Even though I’ve been in Japan for quite some time now, discovering cultural differences never cease to surprise me. This year, I celebrated my birthday in country miles away from my family and friends from home. My host family’s daughter’s birthday was a day after mine, so we shared a joint birthday cake! I felt very welcomed and included, but ironically my host family had the exact same happy birthday hat with candles on top as my family back in California. The past few years, my siblings and I have been dreading the birthday hat because we would always have to wear it to take photos, and I thought this year I wouldn’t have to see it – little did I know.
What really surprised me though, was when my host family’s (now) 3 year old daughter blew out the candles, and I asked if she made a wish. My host parents looked at me completely puzzled and responded with “wish?” Growing up with what I thought was a global tradition of making a wish before blowing out the candles, I explained that typically one would make a wish, blow out the candles, and the wish would come true. My host parents stared at me in bewilderment before responding with “really? I’ve never heard of that before!” Which only surprised me more, but it was soon replaced by content because we had a cheesecake made from brie with apricot jelly on top! It’s interesting having these types of discoveries because it’s not really a thing you ask about, but something you end up experiencing if you’re here long enough.
The more time I spend in this country though, the more I realize it is not as safe as people make it out to be. There are incidents, such as a man with a knife targeting children running loose, but Japan is a lot more efficient with spreading news. I’ve been getting emails and texts about any warnings or possible dangers, but every time I bring it up to my host family, they already know – and then some. Just today, I found out there is a wild monkey that escaped the mountains to go to Expo City and to be careful not to get close to it. It’s not really a situation I thought I’d ever hear about, but apparently it happens quite often in various parts of the country. Monkeys in Japan are especially smart and enjoy stealing food, but the concept of a real life King Kong invading farms and amusement parks has left me in disbelief.
However, I really admire and respect Japan’s strong emphasis on safety. No matter how small a thread (i.e. strong rain), people always check up on one another. My professors and university employees in general have always checked in on every student, making sure they know we are all safe; you can really feel that they are concerned about your well-being even if it’s just catching a cold! They also try to remember student’s birthdays, because I’ve had a couple wish me a happy birthday. That is something I really appreciate, and it’s been an adventure being able to celebrate my birthday in a completely different country.