Thursday, January 8, 2009

Going Whole Poodle in Japan: 旅の恥掻き捨て

I was taught a good expression yesterday:

旅の恥は掻き捨て 【たびのはじはかきすて】

旅 【たび】 (n,vs) travel; trip; journey
恥 【はじ】 (n) shame; embarrassment
掻く 【かく】 (v5k,vt) (1) (uk) to scratch; (2) (See 汗をかく) to perspire; (3) to shovel; to paddle;
捨てる 【すてる】 (v1,vt) to throw away; to cast aside; to abandon; to resign; to break up with (someone)

Literally: "trip embarrassments, shovel and toss"

I guess you could translate this more smoothly as "Embarrassments that happen abroad can be discounted."

This is the sage advice that was given to me by my Deputy Section Chief when I expressed concern that I have to give a speech in Japanese in only 30 minutes (when the original speech was an hour), and my Japanese isn't good enough to speak that quickly. He used this expression to mean that no matter how poorly I do, it'll be ok because I'm abroad and it won't have any real effect on my career. This is the closest equivalent to "gaijin pass" that I can think of! Basically, we can get away with making mistakes, etc., because we're foreigners and not expected to know all the ins and outs of how things work here. So in a way it can be a relief, but it's a double-edged sword because it's also a reminder that we will never fit in. (I'm reminded of how nice it is when I'm just treated as a human being instead of a curiousity, like when I go to the dentist's and they just speak to me in Japanese normally, instead of freaking out that a foreigner is speaking Japanese, even if ineptly.)

He intended to be supportive, but in a way, it can be even more disconcerting. I hope that my work at the Ministry has been helpful in some way, and I don't want to be seen as just something entertaining. Speaking of entertainment, I was using a phrase with my fellow fellows before we came to Japan. We recognized that there was a likelihood we would be seen just as "dancing poodles" in that to some colleagues, it would be merely entertaining that there was a foreigner in the office, and that we would be lucky if we were given real work to do. (as in: sure, dancing poodles don't dance particularly well, but it's a wonder that they dance at all.) We eventually came to the conclusion that in some cases, it made sense not to fight being held up as cheap entertainment, so instead of making the most of things by "going whole hog" we would be "going whole poodle."

As it turned out, I've been given reasonably substantive work, even if I haven't been incorporated entirely into the daily goings-on in my Section, so I am very thankful. I'm also thankful that I've been able to learn so much about trade treaties, etc. So I guess in the end, I should just suck it up on the occasions that I'm seen by some people as a curiosity....and enjoy the ride.

So, really, maybe the Expression of the Day should be:

着眼大局 【ちゃくがんたいきょく】 (n) having an eye to the big picture; being aware of the general situation

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