I have now been living in Japan for five months and want to share some of the things I’ve been learning since moving here from NYC.
1. Holding onto garbage: If they had as few garbage cans in New York City as they do in Japan, the streets would be filled with filth (not that it’s spick and span to begin with or anything…). But for some reason, streets in Japan remain spotless even though sometimes, I go for hours without finding a garbage can.
Japanese people have a unique skill of neatly folding dirty tissues and napkins or used wrappers so that they may keep them in their purses or pockets until further notice… I’m still learning how to do this without turning my purse into a work of cheap modern art.
2. Not eating or drinking in public- For the first time in my life, I felt really, really out of place holding a cup of Starbucks while walking around outside the other day. I rarely see people eating or drinking on the go here, and it is considered rude to eat in public spaces like the train.
Don’t get me wrong—I hate smelling French Fries on my morning commute when I’m trying to keep my own breakfast down, but my stomach also has its own agenda. Sometimes, it wants food when it’s not socially acceptable here, which causes me to shamefully munch on some food while waiting for a train or while walking somewhere. I don’t think people actually even care that much but in my head, the whole world is staring and judging because nobody else does it here.
3. Customer service is just something else- I am now slightly appalled when I walk into a store or a restaurant and nobody greets me with a cheerful “Irasshaimase!” (Roughly trans. Hello, welcome!). It’s not really that the people who work in customer service are genuinely nice here. I’m sure half of them are plotting murder as they kindly count out my change in front of me and gently place it into my palms.
But the workers here are very strictly trained and they are really good at following what they’ve been taught. When I first moved to Japan, it sort of freaked me out because they kind of resembled robots, but now I’m used to my waiter running to my table the second I decide what I want… Maybe.
4. Being nice because you can- New York taught me that if I don’t fend for myself, I’d get stepped on. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it doesn’t help that I look like a helpless sixteen-year-old to most people. If I let everyone on the train before me, I’d never be able to get on because there would be too many people trying to get on the train. It’s not like that here. For the most part, people let you go first.
They pick up things that you dropped. They come running outside of the store to return something you’ve left. More and more I realize that I don’t have to have a stone-cold bitchy shell to protect me from the evils of the world.
5. Trying not to worry about other people’s belongings- In New York, I would never leave any of my belongings out of sight—or off of my body, for that matter. I am constantly conscious of the placement of my purse on my body and would never in a million years leave a coat or a bag to save a spot at a café.
In Japan, I’ve seen things that send shivers down my spine. In the middle of Tokyo I’ve witnessed countless men with giant wallets sticking out of their back pockets (because apparently that is the latest fashion trend…). I’ve also seen women comfortably leaving their bags at a table or a seat to save a spot. I can’t help but to worry for them, no matter how many times a Japanese friend reassures me that stealing is very rare here.
6. Awkward silences- I think Americans have a huge issue with awkward silences—actually just silences (It’s only awkward if you say it’s awkward, right??). People here are much more comfortable with silences. Back at home, I felt obligated to fill whatever silences that popped up even if it meant mentioning how cold it was outside that day (it’s mid-February in New York, of course it’s fucking cold!).
I’ve recently realized that I hardly ever talk about the weather anymore, and that’s probably because I don’t feel the need to break silences with useless talks about the weather. Now I can have actual fun conversations when I am ready to speak, and it honestly feels pretty great.