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  • Writer's pictureH. R. Alt

BLOG: 38 Things My Students Didn't Know About America (and You Didn't Know About Japan)

Updated: Nov 19

The other day I made a popular post on an Ask Reddit thread that asked American teachers abroad what the craziest thing their students thought of America was. I responded with a list of various things, and ended up diverting into a bunch of differences between America and Japan. Thanks to Reddit, I got over 7,000 hits in just a single day. I'll post the things I wrote there now, and hope to make another blogpost soon with some new information about my life. :) Enjoy!

Some things my students have assumed about America are...

1) All Americans are fat (tried to convince them this wasn't true, to no avail), and almost everyone is Christian (squashed that pretty quick).

2) We only eat hamburgers. (Would if I could.)

3) All Americans keep their shoes on in their homes (Lots of gasps when I explained this was only half true. I think my mom would go into Cardiac Arrest if we went into the house with our shoes).

4) Everyone carries a gun (again, only partly true. It turns out that 1 in 3 Americans own a gun).

5) I've been asked if I know any cowboys.

6) It's expected that we take baths every night like the Japanese do; I'm often told that I'll "catch a cold" by only taking a shower and not warming up in the bath.

7) They didn't realize how expensive visiting a doctor in America is. In Japan, a doctor visit and prescribed medicine runs about 30 or 40 dollars. In America, that number is always in the hundreds. Also, Japanese medicine is very weak when compared to American medicine.

Etc etc. But since the post became so popular and people keep asking me to link it to them, I figured I may as well list some more things people might find interesting. 

More things that my students have been surprised about America:

9) We don't often eat fish or rice, and when we eat fish it's usually fresh water (for those not near an ocean)

10) We own many cars (every member of my family has one to get to work), with wide yards, wide roads and driveways, often have garages, and basements. I explained we need basements in the Midwest in case of tornadoes but also for storage and piping.

11) The size of our refrigerators is ridiculously big to them, as are our Christmas trees, our food and drink sizes.

12) People decorate their houses with lights for Christmas (in Japan, mainly shops, companies, and parks etc are where you can see "illumination.")

And, some things people probably don't know about Japan...

13) Japanese people really don't drink that much milk. Many of my students detest the stuff. It makes me weep milky tears. Also, cheese. Not many kinds in Japan and definitely not great quality overall, unless you go to a special shop where you can buy more expensive kinds of imported cheese. All kids, however, agree that ice cream is the bomb.

14) In place of milk, many Japanese people drink lots of cold and hot teas instead, depending on the season. I rarely see a Japanese person drinking water, even when working out. This always baffles me, even three years later.

15) I don't know if it's because my students are young, but many of them think that America is older than it is. This is probably because Japan has a history that goes thousands of years back (they're credited for writing the "world's first novel," The Tale of Genji, back in the year 1008), while the America we know today is still fairly young, less than 250 years old.

16) There's a present culture (omiyage) in Japan where if you travel somewhere you're expected to bring gifts back to your coworkers and friends (I brought back a bunch of Reese's peanut butter cups for my teachers, lots of comments about how sweet and salty they were compared to Japanese chocolate). Very fun but gets very expensive. I once went to Disneyland in Tokyo with a friend and she was being really stingy with her money all day, until it was night and we were about to leave, and she bought about a million omiyage for her family and friends. A very sweet gesture from a girl who really didn't have that much money to spend.

17) On Japanese work ethics: Their contract will say 8:15 to 4:45, for example. But they will often work extra hours without extra pay. This will be because teachers (or public office workers, or salary men, or whomever), have to come in early to prepare their work for the day, and stay late to impress the boss. Some people fall asleep at their desks and aren't chastised because it's a sign they were working very hard. Teachers are also coaches of clubs and often work weekends and go to practices after class. On top of grading and writing tests and lessons. They are very, very busy and I do my best to support my English teachers all that I can. (Anyway, it's no wonder that "death by overwork" is a thing in Japan.)

18) In Japan, there's something called PuriKura, which comes from the words "Print Club," or a photography club in Japan. It's a fancified photo booth where you take a bunch of pictures and can personalize them and edit them to look just as you want them to. Many of them automatically widen your eyes and brighten the colors.

19) Japanese teachers and business men etc do not often have tattoos or piercings. Especially teachers. They do not have dyed hair or painted fingernails or anything of the like. This is because if it's not allowed for the students, it's not allowed for the teachers. They are also not allowed to have long hair unless it is pulled back in a ponytail. (I'm an exception with long hair I usually wear down and a tragus and forward-helix piercing. My kids like to ask about them but my teachers generally ignore them.)

20) The anti-tattoo culture is so strong that I've even heard it said you might not get a job if you have a tattoo. And since health checks are mandatory every year in Japan, doctors may make a note if they find a tattoo on your body even where you can hide it. Your employers and potential employers can see this and make a decision based off of such information. (Many Americans seemed surprised to hear that your company has access to your medical files. This is true.)

Can you believe I have even more things to say about the differences between Japan and America??

21) My students were surprised to learn students aren't always in clubs (tennis club, brass band, etc), whereas in Japan they are practically mandatory.

22) They were also surprised to hear that we don't have "cram school" at night for more studying.

23) They couldn't believe our cafeteria options; a la carte, salad bar, a main meal, chips, chocolate milk Japan, you have one hot meal, and everyone eats it (Elementary and Junior High, anyway).

24) High school in Japan is very difficult, with lots of tests and homework, while college is much easier with less work. Generally in America, the opposite is true.

25) We don't have Christmas cake in America, we eat pie, while in Japan EVERYONE eats Christmas cake (generally a sponge cake with pretty frosting and decoration, a small 5" can run about 30 dollars).

26) Christmas is a day for dates in Japan, a very romantic holiday for couples. Meanwhile, Americans spend time with their families and have a nice dinner. Some Japanese people go with their families to KFC - you have to make a reservation months in advance to have hopes of getting food there that day. Also, more and more people are having Christmas parties with their friends. Food, drinking, good times. Only 2% of the population of Japan is Christian.

27) New Years is a three-day holiday in Japan spent eating and drinking with family. Japanese kids get "otoshidama" which is a present of money from their parents and family members. Many gasps are had when I explain American kids don't get money on New Years, but that we get presents and sometimes money for Christmas. I also explained "the ball dropping" on New Years but they didn't really get it. In Japan, they watch a end-of-the-year TV special and finish off with the ringing of the gong at a major shrine, I think 108 times it's rung?

28) In Japan, people stress that your blood type affects your personality. You can even list your blood type on facebook, it's become such a thing. I'm type A but everyone says they'd think I'm type B. It's not really accurate so much as it is like a "horoscope" thing in Japan. You can read more about this here.

29) Japanese TVs are bigger and cheaper than in America. Probably because the stores are local, but also stay-at-home mothers have made many grassroots organizations to keep prices low, especially in the entertainment industry.

30) In America, we visit our friends' houses often, but in Japan homes are seen for family only. They often go out to meet friends at bars, karaoke, restaurants, parks, libraries, stations, or whatever.

31) They were surprised to see many Americans have their own swimming pools. Due to limited space, this is a very rare, if not impossible to find, thing in Japan.

32) The fact that there are many Spanish-speakers in America (enough that it's written on many signs and available as phone options), surprised them.

33) In Japan, they forbid phones and other recording devices from concerts. Also, for the ones I've been to, people mostly stand around and watch and don't dance or sing along, etc.

34) Many Japanese workers go out at night with their coworkers to drink. This means they work from 7 AM to 7 PM, then go out for drinks, then come home very late. No wonder the birth rate is declining...

35) On January first, many people will visit a local shrine to pray for a good year. This includes pulling fortunes and tying them up for them to either come true or to ward away bad luck, make a wish and hang it up for it to come true, and lighting incense or candles.

36) Japanese people carry cash everywhere and hardly ever use credit cards. It is not uncommon to carry around 300 dollars (about 30,000 yen) on you at all times.

37) Many people leave their cars running when they go into the convenience store, knowing their stuff is safe, because Japan. They also use their phones and wallets as "seat savers" in theaters or restaurants. Unheard of in most Western countries.

38) People with tattoos are not allowed in hot springs because of the association with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Hot spring culture is not big in America, while is it very common and enjoyed by all ages in Japan.

Such information got incredibly popular on Reddit, and it made me really happy to see how many people were interested in the differences between Western and Japanese cultures. I hope I've done a little more enlightening today.

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