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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

With time, players learn the house rules


When in Rome, do as the Romans do . . . Jaywalk. Anyway that's what I did on my sole trip to the Eternal City some years back, cautiously following snappy Italian shoes here and there across the Via del Corso and elsewhere.

Accordingly, back in Japan I strive to do what the Japanese do. No, I do not wait numbly at street corners till the light turns green -- when but a quick glance reveals there are no moving vehicles within a nautical mile. In that case I do what many Japanese do not do: I break both law and propriety and simply cross the street.

But, pedestrian violations aside, in other ways I try to follow Japanese customs as much as possible. In fact, my matrimonial harmony often depends on it.

That harmony was at its clunkiest right after marriage. For, while I had learned numerous Japanese customs, I hadn't exactly been practicing them. However, I now had a live-in expert in cultural decorum. One who made my social reform as her chief goal.

The gaffe that most perturbed my bride had to do with my feet -- or rather how I used them. Like for nudging open doors. Or for bonking them shut.

My modest view was that when hands are full, feet are the next best option.

"But using your feet is rude," she informed me. "What? The door doesn't mind, I'm sure." "People mind. And for the same reason you shouldn't be pointing with your feet either."

Now I hadn't exactly been crashing through doors a la Bruce Lee. Nor had I been lofting my foot to the air to aim at things.

Yet, for a week or so -- in a stubborn effort to flaunt my freedom -- I did just that. Eventually giving it up only because I wanted to hear my wife speak to me again. Not to mention all the charley horses I kept getting.

So . . . I could use my feet for walking, period. And pointing with any object other than my finger was out altogether.

Her next correction had to do with my teaching style. For in peeking her head into my classroom, she spied me (gasp) sitting upon the desk.

I explained that where I grew up desks were only used in two ways: 1) as chairs; and 2) as places to lose your car keys. In fact, the entire American stance on sitting is based on basic geometry: If your bottom fits the available space, it is a worthwhile seat.

Such pragmatism drove my bride nuts. Chairs were for sitting on, desks were for studying behind, feet were for walking and wives, she insisted, were for obeying.

My next boo-boo was to pass on a monetary gift in just that form -- as straight, unpackaged cash.

A bare bill, naked, nude, exposed -- my wife made it seem obscene!

I felt so bad that on my next pay day I stuck every bill into an individual envelope, lest the poor things get traumatized. After all, who wants their money to be insecure?

Gradually, as our marriage rolled into its second year, I made fewer and fewer flubs. Indeed, I adjusted so well that when my cousin Rudy visited, I couldn't believe I was related to such a cretin.

Watching Rudy clomp across the tatami in his cowboy boots about gave me a seizure.

"Yank those boots off now!" "And put them where? Over there?" He pointed with his foot. "ARRGH!"

Next we took him to a church where he used the bathroom and then wore the toilet slippers through the entire service. God perhaps didn't mind, but God didn't have to stand there and announce, "This clown is Rudy, my own flesh and blood."

Then, one bright morning we opened our curtains to see Rudy outside standing in the grass -- without any shoes or socks. My wife was so stunned she had to fold her tongue back in her mouth by hand.

In retrospect, I have come to envy my footloose cousin. For the sensation of cool grass on bare feet not only brings back memories, it feels good. So much so that one day when my wife, her mother and our neighbors weren't watching, I tried it myself. Only wishing I would have first taken the time to confirm where our dog had been.

As a now well-trained husband, I have one final confession. Recently, upon tightly lacing my shoes, I suddenly remembered my train pass lay on the kitchen table.

Normally, I would have just stepped out of my shoes and fetched it. But I was in a rush. And since no one was home . . .

I crawled on my hands and knees from the genkan to the kitchen. Yet, from the floor I couldn't reach the table. So -- feeling like a goon -- I stood up and took the pass. Wearing my shoes.

But that's not my confession. My confession is that I next danced around the house from room to room, missing my train altogether, overcome by the thrill of wearing my shoes indoors.

Silly perhaps. But when in Rome one must do what the Romans do. And in our house acting silly is pretty much a family custom.



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