Lost in translation : When culture shock shocks

One day, I introduced the Kawauchi campus of Tohoku University to international students. I was going to introduce ‘danwasitsu’ in Japanese. It is a room where students can relax, drink tea and do their homework. I wanted to tell them about it, but I couldn’t recollect the English word so, I just said, “This is the restroom”. After I said that, I realised that I made a mistake. Restroom is ‘toire’ (Toilet) in Japanese. I was very embarrassed about it but, I didn’t know how should I call the room otherwise? I thought that rest means ‘yasumu’ only and room means ‘heya’ in Japanese. Therefore, it can directly translate to ‘yasumu heya’ in Japanese. This is the reason why I made a mistake and I said ‘restroom’. Now that I have learnt from my mistake, I know I should use terms like ‘resting room’ or ‘break room’ and so on. English sometimes causes misunderstanding. This experience is very funny but embarrassing at the same time.

However, Japanese can also lead to similar mistakes. For example, take a case of a foreigner who wanted to ask his girlfriend’s father “atama ga itai desuka?” in Japanese. It means “Do you have a headache?”. But he misunderstood it and rather asked “atama ga warui desuka?”. It means “Are you stupid?”.  In English, the word of ‘warui’ and ‘itai’ are very similar. They can totally be lost in translation and hence, it is very confusing.

There are so many other examples in culture shock. Here are some examples that I read in a book: A man thought that Japanese always use chopsticks and so he tried to eat curry and rice with chopsticks! Another example is about the song of ishiyakiimo. The song is played when they sell baked sweet potatoes. The melody sounds sad and so when he listened to the song for the first time, he thought it is a funeral song!

I asked some of my friends from overseas about culture shock and funny stories they have experienced in Japan. A Chinese friend told me four stories. First, the size of a crow is big in Japan and she had never seen so many crows in China. So, she was very surprised. Second, Japanese eat dumpling with rice and most Japanese eat grilled dumplings. However, Chinese don’t eat them so often. They almost eat boiled dumplings. Third, she confuses with the phrase “iidesu”. It can translate both ok and no in Japanese. Even Japanese sometimes misunderstand. The phrase “sumimasen” is also confusing. It can translate to “thank you” and “I’m sorry”. The words are sometimes very convenient, but we often misunderstand them.

A Swede friend shared two interesting experiences in Japan. First, he was overwhelmed whenever he entered stores because every employee greeted with ‘irasshaimase’ which literally means ‘welcome’ and is a terminology often used in customer service. He was overwhelmed but he felt happy. Second, he thought the word ‘benjo’ is more polite than ‘toire’. They mean ‘restroom’ in English. He thought because ‘benjo’ is written in kanji whereas ‘toire’ is written in katakana and he believed that kanji is more polite than katakana. Usually, kanji has a more polite impression than katakana and hiragana but I had never considered such a thing until I heard from him.

One of my professors who has been to several countries shared some of her experiences of culture shock in Japan. First, Japanese are very punctual. The conference was scheduled to begin at 12:00 noon. However, when her friend arrived at 12:00, the conference had already started. Indeed, Japanese people always occupy their seats at least five minutes before. Second is the delivery system. The delivery item is always delivered to our home or company on time. Third, molds grow on the tatami. Most Japanese houses have tatami but, she didn’t know she had to take care of them. Fourth is the complicated hierarchal system. If she wants to inform something to another professor, at first, she has to tell her secretary. Then, the secretory will tell the professor’s secretory. At last, the secretory will tell the professor who she wants to tell. I don’t know if it happens only in this university or only in this campus, but it’s a very cumbersome process.

Here is a culture shock I experienced recently. When I went to an Indian restaurant with my Indian friend, a clerk brought water for us. He gave my friend water without ice but she gave me water with ice. Therefore, I wondered why she made this distinction. Then I found out that Indians don’t drink water with ice. It was very surprising. He thought it is since very hot outside in India, so if we drink something very cold, it may affect our body. He told me about some culture shocks in Japan. First, when he came to Japan for the first time, it was surprising for him that Japanese eat raw eggs. It looked so strange, so he can’t eat them even now. Second, he realised that there aren’t many trash cans outside such as on streets or in parks in Japan. Actually, when I went to Canada, there were so many trash cans that I could easily throw away my trash. I think that’s why Japanese usually bring back the trash. Third, he is in trouble that he has a lot of Japanese coins in his house. It’s because there are a lot of coins in Japan and it’s difficult to understand which coin is worth how much. I experienced the same thing in Russia. There were also so many coins with similar sizes that I have many Russian coins in my house now.

Many people have experienced culture shocks and they’re almost very funny stories. I was very interested in their culture shocks, because though it is usual for me, for foreigner it is unusual. Therefore, I learnt a lot of things. Culture shock depends on country, where it occurs, and nationality and character and so on. Have you ever experienced some culture shocks or funny stories so far?

I would like to express my gratitude to my foreign friends who help to answer interview.

As expressed by Shuka Endo. Shuka is currently a second year student of nursing at Tohoku University and has a keen interest in knowing about the world.

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