Japanese people do plenty of things that surprise me. It’s only fair that what we do surprises them too.
Having said that, keep in mind that most of the Japanese people I asked to help me with this post have either lived or studied overseas before.
Teaching in a school like mine isn’t dissimilar to putting on a one-man slapstick show. One where audience participation is very strongly encouraged. I’m bubbly with my adult students and affectionate with my kids. Overall, the energy I put into interactions is on par with an energy drink commercial.
Just to be clear, I’m not changing my personality or being insincere… most of the time, anyway. My reactions are just amplified.
Switching on whenever I see a student or someone I’m trying to befriend, like the Starbucks staff, can be exhausting. So with my coworkers and friends, I relax. My energy output is more moderated and my humour drier. Explaining this to my manager lest she find me unprofessional (a cardinal sin in Japan) gives her a slight shock every time.
“A few years ago, I couldn’t really talk to strangers.” “I hate public speaking.” “I didn’t sing in front of people in Australia.” “I don’t like being in pictures or videos.” “If we’re not at work, I’m really awkward and I’m not sure what to say.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Me too,” she’ll reply. Then, after some thought, “I didn’t think that foreigners were like that too.”
Girls in Japan are girly. Like, really girly.
They can pull off wearing really bright pink and fluffy things. The ratio of bag/keychain to accessories is simply not practical. In conversation, they squeal at things and react almost comically. Most high school girls I’ve talked to want to be housewives.
I, on the other hand, am not girly by anyone’s standards. And that’s confusing.
Examples? I don’t wear makeup.
“Oh,” they said, trying to reason it out. “Not a lot.”
“Do you mean today?”
“I mean …ever.”
“えぇぇ! (ehhh: what?!)”
They then proceeded to stare at my face for an uncomfortable length of time.
Other things: I don’t have any skirts. I didn’t know how to choose shoes for a wedding… then after they chose a pair for me to match a dress they lent me, I didn’t know how to walk in heels (I had friend be my crutch for the day). Unless it’s winter, I don’t dry my hair let alone do anything “fun” with it. I consistently tell hairdressers that anything’s fine – half because I don’t understand what they’re asking me and half because I don’t really care. I don’t have moisturiser in my bathroom.
A foreign teacher from Canada started at our neighbouring school earlier this year. Apparently, she’s often told point blank to act more like a girl. Thankfully, it hasn’t happened to me yet because I wouldn’t even know how to process that request.
On the flip side, because of my exposure to these girly girls, my speech is apparently much more feminine in Japanese than English.
I’ve mentioned before that Japanese people use blood types as a horoscope for their personalities. Even those who don’t believe it or take it seriously will mention it from time to time.
I call one of my friends here お兄ちゃん (oniichan: big brother) because of his nurturing and protective relationship with me. I’m pretty sure he’s not going to read this but if he does, he’s going to deny it vehemently.
Regardless, whenever I travel with him and his wife – whether it’s to Costco or Disneyland, Yokohama or Hakone – I turn my brain off and just follow his lead.
“That’s because he’s an A-type,” my manager told me last weekend. We were standing around chatting and waiting for him to figure out which bus would take us to the barbecue site.
“Type A means,” she continued off my confused face, “that he plans everything in detail.”
It’s so common for them to use this terminology that they’ll use it as a conversation starter. “What blood type are you?” is as much of an ice breaking question as “what do you do in your downtime?”
That’s why they’re confused when most foreigners admit they don’t know their own blood type. Luckily for me, I was a blood donor in Australia and all the the Red Cross knick knacks I got over the years are all labelled with my blood type.
I’m going to teach you an important Japanese phrase:
“チーズ! (cheezu: say cheese!)”
That’s the cue for everyone to hold their fingers up in a peace sign. Grin big. Look cute for the camera.
When お兄ちゃん took his wife to the States for their honeymoon, she was surprised to find not the peace sign but the duck face.
“Yeah. This,” I held my fingers up to my face, “is super Asian.”
She laughed. Hearing things described as “Asian” isn’t really common here either.
“なるほど (naruhodo: oh, I see)” she said, nodding. “People in America want to be sexy?”
“Well…yeah. They want to.”