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This is Not America

“A little piece of you, a little peace in me will die, for this is not America.” –David Bowie, ‘This is not America’

You know you live in Japan when:

  • You measure the length of a conversation in cups of tea. (ex. “Yesterday I had a three cups of tea conversation with my friend.”)
  • You find yourself clapping your hands together before you eat, even when you’re alone.
  • You think that a concert DVD marked from $200 down to $160 is an amazing deal.
  • You find yourself saying “un” (a nasal m) and nodding excessively in English conversation.
  • You can’t read “YAKITORI” because it’s written in English and not as “焼き鳥”.
  • You can taste the difference between different kinds of white rice.

As much as I am loving Japan, there are a few things that have begun to irk me slightly. Most of these have to do with some of the inner workings of Japanese culture which, while intriguing, are frustrating beyond belief when one has to deal with them firsthand. The implied meanings of certain words that do not translate into English, as well as the tiered hierarchy that is present in every group, relationship, and conversation, are infuriating to me. I am aware that every language and culture has its own issues, but these in particular I find alienating and limiting.

Recently, I had a conversation with my host mother in which I used the word “恥ずかしい,” which directly translates as “embarrassed.” At least, that’s what I had been told. Unfortunately for me, the word holds the connotation of being “ashamed,” and it can never mean anything funny in Japanese. I had been using this word fairly regularly as I would in English. Only now do I realize what a horrible mistake I was making. The word, I have since been informed, has a negative connotation and is only used when one is discussing a bad situation. In English, while “embarrassed” can be used in this way, it often is also used in a lighthearted sense (as in, “Your English is very good.” “Oh look, her face is red; she must be embarrassed!”). As a native speaker I don’t think about these slight differentiations, but in a language such as Japanese whose roots have no ties to English, such a mistake can prove devastating.

Apparently, my host mother was so offended by my statement (which she thought was referring to her house, for reasons I do not understand) that she contacted the international student affairs office at my school. What makes all of this worse is that during our initial conversation, she showed no signs of resentment or discomfort, and went on smiling and talking as if everything was completely normal. This came up almost two weeks later. If you think you know passive aggressive as an American, you have obviously never been to Japan.

Needless to say, I am frustrated by the fact that I can no longer tell what is genuine and what is not in conversations and in relationships. I had a conversation about this misunderstanding with my host mom after she sent me an email in English. I explained to her the difference in the words and what I meant to really say, and I think we came to as much of an understanding as we’re ever going to. I find it absolutely incredible that I can be considered a perfectly polite and considerate person in America, and then come to Japan and be reported to the student affairs office because of one word I say. I am doing nothing consciously wrong and I make constant attempts to be polite and use the correct verb form according to my place in the social hierarchy (in Japanese the language changes completely depending on if the person you are talking to is “above” or “below” you). But I’m human. I make mistakes. But when I do, I wish that people would correct me immediately or ask for clarification rather than letting me believe I have formed a bond with them only to rip it away two weeks later.

If only life could be this easy.