If you take a short, two-week trip out of your home country, you’ll most likely come back with many photos and stories about how differently people do things “over there.” You’ll notice the different body language, how the Japanese bow instead of shake hands, or, how Italians have wine with lunch on a work day. Indeed, I had the same experience myself the first few weeks I started living in Tokyo. Over time, however, I began to assimilate, and all the little cultural idiosyncrasies that were uniquely Japanese suddenly became my own.
I lived in Japan for five years and returned to the states just a year ago. One thing that really surprised me was that after coming back, I became attuned to how differently people do things “over here” as opposed to Japan. I had been away for so long, that I hadn’t realized that cultural differences were all relative, and that we’re just as weird to the rest of the world as the rest of the world is to us. This knowledge was a wonderful gift, because it was only then that I began to realize just how unique we Americans are and learn to appreciate that uniqueness.
When I came back from Japan I realized that Americans are:
When gift-giving in Japan a common phrase that one should say is: Tsumaranai mono desu ga, dozo. This phrase, roughly translated, means: “This is a boring/insignificant item, but here you go.” The idea behind this phrase is that one should be self-effacing when one gives. Also, by saying that the gift isn’t very good (even if it is indeed very good) it releases the receiver from having to give a “thank you for your gift, gift” in return.
One thing I’ve noticed about Americans is that we are often very straightforward, and prefer telling the truth than couching our language in niceties. When giving a very good gift, we’d feel no hesitation about saying that gift was indeed very good. One plus of this American-style candor is we have to worry about other people’s ulterior motives less because the language is less ambiguous. One drawback to this deal is that we get more braggarts than normal.
The moment you meet someone in Japan the second or third question you’ll get is “How old are you?” Age is a big determining factor about how people address each other when they talk. If someone is older than me, for example, I will use more honorifics in my speech. If they’re younger, I wouldn’t use any.
Although we used to address people as Mr. Ms. and Mrs. in the US, that custom has gradually faded away–to the point where these titles are used only to address our teachers in grade school. Although there are probably a myriad reasons for this, my guess is that Americans are a very casual people, and whatever formality they may have carried over from the old world is quickly being shed. Plus side: Americans are more friendly and open. Minus side: Americans are Crude.
If there’s one thing that I heard Japanese folks say about the US, was how “big” everything was. The houses are big! The roads are big! The cars are big! The meals are big! And the people are…well, they’re big too. Japan is such a densely populated place, and because they’ve had to squeeze a bathroom and bedroom in a space that would be little more than half the average US studio apartment, I can see where this whole “Americans are big” thing comes from.
America is such a huge country geographically that it’s no wonder everything started getting “big”. I’m not sure what the deeper implications of this are but I believe it has made Americans “think” big, and thus the disproportionate number of entrepreneurs out there taking risks. The downside to this bigness, however, is that Americans consume more resources per capita than any other country on the planet.
I wouldn’t make these observations without seeing the same qualities of frankness, informality, and “big”ness in myself. It’s a part of my culture and is thus a part of me. I just needed to be outside of my own culture long enough to really see it.
What about you, what are some things you’ve noticed about your own culture when traveling?