Knowing which cultures require respect and which are more open to treating foreigners as is can be one of the greatest challenges of traveling. I know that I have had my own struggles relating to certain cultures (Croatian, Austrian) and have felt right at home with in others (French, Moroccan). Sometimes, it’s easy to assimilate, other times it can be more difficult. I wanted to know what the line was recently after I had received a few nasty responses from my Egypt post on wearing a headscarf, so I thought I would keep that in mind on a recent trip to Japan—where I knew there was an incredible amount of social and societal protocol.
To be honest, I had been to Japan before two years ago, so I knew ahead of time what some of the culture no-nos were (no talking on the Tokyo Metro, lower your gaze when first meeting someone, and no running through the barriers to get to the train—yes, I did that). Knowing these ahead of time made the rules easier to break, and I went into each of my interactions anxious to see how far cultural barriers can be pushed and finding out when I had crossed the line.
Japan is strict on its rules. According to Finances Online, echoes of the feudal system are still apparent in everyday life in Japan. Many Japanese citizens accept their place in society without questioning their individualism or the social hierarchy that has remained for hundreds of years. For a formally xenophobic country, it was easy to believe that some of these restrictions might also apply to us as foreigners…
But the truth was that it varied. I definitely received looks on the train when I chose to speak to my boyfriend and his brother. When we were a little too loud, stares were common, but young Japanese school girls in pigtails received the same looks of annoyance as they giggled about their favorite popstar. I pushed my limits by meeting salesmen and women’s eyes, and although they didn’t meet mine, they were polite—perhaps chalking it up to the differences between our culture and their own.
I walked the line between being “culturally inconsiderate” and respectful, but it did not change my experience. In fact, it made me all the more impressed by the Japanese people and their hospitality. I couldn’t help but feel as though this respect is lacking in so many other locations—including New York, where I have lived off and on for three years. I would never expect this level of restraint from my Italian neighbors (and have been whacked many a time by a nonna wanting to cut me in line at the supermarket), and I’m aware that these differences are what make visiting certain destinations worthwhile and can help us to understand cultures where the expectations of visitors are stricter.
While living within this culture would become stifling for me, it was refreshing to know that in our globalized world where animosity abounds, respect is still an intrinsic part of some cultures. After I had felt satisfied with the results of my experiment, I gladly returned to the customs that the Japanese culture honors.
After all this, I do not have a definitive answer on where the line is drawn between respecting another culture. If anything, it has made me consider my past conduct in other cultures and how I plan on acting in the future when I travel. I am a foreigner when I travel, and an American, and I am proud of my own society. I don’t want this to be lost when I serve as a temporary ambassador when I travel, but I do want to know that I understand the place where I am and that I treat them with the same respect they show me.