Statistic Fact 1: Most tourist attractions cater to the English language
Statistic Fact 2: Most natives in a non-British-Empire nation speak their native tongue
Statistic Fact 3: Other nations do and say things differently than you do
I’m heading out to Japan for a little while, so I’ll be out of contact. But, this past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of cramming and research on the country to which I shall play the guest. There are a few things I absolutely need to understand in order to maximize my experience.
This is the obvious one. True, places like Tokyo often have English signage and menus, but it’s always entirely possible I’ll travel through a region where English is uncommon. I don’t want to be this guy:
I didn’t take a few months to absorb the fundamentals of the language, so I’m already operating at a deficit, but there are a few basics entirely worth knowing:
- Writing System. The Japanese kanji is complex, but every small child learns a phonetic writing system called “hiragana,” and many natives are at least familiar with Romaji (“Roman Letters”). This means that, with a few key phrases, I can likely get a friendly native to translate kanji down to something I can easily look up and memorize, which expedites practical learning.
- Greetings. I’ll meet new people as I travel, so it’s important to at least know a few ways to greet them. Introduction phrases (including variants of “Nice to meet you”) are essential, as are departing phrases and both formal and casual greetings. The more I speak in their tongue, the more comfortable they’ll be with new interactions.
- Basic Navigation. I’ll get lost. It happens. Being able to ask where my hotel is, or where the station is, or where the cruise ship is, or any such phrase makes it possible to recover from such incidents.
- “How do you say/write _______?” When I learned Spanish as a school child, my favorite phrase was, “Como se dice”. I don’t know much of their language, but if I’m lucky they know enough of mine (or we can communicate well enough via gesture) to pick up a few key phrases and words here and there.
How would you react to a native Indian friend who, on visiting America, took a dump on the sidewalk or pissed on the street (a sight not uncommon in regions of Asia)? That’s pretty much the way a native Japanese person would react to me using their first name without an honorific.
This is true.
Every culture does things differently. While they might forgive a relatively small offense if you take correction gracefully, they might not fully forgive you for some time if it’s a greater offense. Even if you don’t do anything offensive, you might look a total fool if you don’t know a few basic things.
Good news for me, I have spent entirely too much time reading slice-of-life manga and watching anime. I know how honorifics work. I know a thing or two about common dialects, so my speech won’t sound stilted. I know the difference between formal and informal communication, and I know about the personal-space differences between most Westerners and Japanese people. I know not to wear my outdoor shoes inside a home or restaurant.
I know about public baths, Japanese futons, and other classic differences between housing in the US and Japan, so I won’t complain when I see something I’m not accustomed to. I know the cultural significance of certain things like tea ceremonies, sumo, and Mount Fuji, so I won’t approach these things with either too much reverence or too little. I know that most kids like anime or manga, but obsessing over it makes you a social pariah, so I have to strike a balance (given that I spent so many years hooked on the stuff).
When I go to their country, I am their guest. While I will never seem like a native, I at least can avoid looking like a clumsy oaf.
This is important to me. I am allergic to gluten, which means I generally avoid American variants on Japanese foods. A little research is enough to prepare me to properly select my meals.
Also important: some countries eat things we find odd in the US. Heck, the Scottish eat a sausage containing sheep lungs and oatmeal. Many Asian peoples (Japanese included) will consume entire animals, from head to tail, and that’s not weird at all. If you want the best experience, it helps to go in knowing these sorts of things.
When I get back, I’ll have more to say about how effective my preparations were, what I experienced, and what else you should really know.