Can Ouiser Walk the Walk? Culture Lesson #13

My view of the beach.

I lie loose limbed on the beach. Hammered. Spouse patiently pushes Offspring #2 to the start position surfing while Offspring #1 tests various versions of surfboards in order to find the one which will guarantee injury. One of the ubiquitous tourist families tramps dangerously close to my invisibly cordoned off area.

I roll on to my side, point at the youngest tow-headed blonde with my mai tai- “Hey- kid- want to hear the story about the time I was shipwrecked- with only a volleyball to keep me company?”

The mother “Hrumphs” and pushes the kids with her body, her hands fully occupied with floats, towels, beach bag, hat, while her body is layered with a folding chair and bottled drinks. I plop back down. Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted. Thinking. Worrying. Wondering.

About the last 7 months. What I’ve learned. Has it changed me. Have I done it right? In the early stages of planning the move, I read that cultural differences between the Eastern and Western peoples were insurmountable to business conduction, not until as late as the 1850s did Japan open to trade with outside countries forever changing her face. I gathered dirt in my fist letting it gently fall through, raised my eyes to Heaven, and vowed with heart-felt conviction to assimilate, mix with the locals, learn the language, and follow the local customs except in the case of eating eyeballs which I will not do again even if it requires feigning a seizure. Through out the last several days, I can see Japanese cultural values dictating their actions and I wonder just what it takes for an old dog to learn a new trick.

The day after the earthquake, the government announced rolling black outs, citizens were encouraged to curtail the use of power. Happily I complied by putting the washer and dryer in full shut down mode. Spouse questioned my motives by pointing out these appliances had been in non-working order for at least a week as he was out of clean socks. Unfortunately, the dishes could be hand washed. Well- that’s what I had kids for- so they got to work. Much to my amazement I learned that most businesses in Japan voluntarily implemented a reduced work day, with retail establishments – other than food or restaurants- operating only 5-8 hours per day. Many closed all together. Had I owned a business, I would have kept that sucker open 24/7, especially knowing my competition was closed, “Being there for you in your darkest hour.” I might be forced out of business during the coming black outs and uncertainty ahead. Giving away some free chotskies to ensure everyone knew I was open would seal my reputation as the go to gal. In the process, I would have driven a stake through the heart of my business because my actions would not consistent with the Japanese value of Giri. A duty or social obligation, doing what society expects of you. In this case, society expects all Japanese to preserve power in order to help those working on the power plant thus helping all of Japan, especially those most hurt by the tsunamis. Anyone not actively supporting the voluntary power reductions would not be seen as showing appropriate giri- and would suffer repercussions in a very quiet way- like through an empty store. Ninjo is the human counter to Giri- what the individual wants vs what society expects.

Thus far the majority of the people I’ve seen on tv have been foreigners. In one instance, a Japanese news crew attempted to cajole a passing group of Japanese folks in to an interview in the Sendai area. They were met with flat refusals. Me? Before being asked I would have scribbled a big note on my Mole Skin to hold behind the reporter, “Have the Air Force drop Chocolate.” Flash a peace sign. Humility. When I see a camera in Tokyo, I run for it, when the Japanese see it, they run from it.

Tokyo is home to 23 million people most of whom commute on a bus or train. Immediately following the earthquake, all trains were stopped, the only means of transportation available to the working public were the buses. Since average ride time for a commuter is one hour, most of the commuters had the pleasure of spending the night in subway stations or restaurants until Saturday morning. I go rabid when putting myself in a commuter’s shoes. After spending the night on the floor, suffering  a 9.0 earthquake, and dealing with uncertainty regarding family, these commuters now had to compete with 15 million other passengers to get home- all at the same time. And they all stood, patiently, in line, no pushing, no shoving, no yelling. No matter what, the Japanese are Polite. In this case, I would’ve walked home. It’s a shame I find astronomy so incredibly boring because it would’ve been extremely difficult to navigate home not knowing how to use the stars to find my coordinates. Always using the subway has left me in the precarious position of not knowing how to get anywhere above ground.

I’m from the South, as in the Southern United States. We’re huggers. It’s not affection, it’s a form of greeting. It goes like this, an ear crushing “HEY!!!” followed by a hug. A most appalling interaction to the Japanese when the Social Chairman and I greet each other- she’s a native of Tennessee and we are always so glad to see each other that a LOUD “HEY” ensues. Followed by a long, tight, hug. Japan is a “DO NOT TOUCH” society. Greetings are done with bows- unless a westerner is involved in which a hand shake is acceptable. Public displays of affection are considered rude and classless. Immediately after the earthquake, I returned to our apartment and one of the receptionists walked out to greet me. I said “HEY!!” and gave her a hug. A brick would have been more responsive. Just don’t do it.

Japan has been criticized for not requesting help in light of the disasters she faces. Resources from generous individuals and countries pour in regardless of Japan’s position. Japan will struggle with a concept called On– or being indebted. The Japanese are very careful to repay all gifts and favors shown. If one gives a gift to a Japanese person, that person can expect to receive one of equal value soon. The repayment is made in kind. Gift giving is a post on its own and one that I’m learning very well. I hope that On does not extend to natural disasters.

As I stirred my mai tai with a salty finger and  pondered these concepts, I was rudely snatched up by the back of my tankini,

“Honey, no more terrorizing the natives. You’ve had your fun for the day. Let’s go.”

Well, I’m trying.

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23 Responses to Can Ouiser Walk the Walk? Culture Lesson #13

  1. Life really looks tough where you are now! 😉 I think that the fact that you are debating all these cultural issues, when you could just be relaxing, means that you have already taken some of those cultural lessons on board.

    By the way, I really appreciate being on your blogroll, but I’m not strictly speaking an ex-pat. That would be my parents – I was born in South Africa. Although I do feel a little stranded here as it’s only my mother and I who live here. The rest of the clan is still in Europe.


    • amblerangel says:

      Well- you’re on the Blog Roll-and you’re not coming off now! But I might have to change the name…..Emiel’s blog isn’t ExPat either come to think of it…. There- I have something new to contemplate while I marinate on the beach!!!!


  2. I laughed out loud at the notion of Offspring 1 trying out surfboards hoping to locate the one that would “guarantee injury.” Too funny!

    Yes, we are huggers in the South, and that form of greeting didn’t go well in Vietnam either. In Haiti folks kiss one another on the cheek–something I got used to only in time to leave–ALAS!

    I’ve always loved your blog, but now I’m reading it like a sacred text. Still no ultimate decision on our end. I like certainty, so this is killing me!

    HUGS from Kentucky,


    • amblerangel says:

      Honestly- he looks for it.

      The kissing puts me over the top as I am basically a touch me not and like the way the Japanese do things in that regard! One time someone kissed me ON THE LIPs at work and I had apoplexy right there on the spot.

      As to the other- I feel your pain sister.


  3. Lisa says:

    Very thoughtful and powerful post. I don’t know if you can ever truly assimilate to Japanese culture (although granted I only lived there three years, not long enough to find out). You will always be gaijin. But, you can respect, honor, and accept that the differences exist. All you can do is try. I think that the Japanese recognize and respect when people make honest attempts at navigating the complexities of Japanese culture.


    • amblerangel says:

      I think you’re so right Lisa- you get a lot of points for trying. I don’t expect to ever be an insider- but I do hope to be one of those that’s not ignored completely!


  4. The gift thing is very similar to the Russian tradition of gift giving. It took me years to realize that I don’t have to give back bigger and better. People were trying to explain to me that if you are given a gift it’s not because they expecting something from you in return. It’s been 20 years for me here in US and I am still very much custom to the Russian tradition – if someone gives you a gift you repay with the same quality gift or better, but am all for hugs and smiles. It also took me sometime to get use to the fact that you don’t need to know a person to give him a smile or a “Hi” or maybe it’s just a Midwest thing….


  5. Catherine Cerqua says:

    Glad to hear you are all safe and doing well. I cannot imagine the upset and stress you have all been through. But, you were right to leave. When I read your blog the other day re how you are remaining strong for the children so they do not get upset, I thought to myself, “isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?” I am not a parent, but I have sat on the sidelines and watched COUNTLESS friends and family raise children with all different approaches. My take is that they need to learn the skills of how to handle stress and disappointments from their parents. I’ve seen children of friends turn to drugs or alcohol in their teen years because they can’t take the “stress”. In most cases it’s because the parents didn’t show by example how to do that and not turn to other things. Personally, I think you are doing a great job……even if it takes a mai-tai or two to keep going….nothing wrong with that.

    I always thought it would be interesting to live in another country. But I have to say, from reading your blogs, it is difficult to get through the day in Japan. I could not function with most people around me not speaking English, signs not in English, bus station signs, etc in Japanese. I think I would have to live someplace where everyone spoke my language. Of course, I’m almost 60. Maybe at a younger age it would be a challenge.

    I watch the TV reports and feel so sad for the people hit by the disaster. I can’t imagine this wall of water coming toward me and I have to chose whether to grab my child, my pet or an irreplacable photo, all in 2 min and get the hell out of there. It is a testament to their strength.

    I’m afraid it will be some time B4 they are back on their feet. Maybe you and the kids should live in Hawaii and have Spouse commute on weekends. Imagine the tan you would have…….but then you’d be drinking mai-tai’s EVERY SINGLE DAY. Oh joy!


  6. Olga SE says:

    Great post, Emily! So deep, thought-provoking and touching. As for running a business, in Russia it is the same as in the USA: businessmen are doing their best to make profit, so businesses are open till late at night. As for hugging, I suppose we’re somewhere in between America and Japan: some people like to hug, others don’t, so a handshake is an appropriate form of greeting for the majority.
    I liked your photo on the subway! 🙂


  7. Tori Nelson says:

    Your verbally educating the tourist kid on the beach is priceless.
    Love your insight into the differences of cultures. You have quite the unique experience and we are all learning from it!


  8. Dana says:

    Although I’m not a huge hugger, I am definitely somebody who smiles at EVERY. SINGLE. PASSERBY and offers a friendly ‘hello’. It was shocking to go to the Czech Republic, where nobody even looks at each other on the streets, let alone verbally acknowledges them. Every time I offered a cheerful “Dobry den!”, I was regarded with suspicion or downright hostility. How quickly I forget about the painful history of the Czechs. How easily I bring my naive Canadian ways into the context-laden world of those who were oppressed for so long…


    • amblerangel says:

      I’m the same way. It’s hard also to go to the East Coast and not look people in the eye when you pass…. they think you’re crazy if you look at them – much less say hello.


  9. So glad you are safe and well, been thinking of you and yours.

    Loved this post, I dont know how you do it – I am huger, and being from NJ i am very LOUD too boot. i’d never make it over there!


  10. The Nose says:

    Too bad you don’t have The Hurricaine (dog) on the beach with you. People don’t usually get closer than 100 feet of us when we are out. You could even fake friendly- “This spot isn’t taken! Right here by my 100 pound black dog with the frothing mouth- nonsense- of course she doesn’t bite!!” She is so handy that way.


  11. Thanks for adding me to your blog roll 🙂 – I totally relate to your questions about adapting to a foreign culture. I think I’ve fully assimilated the less admirable qualities of my fellow citizens – I push and shove with the best of them and cheer the taxi-driver as he hurtles on the wrong side of the road to overtake a line of slow-moving vehicles. Thankfully I haven’t quite got around to spitting (a.k.a. clearing one’s throat of the phlegm demons) in public yet, and I hope that day doesn’t come. But I can’t say I’ve learned to be patient and humble and to give everyone else the “face” that they deserve, and the many other better-valued traits belonging to my hosts. I guess it’s a process….a very long process


  12. Marissa says:

    Wonderfully interesting post! Thanks so much for sharing your life-adventure with us! Blessings, Marissa


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