Written by Dawn Huston, CET Campus Relations Manager – West
Occasionally, we log into our Facebook account to discover that people we’ve missed for years have found us. This recently happened to me and I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting with an entire family because of it. Not long after this took place, I announced plans of visiting our Intensive Language program in Osaka, Japan. As it turns out, one said family member had lived in Japan and brought his Japanese wife back to the states. The couple kindly offered to introduce me to family and friends still living in Takamatsu, Japan.
Let the adventures begin! After visiting with our students in Osaka, I headed to Takamatsu to meet my new found “extended family.” They knew a little English, and I knew far less Japanese. I was understandably feeling a tad nervous. Communication was going to be a challenge, notwithstanding body language (which is culturally very different between Japan and the US.) This family had been exposed to American customs, but had they adopted any of them? Japanese are some of the most polite people I’ve ever met; would this couple feel free to let me know if I committed any social faux pas? The last thing I wanted was to offend them. They opened their home and their time to a near complete stranger. How incredibly kind!
The simplest of exchanges resulted in questions. Do I greet the couple with hugs to show gratitude? This is atypical in Japan. At my relief, I sensed that we were all on the same puzzled page. We wound up exchanging dainty, swift hugs at the bus depot – a fitting compromise for huge hugs versus handshakes.
During lunch, I noticed the couple slurping their udon noodle soup. I immediately decided I should follow suit. It took 6 or 7 tries before I was able to make audible slurps. With each unsuccessful attempt, I wondered if they noticed the silent consumption of noodles.
While crossing a rather large suspension bridge created entirely out of vines, my inner child was ready to skip across in reckless abandon. At the same time, I noticed my host appeared nervous. What was the appropriate way to show support? If hugging wasn’t common, I had no idea how an outstretched hand would have been received. So, I encouraged her bravery by keeping a slow pace near her side. My inner child could play another day.
Over the course of my stay, we used a lot of charade-like gestures and visual media. At the end of the first night, we sat watching a slide show of the couples’ daughter marrying my friend. As I sat listening to the accompanying Jimmy Buffet music (no doubt an influence from my childhood friend), I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I was. I was actually catching up on the important moments of old friends’ lives while sitting on the traditional tatami mat flooring in the home of new friends.
Just in case you are wondering…I did go to bed that night with Disney’s “It’s a small world” theme song in my head. I also thought about how this was all possible because of the efforts of my friends and family to learn a second language.
Written by Nikki Weiner (Barnard College), Student Correspondent
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in China in Hangzhou, Spring 2013
你好！I’m Nikki, but my Chinese friends call me “Weiwei!” I write to you from Hangzhou, China, where 9 of us, American students, are studying at Zhejiang University of Technology. Half of the group, including myself, is continuing our learning experience from Beijing in January and the rest came directly from America.
We kicked off the semester with the Chinese Language Pledge, which seemed like a daunting task, but our group is dedicated to improving our Chinese, which makes each day easier! The language pledge also causes some humorous misunderstandings, like when I first went to a Chinese restaurant and ordered “cha” (tea), probably the simplest word in Chinese, but the waiter had no idea what I was saying. Really? I just wanted some tea, fuwuyuan (waiter). Or how about when I asked my roommate if I could use her hairdryer and she brought me conditioner. Nevertheless, our Chinese is quickly improving because in addition to vigorous classes, each week we travel throughout Hangzhou and conduct research by interviewing Chinese people about various topics.
Hangzhou is a beautiful city in the spring, especially Hangzhou’s West Lake. Moreover, Hangzhou offers both a lively city and an oasis of nature, the best of both worlds. Each American student has a Chinese roommate, who plays a pivotal role in helping us learn the ins and outs of Hangzhou’s social life, transportation system, and cuisine! Every Wednesday night, we have a bonding activity with our roommates, such as playing Mahjong or making traditional Chinese treats, and on the weekends, they take us out to awesome restaurants and socialize.
Our first weekend in Hangzhou, we went on small group trips to nearby places outside of Hangzhou. We booked our bus tickets, hotel rooms, and then planned excursions with our roommates, which helped us to learn about traveling in China. My group traveled to Wuzhen, which resembles Venice, Italy; we had to travel by boat to get to get around. Wuzhen has a Chinese footbinding museum, a temple for Chinese love, and a display of beautiful lanterns. It also has a lot of quaint shops where we bargained. Mostly everywhere in China you can bargain, but beware, the Chinese will rip off foreigners. I am particularly proud of bargaining a stuffed animal in Wuzhen down from 80 RMB to 50 RMB. But then I was really thirsty and was offered water for 10 RMB and wanted it for a cheaper price so I said, “Bu shi, pianyi yi dianer. Ruguo bu gei wo pianyi yi dianer de hua, wo jiu bu hui mai na ping shui.” (No, make it cheaper. If you don’t give me a cheaper price then I won’t buy it). After going back and forth for 5 minutes I caved and bought it for 10RMB. I was really, really thirsty!
We’ve also noticed several cultural differences between China and America. I’ll highlight 3 notable differences:
1. Chinese toddlers “pop a squat” anywhere, like on the street or in a grocery store. They have slits in their pants making popping a squat quite “fangbian” (convenient). I guess diapers aren’t really a thing here. My favorite first hand exposure to this was when I saw an adorable toddler about 3 years old walking on our school campus. I said hi to him, but I think he was nervous at seeing a foreigner so he started peeing…. His dad repeated “Bu, bu, bu” (no, no, no).
2. Chinese food can give you severe “laduzi” (diarrhea). Some of my classmates can attest to this, as they’ve had to miss multiple days of school to recover. I support my classmates through all of their “laduzi” experiences!
3. Washing clothes is just not as simple as in the US. Dryers don’t dry your clothes, so when Hangzhou has a sunny day, everyone cleans their comforters and clothes and then hangs them out to dry outside, like on trees, bushes, grass, and clothes lines.
Our semester is in full swing now, so I will have more stories to share! Keep following our journey through Hangzhou on this blog!
Written by Rebecca Kulik (Grinnell College)
Central European Studies in Prague, Student Correspondent, Fall 2012
It’s a glorious day to explore in Oshweitheim (phonetic name). The sun is shining on the squat Polish houses, the inhabitants of this small town are wandering around with their lunches and children in tow, and everywhere flowers are turning their faces to the sun.
An hour of free time, and I’m off to see this beautiful place. About ten minutes into my walk, I come to a field in the middle of the houses and flats. Seeing a path well trodden in the dirt, and a few men and a dog across the field tending a backyard (rural Poles are obsessed with gardening), I make my way down the track.
Halfway across, I’m approaching the men’s dog, a beautiful puppy whose ears would brush my knee. Dogs in Poland and the Czech Republic have been immaculately trained thus far. They don’t bark, they don’t even look at me, and I’ve missed it. So when the dog starts staring at me and wagging its tail, I’m rather pleased. I make non-language friendly noises and extend my closed fingers, to allow the dog to sniff without giving it an opening to bite.
Immediately, she starts barking like mad. I rear back, saying “Okay, Okay, I get it,” and seeing her triumph, she continues as I quickly turn and continue on the path. For obvious reasons, I’m now going fast and thinking about how dumb this random girl looks to the Poles, and when I turn around the dog is following me, still barking, and this is a threatening, full body bark. On a smaller dog, the whole body shakes with this kind of bark. This is a bark to freaking run from.
But she stops at the boundary of her territory, and I continue on unmolested. And then, ten minutes later, an enormous German Shepard hears me passing and tries to jump the fence. Unsuccessfully, thank God, but the Polish “beware of dog” sign is thoroughly redundant, and I’m debating running for my life.
This got me thinking about the ubiquitous dogs of Eastern Europe. Prague is stuffed with dogs, packed with beautifully manicured coats—the street cleaners are mostly there to clean up after the dogs. Krakow too, had many dogs, but on reflection I started to see something different. In Prague, the norm is for dogs to go without leashes, just walking sedately along (unless there’s a bitch in heat nearby, but that’s a whole other thing). But in Krakow, I never saw a dog off a leash.
This could be a simple legal difference, but not so the other dissimilarities. Prague dogs were almost exclusively purebred, the telltale deformities of too-short legs and impractical hair clearly marking their breed, along with their perfect evenly colored coats. And they are small dogs, rarely larger than a Cocker Spaniel.
Krakow dogs were more likely to be mutts, and despite the flat living in that city, they were bigger. I saw only one or two drop-kick dogs. The rare Prague sight of a larger breed was far more common there. And in the country, the dogs were furious at a sign of intrusion.
So the obvious question is, why? A fashion trend in one of the cities? A cultural difference? But Americans have big, friendly dogs on leashes—why that difference?
I think it comes down to the difference between developed and developing nations. This difference is what I saw most clearly when we traveled from Prague to Krakow. The bus in Poland passed many well-manicured lawns and gardens, but public areas were chaotic. Street vendors were in every town, and a flea market sat in every main city square. Facades were faded, pavement more worn. Bicycles were everywhere, the mark of those who cannot afford a car.
A dog is a luxury in Prague, and in the United States. We can breed for certain useless characteristics, and think about nothing but convenience when deciding what size we want a dog to be.
But in a country in which, only twenty years ago, pizza was a scarcity and jeans a luxury item, dogs fulfill their ancient function. They are not just man’s best friend: they are man’s protector. The Pole who goes looking for a dog is, consciously or not, evaluating how much security their buddy will provide.
And I think that is the fundamental difference in culture between the developing world and the developed, between the proverbial “East” and “West,” at least in Europe. There is a sense of comfort in a fully developed “1st world” nation, one that other countries lack. There is a security on the streets of Prague, a level of comfort that allows Czech women to walk alone at 11 at night, that is lacking in Krakow. There is a nervousness buried in the bedrock.
But there is something to be said for this kind of insecurity, because what it brings with it is energy. There is a spark to the streets of Krakow, a feeling of urgency and drive that has faded with the stonework in Western Europe. There is a fire in those determined to develop, to catch up with the rest of the world. In the heavily developed West, the dogs never bark, but in the East, they bark up a storm.
So. Having studied Japanese language and culture for well over five years, and being fully prepared for everything surrounding me to be different, before I arrived in Japan I admit to scoffing at the idea of culture shock. Then during my first few weeks here, I became so overwhelmed by the daily stresses of not fully understanding Japanese (needing to focus so much attention on my teacher’s words that I couldn’t take notes in class, grocery shopping being exponentially more difficult and time consuming, etc) that I thought, ah, perhaps this is what culture shock is.
I just had my first encounter with an enormous, solid brick cultural wall and the impact has left me reeling a little bit.
The following conversation came about as a result of a homework assignment. All CET students are required to complete a cultural project about Japan, which involves creating a survey and interviewing local Japanese people. For my project I have chosen to do some research on beauty standards and expectations in Japan (I wanted to research sex education, but was told that a survey on such a topic would make my interviewees too uncomfortable). In any case, I was trying to phrase a question in Japanese to the effect of, “Do you think unrealistic beauty standards are creating self-esteem issues and other problems amongst Japanese youth?”, and I gave it to my Japanese housemates to check my grammar. They looked at it and said basically, Well, your grammar is correct, but we don’t understand the question.
I come from a world of gender studies classes where we spend weeks watching Killing Us Softly and talking about the negative impacts of advertising, how the pressure to look impossibly perfect is causing eating disorders, loss of feelings of self-worth, and furthering gender discrimination. A world of Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign and endless body-image related GIFs on tumblr. Of voices being raised in anger against social pressure to change one’s appearance in ways as menial as shaving body hair to as drastic as surgically enhancing breasts. In this world, the answer to above question is almost ingrained, guaranteed; on a survey the question itself is practically superfluous.
And yet, this question does not make sense to a Japanese person. My housemates and I spent well over an hour going back and forth, explaining and questioning and rephrasing in a hodgepodge of Japanglish, and it was truly like a wall had gone up between Japanese and American.
Americans: “So, what if like, a girl really likes a guy, and he says likes her too but he tells her that if she wants to go out with him she has to change her look because he doesn’t like the way she dresses?”
Japanese: *blinkblink* “Well, if she really likes him, she should just change for him.”
Americans: “…Wait, really?!…”
Americans: “So is plastic surgery morally OK in Japan?”
Japanese: *blinkblink* “Morals have nothing to do with it…”
Americans: “So nobody is bothered by the fact that people feel so much pressure to be beautiful that they will pay money for a fake face?”
Japanese: “It doesn’t have to do with money either. Some people get upset because lineage and family pride is important, and they get offended if people don’t want to look like their parents. But if someone is unhappy with their face, and they can change it, and it makes them happy, that’s OK.”
Americans: “Japan is known for having idols. But those idols are uncommonly attractive, frequently have plastic surgery, and use a lot of makeup tricks and Photoshop in their magazine spreads and stuff. Doesn’t that create a lot of unrealistic expectations from the people who see them?”
Japanese: “But, we know we can’t be like them. We know they use a lot of Photoshop, and they live in a different world than us. We don’t expect to be like them.”
Americans: “It’s not that simple, though…”
Japanese: “Sometimes they put real people from the streets in magazines, and everybody likes those more because they’re actually real.”
Americans: “…I think you’re missing our point…”
Americans: “Are eating disorders not a problem in Japan?”
Japanse: “No, no, they are definitely increasingly becoming a problem.”
Americans: “So, then, aren’t people concerned about young people not liking themselves, and causing self-harm?”
Japanese: “…Well, if a person is unhappy, it’s probably because they need to find people who like them more.”
Americans: “But isn’t it a problem with how people see themselves, not how other people see them?”
Americans: “Don’t Japanese people think it’s important to like themselves? How can other people like a person who doesn’t even like themself?”
Japanese: “No! If a person likes themself too much, people will not like them because they will think that that person isn’t thinking about other people.”
I still do not fully understand, but what I got from the exchange was basically, the American attitude is “I see you, therefore you are,” while the Japanese one is “They see me, therefore I am.” My mind is still being blown here… excuse me while I go ponder the stability of my universe.