I almost included this post in #1 don’t be you or #3 learn that Japanese. But, I’ve found #4 Just keep smiling to be such an integral part of all the accomplishments I’ve achieved here in japan that it deserved its own post. Whether it’s basic communication or finding employment or making friends or just keeping people from giving me a reason to elbow them upside the head. IT WORKS!
Now, if you live here, you’re probably thinking, though Japanese people do tend to smile often, especially the girls, I don’t think they smile all the time. And, you’re right. They don’t. But, they can do whatever the hell they want. It’s their country. They can emote til their hearts content. But, sorry, from my experience, foreigners don’t have that luxury. Not here. We (meaning especially un-Asian foreigners for we can be identified readily) scare the HELL out of them!
And, what can be more disarming than a smile?
If Miss Celie can smile, anyone can smile. (God, I love The Color Purple)
It was especially important for me to smile because, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a fairly emotional guy. High highs, low lows, broad, with a heartwarming smiles, loony laughter, tear-jerking melancholia, icy heart-stopping glares, and wild-eyed rage. I run the gambit. I used to be more so. I’ve leveled off quite a bit since I’ve been living here. I’ve had to, or the funny farm (or the Big House) would have been the last stop on this train.
Smiling is not difficult for me, however. I love to smile. People love to see me smile. I light up a room.
But I grew up in a tough city. A city where smiling can have seriously detrimental side effects. In New York, and probably many other places in the “West” as well, a smile has other connotations:
1- Mischievous / Naughty – Who put the thumb tack in your chair? Who stole your 200th issue of the Amazing Spider-Man out of your book bag? It was probably the one who’s trying to look the most innocent or the one smiling.
2- Stupidity – How do people compensate for a lack of ability or competence? They smile, and try to cajole the competent ones.
3- Treachery – Hell, this is almost a given in the West. The bad guys are always smiling and laughing.
4- Weakness- Walking through the ‘hood, best keep your Peter Pan Happy thought well tucked away unless you have some fairy dust to go with it. A smile is almost provoking. Ain’t nuttin’ funny! WTF you smilin’ at????
But, Japan, despite appearances, ain’t nowhere near the West. Don’t let all that fancy technology and skyscrapers and their outlandish fashion trends fool you. Like most things in Japan, it’s mostly a facade. The cultural equivalent of trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Trusting people who smile a lot took me a long time. I came here and I thought everyone was either up to something, trying to pull a fast one on me, cracking jokes about me behind my back or under my nose, hiding something I ought to know about, or just plain mentally challenged. Especially the women. But, slowly I learned it was not so for most people here, I’ve found, have at least an equal intelligence quotient as their equivalent in America. I’d come to believe that most people here are just kind of devoid of confidence, or the inclination to display it in any manner. And they hide this deficit behind a smile (at least with me). They just smile and smile and smile…
But, there’s another reason for this I learned.
At the cleaners one Monday morning a couple of years back, I handed over a few dingy dress shirts to the staff person.
“Itsu dekimasuka?” When will they be ready?
“Sou desu ne…Kinyoubi desu ne.” Let’s see…On friday.
“Eeee! Kinyoubi desu ka?” What? Friday? I frowned. A whole friggin week just to clean a few shirts? At these prices? And last time they hadn’t even done such a great job. How the hell had this place managed to stay in business so long? “Motto hayaku dekinai no?” Can’t I get them any sooner?
“Moshi wake gozaimasen…eetoo…eetoo!” Oh my god, I’m so terribly sorry, please forgive me for upsetting you…It’s just that…It’s just that…
“Daijyoubu, daijyoubu, Shimpai shinai de.” Take it easy. It’s ok. Don’t sweat it. Somehow, I’d scared the poor women half to death. She was bowing and sweating profusely. I thought I’d sent her to join Elizabeth.
Though my reaction was a little strong, it wasn’t that strong.
I’d told my girlfriend at the time about the incident. I was shaken up. The last thing I needed was a Manslaughter charge…assault with a deadly weapon: my temper.
The following was our conversation and her explanation of what I had done wrong that morning:
“It’s your fault!” she said.
“Damn, don’t Japanese show their feelings?” I asked.
“We show feelings but not negative feelings, deshou?”
“Only good feelings? What if you don’t have any good feelings?
“You show me your negative feeling whenever you get ready!”
“You are inside person dakara.”
“Like friends and family, toka.”
“I see angry people on the train all the time.”
“Sou desu ka. Demo saa…It’s rude, dayo. Negative feelings are rude.”
“Harmony is value in Japanese society.”
“Negative feelings are bad for harmony, deshou?”
“Showing strong emotion is too personal.”
“It’s because Japan is based on agricultural society, to omou. If you don’t get along with other group member you will get kicked out and you can’t live and can’t get food, deshou? So you have to hide your true feelings to make good relationship and get along with other people. If you show your negative emotions people will think you are very selfish.”
“Wow! This is deep.”
“Deep? Deep tte nani?’
“Complex, serious, toka…” I explained.
“Sou desu ne…chyo serious dayo.
“So, you can have negative emotions but you can’t show negative emotions. What do you do? Keep them inside you?”
“You keep them inside, hai. And you smile!”
“Smile? You mean a fake smile?”
“Fake tte nani?”
“Yes, not real. Fake smile!” she said very excitedly like I’d nailed it. “Fake smile is a good way to protect yourself from isolated. If other people don’t like you will isolated.”
“So, everybody has a fake smile?”
“Sou omou…I think so.””
“But if everybody knows the smile is fake then it means nothing. All smiles are cancelled out.”
“Everybody want to believe smile is real, deshou?”
She is a very smart woman, so I followed her advice and started sporting a fake smile wherever I went. At first I felt like a fool. But, little by little I saw my smile reflected in the faces around me. I still can’t make myself hope their smiles are genuine and I know mine is bullshit more than 75% of the time, but I guess I’ve just gotten used to it.
Smile and the whole world smiles with you, they say. Maybe there’s some truth to that…
It also doesn’t hurt as you undertake the next task: #5: Making Japanese Friends