One of the cultural challenges I experienced when moving to Japan was when visiting the post office. I could not speak much Japanese, and they could speak no or very very little English. Add to that the need to fill out form after form when sending parcels or express documents to Sweden, and we have ourselves a little conundrum. I remember when I was in the process of changing my surname and had to send papers to the Swedish tax office. I wanted to send them via registered mail but did not want to pay for express delivery. My wife had thought me what to say, we had practiced at home and full of confidence I went to the post office.
When it finally became my turn, I spoke my prepared phrases to the post office officer who asked me what country to send to. Sweden, I happily said. Then she took out a big binder and started to look for something, and when she had found what she was looking for she started to explain that something to me in a way I had no chance of understanding. So what did I do? I repeated what I had rehearsed, that I wanted to use registered mail. She took out the express mail envelope, but I said registered mail please. Then I heard the ununderstable explanation again, and I want to remember that we repeated this dance a few times more at least. Finally she looked at me and said tracking och did a big big X in front of me by crossing their arms.
I came home to my wife feeling astounded if not slightly chocked, telling her I got batsu-ed at the post office. This was my first experience of such a vivid display of hand gestures and quite different from what I had come to experience thus far; later I have come to realize that this sign batsu, meaning that something is wrong and illustrated by an X, is quite often used in the Japanese society in the way that I experienced at the post office. (The opposite is maru, and maru is symbolized by a round circle and expressed by making a round circle with the arm.)
Nowadays I have got used to seeing two arms being crossed by the person in front of me when they try to explain something; however the other day I chocked myself when talking to my parents-in-law. We were watching TV and there was a discussion about online and offline, and when trying to explain the meaning of offline I see myself holding up my hands in front of me making a little X in the air. I seem to have automatically picked up a few things during my two years here, although I still have some way to go before I can start to really fit in – my little timid batsu-sign (that I felt embarrassed for doing) would surely have looked ridiculous to the post office lady.
(I ended up sending registered mail without tracking and it seems to have worked well since I now have the same surname as my wife.)
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