As you may know, I used to live and work in Japan on the JET programme. During my few years there, I lived in the countryside – nothing but rice fields and mountains. The most beautiful place. But I was the only white person in my village – there was a Brazilian family and quite a few Chinese who worked at the factories nearby.
I just read a really interesting blog post by new Frankfurter Roots, Wings, and Other Things about questions American people ask her about Germany. I really hope that some of the things on that list are exaggerations!! It made me think back to my time in Japan and the funny things my Japanese friends and coworkers used to ask me.
Though it’s not a cultural question, coming in 3rd is this one exchange that happened in a class I was teaching along with my favourite Japanese co-worker, Mrs I. She’s retired now, but has so much passion for English – as soon as she retired she went back to university and started studying English again! Anyway, this happened in a 2nd grade class – kids around 12 years old. Mrs I was explaining all the different ways the work “by” can be used… “get this done by 2pm”, “I went by train”… when one boy put his hand up.
“Mrs I, my dad says that ‘by’ means when a man loves women but also men as well. Is this true?!”
Mrs I looked bewildered – she’d never contemplated such people existing before – and turned to me, expecting a reply. Luckily I was saved by the bell…
In at number 2…
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the students of the school have to take out 20 minutes to clean the school. I say clean… it was mainly lazy, useless efforts of general doing-stuff and rarely benefited to how clean the school was. There isn’t any hot water in the school except for the one hot water tap in the teacher’s office, which is turned off in summer. I have another funny story about how I had to explain to my current 30 year old Japanese roommate about why we have to clean things with hot water, because Japanese people just don’t get it… They wash their hands in cold water after going to the toilet, they clean things with cold water… even their washing machines use only luke warm water at best…
So one day I was helping the children sweep the teacher’s office. Mr S, the humanities teacher who was the only non-English teacher who ever bothered talking to me, came over and said -
“Say, Charlotte! You’re pretty good at sweeping!”
I looked confused, and said thank you.
“Especially since you don’t have brooms in England!!”
After a massive face palm, I tried to explain to Mr S that we do, in fact, have brooms in England – he had thought that because we have carpets, we use hoovers and not brooms. I said that my home back in England is over 300 years old and has oak flooring… definitely not hooverable!!
In first place for the most outrageous thing I have ever been asked, ever, in my life is…
In Japan I was so very, very lonely. After about a year of rolling around complaining about how lonely I was, I decided to go pro-active and go out and find friends. I used the Japanese social network Mixi, went to bars by myself, even went to singles parties and other events that foreigners aren’t exactly welcome to. It was at one of these singles parties that I met a guy called Mi-chan. He was there just because he was the organiser’s friend and not really looking for a girlfriend (the friend who came with me fell for him – a nice guy who baked cakes like a dream AND played the piano like a pro?! Japanese girl’s wet dream!!!)
He invited us (much to my friend’s delight) to his house for dinner the following week. When we got there, we met his lovely fiance… (haha, sorry friend!) and we all made dinner together. After dinner, we were sat down by a motherly woman in the group, who had brought along with her a white board and pamphlets. It was an Amway meeting.
After that first meeting, I didn’t see my friend again, but I made a few friends there in the Amway group and became a solid member of their gang. They knew full well I didn’t appreciate their spiel at the end of the activities they planned. But I was always happy to go along and learn cooking with them or have them do my makeup, and then I’d just go and help clean up the kitchen or something when they started to talk the members of the group into buying ridiculously expensive pans, or average makeup products. In return they got to be a classy section of the Amway club – they had their very own foreigner!
At one of these meetings (actually, it was the one where we all had our eyelashes permed… yes, this is a thing…) I met a woman who turned out to be the mother of one of my students. We became quite good friends, and I went over her house a few times for the meetings, and we were often at the same events together (much to the embarrassment of her son). After knowing her for about a year, we were at a BBQ together when she came to me and said -
“You know, I’ve wanted to ask you something ever since we first met… is it ok if I ask you? Uhm, so, you know how Japanese noses are very small… and foreigners’ noses are very tall… and you have that ridge thing in between your eyes at the top of your nose that we Japanese don’t have? Well… because of that part of your nose, do you have blind spots because it blocks your vision?!”
Japanese people are very conscious of the differences between their noses and western people’s noses. It’s one of the things people are commented on the most in Japan. But this…
I never minded when people asked me stuff like this – after all, it was my job to interact with normal people who wouldn’t get the chance to speak with foreigners. I just find it so funny to see myself as a foreigner through their eyes.
If you’ve ever been asked something crazy paving by people from other countries, I’d love to know!