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They are Japanese, not Esenapaj, you Nacirema

By Robbieana Leung

“Would you like to take a shower?” Maiko San asked me, once we had settled down into her cozy apartment in Kobe. She was my homestay host, and to my surprise, only two years older than me. Like me, the other six SAS students that had signed up for the Kansai University homestay had expected to stay with families, but most of us stayed at a student’s house. Perhaps this expectation was based on our preconceived notions of homestays in America, which usually are with families. It wasn’t typical in the United States that twenty year olds had their own apartment and took care of guests themselves. The day that I spent with Maiko and her friends in the English Speaking Society (ESS), proved that they were very independent individuals. They took the train and bus everywhere, and most of the kids lived on their own, far away from where they actually grew up. Maiko’s apartment was five minutes away from her university campus, but thirteen hours away by ferry from her home prefecture. 

In Maiko San’s small room, about the size of a regular SAS cabin, I sat on the floor upon the orange square pillow Maiko had offered me. She sat next to me, her legs tucked under her neatly in the kneeling position, and looked at me, waiting for an answer about the shower. I replied with a smile and said “Sure! Thank you.” We both got up and she showed me where the bathroom was; although it was obvious because it was adjacent to her bedroom. In fact, everything was very compartmentalized - her apartment was like a rectangle, divided into six pieces. There was a section for her bedroom, laundry machine, kitchen, another sink, and as mentioned in Global Studies, there were two separate rooms to bathe and for the toilet. Taking the two towels Maiko gave me, I stepped into the toilet room and started to change. Once I had removed my clothes, I realized that I would have to get out of the toilet room and into the shower room, with just a towel wrapped around me. Perhaps that would be rude. So I put back on my clothes and stepped into the shower room, where I proceeded to change. Once I was ready to shower, I stepped into the bathtub and was about to turn on the faucet when I realized that the floor, outside the bathtub had the texture of a shower room - the ridges on the waterproof ceramic floor to prevent slipping, and in the corner of the floor was a small drain. Huh? I thought to myself. Where was I supposed to shower? Was it appropriate to shower in the bathtub? Or am I to shower outside the bathtub, on the floor, and get the whole room wet? But if I showered in the curtain-less bathtub, everything would get wet anyway…This concept of getting an entire room wet when you shower is so strange…and what is up with that little bowl on the bathroom floor, containing blue water? And before I could stop myself, a sneaky thought crept into my mind Is the bowl for some kind of strange ritual? Oh shut up, stop turning them into The Esenapaj, you stupid Nacirema! I struggled to remember if Global Studies had any information to offer in this situation…then I saw a couple strands of hair on the floor, outside the bathtub, telling me that was where I was supposed to shower. YES! Thank you, LOLA! 

I think it took me forty five minutes to complete my entire showering experience. I didn’t expect bathing to be this difficult, as it was such a simple, universal task. While I was genuinely puzzled about where to bathe, I realized how much clearer the message became from Horace Miner's article "The Nacirema." Small differences in culture easily could become very foreign, strange ideas, making it very easy to misrepresent another society and people. The power of representation that a foreign visitor had was huge! I also realized that not everything has meaning. Maybe the little bowl on the bathroom floor was simply a bowl that accidentally collected water after a shower.

            In the two days that I had spent with the ESS students showed me that despite many cultural and lifestyle differences, such as the above, I found that I had much more in common with them than many of my peers in America. The differences between my Japanese friends and I weighed the same as any other differences between my American friends and I. Cultural differences did not make them foreign people, rather, just people who lived differently. Humbled by my homestay experience, I decided that while some use the tempting power of representation to their advantage to misconstrue ideas, I will use this power responsibly and fairly.

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