Tag Archives: politeness

Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.

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Brazen Oldies

I’m used to being stared at in Japan, but one hundred and fifteen senior citizens all staring at me at once is a new experience to be honest. That they were expecting a speech from me was all the stranger. Yet, there I was in front of a collection of silver haired, wrinkle faced, smiling and occasionally snoring faces about to have a one hour ramble on all things Japanese and British.

I should perhaps clarify before people begin to think I make a habit of strolling into old folks homes and regaling a room full of pensioners with tales from a long dead empire. I’d actually been hired to do this as part of the usual rent-a-gaijin service my employers run, ‘Need a pale faced young man from rainier shores to promote your local service? We have your gaijin.’ There’s no harm in it, usually they just want someone to write a few words in English on their service. I did just that for a local river rafting company; that I ended up wearing a traditional peasants hat and blue happi (essentially the top half of a heavy cotton kimono or yukata) and posing for a photo was sheer coincidence. This time however, I was stood at the front of a large meeting room on the third floor of the local government building and sharing my thoughts on weather, sport and food in Japan and Britain.

The way it worked was that I’d reel off a short sentence or two and then a very nice English chap who’s been out here for many a year would translate my peculiar ramblings into much clearer Japanese.

My nervousness in such events often translates in an infuriating way. I can speak perfectly clearly, but my hands will shake a fair bit. It’s certainly not as bad as it was when I was kid, a year or so of bartending and now teaching everyday means I’m pretty confident when it comes to holding the attention of a table full of people but it’d be fair to say that a hundred and fifteen people is outside my usual comfort zone.

I started to ease into it all pretty quickly, even managing to get a few laughs when I mentioned how I became a Hiroshima Carp fan because supporting a winning team just doesn’t feel like… well like supporting a team really. Supporting England and Huddersfield Town is hardly the quick path to glory after all.

Eventually we reached the question and answer portion of the event from which I hadn’t really expected too many surprises. This is after all a nation of infuriatingly polite people and as such not prone to asking difficult questions. Usually never straying beyond, ‘is this delicious?’ But I’d forgotten that I live in a country where the elderly rule and inappropriate questions come not from the mouths of cheeky teenagers but from brazen oldies.

Militarism. Check. Nuclear weapons. Check.

It’s quite fortunate that on these two topics I generally agree wholeheartedly with the Japanese otherwise I’d know what one hundred and fifteen disapproving old Japanese people sound like.

Disappointingly I was asked the difference between England and Britain, some Japanese being blissfully unaware of the existence of Scottish people beyond scotch and the Welsh beyond… well they don’t know Wales is there really.

Fortunately one man had some inkling of the construction of our Kingdom and asked me whether all the countries in the UK still hate each other. No of course not, I told him.  They all hate England.

Though when abroad, they just hate that no one seems to know that Scotland isn’t a prefecture of England.

Going Dutch in Japan: England v. USA

The ambassadors to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) and the United States of America had wagered a steak dinner on the outcome. The British had even made a vague and possibly ill-advised attempt at smack talk. Sledging, in the cricketing sense, we can do. American style smack talk, god no. It’s just not cricket.  My American friend and I aimed a little lower to be honest. The largest plate of fries available in the somewhat grotty late night bar that would be showing the game at three thirty a.m. Japan time was our bet.

Yet, thanks to Rob Green’s charitable howler in goal, we, much like the ambassadors, were forced to split the bill on our fries as they intend to do on their steak dinners. A goal keeping error forcing those of us who wagered on the result to go Dutch, when the Oranje had nothing to do with the game no less.

Starving, the wagered fries were bought before the game even began, in what turned out to be a stroke of luck, as they were finished long before Green could tarnish them.

By three a.m. the bar had pretty much emptied out. Only myself, my American friend and a long term British ex pat in Japan who happened to stroll in looking for a place to watch the game were in residence. A group of young Japanese men with annoyingly large hair were around for the first half, blocking sections of the screen with their tenderly coiffed locks. Yet again though, this was good fortune as this merely spared me from seeing Aaron Lennon’s excuse for a cross.

Soon after these guys left, the bar gained a few late night regulars, some of the hostesses from the local snack bars came for a drink and something to eat after their shift. Paying little attention to the football unless the lone yank or myself rose to our feet and then collapsed back down onto the sofa lamenting the poor efforts of our respective teams. Though this being Japan they did become markedly more interested when David Beckham made fleeting appearances on screen, decked out in Marks and Spencer’s grey, looking, ‘Kakouii desu ne!’ or, ‘Good looking isn’t he!’ Compared to what was on the pitch, I was forced to agree. Unless of course it was Rooney in all his potato headed glory.

All the while, one of the bartenders, clearly exhausted after a long shift, had curled up on the sofas like a cat next to the hostess girls. Sleeping quite soundly through the cacophony of English swearing and accusations of pre-marital birth aimed at Shaun Wright Phillips.

As the match finished and I walked outside to begin my wander home I was once again confronted with reality’s harsh light; it was morning and England still aren’t up to much.

At least the fries were good.

Turning Japanese

What you aren’t prepared for, after the initial wave of culture shock has subsided and you have begun to settle down in Japan, is how much you become like the people who stare at you in this most homogenous of lands.

The kanji (Chinese characters) that make up all the signs seem less intimidating, even if they make no more sense. The strange game boy like pop music that erupts at midday from speakers littered across town no longer makes you feel like you’re about to run head first into a Pokémon and you’ve even stopped converting yen into pounds. But what you’re not prepared for is that you will begin to stare too. Not at the odd intricacies of life in the far east of which there are plenty, not at the random items of food you cannot even begin to identify, but at something quite similar to yourself; the other foreigners.

First you become more immune to the occasional whispering of (or downright yelling), ‘Gaijin da!’ Which can be translated roughly as, ‘Holy crap! Look, look, it’s a foreigner!’ However, the far, far more regular occurrence is staring. People in passing cars, folks in the supermarket, everyone in whatever bar you’ve just walked into will stare at you, or perform what they consider to be a surreptitious glance.

Then it happens to you. Walking along the street, minding your own business until another foreigner rolls into view and you find yourself doing pretty much everything other than shouting, ‘Gaijin da!’ It’s awkward for both of you really, because you’re both attempting the same surreptitious glance.

Still just occasionally this sense of shock that one’s own pale skin can induce in others has its perks. I had just finished teaching a lesson when the mother of one my students took her other kid, a one-year-old boy, of off her little backpack contraption as he was crying his eyes out. Once she had laid him down for only an instant on the desk to fix his little jumpsuit thing he stopped crying immediately. His eyes were wide, quite bewildered and fixed firmly upon me. I smiled and looked back, ‘Gaijin da.’ I said.

Kyoto Kindness: William Faulkner, Soba and Magic Words

Despite essentially being a long-term tourist in Japan I hate feeling like one of the shutterbug crowd, endlessly holding up people on the pavement taking photos of anything vaguely unfamiliar, which in Japan could mean pretty much anything.

It’s this desire to feel less foreign in a country where I am quite patently so, that often leads me to look for the quieter and the more local in cities teeming with tourists. Despite my rather limited Japanese these smaller places with significantly less English are often all the more friendly than their tourist centric counterparts.

In Kyoto especially, a beautiful city but always bursting with tourists both domestic and foreign, I found joy in escaping the bustle in such places. Not far from Kyoto train station, an enormous and impressive piece of architecture that climbs fifteen stories high (the tenth story being a floor of Ramen restaurants) and as much of a sight to see as the rest of the city, I found refuge and dinner in a small family place. A real hole in the wall in a part of town more populated with Starbucks and McDonald’s than mom and pop places. Finding only one customer but an entire family of chefs inside I perched myself at the bar. My seat was essentially the viewing area of the kitchen. Having worked in a kitchen in my teens as a lowly pot washer, I know that any kitchen willing to be open to the customer’s scrutiny is infinitely more professional as the usual temper tantrums and wannabe rock star egos tend to be reined in. However, whether such a culinary temperament exists in Japan I could not say, I only know that they put many of my former colleagues to shame on every level.

I ordered a bowl of steaming hot soba (buckwheat noodles) and a plate of tempura (deep fried vegetables and sea food). However, I had not counted on the immense generosity of their portions and I soon found myself attempting to eat equal amounts of each so as not to display favouritism to the creation of either chef, who were eyeing my greedy effort from inside the kitchen.

The matriarch of this clan of chefs pottered over towards me almost immediately upon my arrival, intent on a little natter. The usual questions were asked and as usual I answered as best I could. When asked where my hometown is I gave them the name and then so that they were not completely baffled I explained that it was near Manchester. The fate of most northerners abroad is to be from a village or town called NearLeeds or NearManchester.

This leads inevitably towards the question of Soccer (a word that makes my heart break a little every time I hear it) and Manchester Utd. So I explain that Man Utd are in the Premier League., to which they give strong nods to display their appreciation and avid devotion to, ‘English Premier League’, a slightly confused look at mentions of the Championship, and then complete shock that the third tier that is League One even exists; worse still that my team should reside within it. All is redeemed though when I reveal that my team’s mascot is a Yorkshire Terrier. Cuteness and little dogs, this is firm, sure ground in Japanese conversation.

I once revealed that little fact to a class and elicited a sharp gasp of surprise and perhaps terror as one student looked at me and asked, ‘My dog is English?!’

So having dispensed with all the usual questions and complimented their cooking as often as possible I was beginning to run out of Japanese and asked the question I hate to have to ask, ‘do you understand a little English?’ I feel dirty when I ask it because it is essentially an admission that you must rely on their greater understanding of a foreign language, in their own country no less. It feels rude on every level to me, but alas after half an hour of small talk I’m pretty much stuffed and so if they want to ask anything beyond the simple and polite I must rely on their high school English along with my little ipod Japanese dictionary going back and forth each time one of us forgets or doesn’t know a word. So having asked the question but not expecting an affirmative answer I was surprised when she gestured towards her son, the chef who had prepared my delicious tempura. He walked over and in flawless English said, ‘I speak a little English as I used to study English and American Literature in America, I’m particularly fond of William Faulkner.’ At that point, had I not already finished my bowl of soba my jaw would have dropped straight into it.

As much as it surprised me at the time (not that he understood a lot of English, that is quite common) that he spoke with such incredible fluency I can understand why he kept it to himself. In Kyoto I rarely heard a foreign tourist make any attempt at using even a little Japanese, not even something from a phrase book at the very least. No Konnichiwa (hello), no arigatou(thanks), no onegaishimas or o kudasai (please/may I have). I even met a perfectly nice American man who was intent on moving to Japan permanently, who had resided in Kyoto for three months already and had not learned a single word of Japanese. So when a tourist makes even a small attempt to speak Japanese they’ll engage more, talk more and generally be even friendlier than they already are. Yet, should a Japanese person reveal immediately that they understand every tourist perfectly, well that’s just an invitation for tourists to be more demanding and lazy. Not something I’d be keen to encourage either.

Aside from the fact it is simple politeness to do so, there are of course major benefits to speaking at least a little bit of the language, even if you only visit for a little while. Perched at the end of the bar at my hostel in Kyoto I noticed two Australian guys frantically gesturing for ten minutes trying to get one of the bar staff to notice them so they could order a beer. I took my time to finish my beer and then shouted, ‘sumimasen’ the bartender over in a flash, my drink immediately replaced and two stunned Aussies left asking, ‘what was that magic word you used?’

‘Excuse me.’