In Japan, Sometimes You’re a Toddler

May 25, 2017

Little things have cropped up this week after two months in the country. I won’t say they’ve gotten me down, because I was aware of them and had experienced them before, but I certainly wouldn’t label them as positive experiences.

My first time around, when I was living in Kagoshima and working at a biomedical firm as a proofreader, I frequented the company hot springs before work. Though looking back on it, I really should have been more respectful of the property. Unlike public onsen, which aren’t exactly the most tidy places, the one at my company was primarily used for visiting clients. Yet, because these visits were infrequent, I tended to leave a change of clothes in the storage area so I didn’t have to bring my work clothes on my commute (I usually came by bike).

Naturally, this came to a head one or two times when I wasn’t aware of these clients visiting and hadn’t removed all traces of my belongings from company property. The groundskeeper, obviously furious at my negligence, burst into my department after lunch one day and talked to me as if I were a child, forming his arms into an “X” shape to indicate I wasn’t allowed to leave clothes or soap down there.

His actions, which made me feel like an idiot, may have been warranted for something for which I should have known better, but I’ve been in many situations in Japan where this simply isn’t the case, and people tend to resort to juvenile and condescending hand gestures rather than speaking to me as if I were an adult.

Most recently, I had to pick up my clothes from the cleaners. In Japan (and elsewhere), you’re asked to provide your phone number when dropping off clothes. I was only asked for the last four digits after registering my number for the first time, but I mistakenly listed the whole number. Now, this same clerk will hold up four fingers every time she asks me for these numbers rather than just respectfully saying what she needs.

These situations are less forgivable, as they’re out in public doing things anyone who’s remotely capable of being independent can do. Nevertheless, it follows me around at work too, with the standard “日本語がお上手ですね” response whenever I say “good morning” or “thank you”. They know I lived in Japan for two years and have been in Tochigi for months, yet still act surprised I can write my address in kanji.

I don’t know what I can say or do to dispel this type of behavior. I don’t really let it affect me or weigh on my mind anymore, but I’m certainly never going to react as if it’s acceptable behavior. When appropriate, I will do my part to educate the speaker as to why such talk is condescending.

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