by Frank Lev, Nov 5, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

Japanese culture is one that is obsessed with cleanliness. This can be seen from the important custom of taking off one's shoes before entering a house, to the vacuum cleaners that they have designed and use, and by the way that they eat. I work with five Japanese women everyday, and to be honest, after a while it starts to get on your nerves. Especially when there is a certain holier-than-thou attitude about the whole thing.

There isn't a day that goes by when I am not corrected, reminded, or rebuked about my practices. In their minds I am an uncouth, dirty foreigner who needs to be educated, or at least restrained. For example, often after our common lunch we have little cups of yogurt. I am in the habit of pulling off the plastic cover and then licking it before putting it down. I do this because it is covered with yogurt and in my mind it would be wasteful just to throw it away. The first time I did this, my coworkers grimaced in disgust. You would have thought that I had picked my nose and eaten it. After they explained that this was not acceptable in Japan, I explained my reasons. While I was willing to accept their position and I try to remember not to do that in front of them, they are not willing to accept my assertion that it is not so terrible to do this in casual company. In other words their opinion of me remains fixed. They are very closed minded about what is clean and what is disgusting, and sometimes the rules are impossible to fathom.

Sometimes I like to play with this and test the boundaries. Many of my students are very young, some as young as 24 months old. The other day, Suki, who just turned two, had finished class and was waiting for her mother, who was talking to a staff person. Since her mother had already put Suki?s shoes on, she was standing on the stone landing, which is considered dirty.

"Hi Suki. How are you? Come here Suki, honey. Come here." She made a move to step on to the tatami mat, but it was as if an invisible hand had stopped her. She looked at me, and looked at her shoes, and back at me. "Come here Suki." She was torn, but there was no way that she was going to step onto that mat with her shoes. The training starts very young.

The other day there were no classes, and the staff was working alone preparing materials. Keiko, who is one of my harshest critics, brought her dog into school. I scowled. "Do you like dogs Frank-san?"

"No I don't like them," I lied. They are dirty." I figure that the best defense is a good offense. However, she didn't miss a beat.

"My dog isn't dirty. I give him a bath everyday." Later, I obvserved that when the dog comes in the house, each foot is wiped with a cloth.

We had a Halloween party. While this is not a traditional or commonly celebrated holiday in Japan, my school chooses to celebrate it because they teach English and because it is fun. They decided to be lenient and allow people to wear shoes in the house, since shoes are often part of the costume. In order not to violate the clean/dirty rule, they went to a paint shop and bought enough plastic floor covering to cover the all the floors of the house. Needless to say, this took hours to tack into place and it was expensive. In addition, all of the things that were usually used for the school had to be put away to make room for the party. This meant that we worked hours and hours putting away books, computers, tables, etc.

After the house was made ready for the party, we went to a fancy restaurant for dinner. It was then that I began to suspect for the first time that they had come up with a policy for me. One of the women was to watch me at all times and make sure that I did nothing to embarrass them. It was "The Frank Watch." While I have no proof that this is so, I believe it to be the case.

On this particular day it was Keiko who sat across from me and always seemed to be watching me. When I started to mix the grilled fish and vegetables with my bowl of white rice she sang out, "No Frank. Don't do that." I almost dropped my bowl. All of the other staff turned to look, not to mention many people in the restaurant. This was a new one to me. I looked at the other people in the restaurant, and sure enough no one else was mixing. Rather, they would put some vegetables or fish in their mouths and then put some rice in their mouths. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled sheepishly.

After I finished my main course and soup, I started to put my soup bowl on my plate to make it easier for the waiter to carry off. "FRANK!" Everyone turned to see what I was doing now. "That is dirty. NO." I felt like crawling under the table, but managed an embarrassed shrug. They were going to wash the damn dishes anyway, weren't they? Or do they only wash one side of plates in Japan? And did she have to say it so loud? Was I paranoid, or were they enjoying this just a bit?

After the meal we talked for a while. I mostly listened and tried to pick up words that I knew in Japanese. For the most part I couldn't understand anything except my name. It was like that cartoon that shows a human talking to a dog and the dog understands "blah , blah, blah, Rover, blah, blah, blah" etc. Except for me it was "blah ,blah, blah, Frank-san, blah, blah" etc.. Was I paranoid or were they talking about me a lot?

The party went off great. We were assigned to meet early the next morning at 10 to put the school back in shape. I arrived at 9 because I wanted to leave early. The first thing I noticed was all the half-finished bottles of beer and apple juice that were all over the floor. As I started to pick them up, an idea descended upon me. I was still a little miffed about the night before at the restaurant. It seemed a shame to waste all that good apple juice. Apple juice is expensive in Japan. Before throwing away all the half empty bottles and cups of apple juice, I emptied them into a big pot and heated them.

By the time everyone arrived at 10 a.m., I had made some real progress in cleaning up the place. It took a long time to put the house back in order. This was partly because they insisted that the plastic floor covering had to be washed and vacuumed before it was put away. It was only floor covering! But that's the way they do things here. Later I actually saw Keiko vacuuming the portable CD player. I wish I had had my camera ready.

After about 3 hours of work, I walked to the kitchen and scooped out a laddleful of hot apple juice. I carried it over to Keiko. "In my country, a part of the Halloween tradition is drinking hot apple cider. Would you like to try some?" I said in my most pleasant voice. She had never heard about this part of the Halloween tradition. They were all very interested in learning as much as possible about American culture. She bowed slightly and thanked me. "However you should give this to the highest ranking member of the group first." And before I could stop her she carried the cup of slightly used apple juice to Hiroko, the owner. Hiroko was also very pleased to hear about this aspect of American tradition. She called everyone's attention.

"Let's all take a break. Frank has something to teach us." Before I knew it, everyone was sitting very formally in circle with a beautiful cup before each person. As Keiko poured the used cider into each cup, I tried to keep from laughing while I explained the importance of hot apple cider to the Halloween tradition. If they only knew. They solemly took up their cups and noisily sipped. Then they grunted approval and talked about how delicious it was. They were very pleased to be experiencing a part of the real Halloween. These foreigners were good to have around after all.

I felt a little guilty. I thought about telling them about the origin of their apple juice, but I could think of no good way of doing that. So I just smiled as they drank it up. They smiled back and the group felt very cozy. I wonder what they would have done if they'd known I'd served them leftover cider. Maybe rushed to the hospital to get their stomachs pumped. But in reality no harm was done and I felt a little better.

Happy Halloween everyone!