My blogging block has largely been due to not knowing what is and isn’t interesting to read. The last thing I want is to bore you with the details of life in Japan until you resolve to never visit this wonderful country.
Having gradually started to get back in touch with friends from home after being terrible at keeping contact, my view of blogging has been refreshed. Half of the things I expect to skip over (“…you know, that thing that Japanese people do…”) actually require a detailed explanation for my stories to be understood. But the most important reminder came from my first trip outside of Asia since arriving in Japan. Taking advantage of Spring break and some saved-up overtime, I took a two-week yasumi (rest) in New York City.
I was unprepared for the culture shock that was to come and it didn’t wait for me to get ready, hitting me on the plane before we had even left Tokyo. Surrounded by Americans, I was in a state of shock listening to and watching them bump into people and drop their luggage without apologising, demanding things of flight attendants without pleases and thank yous, handing over documents, tickets and rubbish without looking the receiver in the eye. Japan has made me very used to giving and receiving sincere apologies, whether or not something is my fault, and receiving requests so laced with pleases, thank yous, and sorrys that I can barely understand them.
Ultimately, I did not find people in New York to be particularly rude or impolite, but their behaviour is (as is ours back home) very different. Polite words are often used without real sincerity, or are obviously used out of habit. Thanks are said with tips rather than compliments, deep bows and heartfelt thank yous. The former are two things that I found hard to adjust to in my short Western break: tipping and the lack of bowing.
Tipping in Japan is unheard of in almost all situations, and it isn’t uncommon for a shop assistant or waiter to chase you with your change if you have overpaid. The high tipping rate in America really baffled me: how can you really say thank you when a service was amazing when such a large gratuity is standard? In Japan, a price is a price and there is no room for interpretation or negotiation, and anything you wish to give as extra comes in either words or non-monetary gifts.
A hard habit to kick is bowing: I found myself dipping my head to shop assistants in New York or bowing to thank someone for letting me go ahead or pass them. It’s something that seemed so foreign to me when I arrived in Japan and has become quite natural. I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered when to use the 75-90° bow, but I feel comfortable with when to give the small ones.
I spent my first days in New York annoying my friend with observations along the lines of “that’s so strange! In Japan, they … ”. Everything I experienced in the first few days became something to compare with its Japanese equivalent. I was shocked to remember that at home, too, we don’t have a way of saying ‘itadakimasu’ (I receive – i.e. bon appetit) or ‘gochisousamadeshita’ (lit.: it was a feast) and found myself muttering it under my breath for at least the first day or so, though that habit slipped away fairly quickly considering just how often I was feasting…
Public transport was also a point of fascination for me. Dirty, noisy and bustling, New York’s subway never ceased to amaze and intrigue me after eight months in Japan. Even in the big cities here, the trains are spotlessly clean and people sit or stand motionlessly and silently. It is forbidden to speak on the phone on public transport lest you disturb other passengers and, as with every public space in Japan, people are expected to take any rubbish they have home with them. The result is that most public transportation is calming and a good place to relax and reflect, whereas the New York subway was somewhat of a never ending show for me – performers and beggars, yes, but also fascinating characters from all walks of life who were just as entertaining.
Not only was visiting New York a fun way to compare two vastly different countries and cultures, it was also my first trip back to the West. In a way I think that it was important for my homesickness levels that my first trip out of the East was to a foreign country rather than to my own. It made me realise that many of the things I miss are available elsewhere, and I needn’t pine for England so much. Food was one of the main ones – this girl cried leaving the cheese aisle in the supermarket on the second day – cheese, bread, pastries, ham, pizza and coffee are all things that exist in Japan but just aren’t the same. Above all, though, was the reminder of lowered social responsibility. Not only are social obligations complex and incredibly important in Japan, but living in such a small community, my minor celebrity status means that putting a foot out of line isn’t something to be taken lightly.
It was hard to face leaving New York to come back to the pressures and lack of cheese in my foreign home, but as the plane touched down (after a painfully long flight) and I saw a long lines of cherry trees in bloom on either side of the runway, and staff bowed to greet us as we stepped out of the plane, and a shop assistant treated me to a beaming smile as I purchased a freshly pressed fruit juice in my dehydrated state, and I got onto a silent bus for my airport transfer, I started to remember what I like about this place.