Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making friends...

Oh man, I am so blown away right now by the kindness of the Japanese people I've met. I don't mean to generalize--I hate it when someone says, "Oh, I love (insert here) people," since it's about as ignorant as saying you hate an entire group, and gushing over a whole population makes me sound like an idiot, basically. I've definitely experienced Japanese people who seem straight-up frightened and weirded out by me for no reason. But the majority of the people I've spent time with here have been warm and tolerant and friendly to an extent with which I'm totally unaccustomed.

Yesterday I met the school nurse, who excitedly told me her daughter loves America and would be coming in that afternoon to meet me. At 2 pm I was led into a small room where I spend the next two hours drinking coffee and chatting with the nurse and her super cute daughters, in my slowest English sprinkled with the few random Japanese words I know (read: sugoi, kawaii, atsui, arigatoo), aided by their electronic Japanese to English dictionary. It was my first time interacting with Japanese people in a non-professional/non-drunken setting, and it was exciting for me in a way I usually don't feel about human interaction. I often find unfamiliar social situations really draining, since frankly, I don't like people very much, but this was so fun! And sort of hippie-dippie in a "we're all just people, no matter where we're from" way... it's amazing how much communication can occur between people speaking different languages.

Today I went to lunch with them and the Japanese history teacher here, and the nurse treated me. This is another thing--I've lost count of how many times people insisted on paying for me as a "welcome to Japan!" At lunch, I learned some slang and how to tell students to shut up, which will probably come in handy once classes start. I also tried to teach them as many English phrases as possible, but people keep giving me the feeling that my presence alone is enough. At first I wondered if everyone was sort of taking pity on the hapless foreigner, but I don't think that's the case--they're truly interested in getting to know me and acquainting me with their culture.

And as soon as I got back to school, another teacher brought me to her aunt, who is a tailor specializing in yukata. Yukata are slightly less formal kimono that are worn at Japanese festivals and holidays--I saw quite a few at a fireworks festival I went to last week. Being dressed in a yukata is quite the process, with lots of layers and wrapping in an extremely precise way to create perfectly straight lines down the body. It took probably 15-20 minutes, and then I was photographed inside and outside in the yukata, with the aunt, the teacher, two cousins, and a cousin's baby (who was wearing a baby-yukata!) I'll post the photos as soon as I get them. Again, throughout I felt nothing but warmth from the aunt, and even though she spoke no English we kept laughing and--it felt like--conversing through gestures and random phrases. I don't think I can do justice to how fascinating the experience was, not just for cultural value, but for the fact that all these people took all this time out of their day to share honored customs with a complete stranger.

A cynical person might say that the reason the Japanese are so curious, tolerant, and kind to foreigners is that their country is under no threat from them--Japan has essentially a homogenous monoculture, and no worries that I know of about immigrants stealing jobs away or diluting traditions. This is probably partly the case, honestly. But I think patience and generosity are also valued here in a way specific to Japan--there's this universal understanding of preserving "group harmony" as essential, far more important than prioritizing individual needs. The American idea of individual freedom often is interpreted as every man for himself, which doesn't exactly lead to a co-worker taking time out of their busy schedule to make sure you have nice towels and things for your apartment when you move to a new place. And again, maybe that's just because there's less urgency here to compete, because everyone has more or less the same sort of cultural background and value system. I'm not sure. I'm not even saying this way is superior--but so far, I have to say that from a selfish perspective, it's been amazing for me.

Example of a yukata


  1. What do you wear underneath!??!

  2. its like a slip, kind of? light and sheer but wrapped pretty tight. yukata are surprisingly corset-like

  3. I have not had the opportunity to wear the yukata I picked up in Jpn; they are a little difficult to put on by oneself. If you go out for a tea ceremony, they may dress you up in a yukata again. (Do you get to keep this one??)

    I think people in New York City can be very nice, but only when asked (for example, with directions)--we don't go out of our way to OFFER our time or help to a stranger/new person too often. Oddly enough, I was thinking about this yesterday in Chipotle... the staff was very helpful and friendly to this couple that could not speak English well, they were French. And asking a lot of questions about what's it like in France, etc. I wonder if they would have been so helpful had they been struggling with English and not European? Not saying that racism doesn't exist over there, or anywhere else, but I think that people in the US can be particularly nasty to non-white foreigners.

  4. All I can say is that it would take a WHOLE lot of wrapping to make straight lines on me!

  5. I can't wait to see the pictures! I'm so happy you're having such an unbelievable experience so far.

  6. Enjoy the free lunches and over-excessive hospitality! It will last for a couple months, but it DOES die down eventually. Last year I was starting to think "geez, maybe this is a permanent fixture" but nothing good lasts forever

  7. We Americans have a "treat everyone exactly the same" fixation, so we tend not to give foreigners any special treatment, and we maintain the same demands on them "WTF you can't speak English? Are you stupid?" While Japan, for better or worse, does not believe in treating everyone the same. As a new guest, you get special perks.