We are in the final stretch of not only classes at Nanzan University, but of our time in Japan. Thus far, my posts have covered exciting places and events, but not everything has been as easy as relaxing in the onsen or watching parades. Studying abroad in a new country, in a completely different culture, has its share of obstacles. These I would like to share with you.
Although I have only been living in Japan for roughly three months, the cultural differences I have noticed have changed my views of both Japanese and American lifestyles. As gaijin, exchange students, when confronted with a difficult or even unpleasant situation, we must find a way to work through it. Many situations test our tolerance, ability to listen, and patience. Throughout the process, though, by maintaining an open mind, one learns how to cope with the cultural differences; the ability to compromise is strengthened.
Walking down the streets, I have heard “gaijin-da!” exclaimed in shock and “gaikokujin-san,” uttered by children. In Japan any foreigner is usually referred to as a gaijin or gaikokujin, both of which mean “foreign person.” Because I have mainly heard only children call me by this word, I am not particularly bothered; rather, I find it interesting that any outsider, from any country, is called by the same word. Once on my way home I heard a group of skate-boarding grade-schoolers call me this; I turned around, waved, and was surprised to hear “See you!” shouted back in English. I smiled to myself; these kids were not afraid to practice their English skills. These kids were strangers, but they reached out by initiating communication. I appreciate instances like this because sometimes initiating conversation at school is difficult, even with learners of English.
The Japanese, as discussed in class and observed first-hand, are a shy people. Listening to and speaking Japanese all day, every day has improved my conversation skills, but the language barrier is still noticeable when a Japanese individual is too shy to initiate or further a conversation. Students may not wish to draw attention and oftentimes completely avoid uncomfortable situations. Speaking with a gaijin may both draw attention and lead to a tough situation. Oftentimes a Japanese individual, when speaking with a foreigner, will use English.
For exchange students, including myself, this situation is a bit frustrating. I think, “But I understand Japanese! I can speak Japanese!” However, Japanese students learning English are enthusiastic about comparing and contrasting the two languages. When friends at school wish to practice English, I compromise by asking the Japanese equivalents of vocabulary and grammar. Comical word translations in katakana kotoba (loanwords) have led to some great conversations. “Donmai,” for example, is a shortened “Don’t mind” but has the English meaning of “never mind.” Students feel shy about speaking English yet wish to speak English with native speakers.
Because foreigners are pretty rare here in Japan, sometimes Japanese individuals simply do not know how to act or what to say when actually dealing with one. They might freeze on the spot, avoid eye contact, or ignore your questions. Indirectness is another prominent feature of the Japanese culture and language but is nevertheless frustrating at times. The concept of uchi/soto (in-group/out-group) maintains a further distance in new relationships. Whether in the school, business, or family setting, everyone is very aware of their status – especially when speaking to one another. In culture class, we have discussed this concept in detail. Once another person enters your “bubble,” you must immediately work to find where you stand in relation to them. Strangers on the train, though, may not apologize when they bump into you; this is because you have no relations.
Although fast and completely convenient, commuting by subway has its downsides, too. Differences in “manners” between America and Japan are exemplified at the train stations. Morning subways are packed. You may not have a seat for your entire commute – which may last anywhere from eight minutes to just under two hours one-way. Older men and women are usually first to board and leave the trains, but sarariiman (business men) often disregard the lines and exit first. Make sure to stand to the side of the doorway; everyone exiting has the right-of-way.
After everyone exits, those boarding the train then may enter. You may end up a bit smashed, and no one apologizes for bumping into you. Unless one feels that unless someone has been inconvenienced, it is not common for the Japanese to say Sorry! or Excuse me in the trains. Actually, no one speaks much at all during the morning commute; older individuals read books, students study or listen to music, and someone is always sleeping, head lolling onto their neighbor.
Differences in manners, indirectness, and awareness of hierarchy are concepts a gaijin must recognize and work through. Sometimes Japanese mannerisms and tendencies come off as rude because of different cultural practices, but learning to deal prompts changes in one’s own perspectives and perhaps actions. Instead of disregarding a new concept or observation, try first asking why there is a difference.