You can imagine that 8 years in Tokyo can make you change a lot, but sometimes you don’t realize how much till someone else points out at some “weird” behavior you are having while talking on the phone. Today I want to talk about different etiquettes, and ways humans copy those in order to live happily where they choose to live. (Which has nothing to do to real changes inside).
Japanese etiquette is a must if you want to live in Japan. You will find the art of bowing everywhere, and you will end up bowing as much as a Japanese does. It is not an easy task though. Bowing is made in different ways in different occasions, and it has different meanings too. So, at the beginning you are just a rudimentary “copy-cat” that tries to adapt to the new culture. But, what happens when you internalize bowing?
Take a look to this video. It is a funny video, but you can get a glimpse of what “different types of bowing” might be like:
People bow to you in the shops, friends bow to you when they meet you, you bow to them, you even bow to them when talking on the phone! You bow to be polite, to say sorry, to say thank you, or just to acknowledge. After years of bowing, you can master it almost like a Japanese.
But what happens when you export “bowing” back to Europe and you are unaware that you are doing so? Shock happens, both on your friends and yourself!
Before landing on Europe I had a kind offer from an Austrian friend who invited me to her home, during a whole month, in Vienna. I thought it would be a great idea to spend time with her, and to avoid the shock of returning straight back home. You cannot imagine (really you cannot), how grateful I am to her because of letting me get shocked in middle ground. Getting shocked in middle ground is not the same as getting a heart-attack at home. Why? Because if you get shocked on middle ground you don’t feel as strange!
Europe shares similar cultural aspects, like “shaking hands”, from north to south. These similar cultural manners are what was going to be challenged while spending one month in Vienna. Since Austria has also different cultural aspects from Spain, those would remain just unchallenged, and thus, half of the shock work would have been achieved in “foreign” lands, sparing my family the shock of seeing myself as a total foreigner!
And so, my friend and I met again, after some years without meeting each other, back in old Europe, in Vienna. And the first thing that happened was… Bowing! Unknowingly, from the moment I jumped into the Austrian airplane, I started bowing to say thank you without words: to hostesses and sitting Japanese travelers. But, when you land on Vienna, and start bowing to the staff in the airport, things start to get weird.
For starters: my looks are not Japanese, but I was moving and acting as one! There was no difference whatsoever from the other travelers in the aircraft! And what was worse: I was bowing everywhere I went in Vienna. Paying in the supermarket? Oh! Just bow to the working lady to ask some more time to search into you purse some coins… Crossing the street and saying “thank you for letting me pass” to a car? Bowing, of course! Or talking on the phone with you mom? Bowing now and then! Or meeting the cleaning lady? Bowing again to make room to her so she can pass from a room to another…
My friend was so shocked of so much bowing around that she had to say to me “stop bowing! We use our hands in Europe! Don’t you remember?” Did I remember? Well, nope. I did not! I had completely forgotten that you use your hand to stop cars or say thank you, that you don’t bow while talking on the phone, or that you simply don’t bow around. In Europe we use our hands! Hand-shakes, middle fingers when being rude, or open hands to express ourselves around. Depending on the country hands are used in different ways, but in essence: you use your hands not your head!
Small bows are also used as a way of saying “I am listening to you”. You can accompany those with a “yes”. That is only acknowledging that “I am listening to you”. It does not imply that “I agree with you”. So, while talking with my friend, I would say “yes” many times, as a symbol of letting her know that I was listening to her. Many cultures do that. But there are “yes” intonations that denote no meaning: “yes I listen to you”, “yes I see your point but I might not totally agree with you”, or “yes but”, and others. In Japan you also use monosyllables, that have a meaning of “yes”, but that sound like just “humming” in Europe. So, what I was doing is just gibberish!
Happily, my friend had lived in Japan and had had the shock herself time ago, and knew what was going on. It was not only the bowing, but also the “yeses” that were accompanying the small head bowing while talking. That behavior, in Europe is seen as “delusional” or a symbol of a “mad person”. I was a weirdo, and since I was officially “abroad”, I was being pardoned for that weird behavior.
I am European, and I have European looks. I can use my Nationality to excuse myself while traveling around Europe, but I still need to use shared cultural behavior, because that is what I will be expected to do. In fact, westerners share a minimum of similar cultural cues that glue us together and makes it “not-so-difficult” for us to adapt from one country to the other. And now you can grasp the problem: I could not use that excuse back home!!
To get shocked in Vienna was the best thing that could happen to me. If I had done so back home, it would have been very difficult for me to swallow the change! There are no “nationality” excuses back at home. You are behaving like a total foreigner in the place you were born! And people want you to be as you were before you left. (You can’t!)
So, while in Vienna, I discovered that most of my gestures were not adequate for Europe. And so I needed to re-learn all of those again. Even though I did try hard, I must say that, even today, some of the Japanese gestures pop up naturally from me. I can see when I mistake in other people’s eyes or smiles.
This is only the superficial part of me that was changed. But, I must tell you that the inner part was far more changed. It can seem funny to bow while talking on the phone, or to use a Japanese way of asking “may I?”. But it makes you feel stress and discomfort when you do feel like a total foreigner back at home, and there is no way you are rolling back. You simply can’t.
If you are in shock back home remember that it is okay, perfectly okay to be yourself. You can change some of the social gestures that are used on a daily basis (because those are used in the place you live). But the one you are, inside, with all your knowledge and experiences is wonderful. It is safe to be the wonderful being you’ve become.
Note: one of the ways I use to feel good is to do an art journal, and use affirmations with the drawings I make. To feel fresh and new I used “forgiving” affirmations of my past (to forgive whatever errors I had made), and thus be willing to look into a bright new future. I also use affirmations like “it is safe to be me”, etc. This is highly terapeutic, and when you are in a soup in which no one can grasp what’s going on with you, this is the best creative way of expressing it (plus, you can have a gorgeous journal).
Note 2: I love Tokyo! (Just in case it was not obvious).