I did not realize how relaxed the culture is in the United States until I went to Japan. Here, unspoken rules are ingrained in the culture involving dress, speech and action. If you do not follow them, you clearly stick out. Throughout my first month in this country, I have made several cultural faux pas.
I made my very first mistake when I was in the airport. Clueless, I stood on the wrong side of the escalator with my giant suitcase and forced everyone to walk around me. Things did not improve once I arrived at my dorm: you are supposed to change into indoor slippers right at the door, and into different slippers for the kitchen, bathroom and clothes-drying area outside. I once forgot to switch shoes while going to hang my clothes, and the dorm manager ran down the hall calling out, “Yasumin-san, slipper change!” I felt like a clueless toddler.
It was also difficult for me to get used to shower room culture here in Japan. The shower room is essentially a public bath. A dressing room leads to another room full of showerheads and a bath. At first, I thought you were supposed to enter the shower room in a towel; this assumption led to my third mistake. Once I arrived in the showers, I realized I had nowhere to hang towels or clothes.
Although the dorm I live in is all female, the concept of showering out in front of others really freaked me out at first. I would shower in the early hours of the morning to avoid everyone else. I still hesitate a little, but I am slowly getting used to it.
My fourth mistake occurred during my first public transit experience. I had to start taking the train to school during the morning rush hour. The first train was insanely crowded and had no room at all. I had a lot of extra time, so I waited for the next. The next one arrived and it was exactly the same — with people packed in like sardines. And yet people still get on. In order to maximize capacity, they shove as many people as possible onto the train. I learned that punctuality is extremely important here, so people would rather cram themselves onto the train than be a couple minutes late. So there is no point in waiting for the next train. Unlike the subways in New York City, you are not being rude for pushing your way onto the metro. Honestly, I am not sure I will ever get used to the rush hour crowd.
I have made countless other mistakes. I could not possibly list them all. However, I would not trade these experiences for the world. Despite that awkward feeling I get when I commit a cultural faux pas, I am learning that it is the only way to truly learn about a new culture.