My visit to Japan was simultaneously one of the easiest, hardest, most frustrating, most educational, and strangest experiences of my life. It was easy because I’d traveled before, so I didn’t have as much trouble with packing, jet lag, etc as some of my peers; hard because I was completely out of my cultural comfort zone; frustrating because I didn’t speak any Japanese; educational because of the dozens of cultural details I picked up; and strange because a lot of the experiences were completely unexpected. It’s very easy, living in America, to forget that the rest of the world exists. We eat our McDonalds and play with our iPhones and assume everyone lives the same way. Well, in Japan they have McDonalds and iPhones too, thanks to us, but they also have Torii gates and three alphabets and respect for their elders. They have a different attitude and different traditional values, yet welcome us rude, fat Americans with smiles and polite bows.
I’m not completely sure why I’m fascinated by cultural ‘quirks,’ the little habits that one has to pick up to assimilate, but they were very enjoyable to observe in Japan. Placing the money on the counter when making a purchase instead of handing it straight to the cashier was one of the most predominant things, as I observed my peers ignoring the tray on the counter and holding the money out while all the natives looked confused. I’m not sure why money is exchanged this way, but now I know it is, and this became second nature to me. For the few days I’ve been back in America, I’ve been placing cash on the counter, getting irritated looks from cashiers as they have to make the extra effort of picking it up. There was also a set of etiquette surrounding chopsticks that I wasn’t expecting, everything from not stabbing meat, to not inserting the chopsticks vertically in rice, to not passing food from your chopsticks to someone else’s. These were a little more easy to explain than the money-on-the-counter thing, because chopsticks are placed vertically in bowls of rice for traditional Japanese funeral rites, so doing this in a restaurant is implying that the food is fit for dead people. Still, the eating etiquette we have in America is only used at formal dinners and cotillions, so remembering details while eating in Japan was something we weren’t used to.
One of the things that has changed about myself from this adventure is the desire to be aware of what’s going on in the world: yes, I have always known that an awareness of foreign affairs is important to the modern adult, but I had avoided it like the plague. Politics have always seemed sticky and irritating to me, and I’d pretty much lumped all international news under the ‘politics’ category. But after having experienced Japan (I did go abroad when I was younger, but this was my first time abroad where I felt like an adult) I am truly, sincerely aware that there are other countries out there with different cultures and different values. Re-reading this paragraph it sounds insanely stupid, but basically this trip has made me want to read the news and know what’s going on in the world.
Japan also taught me courtesy. I had thought that I was a relatively polite person, but when compared to your average Japanese ten year old, I am still rude and uneducated. Being respectful not only of others’ cultures, beliefs and traditions, but also of their personhood and opinions, is something I will be certain to focus on in the future.
If you’re reading this on my blog, thanks for reading. If you’re reading this because you’re my teacher, thanks for taking me to Japan. I will never forget those three weeks.