It's a Japanese Thing

A car stops for me to cross at a zebra crossing, and I bow my head in thanks and scuttle across the road, feeling the prickles of embarrassment.

At the time I was 17 and had just returned from a year in a Japanese high school. I’m quite certain that was the moment I realised that it wasn’t just the language I had absorbed. The Japanese reflex of dipping your head in gratitude or in apology at the drop of a hat has so naturally become a part of me that I can’t not do it anymore. However, I do immediately recognise the quizzical looks from local Australians and, more recently, local Germans.

While waiting for a friend to join me for the Christopher Street Day (Pride) parade in Berlin, a guy yelled out, “Schöne Socken!” (nice socks). I was wearing gorgeous, sky-blue, knee-high, My Little Pony socks, complete with pegasus wings—the subject of much attention that day. I bowed my head in thanks, and he and his mate’s expressions turned to ones of amusement mixed with confusion. They gave the universal shrugged shoulder with hands open palm up, plainly saying, “huh?”

I wheeled around, laughing to myself and feeling the need to give an explanation. We managed to communicate, me with broken German and them with broken English, that I had lived in Japan. It was a “Japanese thing”.

It just so happened that the friend I was meeting had also lived in Japan for a number of years. We joked about all the mannerisms that made us Japanese: pointing to your nose when referring to yourself (“Who, me?” as I feel the hair’s breadth between my index finger and the tip of my nose); waving a hand back and forth in front of my face to mean no; the Japanese way of counting on your fingers; and my favourite feminine Japanese mannerism—rushing to cover the lower half of my face with my hand anytime my expression changes in the slightest, from eating to laughing.

Perhaps the most confusing one, at least when I was training juniors at taekwondo in Australia, was when I wanted someone to come towards me. Very early on in our teaching careers in Japan, my fellow English teachers and I were warned about how rude it is in Japan to beckon someone in the “standard” palm up fashion, which is how they would call a dog. For fear of offending our new host country, we all quickly adapted to the Japanese palm down method. Unfortunately for the Australian taekwondo juniors, the conditioning of the Japanese method remains strong, and they have no idea whether they should be coming or going when I do it.

I do still retain at least one Australian gesture that always puzzles Japanese people or creates that natsukashii feeling in my Japanese friends who lived in Australia: the 50-50 hand tilt. Whenever I haven’t completely made up my mind and could go either way, I stick my hand out flat see-sawing the thumb and pinky to say, kinda. “You hungry, Ash?” “Kinda, but I’m not fussed whether I eat or not.” That kind of gesture.

I can’t help but laugh at these little quirks of mine, because even though these mannerisms have sewn themselves seamlessly into me, I’ll always stand out as a foreigner in Japan. But anywhere in the Western world I’ve been, I have to explain, it’s a Japanese thing; it’s one part of me that makes me Japanese.

Maybe these kinds of mannerisms are one of those things that make TCKs feel like they belong everywhere and nowhere. In any case, I celebrate my differences now because they’re what make me, me.