The phrase “when in Rome” dates back to St. Ambrose back in 387 A.D. He was advising St. Augustine how to behave in Milan, which unlike Rome, did not believe in fasting on Saturdays. At the time, the phrase applied to church customs. Today, it just means that you should do what is appropriate for the location and occasion: you don’t wear tennis shoes to a wedding or a ball gown to a ball game.
But what if the phrase could mean permanently adapting some part of another culture that works better? My family is currently living in Tokyo for a month while my husband does academic research, and being here got me thinking about the idea of “when in Japan.” Having lived here a few times before, I’ve come to realize that I’m a different person in Japan because of my surroundings. But unlike the idea of adopting something new temporarily in a new place, I thought it might be worthwhile to claim some of that when I’m back in the States.
In Japan, I’m more free, since I feel untroubled by the American rat race, the parenting as a competitive sport that I feel so strongly in the States. It helps that I’m on vacation currently, so I’m naturally more relaxed, but it goes beyond that. As my friends who live here tell me, you just don’t feel the American competition so acutely here in a large international city that is outside your own country.
When I’m here I also notice things more, whether it’s the fishermen squatting by the side of the pond, or the Japanese children with bowl haircuts waddling down the street in their large backpacks, or the odd assortment of housing, from modern buildings to old wooden shops waiting to be torn down, to brightly colored walls, to temples or shrines shoved in between. When I’m here, I look up more and say good morning to everyone from police men to old ladies, maybe to practice one of the few phrases I know in Japanese (Ohayo gozaimasu!). Yesterday, I waved goodbye to some Japanese toddlers who had befriended me in the grocery store, showing me the twigs they had collected from the park. I waved and said, “Mata ne!” and then they shouted it back to me again and again, giggling.
It took me a while to love Japan, a place my husband calls home, having gone to high school here. At first, all I could see was the indecipherable signs and the crowded trains with old ladies pushing and weird, sticky food like mochi. But slowly I came around. Where else is an entire nation so polite and conscientious? Where else is service such an art form that the average person is treated like royalty? The last time we left Tokyo for the States, we took the airport limousine from a hotel. As we were leaving, at least ten hotel staff came outside to say goodbye to our bus, all bowing in a deep bow of respect. I had tears in my eyes because I had never experienced anything like this in the States.
To find your world stage, make sure you travel and learn from other countries and cultures. It might just change how you are back home.