encounter with Japanese businessmen
one in Japanese business practices
By Jodi Neufeld; Continued from
Japanese business practices
started off well, though. I
arrived early to the meeting place, where our guests had just finished
breakfast. A quick look
around revealed jet-lagged faces and little in the way of smiles, but I
had expected that and bowed politely and smiled to everyone who looked
my way. “Ohayo-gozaimasu!”
I greeted them as cheerfully as any professional greeter in a Japanese
department store. I was
quite pleased with myself for my politeness.
Next it was
time to begin the tour. We
split up into three groups, each guide leading some twelve men, all of
them wearing identical black suits, black ties, and deep scowls.
Still I was not deterred; I performed my well-rehearsed
introduction and received an encouraging “Yosh!”
as we headed out. So far so
good, I thought.
As the tour
guide with the least proficiency in Japanese, I had been given the only
translator traveling with the group to help me if I got stuck. Thank goodness he was there, because the minute I started
talking about the first building on our route, a large problem became
evident to me: my lack of vocabulary.
Good grades on grammar quizzes really don’t help when you’re
trying to describe the history and use of the administration building in
Japanese. The translator (I’ll call him Mr. Yamada) quickly became my
crutch, relating my words (and hopefully not my embarrassment) to the
group. I berated myself
silently as we moved along. When
I’d apologized for my bad Japanese, they had probably assumed it was a
gesture of politeness. Now
we were all discovering just how lacking my Japanese was.
(Related article: Use
of foreign language words in Japanese)
But I put
this issue behind me as we walked (now it was starting to drizzle; one
of the younger men held an umbrella over the translator’s head).
A year and a half of Japanese yields fluency to very few gaijin,
and I was certainly not one of them.
More concerning to me as we walked along was the uniform mass of
deadpan faces. I knew these men were jet-lagged, just as I knew they were
not likely to display their interest openly even if they had it.
But these guys looked bored.
I dug deep into my knowledge of the campus’ history and tried
to tell them stories that would interest them.
They perked up a bit when I talked about the dormitory built by
Colgate’s first students, who dragged the stones from a nearby quarry
and completed the building as a physical education requirement.
They also seemed very interested when I explained that there were
some one hundred trees from different parts of the world planted on the
campus, but when I was unable to identify their scientific names as we
walked by a few of them, they seemed to sink back into disinterest.
know enough facts. They
wanted facts. How many
acres is the campus? How
far to New York City? How
much rain is there each year in this area?
How many volumes in the library?
I just didn’t know, and to my aggravation it was these things
that most interested them. Grasping
at straws, I brought them to the Japan Center to observe a first-year
lecture in Japanese language. They
stayed for five minutes and then filed out of the room without comment,
leaving behind a very nervous bunch of freshmen.
Later, the Japanese
intern who was also sitting in the room told
me in outrage that the businessmen had actually made fun of the students
in that classroom, remarking that they spoke poorly and could not manage
the simplest phrase.
concluded (no small relief to me at this point) back at the
administration building, where we had our picture taken and said our
good-byes. Mr. Yamada
handed me a small gift. “Thank
you for that interesting and informative tour,” he said to me.
politeness at its best. I
couldn’t believe that they found the tour anything but dull and
inadequate. The final blow to my confidence came next, when he handed me
his business card. It
pronounced him the president of a translating company, somewhere I might
be looking for a job in a few years.
I prayed that he wouldn’t recall my poor performance on the
tour if I ever contacted him for an interview.
And of course I had come unprepared for the exchange of business
cards—I had none of my own to give him in return.
pronouncing myself a total failure, I thanked the group and retreated to
my Japanese classroom, where my class was in progress.
When my sensei
asked me how it went, I just shook my head and gave him an
accusatory stare. I felt
he’d stuck me in a situation where I couldn’t possibly have felt
successful. He chuckled,
giving me one of his “Buddha smiles” as we the students in his in-group call them, and went
back to the grammar lesson.
lectured I thought about the tour.
I had been prepared for everything that had happened—the facial
expressions, my linguistic inadequacies, even the interest in factual
information—so why did I feel so unsatisfied and disappointed?
The experience was a wake-up call.
Grammar lessons were not enough.
Reading books on culture was not enough.
shock can occur even on our own turf, and that’s what happened to me
that rainy day with the salarymen. Even when we’re prepared for culture
shock, it’s still just that—a shock.
I’m glad I had this experience before going to Japan, and
advice I give myself now stems from a Japanese proverb that says “If
you fall down seven times, stand up eight times.”
Perseverance is highly valued in Japanese society, and if my
vocabulary and my pronunciation are still lacking when I set foot in
Kyoto next fall, then certainly everyone will be very impressed with my
refusal to let that stand in my way.
I am going to Japan, and whether I encounter salarymen,
Zen monks, politicians, or soba shop owners, I will face them all with
one word in mind: ganbaru.
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