Last week, I sat with folded hands before my father and sister, surrounded by the warm aroma of an udon shop. My father’s noodles lie in a dish before him, smooth and garnished with Japanese plum.
He looked at me and said, “You’ve changed.”
A comment like that was to be expected after half a year of studying abroad in Japan. Though the singularity of the country and the homogeneity of its citizens can be overemphasized, it’s true that the societal norms here were enough to change me. Now, I bow reflexively and hold the elevator door open for my elders. I am shy calling someone by their first name and uncomfortable using an over-familiar form of speech. I try to soften my loud, deep voice and straightforward words.
The Japanese culture is one of respect and restraint. To that end, there are two basic forms of grammar patterns — polite and casual — both of which can be divided into yet more variations, each connoting a different level of respect and intimacy. It’s unheard of to use a casual form of speech to one’s superiors at work. Juniors at school are expected to speak politely to their seniors.
Just two days ago, I was taking a night stroll around the temple district of Asakusa as part of a club event. The night was warm and quiet. The still water of the fountains and the petals of the cherry blossoms were lit up by street lamps. I was walking alongside a freshman who, assuming I was the same age, spoke casually with me.
Half an hour later, an acquaintance smiled and said, “Jasmine’s a third-year, you know.”
In a heartbeat, the freshman changed his speech style and apologized. He insisted on attaching “sempai” to my name, an honorific reserved for one’s seniors at school and in the workplace. Despite my protests that I care little for such things, I was moved that he treated me as he would treat another Japanese person.
That isn’t to say, though, that I’m used to the custom. Using different forms of speech is a constant reminder of the distance between me and whomever I’m speaking with. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on an escalator watching people pass me by, headed to some remote platform either below or above me. Many of my friends here tell me, “You’re basically Japanese now,” but I am far from completely assimilated, and the path I took to get to where I am now was not a smooth one. . . .