There’s a local supermarket on the basement level of the shopping centre where my school is. Over the past year, I’ve started to frequent the 弁当 (bentou: lunch box) section as my go-to lunch.
Since I rotate through the selection, I didn’t think my colleagues would pick up on what I consistently push away with my chopsticks.
“You don’t like spaghetti?”
I looked at the five strips of pasta. I’m not joking. It literally comes with half a forkful of spaghetti.
“日本っぽいから (nihon-ppoi kara: the flavour’s Japanesey),” I muttered, hoping they wouldn’t find offence.
“How about this?” They gestured to the grey pickled strips in the far corner.
“I don’t like it,” I continued to sulk, poking at its strange texture. “What is it?”
They “えぇ (ehh: umm)”-ed for a bit before settling on, “roots.”
I paused for a moment to let them reconsider their translation. “Roots,” I repeated, just to be sure.
“Hmm, かな (kana: maybe),” they glanced at each other.
“They used to serve this to the prisoners of war in World War II,” my chill head teacher said.
And suddenly flashbacks of primary school history classes came rushing back.
Other than videos of Gallipoli, we also watched interviews of Australian POWs from Japanese camps every year.
“They fed us roots and such,” the veterans explained to the camera, describing their treatment.
So back in my office, I gasped at the grey stuff. “Wait. That was actual food?!”
Culture shock isn’t a discussion that I shy away from. Partially because I’m fascinated by how different our societies are. And partially because it’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist in the first place: to learn about and share cultures.
I may not be a journalist just yet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t participate in culture exchange. In fact, my day job as an English teacher is ideal to do so.
Students love to hear about really everyday things. “What’s the weather like in Australia?” “What do you usually eat for dinner in Australia?”
Sometimes they’re surprised by things I took for granted. “Christmas is in summer?” “There are different constellations in the Southern Hemisphere?” “People say ‘I love you’ to their friends?”
But quite often, since I’m the one immersed in their culture, I’m on the learning end.
They teach me pieces and chunks of history and folklore. They bring local specialties for me to try. They highlight the differences between traditional and modern trends. They’re constantly teaching me the language.
The most interesting thing for me is when they let slip how they perceive foreigners and our culture.
“So hugging is weird once you’re in primary school?” I asked once when we went drinking after work.
“Girls could hug their friends…” they trailed off.
They scoffed. “No.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “Not even parents? Or siblings?”
“Of course not!”
お兄ちゃん, who grew up in the States, laughed at my shock. But my manager, who had only spent a year abroad, was just as shocked as I was.
“You hug your brother?” she said, a little torn between surprise and laughter.
“Yeah, of course I do! He’s pretty much my best friend!”
She paused for a moment in case I was joking. I really wasn’t.
“Wow,” she said, visibly thinking it over. “So…do you tell him you love him too?”
But I was someone who had only seen Japanese culture from a distance – usually through manga or Japanese game shows (which I now know are full of actors. That’s a story for another day…).
On the other hand, Hollywood and western pop culture are widely recognised by Japan. As such, I’d assumed that I would be the only one surprised by this conversation.
“But wait. People here know Full House and Friends and stuff,” I said later on in the conversation. “How do they accept our behaviour in those shows?”
“Well,” said お兄ちゃん, “it’s like when you watch science fiction. It might make sense in that world but it doesn’t affect what you do in your world.”
“Mmmm そう (sou: yeah),” agreed my manager, before adding, “and we don’t know if you really do it in America.”
I thought back to the anime I watched before coming. Then I thought about everything I had learnt so far about Japanese culture since then.
Oh, I thought, good point.
While most of these conversations are fascinating and enlightening in equal measures, sometimes they do touch on, or even focus on, heavier and more sensitive topics. World War II, for example. Eating whale, for another.
There have been very few times when students have directly asked me for my personal opinion of something so sensitive, but it does happen.
Other expats tell me to actively avoid these topics. Even my company has recommended that before.
It’s understandable, but I respectfully disagree. For a few reasons.
1. It’s important to talk about it.
I didn’t expect to learn about the media as a suburban teacher. But surprise, surprise, I did. Perhaps the most important: people really don’t know what to trust in the media.
Exposure is incredibly important for all types of issues and mass media, such as television and the Internet, is perfect for that. But, like hugging and Friends, it can turn what we consider to be normal behaviour into something akin to science fiction.
For me, talking with actual people is so much more convincing than anything I see or read, especially since there is no agenda for the conversation.
The risks are there, for sure.
Ethnically, I’m Chinese – not everyone from my family’s one hundred percent over what happened in Nanking. I also come from Australia, who weren’t allies with Japan during the War and, in present day, directly opposes Japan’s whaling industry.
But I’m now at least two generations removed from World War II. Besides, not talking about what matters to me won’t change anything.
I’ve learnt a lot and discovered that actually, I had a lot of prejudice before coming over. Probably still have, if we’re going to be completely honest. And it’s not to say that I agree with everything they do but it certainly helps to understand why they do it.
I didn’t know why they give so little personal leave to full time employees. I didn’t know that feeding roots to WWII POWs wasn’t a form of torture.
I didn’t know that many baby boomers ate whales for school lunches because they were a cheap source of protein. I didn’t know that a lot of people just consider them to be fish. I don’t even know where you buy whale meat, to be honest. Or if I’ve eaten any…
In the same way, it’s also been eye opening to look at my own cultures from a foreign perspective.
2. We have the opportunity.
I don’t know about you, but when I meet someone from another culture, the first thing I want to talk about doesn’t usually concern war. It may very well be an important discussion, sure, but it’s not exactly one to have after the usual pleasantries.
For expats and foreigners, there aren’t many opportunities to talk about things that go beyond jobs, food, travel, and – oh, I don’t know – karaoke. Building enough Japanese to effectively express myself for simple day-to-day tasks is already proving harder than I expected. Finding others who have enough English isn’t a walk in the park either.
Besides, as the guests of the this country, it would be hugely insensitive in most cases for us to initiate conversations that might offend literally everyone around us.
For locals, the problem is that in such a monocultural society, most people aren’t in regular contact with foreigners. They’re even less likely to have a personal relationship with one that stretches beyond business. And even when this does happen, it seems pretty rare for them to confront topics that have the potential to put this relationship at any risk.
At a language school, not only are there locals who see me regularly, but they also have a decent grasp of English, a good majority of them are curious about our culture, and I’m expected to pry into their lives somewhat. So, even though it’s not likely to come up in conversations, it is more probable.
3. We’re less likely to misunderstand each other.
In my small experience, most people who want to stay in Japan for longer than a few months learn Japanese.
What I’ve found is that when you start learning a language, you’re really learning a new value system.
For example, did you know you can’t really swear in Japanese? There are words that are impolite and there are ways to communicate really inappropriate things. But you can’t really translate the F bomb.
Similarly, they have certain phrases that are untranslatable in English. One example, よろくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) can mean anything from “thank you in advance,” to “I look forward to doing business with you.”
With such sensitive issues, there’s always a fear of misunderstanding. It’s why I’m always nervous talking about the cards closest to my chest.
Add a cultural divide and well, it doesn’t get any easier.
I’ve written quite a few times on my misunderstandings across both English and Japanese. So it’s not to say that we can do it perfectly, but expats certainly have an advantage in that we have a better understanding of Japanese culture.
After all, we have to live by their rules and expectations to a certain extent.
We’ve had this time to learn about them, their culture and their language. The way we interact with them is probably more comfortable to them than many other foreigners.
To summarise, as Mean Girls so eloquently put it: