Day 29: Words and customs

Day 29: Words and customs

Day 29: Words and customs

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Years ago, on my first trip to Tokyo as an adult, a Japanese customs officer asked whether I was in Japan for business.

“いいえ, 休暇です,” I declared enthusiastically.
“ちがいます,” he corrected, in a somewhat curt but wounded tone.

I realised immediately that, in my jetlagged stupor, I had forgotten one of my first lessons in Japanese culture: it is impolite to respond with such a harsh negative. I was mortified and apologised probably a little too much.

These days, I get the sense people aren’t as concerned with that kind of detail anymore: they just want the punchline Hollywood sells. Or maybe they are, but they don’t know where to look.

In martial arts circles, for instance, I’ve observed many Westerners arguing over the complexities of the phrase “師父” (“sifu”), which isn’t really that complicated if you’re Chinese. When I offered my take on it, I was told (without a hint of irony) that I don’t know what I’m talking about; and they continued debating the meaning of “師父” amongst themselves like high schoolers trying to divine the meaning of a Shakespearean play.

There’s something to be said here for how privilege contributes to cultural appropriation, but I suppose that won’t happen as long as people like me have the patience to correct them.

Good on them for trying, I guess.

About today’s photo: Chinese New Year is about more than just red packets, fireworks and lion dances. Phrases such as “新年快樂,” “恭喜發財,” and 身體健康,” and the fact that I’m wearing red, are informed by centuries of cultural practices. It is a time for family and the people closest to us.  


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