Cultural nuances of Japanese

I started learning Japanese way back in college, and one of my Japanese professors tried something that failed spectacularly.

Near the end of her class, the professor handed us out packets of information about how to use Japanese within Japanese society.

Nearly every student protested, sometimes openly, that this was a tremendous waste of time. “Why are we learning this?” I remember one particularly frustrated student say aloud.

For me, however, this was like being handed the keys to a kingdom. I still have those packets.

It’s one thing to learn how to speak a language, but it’s quite another to learn how to speak it well within the society that uses that language.

For example, in America (where I’m originally from) if someone says, “Your English is so good,” the natural response would be, “Thank you.”

In Japan, however, this is generally viewed as a rude response to the praise. Saying thank you to someone complimenting your Japanese is akin to saying, “Yes, I know it’s amazing. Thank you for noticing.” To many Japanese, this is bragging, which is highly frowned upon here.

Therefore, the correct response to “Your Japanese is so good” is to say, “Oh no, no, it’s not good at all yet.” It doesn’t matter if you just gave your college dissertation in Japanese despite only being a native English speaker, this should be your go-to response.

Another nuance I’ve learned is that you do not boast about anything to anyone who is not in your immediate social circle (like your spouse or your own parents and kids).

If your kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize and your neighbors come running up to you praising their name to the heavens, your job is to promptly dismiss all praise. Deflect. If need-be, find some flaw about your child to bring up if the neighbors keep praising your kid anyway.

None of this is to say, “I hate my child.” On the contrary, it is to give the appearance of being humble and having humility. If you go around saying, “My kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize!” then many neighbors and friends will give you tight smiles and declare you to be full of yourself behind your back.

That doesn’t mean many Japanese don’t enjoy being praised. I don’t know anyone on earth who doesn’t enjoy that, even if only inwardly. But your immediate reaction in Japan to received praise should always be deflection and humility. Even if inwardly you want to shout from the rooftops how amazing your kid is, outwardly you have to act like your kid didn’t do anything special.

My professor tried to teach us all that, to help us be even just a tiny bit more accepted into this incredibly exclusive society, and to this day I think it’s a shame more students didn’t understand just how incredibly nice that was of her to try and teach us.

Cucumber dressing recipe

Cucumbers are in season in Japan and are one of the things people think about here when it comes to this hot season. Nothing like an ice-cold cucumber after a hot and humid day.

As such, cucumbers are pretty cheap at grocery stores now, and I’m left wondering how to make them worth eating every day.

My father-in-law shared a great recipe that I thought I’d share here for a nice sauce for cucumbers.

You take about a half cup of mayonnaise (we used a “healthy” version of it) and about a tablespoon of miso paste and mix them together. Then toss the sliced cucumbers in that sauce.

That’s it. And it tastes fantastic. If you can get your hands on some nice miso paste (we used red miso with the dashi already in it) and some mayonnaise, then you will be on your way to glory.

The umami and salty flavors of the sauce really help bring a nice contrast to the otherwise fairly unspectacular flavors of the cucumber, in my humble opinion.

Growing hydrangeas

The reason I can tolerate the rainy season in Japan

I have wavy hair and, as such, the rainy season of Japan is the bane of my existence. It seems no matter how much moisture I pour into my hair, it is always frizzy during this season of clouds, rain and humidity.

As such, the only part of the rainy season I remotely look forward to is hydrangeas. Japan is covered in hydrangeas around this time of the year, with bushes of them cropping up everywhere you look. They grow here the way dandelions used to grow back in America.

Because I love them so much, especially the blue ones, I decided to try my hand at having a couple in a container. I bought one last rainy season and then watched in growing horror as it dropped all of its flowers and proceeded to die.

At least, I thought it was dead. Mostly because I refused to simply throw the container away, I continued watering the remaining sticks that remained as winter settled in. Hydrangea are not exactly cheap, so I had a vague hope that maybe the hydrangea had left some seeds behind in the soil, and maybe those would give me back my beloved flowers.

Perhaps in testament to how highly unobservant I am, it wasn’t until late winter that, while visiting a vast park attended to by professional gardeners, I noticed their hydrangea bushes looked exactly like mine – dead. When I finally looked around at where I had remembered hydrangea bushes to be in my neighborhood, I realized every hydrangea bush looked dead. It looked like someone had burned the poor bushes to the ground.

This gave me overwhelming hope that maybe, just maybe, my little blue hydrangea bush was still somehow alive. A quick Internet research confirmed that it was merely dormant.

Sure enough, while the rain continues to drizzle down and my hair continues to betray me, I get the pleasure of looking out my little window and seeing a beautiful blue hydrangea bush every day. It’s not a bad view at all.

Writing inspiration

Sometimes an idea will come to me as if someone has walked up behind me and started speaking. Usually it happens when I’m in the middle of work or doing some mundane household task. Whenever this strikes, I mentally build on it as I keep doing whatever work I was doing and then try to write it all down as soon as I can.

Other times, I’ll listen to a song and watch a scene unfold in my mind. I then try to mentally flesh out that scene into something hopefully resembling a story. Again, I find myself reaching for my computer when that happens.

Probably the most profound source of inspiration for me is my dreams. I often have, for better or worse, vivid dreams. They’re like movies.

While I can’t remember my dreams every night, vivid movie dreams have become so commonplace in my life that after waking from one, my immediate reaction is to run through a checklist I have in my mind for whether it would make for a good story.

I ask myself: 1. Is it interesting? 2. Can I build around the dream and turn it into a story or is this a one-hit note? 3. Is it something I’ve seen before somewhere else?

If the dream passes my checklist, then I’ll write it out. Dreams have given me an entire series of books before while also giving me short stories.

I’m writing another book (or maybe a novella? Maybe two books? I have no idea yet) based on a dream I had the other day. I don’t actually have a whole lot of time right now to be writing, but that’s never stopped me before.

Healthcare in Japan

I’m originally from America.

I remember one time being really sick and going to a hospital while I still lived there. I listed my symptoms to the nurse. She listened patiently, and the first words out of her mouth after that were, “What is your insurance?”

I learned from an early age that insurance coverage matters far more than whatever ails you. I also learned that you only should go see your doctor, go to urgent care or a hospital if you are in dire need. Otherwise, over-the-counter drugs available at pharmacies are your way of patching up whatever’s wrong.

Moving to Japan, I carried the fear of being charged through the roof for medical help with me. For the first few years here I desperately tried to stay away from doctors. I just didn’t have the money I thought would be required to see one, even though I did have health insurance from Japan.

I only went when I really, really needed to. And each time, I would listen to the doctor rattle off things they needed done like blood tests or X-rays, and I would inwardly cringe. I wanted to always ask, “Is it really necessary?” It all sounded so insanely expensive.

Then I would get the bill, and the relief was overwhelming. It still is. A blood test and X-ray? Sometimes it’s cost me about 20 USD. Seeing the doctor? I’ve been paying an average of 10 USD.

Kids get it even better here. It depends on where you live, but where I live, it costs 3 USD for your child to see the doctor and get any test done the doctor thinks you need. Need an I.V. drip put in at the doctor’s office? That’ll be 3 USD. It also costs 3 USD per day to stay at a hospital. And all drugs prescribed by the doctor are free. This all lasts until, I think, the kid is in high school.

I still have a kind of PTSD I experience whenever I am about to see the bill for whatever medical services I just received. My heart quickens, my stomach drops, and I wonder if I’ll need to pull out the credit card. Whenever there’s an emergency, I still can’t just focus on the problem at hand; all I can think about is the cost.

A while back I got hit by a taxi and, mercifully, only sprained my ankle. The entire time I was at the hospital, all I could think about was, “How much is this going to cost me?” I couldn’t even think about how horrible it was being in a hit-and-run incident or how much my leg hurt. It was all about the cost in my head. That’s what the American medical system has done to me personally.

I’ve had people say, “Yeah it’s cheap but how long are the waits?” I’ve been here 12 years and can only speak to my own experience, but for me, it’s never been hard to book an appointment or just drop in and see the doctor. I’ve never made an appointment at my general doctor’s, and the wait for just showing up is, at most, an hour. At the hospital the wait can be about 3 hours at times, and my God some of the Japanese around me complain about it to no end.

For me, though, for the price I pay to get so much medical attention, I’d happily camp outside overnight.