I had just spent a day in the bright sunshine of Guam, snorkeling in the Philippine Sea and hiking to a remote waterfall. I felt far away from Japan, especially as I sat down in a well-worn booth and ordered a medium rare steak with mashed potatoes.
“Would you like the soup of the day or a salad?” asked the friendly waitress, her pen posed to jot down my response. But instead of words, I involuntarily found myself tilting my head, sucking in air through my teeth, and looking off into the distance as I considered my options.
After I settled on salad and the waitress left to put in our order, I realized that my husband was trying to subdue his laughter. Wait, what’d I miss? Did a nearby patron snort Coca-Cola out their nose or did a well-dressed woman accidentally fling her appetizer across the restaurant?
“You just did it,” my husband informed me. It? What was this ‘it’? “You did the Japanese head tilt thing.” It turned out that I wasn’t as far removed from Japan as I thought.
In the short time that I’ve been in Japan, I’ve found that I am much quicker at picking up non-verbal language than I am at picking up the verbal language. Since I only grasp snatches of meaning when someone speaks to me in Japanese, I instead have become highly attuned to their body language to help me figure out context.
The head tilt and teeth suck combo is just one of many tics that I’ve picked up. I also interject “mm” and nod my head to show that I’m listening, even when the other person is speaking in English. I wave my hand in front of my face to indicate that I don’t want something, and I bow to cars that don’t hit me when I’m on my bicycle.
All of these newly acquired habits are helping me to acclimate to Japan, given how much is left unsaid and meant to simply be understood. But I have to wonder how long it will take for me to unlearn these habits when I leave Japan, or how many more cultural non-verbal cues I will find myself doing without thinking about it. Will I return to America and find myself stared at, not for my blonde hair, but because I just pointed at my face to indicate me, myself, or I? I’m sure that’s all part of re-adjusting to one’s home culture. For now, I’ll just keep nodding and bowing as I remember the lesson I learned as a child from the fabulous sea witch Ursula: “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”