Worldhop's Top Ten Dumb Gaigin Tricks

We often slapped our foreheads and exclaimed "stupid gaigin" when we had done something particularly clumsy, inept or foolish. In the course of our own—or others— faux pas on Japanese soil, we developed the following list of stupid gaigin tricks, never to be repeated. BTW (by the way, for those uninitiated in 'Net lingo), "gaigin" literally means "outside person."

1) Charging into a house, ryokan or across a tatami (straw mat) while shod in hobnail boots, golf shoes, stiletto high heels, or for that matter any kind of shoe, boot or sandal.

The clue, gaigin, is that in front of the door you will see everyone's shoes lined up neatly, or placed in convenient shelves in public places such as museums. Usually you will be provided slippers, except in George's case where the slippers of Japan covered only his toes. In many homes you will also find another set of slippers reserved for the bathroom.

2) The bathtub is for meditation and relaxation, not a place to get clean. Don't use soap in the bathtub; or worse yet, let the water out!

The cleaning phase of bathing in Japanese households and ryokans is done on little stools outside the tub (the floors are tile or wood lattice and have drains in them). You are provided buckets, soaps and hand-held showers to clean yourself. After you are squeaky clean, you then enter the warm tub for a relaxing soak. Everyone uses the same tub, but the order of who goes first is determined by the household, usually guests first followed by heads of household.

The Japanese hold a special reverence for their relaxing times in the tub. It's where poetry can be written or the day's ills forgotten. It doesn't help having a dumb gaigin mess up the event.

3) Thinking that the language barrier can be overcome by talking louder.

By some quirk of nature, evolution and geography, people in Japan speak Japanese. Since few people speak English, and far fewer gaigin speak Japanese, communication problems that verge on the hilarious often happen. Contrary to common sense, when trying to converse with any non-English speaking people, when you realize they haven't got a clue what you're saying, it does not help to yell louder as if this will help them understand.

4) Blowing your cool.

The Japanese are courteous and cool, and they dislike or get easily embarrassed by confrontation or Irish tempers. Chill out, dude.

5) Going to anyone's home empty handed.

While Americans are used to bringing small gifts when visiting, we are not used to the almost religious implications of this ritual in Japanese society. The act of giving gifts is solemn and speaks volumes. We have seldom met such generous people, and a little reciprocity is just fine.

6) Clumsiness with the slender and graceful Japanese chopsticks.

Most Japanese are very forgiving of gaigin clumsiness in this regard, and will go out of their way to instruct, or when all else fails, to offer knives and forks. But a few mistakes are to be avoided. Don't pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's and don't put your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice (both have death connotations).

7) Eating food when walking down the street, or worse yet, taking bites out of a pastry in a bakery while standing in line to pay for it.

George actually did the latter, with our friend Jeremy as a witness. George, of course, knew he was going to buy it so "what's the big deal?" Jeremy was so shocked that he actually beat a hasty retreat out of the bakery rather than be seen with us. When George got up to the counter to pay, the two cashiers were aghast, apparently worried that George was buying a flawed pastry. Noticing their concern he did the expedient thing and blamed Cassidy. Cassidy did the expedient thing and pointed back at him. The cashiers did the expedient thing and wrote us all off as crude, disgusting gaigin. When Jeremy later told his family, none of them believed it! It was just beyond their comprehension.

8) Accepting someone's business card with one hand and quickly using it to pick your teeth.

Actually gaijin , you've just blown two rules here. The exchange of cards is nearly a ritual and almost a way of proving your existence. The correct procedure is to accept an offered card with both hands and take time to admire it.

Publicly picking your teeth, either with a business card or toothpick, is uncool. Following a meal Japanese diners cover their mouths with one hand while picking.

9) Blowing one's nose on a hanky in public.

Want to disgust an entire train car full of people? Try this one with enough vigor to overcome the clackety-clack of the rails.

10) Acknowledging someone's compliments by bragging more.

Now I know it's hard to prevent this in some of us, but it's crude gaijin behavior. Flattery is very important in Japan, and often given. The correct response is to deny there's any truth to the strokes, but act appreciative.

11) And one more for good measure: never make friends with the food you're about to eat.

At a fish market Cassidy met and learned about a large, live octopus. It had been trying to escape, using one tentacle to seek out some route to safety from its Styrofoam box. Cassidy gently helped him back, and with Mutsan's tutelage she learned much about these remarkable animals. Later that night around the dinner table, Cassidy respectfully declined dining on one of Japan's best delicacies and an old friend.

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