Monday, June 17, 2013

Forgetting and Relearning

Growing up in the South,  I told myself that manners in Japan would not be that different from the famous Southern hospitality and old-time manners I was was always surrounded by. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the inevitable hierarchy of the office space and the keigo (honorific language) used by the service industry. However, immediately upon my arrival in Narita International Airport, I realized the just the extent of my naivety in assuming I would blend seamlessly into a city half-way across the world from my hometown, with 2600 times more people to boot.

Here is a list of some of initial observations of different manners and customs I have seen so far during my trip to Japan.

  • There is no common phrase in Japanese to say "bless you" for sneezes
  • You walk on the left side of the street to be polite instead of the right
  • When you first meet someone you bow instead of shaking hands
  • Although the service industry is very customer oriented, you never pay your bill at your table but rather you walk to the cashier
  • When you enter a house and some restaurants, you always take off your shoes before entering
  • You never place your bag on the floor at restaurants but rather in conveniently provided boxes beside your chair
  • Throwing away trash is a very resourceful but complicated process of separating it into combustibles, incombustibles, and recyclables (each neighborhood also has its own rules for recycling which makes it even more complicated)

Whenever you enter a foreign country there is to a certain extent a process of forgetting old customs and learning new ones. Every day is a part of the continual process of forgetting and relearning only to have the same process repeated on your return trip home. However, while this might be true in a generic sense, as time has gone by, I have realized that while many of these customs are not exactly the same ones as the ones I grew up with, they are not entirely different either. I have begun to find that these culturally specific manners are simply a different vein of a similar intent: to humble yourself and show care to your neighbor always, an admirable aspiration indeed.

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