I will drink a quart of skim milk without flinching. It really is the fat. 

But I can’t find skim milk in Japan. At least not in my rural area. I can’t even find 1%. There is exactly one brand which carries 2% milk, and that is the only one I will buy. Early on, I had to face a decision: drink 2% or don’t drink milk at all. It wasn’t a hard decision. What’s more, the milk that shows up in school lunch is whole milk. At first it was strange to drink that cup a day. But I built up a tolerance to it. 

One of the local junior highs often sends milk home with my coworkers. My coworkers have more than they want to drink, so they offer it to me. I could turn up my nose at it, seeing as the fat content is higher than I prefer. Or I could accept it gladly. See, milk here is 188 yen a liter. That’s about $8 a gallon, for my U.S. readers. So if someone offers me six cups of milk (1.2 liters), I’m not about to turn up my nose at it, especially because that is one of the first items I run out of, so the milk is not only free but saves me trips to the grocery store. 

B. Music – Karaoke is big in Japan. In fact, the Japanese invented karaoke. In the states I didn’t go because most of my mental database is of the genre labeled “Christian.” While I appreciate a good melody, it is the lyrics that are most important to me. Songs have a way of solidifying their message in my brain, so I am careful about what I choose to sing. An awful lot of songs are about love, usually either the whirlwind of a fresh romance or the sorrow of unrequited love. I don’t seek out a lot of those songs. I don’t need the former reminding me of what I don’t have right now, and I don’t need the latter reminding me of where I have been in the past. 

Then came Japan and karaoke. I wanted to be able to engage with the culture, but I can’t read fast enough to keep up with the Japanese lyrics. Every karaoke selection I’ve seen has a large section of English songs. But they aren’t ones I inherently know. Living here has been a crash course in American pop songs. I’ve become familiar with the most popular songs from P!nk, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Plain White T’s, the Fray, and others. In fact, I’ve intentionally youtubed a lot of these songs so that I am ready for karaoke. 

C. McDonald’s – In the states I shunned McDonald’s. I didn’t like the way it made my stomach felt and there was almost always a healthier alternative. I went years without eating at that franchise.

Then came Japan. I don’t remember when I started frequenting McDonald’s, but now I go there once every couple of months. Sometimes it is because I’m craving beef. Other times it is because I just want something American. The other local U.S. franchises either altered their fare to fit the local taste buds (I’m lookin’ at you, KFC and Subway) or aren’t actually a meal (ahem, Starbucks) or are ridiculously difficult to get to ([cough], Dominos). So, I eat there. When I return to the U.S., I will probably shun McDonald’s again. But for now, I eat it. 

D. Marvel Comics – As a kid I never got into comic books, and being only slightly interested in the movies D.C. comics put out, I didn’t jump on the Marvel band wagon. Until Japan.

It started gradually: I watched The Avengers with some friends. The most frustrating thing to me was the lack of character development. Exactly why did I care about these people? But I realized most other people had seen the movies that came first. “I bet that would have made more sense to me,” I commented to Ashley, “if I had seen Iron Man first. Or Iron Man 2. Or Captain America. Or ThorOr a movie about the Hulk.” Her eyes grew wide. “You haven’t seen any of them?” Nope. 

And so the saga began. We watched all four movies, then went back and rewatched The Avengers. Last year I saw Iron Man 3 on one of my flights between Japan and the U.S. And last weekend I felt like seeing a movie, so I caught Captain America 2

Why? Why this sudden welcoming to Marvel Comics movies? Well, now that I’ve seen them I am following the genre, though clearly not wholeheartedly, else I would have bothered to see Thor 2 last year. It’s because there aren’t a lot of English movies that make it out to rural Japan. Sure we have our own collection of films, I subscribe to Hulu Japan, and there is a video rental store about half a mile away. But sometimes we just want to go see a movie in a theatre. And of those that make it to the nearby city, quite a few are dubbed into Japanese. 

In fact, to see some movies in English, we have to go to the next major city over. Instead of just a half hour, we’re traveling an hour and a quarter.  And even though I saw Captain America 2 while in Tokyo, it was the only movie in English in that cinema. I watch Marvel movies because Marvel movies are some of the only options I have. 

 

So, I am changing. At least for the time I am in Japan. I’m becoming more like the Japanese, but I’m also adapting pieces of American culture I never would have thought I’d adapt. C’est la vie. 

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The Fire Drill

Last week the junior high I teach at had a fire drill. 

I’m going to assume everyone reading this blog has a grid for what a typical fire drill entails. If the reader doesn’t, it usually is just making sure everyone exits in an orderly and safe fashion.

Here is what is different about Japanese fire drills (vs. U.S. ones):

1. The students changed their shoes on the way out. – Yes, Japanese take their shoes off when they enter houses. They also do it when they enter select businesses (schools and hospitals, yes. Traditional restaurants, yes. Most other stores, no). Since this was a planned drill, the students all collected their outdoor shoes from the cubby holes a few minutes before, then changed on the way out. I asked my co-teacher and he said in a real drill they would just go outside in their indoor shoes.

2. Once the students exited the building, they ran to the designated gathering point. My teachers always yelled at us if we broke into a jog. Here, it was expected. Not a full out sprint, but a rapid jog. Like storm troopers on a mission. 

3. They all wore caps – I knew about the shoes thing. My sister had told me about it years ago when she was a teacher in Japan. But this year, for the first time, I noticed the caps. Japanese students have caps that they wear during their daily cleaning time. Apparently they also wear them during fire drills. What I want to know is whether they would all reach for their caps in the case of a real fire. 

4. And they all held handkerchiefs – As far as I could gather, this was to have something to cover their mouths with to prevent smoke inhalation. Makes sense. But what if you don’t have the handkerchief with you? Do you dig through your bag to find it before exiting? So many questions…

5. They actually practiced putting out fires. It wasn’t a real fire, but the firemen who had come to observe the drill gave a short lecture and then about twenty students took turns taking the pin out of a fire extinguisher and aiming it at the fire. They used real extinguishers but filled them with water which was aimed at an orange pylon. This part I really like. I’m 30 years old and I’ve been shown how to use an extinguisher, but never having actually used it, I sometimes wonder if I would botch the whole operation in a panicky moment. Here they practice. I say, Good show!

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Navigating Valentine’s Day in Japan

One of the tricky things about living overseas is that even after one has been in the country a decent amount of time, there are still areas in which one feels completely clueless. 
 
Take Valentine’s Day. I know the Japanese have heard of Valentine’s Day. Before coming here I was told by multiple sources that Japanese women give men (coworkers, friends, etc.) gifts on Valentine’s Day and that men return the favor on March 14th, known here as White Day. The tricky thing is, I have not found that to be my experience. SOME of the ex-pats who work in other schools observed this. But it isn’t true in every school. I received some chocolate last White Day, but it was from an American coworker. And on neither Valentine’s Day I have spent in Japan have I seen any of the other female teachers in my junior high give gifts to anyone else. In fact, as far as I can tell, my workplace doesn’t observe it at all. 
 
But I wanted to observe it. The question was how. Giving gifts to my male coworkers was out. They are all married. I haven’t figured out if the Japanese consider this to be a holiday for lovers, but I wasn’t going to touch the implication of an affair with a ten foot pole. Giving Valentines to my junior high students was out too. The Japanese are all about being fair with their gifts, so unless I gave a valentine to EVERY student I really shouldn’t give them to ANY student. And that opened up a whole host of complications. I didn’t have 100 valentines. I only had 30. Even if I wanted to make up the difference, I can’t give 30 store bought valentines and 70 hand made ones. I would have had to hand cut out 100 hearts. This might have been possible if I hadn’t waited until the night before.
 
Eventually what I settled on was giving some valentines to the preschoolers who ride my bus. 12 children get on before I get off. That was a manageable number. So I dug out the Hello Kitty Valentines I bought on sale two years ago and schlepped over here, carefully wrote names on the front in Japanese script, inserted a little sticker in the crease inside, and sealed them shut with heart stickers. 
 
The next morning I waited for each student to climb on the bus, then handed him or her a valentine. The students admired it, but just sat gazing at the heart on the front. I wondered if they knew to open it up. Explaining didn’t work as I don’t know that kind of Japanese, and they don’t know that kind of English. I tried pantomiming with a spare valentine. Still nothing. But kids are kids, and eventually a four  year old girl named Mami bent the paper and saw that there was another picture inside, then asked the Japanese teacher to break the seal for her. That yielded more admiration: of stickers, of Hello Kitty, of the whole thing. What surprised me the most is how these cards captured their attention. A full thirty minutes elapses between the time that the first child gets on the bus and I get off the bus. Yet these preschoolers sat gazing at their valentines the whole time, only breaking when each subsequent child got on the bus to eagerly see if he or she would get a valentine too and to participate in the joy with them. Mami in particular was smiling and smiling and smiling. Usually Mami exudes the quiet brooding of an old soul, or of a youngster awakened from her nap and wondering what kind of fool this energetic person in front of her is. But this day she beamed winningly. 
 
For that alone, for that smile alone, it was worth all of the calculations and second guessing, all of the doubts and processing I did to try and figure out how to celebrate this day in a way that would make someone feel part of the love I have for them without being creepy or overbearing or suggestive, etc. 
 
The reality is, two years in a culture isn’t enough to master it. A lifetime isn’t enough to understand every nuance of a culture. A lot of times I have to decide which risks to take, and it can be scary because I don’t know what the implications of each decision are. But having such rewards as I have received gives me the confidence to keep taking risks. Like entering a pool from a high dive, it is a matter of carefully observing the area, then taking a deep breath and jumping.

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