Cultural Encounters of the Queer Kind

Now that I’m settling in and have only just begun training for my new job, I’ve had a couple of days to explore Koriyama city and enjoy discovering the little idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture. Indeed, I’ve already been tested on a few tenets after an unexpected meeting at “The Mall” (think cheap JC Penny’s or Wal-Mart, which, incidentally, I believe owns this department store) near my apartment.

It was my second or third day in the city, and a fellow teacher asked if I’d like to do some exploring and shopping around Koriyama. It was getting late, so we decided to make our final stop the sports department to look for some hiking shoes and a Frisbee. While discussing dinner plans, an older man with wispy white hair accosted us at the top of the escalator.

Where we're going, we don't need escalators.

Where we’re going, we don’t need escalators.

He asked where we were from and whether we had time for a “five-minute lesson”. A five-minute lesson turned into free dinner and conversation in a booth-lined restaurant cozied up on the top floor of the mall. We attended politely his questions, all the while my stomach rumbling: the night monster, as my friends back in Pennsylvania refer to my revolting gluttonous habit of late-night eating, threatened to come out.

Buster Bluth I'm a monster

After insisting I order a fried dish – something on which I will not, and cannot, relent because of that fun thing I have called Celiac’s Disease – he then schooled me on the proper order of eating each dish on my tray, beginning with the sticky rice, then the salty miso soup (oops – a big no-no), and so on. The effect of jet lag on my appetite, it suddenly seemed, was wearing off, and my patience wearing down. All in all, however, our spontaneous meeting/English lesson with the retiree, long as it lasted, was pleasant and a quirky introduction to the friendly city.

I’ve noted some other cultural differences during my time at the school and while in the motions of everyday living:

Sidewalk Rules

Easy; there are none. Or at least there doesn’t seem to be. As is with vehicular traffic, pedestrians have the right-away, but try assuring yourself that when a bicycle is veering at you at top speed in the middle of the pavement.

Conversation lapses

Easier still; there shouldn’t be any. I realize this could be just the case when entertaining an American client, say, but it seems there should always be a constant stream of talking here or, at the very least, much smiling.

Appearance

Part of the teachers’ meeting last week at our school included a policy reminder on appropriate attire for the workplace. Colored socks or brightly colored or distracting ties and dress shirts are forbidden, and clean shaven faces (daily), good posture, and suit jacket are required. I remarked aloud, to some laughs, thankfully, that my entire outfit that day was an example of basically what not to wear.

Right down to my rainbow piano socks.

Right down to my rainbow piano socks.

Receiving/Giving money

Always with two hands. Given how clumsy I am to begin with, it makes for some interesting, and most likely amusing, juggling every time I go to the 7-11 near my apartment. Money here is treated respectfully, which can be seen in how the word itself in Japanese, o-kane, is given the honorable “o” prefix, as is o-cha (green tea) and o-sake (alcohol).

Etiquette

Although to a foreigner it might be difficult to keep all the rules of etiquette in mind, it’s one of my favorite things about Japanese customs: the bowing, the respective expressions “itadakimsu” and “gochisousama” before and after a meal, the taking off of shoes at restaurants, the pouring of sake for another while they, in turn, fill your sake cup, and the oodles of other expression to present one’s self as humble and respectful. A fantasy, sure, but I believe Americans could benefit greatly implementing these kind of things into everyday habits.

Dining

Concerning the aforementioned example, I’m uncertain whether there is really a specific order in which to eat things, but there are two far more important customs to keep in mind when dining: always pour another’s sake and allow them to pour yours, and never pass food between chopsticks, as it alludes to a certain ritual following the cremation of a loved one. Again, although I don’t always hear the expressions used, it’s still great fun to exclaim “Itadakimasu!” (“I humbly receive this meal”) and “Gochisousama!” (“Thank you for the meal; it’s been a feast”) at meals and a hearty “Kanpai!” with glass clinking.

I look forward to learning more customs as well as struggling with the ones that contradict my American upbringing. Shitsureishimasu!

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