I consider myself to be a cosmopolitan kind of guy, world savvy, even street smart. When I have the urge to travel, I prepare before leaving, boning up on local customs of the countries I plan to visit. I feel it’s my responsibility to do everything within my power to set a most perfect example of the “good American,” showing respect for the people I come into contact with by having at least a rudimentary knowledge of their country. As we all know, the best-laid plans don’t always work out.
My wife and I frequently vacation in Mexico and part of my preparation has been to study Spanish to pick up some handy phrases. A trip to the lovely beaches of Zihuatanejo offered the opportunity to try out my linguistic skills. On the way to the beach one day I met the attendant to get a towel. I attempted to offer the greeting, “Tenga un buen dia,” “Have a good day.” What I said was, “Tengo un buen dios,” “I have a good God.” While I DO have a good God, relaying this information unintentionally to the towel boy caused him to give me a very strange look. I think I might have scared him.
On a recent trip to Japan, unknowingly I was customs challenged in the area of eating. My family enjoyed many meals together, typically in very small restaurants sitting extremely close to others. We laughed, pointed our chopsticks to emphasize our conversation. We passed delicious bits of food to each other and stuck our chopsticks straight up in the glutinous rice between bites. I hoped my deft handling of chopsticks impressed the Japanese patrons.
Upon returning home, I discovered with horror that when it comes to eating in Japan, the most important eating “rules” are those regarding chopsticks. Sticking them upright in your rice is considered bad form. That’s how rice is offered to the dead. STRIKE ONE! It’s also bad form to pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s, another Buddhist funeral rite that involves passing the remains of the cremated deceased among members of the family using chopsticks. STRIKE TWO! In his book A Cook’s Tour, one of our favorite chefs and authors, Anthony Bourdain, lists all of the things one shouldn’t do when eating in a Japanese restaurant. Topping his list is, “Don’t point your chopsticks at anyone else.” STRIKE THREE! LEAVE THE COUNTRY IMMEDIATELY!
And then there’s the issue of toilets. This is a family newspaper so I won’t go into great detail. However, any toilet that requires electricity, extra plumbing and includes instructions on how to use, in Japanese, well, it’s not for me. On several occasions I couldn’t figure out how to flush the darn things! I’ll move on.
Fear not, fellow travelers, as I did excel in one area. There is a definite etiquette to bill paying in Japan. If someone invites you to eat or drink with them, they will be paying. I had absolutely no problem with this custom. In fact, I think it’s one that we should adopt in the good ‘ole US of A!
Richard Denning is a professor of theatre at Tarleton State University and a Texas high school football official. He was raised in Miami, Florida, which accounts for his large collection of tropical shirts and the ability to walk in flip-flops without making noise. His column, “Backstage,” will focus on people, places, entertainment and events that make life interesting.