The problem with foreigners

She and I enter the elevator.
As always,
in Japan,
we move to the back
and slide like shoji*
into our respective spaces,
giving each other room
while saving the other
the embarrassment
of eye contact
in such a tiny space.
She then slides closer to the handrail
and places her hand over her bag.

I look around
but there is nobody else.
Just her and me
in our little pulley-boat.
Me?
I am the danger?
In my 40′s, a {mostly} sweet Canadian woman.
A Counselor.
A person who cares for others
for a living.
Seriously?

Bing.
The metal doors open.
The woman explodes
out of the elevator.
Not very Japanese, I think.

An epiphany lands lightly.

The problem with foreigners
in Japan
is that there is no way
for the Japanese to know if
(and to what extent) we:
1. know the rules
2. understand them
3. are committed to following them.

This is not your garden-variety
concern
about the foreigners.

In Barcelona,
locals would hush happy groups
of English speakers
even though the hushers themselves
were speaking much more loudly
in Catalan or Spanish.
They found us
(and our habit of speaking English in public)
annoying.
To them,
we seemed like children.
Entirely too happy,
we were
therefore
seen as simple.
Unsophisticated.
(And very poorly dressed.)
What I felt was disdain or contempt
at worst.

Whatever.

The bottom line is that we
extranjeros
(strangers, quite literally)
did not change the fabric
of daily life in Barcelona
for the Catalans.

The sweet life…
as embodied by tapas and cava
and the reverence for a long lunch
as well as the not so sweet…
bureaucracy and bad service,
these things
continue to thrive
in spite of
the arrivals and departures
of foreigners in Gaudi-landia.

In Japan,
I never feel contempt.
(The Japanese are much better
than Catalans
and Canadians
at keeping their thoughts
to themselves.)

What I feel
from the Japanese
is genuine concern
about the way they live their lives.
Japan didn’t get to be
the safest, most secure and courteous
nation in the world
by accident.

There is a code for behaviour for every occasion.
How to…
Enter and get off the metro. (Walk on the left, please.)
Greet people. (With deference. Bowing.)
Give money. (In an envelope. Always.)
Carry your umbrella when entering a restaurant. (Wrap it in plastic.)
Stand when waiting to use the ATM. (On the green foot prints)

At first,
I found these rules
restrictive.
A dirty, brown albatross around my neck.
(As an order-loving, type A Canadian,
I was actually surprised to feel this way.)

But the abundance of rules
brought out the rebel in me.
I channeled my inner James Dean.

Now it’s been ten months
(sometimes it takes months
or years to get the rhythm of a place)
and I am starting to get it.

They like Japan the way it is.
They don’t want it to change.
I get how they feel.

When DP lost his wallet
in a taxi,
it came back
with all the cash.
When I left my computer in a restaurant
my little silver machina was right there
30 minutes later
when I returned
wild-eyed and breathless.
The order and restraint
shown by of millions
of Tokyo train commuters
every day
is a miracle.
(The Pope
himself
should show up
to see it.)

Most of us
love these things about Japan.
We appreciate
the Japanese way of life
and try to emulate
this behaviour
as best we can.
We also want Japan
to stay
safe
secure
and courteous.

But the Japanese are right.
Foreigners have different
values.
We weren’t raised the same way.
We may not have been taught
to spot the dropped glove
and place it on the closest bench
where the owner of just one glove
will return and find the mate
waiting patiently.

Not very good at hiding our emotions.
So fixated on placing our own needs
before the collective.

We are unpredictable
in a country that depends
on predictability.

Please know that so many of us are trying.

*In traditional Japanese architecture, a shōji (障子) is a door, window or room divider consisting of translucent paper over a frame of wood which holds together a lattice of wood or bamboo.

302 comments

      1. Hi. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I can’t agree more. As a foreigner myself in the UK I often suffer from being misunderstood.I am writing about culture shock myself, please come to my blogs anytime.

      1. Very beautifully written, it felt like listening to someone’s private thoughts in a cafe. I enjoy the aesthetic way you’ve written it as well, draws one in very well.

  1. Oh how I miss Japan! Yes, I even miss living in Tokyo, the MOST concrete jungle, where it brings out the “James Dean” in me. I guess I’m fortunate to live in Hawaii where the customs of extreme courtesy and “predictability” are very much intact. But oh, how I used to love striking a dissonant chord in their daily humdrum ;)

  2. Hi Monna,
    This is written so beautifully. As a Japanese that spent many years abroad I felt the rules back home to be restrictive for a while too. How wonderful would it be if more foreigners “got it” like you in Japan and anywhere else in the world. I’m trying very hard too (currently in Israel). Thank you for this!!

    1. Kaori,
      Japan send its love. xoxo
      The little things here are so lovely. It’s hard not to fall in love with Japan.
      For me, the interesting thing about being a foreigner in Japan is that the rules of Japanese society make it difficult to be here… and also easy. So it’s a conundrum.
      Best wishes on your life in Israel; I applaud your goal to blog every day!

    1. I really do believe that most expats in Japan are trying to be respectful and to live harmoniously with our Japanese colleagues, friends and neighbours.

      You are right… I am absolutely hopeful!

      Thanks for your lovely comment.

    1. Thanks! I’ve been thinking that we’re not just foreigners/strangers in other countries. This process of seeking to understand in order to contribute + belong happens when we start a new job or marry into another family.

  3. Thank you for this slice of daily life in Japan. Insight into another culture helps us all gain a better, more rounded out perspective. That’s one thing I love about travelling, understanding other people and why they do what they do. I appreciate you writing this for us.

    dyefeltsool.com

    1. Thanks for your message. This is our fifth international move and I suspect that I am “getting it” a bit faster and more gracefully with each move :) Although there have been some tough moments, I am loving our time in Japan.

  4. I just noticed it said “Tell me a story” not anything to do with replying. Goodness this head cold is defeating me!
    So here is my story.

    There once was a lady in Japan
    Rules to follow was her plan
    The Japanese still stared
    But she forbeared {I know, but go with me}
    If she could do it, we can!

  5. I tell ya, your title had me thinking the post was a xenophobic rant. Turns out, it’s just a cultural observation. Very nicely done. By the wayy, you’re right; Japan does have many rules about courtesy and conduct, but it does make the country a nice place to live. Oragato.

  6. Methinks for the unJapanese behaviour of the Japanese woman in the elevator, she is just human and may also be NOT Japanese or born outside of Japan. Japanese people aren’t all the same, there are different degrees of behaviour.

    Never assume, please. — (from a Chinese-Canadian blogger).

    1. Dear Jean,
      Thank you for your comment.
      I absolutely understand your perspective about the danger of assumptions and I agree with you.
      There is, however, no way that I can tell a true story about my efforts to understand another culture unless I show myself having a bad moment.
      It is my hope to continue to learn and grow.
      Sincerely,
      Monna

  7. I didn’t think I would like this. Today almost any article dealing with ‘foreigners’ is a right wing rant about US imigration. I started with that bias in mind and was melted by your thoughtfulness. Congratulations on your status of Fresh Pressed. This is truly fresh.

  8. How I miss the quiet and order while waiting for my connection at Naka-Meguro on my morning commute. I lived there ten years, all the time aware that I was the source of stress for my neighbours and co-workers. You’ve captured something that resonates deeply with my experiences in Japan. Enjoy Tanabata and the rest of the summer.

    1. Thanks, Bonnie Lee. I am actually in New York City this week and, after my first year in Japan, I’m going through a different kind of culture shock with the sounds of construction and horns honking :)

      Naka-Meguro is such a special part of Tokyo! Some friends live there.

  9. Reblogged this on Gag Concert and commented:
    When reading this, I feel the same about Korea, though Koreans here are more like the Catalans. I wish Korea was more like Japan in its order, reservedness, and patience. But if I want that, I should first learn Japanese before I go.

  10. I love this post it almost made me want to move to Japan :)

    Yes catalans and spanish people in general can be quite intolerant with foreigners sometimes…

    1. Thanks, Charlotte.

      Even though the Catalans were sometimes grumpy with us, we learned to play the game. There was a bar in Sarria where we sometimes went to after school and one of the waiters scared us half senseless by smacking our plates of patatas bravas down on the table. He was just having a bit of fun and trying to teach us to relax. It was an excellent lesson.

      1. Yeah the key is not to take it personally. In Cataluña if you say you’re from Madrid they automatically hate you and if you say you live in Madrid but you’re a foreigner (even tho you might not have an accent) they will hate you as well hahah! Nah not really. There are all sorts of people in Cataluña that’s the beauty of it. You can run into jerks everywhere.

        Cheers!

  11. I love this! I live in China and as I get how they do things it makes life easier and less of a frustration. We just need to be aware and respect their ideas! Why does everything have to be our way? Isn’t that the joy of travel to see and learn new things? Thanks for sharing.

    1. When I was in China, I dealt with “foreigners” for years through work, so I know Chinese always embrace someone different and like to oberve and understand, “foreigners” are popular in China despite very rare exceptions. Just talk with Chinese and get your idea crossed rather than holding it to yourself, things will go in your way. I hope you enjoy living in China , my friend from Canada.

      1. No I agree you need to be open and try to understand, not only judge as an outsider. The Ayis, (cleaners), guards and Chinese teachers at school like me and my husband. That is a difficult task since they are often mistreated by us foreigners. I always smile and say hello where as my husband jokes with them. They now go out of their way to say hello to us :)
        In Shanghai we don’t get stared at, but in Xi’an people wanted to get photos taken with us – especially my husband who is a bigger build. We felt like celebrities!
        We enjoy China. I have just renewed my contract since I wasn’t ready to say Good-bye to China just yet. Thanks for the reply.

  12. Well done! Having lived in Japan for a year myself, I really appreciate the points you bring up. I also think you’re right, and that to some extent this foreigner-phenomenon can occur in any country!

      1. Of course! Being a foreigner didn’t take away from the many beauties and cultural wonders of Japan :) Though I definitely had some “gaijin” moments, I tried to take them with humor and grace and hey, that’s just part of the rite of living abroad, isn’t it? ;)

  13. I loved the unconventional poem-like writing….gives a striking effect. I am a foreigner in the United states, and your post had inspired me to write about my experience here!

  14. I was lucky enough to have stayed in Fujinomiya for a while and your post brought back so many wonderful memories. Being out away from Tokyo I felt a lot of patience as I learned. Wonderful post!!

  15. I’ve been to Japan three times. Two lengthy vacations traveling all over – believing my Japan Rail Pass was such a great idea/investment. The third time was just for a couple of days. I had no problems at all with Japanese citizens. I do not litter, spit, or push others out of my way to get a seat on the trains. I never felt I was breaking any social rules or customs and apparently I wasn’t because I was never challenged about anything.

    If anything – I felt ignored or invisible. (At least in Tokyo) I suppose seeing Western people or gaijin in Tokyo is nothing special for them. Whereas in Hakone or Nikko or even Nara, being tall Westerner, I did strand out in the crowds. In Nikko I was soon surrounded by elementary school age kids who wanted to show off their English speaking skills. I also had similar situation on the large tourist boats that take folks across Lake Ashi in the Mt. Fuji area.

    I took a local train from Hiroshima to the small town (Miyajimaguchi) where you get off the train to take the ferry to Miyajima. An elderly Japanese woman asked me some questions like was I going to Miyajima, and how do I like Japan. Maybe because we shared a seat on the train, or maybe to show a Western visitor that we were most welcome.

    Either way, I treasured the experience. Thanks for your marvelous post.

    1. I love your story about the elderly Japanese woman asking you questions on the train. In my mind, this is such a gentle and gracious encounter.

      Thanks for sharing a few of your experiences in Japan!

  16. Your writing style sucked me in – and you made the subject matter so interesting that I read the whole thing, which is something I don’t always do. I’ve never been to Japan, but now I need to see all these rules for myself. Well done.

  17. I have to say this is a very deep piece for such small amount of words used. I really love it. I had been to Tokyo once for a week on family vacation. A day was enough for me to get the vibes of unspoken rules you are talking about in the middle of such a busy, but orderly, metropolis, although I have no similar incident similar to your lady in the elevator, there might have been occasions that came close, but I just didn’t have the same epiphany, not until you mentioned it.

    Thank you for sharing.

  18. Ooops — sorry if this is a repeat, but I think I accidentally deleted my response! Which said that this was a nice, thoughtful post, very interesting, and that I have twice rented a room out to Japanese women students and found the experience delightful both times. They were courteous and considerate but not in the least bland or timid, which I think is how Japanese women are often misunderstood.

    And: My mother was a Canadian McDiarmid, too, and it’s rare to see it spelled that way. If you’re interested, would you get in touch, please? I gather that you get to see my e-mail address along with this reply.

    In any case, congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. I agree that Japanese women are misunderstood because they/we are not all one thing.

      It’s so cool that your mom was a Canadian McDiarmid. Please do contact me at the email address listed on the Contact page!

  19. I have been living in Japan for 8 years now, and one thing I noticed when I go home or visit some other country I compare everything in Japan. Even the way people lined up on the toilet . I have to remind myself that this is not Japan, just follow their rules .

    1. Yup… that’s it exactly. It’s about us learning that there is no “right way” to do things. Sometimes a process that seems inefficient from one cultural perspective makes perfect sense from another. Thanks for this!

  20. Love the post! I grew up in Hong Kong where shoving, loudness, and lack of personal space are the order of the day…quite the opposite of Japan. I’ve only been to Japan twice but it was such a different feeling than most places in Asia. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  21. The second time you’re freshly pressed, right? *jealous*

    Your story is very relatable. I also try to follow the Japanese rules as much as possible, although I am sure that as a crude foreigner, I am still making many mistakes without even realizing it. I think the restraint and consideration generally shown by Japanese people in everything they do is very impressive and it seems to make public life a lot easier. I already dread going back home where it is every man (or woman) for himself.

  22. Apparently you can’t edit what you’ve written. I looked back and realized my comment could have been taken the wrong way…In China none of those things are seen as offensive (lack of personal space etc) and you just learn that that’s the way things are done and go with the flow, without taking offense. So learning their customs involves letting go of what we might see as “polite” whereas Japan seems to have extra rules for being polite. I loved the point of your post! It may take us a while to learn, as foreigners, to adapt to a new culture but most of us really want to and are trying!

    1. Hi there. I totally got you the first time but I really appreciate that you took the time and effort to clarify.
      This clarification is a perfect metaphor for the cultural learning and excavation that I wrote about in this post :)
      Cheers,
      Monna

  23. Thanks for sharing…

    I’ve only been out of the country once to visit Singapore (I’m from the Philippines) and, coming from a country where most rules are treated more as suggestions than that as a law, I found myself scared of doing something out of line and having to pay their (very expensive) fines. Despite our apprehension, we enjoyed our stay there and felt safe anywhere we went. It is true, there is a reason why countries such as Japan and Singapore have a very orderly society… the people follow the law and the government.

    We’ll be visiting Japan in the near future and your post gave me an insight on what to expect (such as not to be paranoid when locals seem wary of us) and just to strictly adhere to their way of life. :)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      Please don’t be paranoid.
      My experience has been that Japanese people really want to help visitors even when we don’t share a language.
      Also, I think they cut us a great deal of slack about the rules… sometimes we just don’t know what the guidelines/norms are :)
      Have a lovely visit to Japan!

      1. Of course it was it hilarious, but I suppose you would have to know my background. In spite of the respectful emphasis upon understanding a completely different culture – it is equally compelling for me to see how funny it is that the American culture often fails to understand how we are perceived by a different culture with different values. I have friends who are missionaries in third-world countries, and they always tell me that many of these cultures think that much of our way of doing things is disrespectful – even when we don’t mean for it to be taken that way.

        So that is why I see a humorous aspect for how Americans often fail to realize how different we truly are from much of the world.

        I hope that makes a bit more sense. Again – great post. :)

        Thanks again. :)

  24. Hi Monna, thats for a great post. As a Japanese living abroad, I’m discovering these social norms that you mentioned in the other way round. I mean, for example, when I was an elevator in Toronto and a local stranger started talking to me friendly, I discovered what I thought as the norm is actually quite unique. Now I feel that silent moment in the Japanese elevator quite awkward, though. Hope you’ll continue to have a great time in Japan!

    1. Thanks Shinobu.
      I am definitely having a great time in Japan – thanks for your kind wish!
      Thanks, also, for your story about the Torontonian talking to you on the elevator. Some Canadians are chatty and others are very reserved but there are definitely cultural values that many of us share.
      I remember a great story told by a man from Barcelona about the first time he visited Canada and the USA. He was at a restaurant and the waiter said, “Hello. My name is Bill and I will be your waiter this evening. What can I get for you?” Our Barcelona friend thought this must be some kind of joke as he was unaccustomed to such enthusiasm in wait staff. :)
      Culture is so interesting!

      1. Monna,
        I had the exact same experience at Denny’s in LA when I first visited the US. In addition to the friendliness of the waiter, I was more surprised by my friends started a conversation his him as if he had been an old friend! After 7 years in the US, now I embarrass a waiter in Tokyo by start asking him a personal question or telling a joke. :-)
        By the way, your post inspired me to write one entry about diversity in Japan.
        http://shinobukato.com/2012/06/29/diversity-vs-divercity/
        Have a great weekend!

  25. As another reader said, I wasn’t sure what this post would be about and steeled myself for some ethnic or race-based rant, but this turned out to be nothing even remotely close to that. I see your objectivity and consideration of others and I’m very impressed. Beautiful post and congrats on the FP!

      1. It’s just the romanization of the Korean word for foreigner, also spelled ‘weagook’ as Dan pointed out. Strange history lesson (and/or urban legend): the American soldiers in Korea during the war misunderstood the word ‘migook’ (meaning American) to be a bad form of English for ‘I am gook’ and that’s where the derrogatory term ‘gook’ came from. Never been to Yokohama, but loved Osaka and would love to visit Kyoto as well. Such a beautiful country! Enjoy!

    1. It’s ‘waegook’, and it’s not pronounced ‘waygook’. The general idea is that foreigners do not try to even do the basics, such as learning the local customs. Seeing that you don’t even know how to say ‘foreigner’ properly in Korean, I can somewhat empathize how the locals would feel towards foreigners in general. Peace.

      1. Wow! I wasn’t expecting such rudeness.
        I DO in fact try the basics and go beyond that. You don’t know me, please be careful who you judge.

        For your information going forward, there are multiple ways to perform the romanization of Hangul and ‘waygook’ or ‘waegook’ have both been presented to me by KOREANS. Not to mention, speaking as an English teacher in Korea, learning another language is not so easy. Many foreigners never learn how to say ‘foreigner’ (properly or improperly) in Korean, what’s wrong with that if they are otherwise respectful? Learn patience and your life will endure less stress.

        As if I need to defend myself further (but more for clarification to others who would like to read my blog and whom I don’t want to misjudge me as you have): I was not implying in any way that the locals don’t have a right to judge. I am often ashamed by the actions of other foreigners in the same way that you misdirected an unfounded distaste with me. I believe part of the author’s intent was to share some of their frustrations with this as well. That is what I agreed with. I was offering my empathy and solidarity so that hopefully we can change this by helping each other. NOT by being judgemental without cause or patience to assist in change.

  26. Liked this a lot.
    If you have never been a foreigner, this poem may seem a bit off…but once you step into the ‘foreigner shoe’ everything makes more sense.

      1. Thanks! Hmmm, the world can be a vicious place but I want to believe I’m living a kind life, in spite of it all, allowing the beautiful things outweigh the vicious. Will come back to your site for more!

  27. I am delighted with your post. I travel and do prefer to be a traveller, rather than a tourist. I wish to visit and enjoy what is there, not bring my home with me.
    Very well said, thank you.

    1. I really like what you said about enjoying what is there and not bringing home with us. This is such a great attitude and also so challenging, at times, since we see the world through a culturally-constructed lens. Best wishes with your travels :)

      1. Quite frankly, I am surprised you answered (for which I am grateful) given the number of comments your post has rightfully (imho) attracted. Japan deserves more visitors like you. Hope the Lady from the lift reads this.

    2. What I have found out is for people who travels a lot from countries to countries, they could accept a culture so easily and gracefully. They dont’ think much of anything foreign but take it more like going for a meeting to hear the difference, with a very ready mentality. They are the people with no birthmarks on. I do admire them and I am learning to be.Thanks again for this post, for bringing people together to exchange precious ideas.

      1. What a beautiful expression – “they are the people with no birthmarks on.” Thanks for sharing that lovely phrase and your experiences.
        I am also very happy with the types of things that people have shared about navigating new cultures.

  28. Japanese culture seems very complex and at the same time so beautiful. One of the things I admire is the that with all the western influences flooding Asian countries, Japan is doing a good job in staying Japanese. Ironically, this post brings back vague and warm memories of the time I lived in Canada when I was little. Thanks for the great post! Love your insight.

    1. It’s so true – Japan is committed to staying Japanese; I respect that.

      It makes me happy that you have warm memories of living in Canada as a child. In what part of the country did you live?

  29. Beautifully told and insightful. I’ve found the ritual to be a part of “old cultures.” Certainly in Italy, where I’m living now, this sort of behavior underlies much of the social life. It’s something I didn’t expect when I first arrived. Thanks for making me reflect and ponder.

  30. I can understand what you are conveying, Even though I had never been to Japan, I had worked with them for 2 years, and almost every accomplishment which i recieve now is after the lesson learned from them.They are hardworking, polite and very down to earth people.

  31. Very nice, the Japanese are indeed very refined in their behaviour and have a very rich culture of civility and politeness. I used to think too, that these practices were too restrictive and sometimes you know, age really isn’t wisdom. But as I grew older I started to value their strong family ties, principles of respect, collectivism (to some extent only) – these which I no longer see around me.

    1. {Age is not always wisdom… but sometimes it is.}

      As you pointed out so beautifully, the Japanese commitment to family and the principles of respect and collectivism are the fabric of the nation. These qualities were stronger, I believe, when I was growing up in Canada when I was growing up than they are now and this is definitely a loss. At the same time, I know that Japanese friends would say that their own culture is not as respectful as it once was.

      1. Ok I agree, age is not always wisdom … but sometimes it is :)
        It seems to be quite prevalent across the globe – family ties and respect are no longer valued as much as before.

  32. I’ve been to Japan twice, and I must admit that all those rules a bit confused and sometimes annoying..but eventually I admire Japanese and their culture as much as their rules…no other places in the world where I found so safe and secure…among those millions people! Salute for Japan!!
    And you have put it so beautifully on your blog…!

  33. Great post about expat life! Interesting to hear this about Japan (where I haven’t lived). Reminds me (slightly) of the way I’d describe the attitude of the English toward Americans. The Chinese attitude sounds far more like the Barcelonans–we don’t really “get it” but there not bother by having us in the mix.

  34. I loved this post! Visiting India, having a very traditional family, I had to learn to rise when men entered the room, not sit to eat until all the men and preferably all the older women had sat, not begin eating until at least one man had begun to eat….those were just the most obvious things….a million subtle things as well in terms of conversation, dress, ways of sitting, walking, eye contact, whom you sat with, where you sat int he car…..it was exhausting as a teen, I rebelled…..then later as an adult I realized how much more smoothly things go when you just go with the flow of things in different cultures! They trust you more easily, you set them at ease, then bonds can form.

    1. I love this: “As an adult I realized how much more smoothly things go when you just go with the flow of things in different cultures!”

      Thanks for saying it so perfectly… and for leaving this comment.

  35. I really loved reading your poem.I fell in love with Japan after reading haiku’s by Hashin and Basho.Then I discovered Naruto and I dream of living in Japan.There is something beautiful about Japanese language and art.

    1. Thanks for telling me about the haiku of Hashin and Basho; that’s a great gift. I just found this haiku from Basho that reminded me of autumn in Yokohama:

      Autumn approaches
      and the heart begins to dream
      of four-tatami rooms

      1. The wind from Mt Fuji
        I put it on the Fan
        Here,the souvenir from Edo.[Tokyo]
        What I love most about Basho’s Haiku is the fact that for a moment you see and feel what he felt.

  36. Hi there!

    I am an expat living in Korea and came across your blog. I actually had a similar post about Korea a while back. I visited Japan once, two years ago and was astounded by the similarities and the differences between the two cultures.

    I really enjoy your writing style. Thank you for sharing it.

  37. I loved the poem! I am not much a big fan of the Japanese (because I haven’t heard much about them), but I loved this poem and the way you express the feelings are just WOW! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  38. I loved your post. I am an American new to a life in Miami and feel a bit like an expat in a foreign land….I’m starting to understand the city though. I learned what it means to be an expat when I lived in Zurich, Switzerland. It is interesting because the social vibe in Miami is very similar to Zurich. There too, we lost countless thanks that came back to us! Once a finders fee of $20 was taken from the wallet which I thought was fine! Once, our favorite waiter at a restaurant pulled my husband’s glasses out of his front shirt pocket as soon as we walked in the door, a month after we lost them! So amazing

  39. wow, my first time to visit your page, and I’m so amazed. I’m gonna be coming back for more, inspires me to write. I’m still struggling but getting better everyday I believe… I’m a foreigner in this beautiful Canadian land. The title catches me.

    1. Please do come back… and please do keep writing. I find that through the writing process, I am often able to figure out what I believe.

      I hope that Canada is good to you :) It is both beautiful and imperfect and I am so proud to be Canadian even though I don’t live there right now.

  40. This is such a fantastic post! It really speaks to me as I’ve lived in many different countries and it’s so important to learn local cultures to really know the country and the people…it’s not always an easy task, but I find that it is so rewarding. I also read your about page, and I would love to someday have the chance to do the job that you do. I’ve grown up attending international schools, and I’ve worked there temporarily, and I would love to one day be a counselor in those schools. Thanks for sharing such a great post, and congrats on being freshly pressed!!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I love my job as a high school counselor – I think it’s the best job in the school :)
      Since you grew up in international schools, you must have a great deal of experience with adapting to new cultures and finding a balance between the norms of your new home and the you-ness of YOU – with your own set of values, beliefs and preferences.

  41. I never knew this about Japan but now I am intrigued to go there myself. What a wonderful way of life. It actually sounds great to live in a place where there is so much respect for others. I don’t see it so much as rules, just thoughtfulness toward other people. That’s a good way to be. A lovely post. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  42. This is so lovely! Would you mind if I link to it from my blog? It follows up amazingly well a post I made just yesterday. Thank you for saying so much so succinctly!

  43. Love this! I moved from Spain to Japan (now back in U.S.) and I so enjoyed this post. took me back for sure – but it really made me think of of when my friends daughter lost her glove at Tokyo Disney Land. Long story short – the glove was returned to my friend via mail several days later. Unbelievable! Only in Japan.

      1. Your welcome Monna. My mother always believe that I am a six million dollar man (baby)…that’s why she named me Lee Majors :-) and I will forever be grateful to her .

  44. Very interesting post. And congrats on freshly pressed! I’m also living in Japan, and have been for the past 7 years. I get how to do things. In fact, I pretty much do the same thing as the Japanese on the train and just stare at my phone or read a book. I’ve always been the kind of person who tries not to disturb the “wa” in Japan. I’m married to a Japanese woman and we have a child, but there’s something that we agree on. We dislike the Japanese education system and the blind eye that people give to bullying. While it’s nice to follow the rules (written or unwritten), it is difficult to do so when it feels like it goes against all common sense. Anyway, it was a good read :)

    1. Hi Jay Dee.
      You’ve hit upon two things that come into direct conflict for many of us who live in Japan:
      1. I’ve always been the kind of person who tries not to disturb the “wa” in Japan
      and
      2. While it’s nice to follow the rules (written or unwritten), it is difficult to do so when it feels like it goes against all common sense.

      So we continue to navigate these gentle waters… and endeavour to create a meaningful, sensible life that does not disrupt (too much) the wa or balance.

  45. Hey it was very nice to read someone side of being a foreigner in another country. So many times in my early yrs in America I experienced some of that same feelings you described. And hope we all remember that being in another country and going to other countries.

  46. There is a good reason for why the Japanese have so many rules – they have little space, so it needs to be managed to stop problems. any group of people crowded together need more controls, as there is no option to just walk off and cool down after a dispute. good post. cheers.

  47. Geez, you’ve captured the essence of being a foreigner so well, and have absolutely nailed it when it comes to the Japanese! I can relate to almost every point you’ve made. Beautiful post.

  48. Nice. I have lived as a foreigner in many different countries. The rules and attitudes towards white, woman, Canadian is different in each country. I have been in my current new country for two years and still feel very much like a foreigner. Thanks for putting it into words.

  49. This is great! I relate to almost every line of it. I’m also a foreigner living in S.Korea! (Hello neighbor! lol). The culture is pretty much the same as in Japan. I loved this! Im going to share this with my co-workers tomorrow ;)

  50. This was an excellent and enlightening read. I have never been to Japan and had never heard of “the rules” but they sound good! As a Canadian I’d love to see us emulate these honourable courtesies. Someday I’d love to go to Tokyo. I full a pull to go there and yet I know nothing about it or why I have such a desire. Someday I hope to take that trip!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Canadians have lots of rules too… like lining up in an orderly fashion and not talking in movie theatres… it’s just that we are not as good at following them as we once were! As you said, courtesy is so important!

      I too hope you make that trip to Japan.

    1. Hi Grumpa Joe!
      Thanks for your question. I have a couple of thoughts about this:
      1. There are some rude people from every country… that’s just a numbers game.
      2. Living overseas has taught me that what I was raised to think of as “rude” is sometimes not at all rude in other countries.
      It’s a conundrum.

      Cheers,
      Monna

  51. I find the japanese the most pleasant of all East Asians and SE Asians. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few. The most polite. The most bearable. I would really want to go to Japan not just because I know it’s a great place but also because it has great people.

    1. Yes – I completely agree. It is also about Colombia, Mexico, Spain and Thailand – the other countries in which we have lived as international educators. It is particularly true about Colombia where I had my first teaching job overseas when I was very young and still believed that there was one right way to do things :)

      Best wishes on creating a home in the Netherlands.

  52. I’ve never made as great a culture leap as you have, but I understand that in different countries (even within Europe) the people have different values. Part of living in as a foreigner in a foreign country is learning to accept and benefit from these different values. Accepting that different doesn’t always mean better/worse, and that what is different isn’t scary or disdainful. At least that’s what I believe.
    Thank you for sharing. :)

    1. Hi there.
      I really love your assertion that “Accepting that different doesn’t always mean better/worse”… where I differ slightly in opinion is that what is different may feel scary but I think it’s completely okay that things are a bit scary or challenging because they won’t always be if you are committed to understanding the new culture. When we are challenged, we grow.
      Thanks so much for your comment.

  53. I like your conclusion, “We are unpredictable in a country that depends on predictability.”. Even I have been here for almost 2 years, still feel like I am playing a game without knowing the rules deeply… I invited a friend to have dinner, he asked me why, it was strange. I sent a birthday gift to a friend, he said it was strange… Later on, I thought I was really a stranger.

    1. Hi Dan H.
      Yup… me too. But I really want to keep giving people birthday gifts :) When we live in a new culture, there are not just the rules/norms of the new culture, there is also us with our own perspectives and rituals and ways of reaching out to others. We can’t stop being ourselves simply because we have moved to Japan. For me, the greatest challenge is to find the balance between the two.
      Perhaps the other challenge is to accept “stranger” status and then just live our lives as respectfully but as fully as possible. I am thinking of a friend who, in the next few days, is leaving Japan after four years. He is the most accepted “stranger” I have seen in Japan and he completely does his own thing.
      I too am working on these questions.
      Best wishes in Japan.

  54. What a beautiful poem, I loved that very much. As a former expat living in Europe I can identify completely with the disdain Europeans can have with loud, unstylish (to them) Americans (or Candians) being too raucous. I slowly learned to both be respectful to other cultures and also continue to be unabashedly American. Looking forward to reading more of what you have- that was a gorgeous piece of writing.

  55. Great sharing of real life experience ……. over the years and on many occasions, I find myself asking as well, “Why many (gaijins) like this ancient forms of courtesy, yet fail to replicate in their own society ?”, “Why JP find it stressful despite their complaint about defiance gaijins and admire the ‘freedom’ foreigners have………. ?” Enjoy anthropology study……..

    1. Yes!
      The Third Culture Kids with whom I work at international schools often say that the most challenging question is, “Where is home?” Everywhere and nowhere.
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

  56. Nicely done! You’ve a wonderful piece here.

    I went on a trip to Japan last July, almost a year ago now. I couldn’t say how many rules I broke or followed (more of the former, I’m sure), but I just loved every minute of those 2 weeks. Oh what I wouldn’t do to go back!

    Anyway. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  57. I am painfully not well-travelled. However, your thoughts on your experiences in Japan and Spain were helpful. I appreciated how you were able to utilize both points of view.

    1. My experiences in Spain and Japan have both been great but very different; I’ve learned very different things about culture and about myself.
      It seems that you have been travelling… in your mind :)
      Thanks for commenting.

  58. “Please know that so many of us are trying.” <– Thank you! You don't know how much I appreciate that.

    As an American-born Chinese, I suffered from culture shock when I moved to Taiwan. The first year was killer! Once I finally started adapting, I found it more frustrating being treated as the bridge between the locals and expats.

    Taiwanese people would complain to me about foreigners' unwillingness to follow etiquette and learn about Taiwanese culture. Expats would complain to me about how "backwards" things were and believing their way was the right way.

    I typically sided with the locals because if you go to another country, expect to follow their way of life. If you don't want to, then don't go there in the first place!

    So, thank you again for sharing this!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences as an American-born Chinese in Taiwan!

      Here’s my approach for dealing with people’s complaints about the local culture OR about other foreigners:
      1. Remember this quotation: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Plato)
      2. Listen carefully. Let the person talk.
      3. Acknowledge that things are almost always more complex than they seem.
      4. Try to mind my own business :)
      Actually, that applies to a great many things :)

    1. Thank you very much… I feel like it is the least I can do given people’s lovely comments and my happy fortune to be freshly pressed.
      Nevertheless, your comment is delightful :) Thanks for noticing.

  59. I’m glad I read this article since my friends and I are considering a trip to either Japan or Europe next year. Considering they can braving a loud bunch I knowow now that wherever we decide to go we need to study the customs before we land. But based on my love for Japanese culture and history, I’m feeling like id rather deal with the fear and rules of the Japanese than the disdain and contempt of the Europeans.

    1. Dear Tia Dame,
      Thanks for your comment. Having lived in Barcelona for three years and Yokohama for one, I have to say that I love them both. If I had to choose between them, I’m not sure I could at this point. Part of the difficulty is that it would be like choosing between mangoes and penguins.
      When I write about the disdain that I occasionally felt from Catalans, I was trying to show that their culture, and way of life, was not affected by the presence of foreigners. In terms of disdain/contempt, I can’t think of a single culture/national group that isn’t disdainful towards someone else.
      The joys of living in Barcelona far outweighed the occasional snub for being too loud or wearing the wrong shoes. Those are things we learn to get over quite quickly. Our life in Barcelona was lovely.
      Like you, I always research our destination before we go on a trip but there are some things that we just can’t find in books.
      Ultimately, Europe and Japan offer so much to the traveller: I hope you’ll have an opportunity to visit both

  60. You’re observant and make the effort to comply with the “ways” of the people – without sacrificing your own sovereignty -which is more than I can say for most foreigners traveling abroad. Nice format, made the read more intriguing.

    1. Dear Gilberto,
      You’ve captured the essence of this piece and the reality of being an expat with your phrase: “make the effort to comply with the “ways” of the people – without sacrificing your own sovereignty.”
      That is the golden ring of living abroad.
      Thanks for your comment; I’m glad you enjoyed the format as well.

  61. Oh, this is very true. Your entry is so insightful and precise, I really enjoyed it as we can all relate to it through smaller and bigger experiences abroad. I always try so hard and fail so obviously to merge in with people I’m visiting. Sometimes it’s just the looks, sometimes lack of knowledge, but the people’s attitude is the real deal breaker. Thanks for this post!

    1. Hi backpackerina!
      That name is so clever!
      You said, “People’s attitude is the real deal breaker.” I could not agree more… as an expat, a traveler/tourist, a colleague, a friend etc.
      I’ve often found myself in a situation where the other person was being a bit cold and with one warm “Hello” or “Hola” or “Konichiwa”, we have established a little connection and changed the energy of the encounter. That’s not always possible, of course, because sometimes people are having a bad day or are chronically grumpy but it’s worth a shot. In extending myself, I can often bring out the best in the other person.
      Happy travels to you!

  62. Beautiful! It warms my heart and restores my faith in people to know that there are people like yourself that are making the effort to learn and be respectful! I’m an American living abroad. Every time I travel, there’ll be at least one incident where I cringe at the sound and/or site of a fellow American knowingly being disrespectful. Fair enough there are times that you just don’t know, but claiming your nationality as a rite to be disrespectful is … is … ugh … Thank You for your post letting the world know that we are trying our best!

  63. Great post, Monna.

    I was suddenly reminded of my time in New York. You could always tell the locals from the tourists when walking through Times Square. We were always in a hurry to get somewhere, usually to catch the bus from Penn Station to work, or to get to a dinner with friends, and the tourists just always got in our way. :) I remember always muttering to myself, “Get out of my way! I am late. Just because you are on holiday does not mean you should block the way for the rest of us who have to work!” Or, “What is wrong with you people? Can’t you walk faster? If not, move to the side and let the rest of us through!”

    The friends I made in Zurich, when I moved there, can never understand why I walk so fast, even though I tried to tell them everyone in New York walks fast. It took me a long time to learn to slow down and smell the roses after I left New York.

    Here is an article I wrote about Switzerland, since we are talking about cultural differences:
    http://funnyphuppo.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/13-things-you-never-knew-about-switzerland/
    Hope you enjoy it.

  64. Japan’s great….you have such creativity in your poetry! I definitely agree Americans need to be much more well-behaved when abroad. Whenever I travel in Asia, I constantly cringe when I come across fellow Americans misbehaving and acting like total asses. Attitude truly is everything and people need to respect ALL cultures. Thank you for your lovely insight:)

  65. wonderful post, and so true. As a wanderer, I often feel like an alien because I don’t have then necessary information, those little details, rules to get on with a normal day. I have worked for many years in the tourist industry here in the UK, and it’s very reassuring to be on the other side of it, and to be compassionate, that international visitors may not know what our rules are either.
    People are fascinating, what is rude for one culture may be completely normal for another.

    I love your presentation xxx

  66. Thank you for sharing this! I recently visited Japan and found all of their traditions and customs very interesting. It is such an amazing country and I hope to visit there again in the future.

  67. Your post was not what I expected based on the title but it was so wonderful to read. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, it’s well-deserved.

  68. (sometimes it takes months
    or years to get the rhythm of a place)
    – yes, or longer. after spending 45 years living in 8/9 countries of other people, i am constantly treated as an ‘outsider’. Here in france the word is ‘etranger’ – stranger. It can take a long time to get ‘the feel’ of a place, but i like living on the surface of a culture as it offers a different perspective to what we see when immersed in a particular culture for many years or a lifetime. My viewpoint is a more eagle-eyed, the forest-for-the-trees kinda view. It’s a contant buzz ! Never knowing if the local culture will throw you a curved-ball you may not be able to handle. Taxes ? What taxes ? Speed limits ? What are they ? You eat THOSE ???? How did you pronounce that again ?

    i find the world more homogenous now. Every town on the planet has a Safeways, a Starbucks, a McDonalds, Sky satellite TV, coke, levi’s, fords. Sad, me thinks. I loved the world better when there was a real difference between cultures. Standing in passport control at a border crossing had a real ‘feel’, now it’s just a formality.

    Once in a while, i just think i do this culture-surfing cos i dont want to deal with tough painful issues that can happen in deep relationships, like when you get stuck in one place for too long. a bit like the willy nelson song ‘on the road again’ :}

    ====> may start my own gratitude365 page. The first photo ? Definitely a cuppa tea :D
    thx

  69. Fantastical maneuvering of the slippery “length poem”! Your syntactical fluidity and avoidance of redundancies has spurred envy (but be assured, a very kind and polite envy).

  70. My husband and I live in Korea. We totally understand. We are sometimes quite embarrassed by the way other foreigners treat the locals. We are here to stay, for awhile that is. We love the culture and happiness the Koreans exude. Other foreigners forget about the customs and will just be utterly rude with the things they say or the actions they make. Something as simple as, I hate Korean food,” in the presence of Koreans loudly at a restaurant where others can here. Or more traditionally just putting their money on the counters when paying… here you are supposed to hand it to the cashier with your left arm touching your elbow.
    I wish people would realize the journey and adventure they were going to experience when they decided to live overseas… and then embrace it everyday. At the moment I can’t think of too many more examples (my hubby is still sleeping and he is the one with the great memory)
    Have a great day and stay dry in Japan!
    Nicole
    http://www.adventuresweseek.com

  71. really great post….and you are right….in countries like Japan and South Korea there are many of us that do try, but its in our fabric to diverge from the norm from time to time and it is my hope that with a courteous bow, a friendly smile and the politeness that I know to be true… that myself along with others can find place in the minds of the locals that is positive and welcomed.

  72. I’ve always thought that Japanese way of life is way way too strict, but after reading this and taking in your point of view, I think I’ll want to try to adapt to it… and your post is beautifully written. Especially this part:

    We weren’t raised the same way.
    We may not have been taught
    to spot the dropped glove
    and place it on the closest bench
    where the owner of just one glove
    will return and find the mate
    waiting patiently.

  73. Says the man who feels the need to spew vitriol all over others. For someone who claims to have a hatred for “ugly Americans” you sure are fluent in spreading ugliness. I feel sad for you, especially since you didn’t understand this beautiful simple poem to begin with. Perhaps you should make sure you understand something before commenting on it.

  74. Thanks, sarahsjoy, for addressing the negative comment left here. That was really kind of you.

    I’ve decided that if people can’t behave themselves nicely in my blog-living room, they simply cannot stay.

  75. Hi Katy.

    I just read your post about this topic. You are definitely not alone!

    A few months ago I wrote a guest post for Tiny Buddha about living at home the way that we do when we travel. There were many positive comments and just one brutally negative one but that one comment weighed so heavily on my mind. I tried to figure out what I was supposed to learn from this person’s remarks. I mentioned this to Lori via email and, as soon as she became aware of the comment, she deleted it.

    It was just that easy and I am so grateful to her for showing me that.

    When it comes to blogging and sharing our ideas and opinions, I don’t think that things are always simple… people disagree, we have different perspectives, and words sometimes let us down. I am completely okay with a bit of messiness. But sometimes, people write hateful comments because that’s what they do. That’s not okay… and I believe that we get to say what is and is not okay in the virtual space that we create. It’s a kind of home.

    Keep being brave, Katy!

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