This post started out as something else and turned into something completely different. But I guess that’s what happens sometimes when you just sit down to write! Sorry if this is kind of all over the place. My brain cannot think linearly today.
Yesterday I was visiting one of the inner-city elementary schools and had a strange feeling. At some schools, they don’t have a desk for me in the teacher’s room (where all of the teachers have their desks), so they either tell me to sit in the area for guests or put me in a different room entirely. Sometimes I sit in the principal’s office. At this school they had another little room next to the principal’s office with a table, chairs, and heater. I guess it was just a general tiny multipurpose room. I couldn’t see through to the principal’s office (the glass on those doors were frosted), but the doors to the hallway also had glass panels that you could see out of. And people could see in.
I sat next to the heater trying to thaw from this morning’s commute. During the breaks between classes and afternoon recess, the students would run and play in the hallways. It’s winter, so they tend to stay inside. These children would press their faces and hands up to the glass, stare at me, and yell, “HELLO!” over and over again because it’s the only English they know. Some of the older kids will say “NICE TO MEET YOU!” if they remember. I guess it was the combination of being in a small room and being yelled at from behind glass, but I kind of felt like an animal in a zoo. “Look at the foreigner! Look at the English teacher! Do you think she heard me?!” I could almost feel my ears ringing at one point.
After the bazillionth “HELLO!!” I decided to leave the room and see if that was any better. The kids still shouted HELLO at me, but they also stood back and stared at me with wide eyes. They made sure to let me know that I was very big and tall. “Yes, I know,” I say in Japanese. “But I’m pretty normal in America.” To that they just stare in disbelief and scamper away. Every school is different, for sure. The young kids are either extremely friendly or extremely shy. But I can’t blame them for trying to greet me in the only way they know how.
One thing I learned upon coming to Japan is that students are required to greet their teachers. And it’s not just a “Good morning” when you walk into class first thing in the morning. You are supposed to say the appropriate “good morning”, “hello”, or “good afternoon” every time you pass a teacher in the hallway as well.
I’ve even had junior high school teachers stop a student and ask them where their greeting was. Some students are shy towards me, so they will forget to say it to me or just get nervous. If I happen to be walking with a JTE (Japanese English Teacher), they will stop the students and make them say “Hello” or “Good morning/afternoon” to me.
At elementary school the kids are encouraged to greet me in English, but sometimes it comes out in Japanese. When a small child comes up to me or passes me in the hallway and says “Hello!” they are rewarded with a “Good job!” by their homeroom teacher. Sometimes applause, even.
I think Japanese teachers and students might be really shocked by the way American students don’t greet their teachers religiously. I think back to all the times I just entered a classroom, sat down at my desk, and quietly waited for class to start. Then the teacher would say hello to everyone and start the class. A response from all the students wasn’t really required. It’s pretty different from Japan, where students are assigned on rotation to be “on-duty” to lead the class in their greetings. The student group greeting vary from school to school, but they are usually a variation of “Good morning/Good afternoon” and “Now begins/concludes 4th period”. Sometimes it reminds me of a military call-and-response.
With all these greetings going on around me, I’ve gotten pretty used to using the ones that are required of me too. I’ve gotten pretty used to the myriad of greetings that I use in the office and at schools. For example, you are required to greet the entire office when you enter for the first time that day. It’s usually “Good Morning” for me, but sometimes I have a school visit in the morning and come back to the office in the afternoon. Then I say, “Good afternoon, I’ve returned from ________ School.”
And at one school I visit there is a vice principal who loves to practice his greetings in English with me, even though he says the same exact thing every time I come. It goes like this:
Me: Good morning, how are you?
Him: I’m fine, thank you. And you?
Me: I’m good, thanks.
Sometimes I try to switch it up with a “How’s it going?” but that seems to catch him off his guard.
But okay. What I’m really trying to say is…
Greetings are a really interesting part of their culture. An essential part of it, too. Without greetings… things don’t start. Communication is not smooth.
Many times in my life I have spoken with a Japanese person and have used a Japanese greeting like “こんにちは ｜ Konnichiwa”. The Japanese person immediately said, “Oh, your Japanese is so good!” or “You speak Japanese very well!”
I only said one word. How is this in any way indicative of my ability of speak the language?
Well, thinking about it now… Greetings in Japanese are basically half the battle. If you know how to greet well, you will be praised by Japanese for knowing their language and culture. Pretty sweet!