Japanese Prayer Wall

Japanese Prayer Wall

Friday, August 17, 2012

So, tell me about Japan...

This is dedicated to all the people who have lived abroad or know someone who has lived abroad.

This summer I returned from Japan for a visit.  People’s questions seemed to fly at me from all directions.  Over and over I heard one comment that drove me crazy—tell me about Japan.  The people usually meant well, but every time I heard that, my mind went blank.  We’re talking deer in the headlights.  I didn’t know where to start.  How do I even begin describing a whole country and culture?  Does the person want an hour long lecture, or are they just trying to be polite?
The awkwardness didn’t stop there though.  I had my mouth open at the dentist’s office when the dental hygienist asked, “So, you’ve lived in Japan for a while now.  Do you speak Chinese?”  Are you serious?  Really?!  I had to control myself as I casually replied, “I can speak some JAPANESE, but I’m still not very good at it.  It’s a really hard language to learn.”  The sad part is that this wasn’t the first time someone has asked me that.

I do appreciate people showing an interest in my life and work abroad, but let’s find a way to do this more intelligently and thoughtfully.  Everyone involved will walk away much happier.

Here are some strategies and ideas for asking people questions about their life abroad.
1.    Be specific.  Think about one aspect of the country or culture that you want to know about, and form that into a question.
2.    Ask probing questions.  The deeper your question is, the more likely you are to receive an insightful answer.  Yes/No questions really only work if you have a follow-up question.  For example, avoid asking simply, “Do you like living abroad?”  Change that question, and instead ask, “What do you like best about living abroad?”
3.    Be sensitive to other cultures and customs.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking one’s own country has the “right” way or “best” way of doing things.  You probably don’t realize it, but even questions about driving on the wrong side of the road suggest that Americans know which side is correct. 
4.    Avoid stereotypes.  Any time you ask a “Does everyone…” question, you are setting yourself up to look foolish.  No matter what country you go to, people think, believe, and behave differently.

Here are some questions that might inspire more in-depth conversations.  I’d enjoy hearing about some of your ideas too and possibly expanding my list.
·       What does a typical week look like for you?
·       What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?  Why?
·       Where do you still hope to travel in (insert country name)?
·       What surprised you most about (insert country name) when you first moved there?
·       What is the most popular holiday in (insert country name)?  How do people usually celebrate that holiday?
·       Who is someone that you’ve gotten to know well since you moved to (insert country name)?  Tell me about him/her.
·       What new foods have you tried there?  What foods from (insert country name) have you learned to cook?
·       What are the biggest challenges you face living abroad?
·       What experiences have you faced with culture shock or reverse culture shock?
·       What misconceptions did you have about (insert country name) before you lived there?
·       How are people in (insert country name) doing after the recent problem with (insert natural disaster or other difficulty that you may have learned about from the news)?
·       What can I do to help support and encourage you while you’re living abroad?
·       How have you changed as a result of your time in (insert country name)?
·       What are you going to miss most about (insert country name) when you move back?
·       What advice would you give someone who is thinking about moving to (insert country name)?

The person you know who has lived abroad might not be able to answer all of your more probing questions, but that’s okay.  I still have a lot to learn about Japan, but I always smile when I can say, “I don’t know, but that is a really good question!”


  1. Thank you for this post! Do you mind if I link to it in my blog?

    I understand the frozen deer in the headlights feeling, and dread those moments. I usually develop a set speech that I give to people when they don't ask specific questions, but that's so boring for everyone involved!

    Since coming back to Japan, I have not had the opportunity to answer the well-meaning queries , but I eventually I'll face them again. With that in mind, I thank you for tactfully and explicitly laying out what is helpful and what is not.

    1. Go right ahead. Thanks. I'm glad that this was useful too.

  2. I hear you, Christine. Having done the back and forth thing many times, I find it helps if I can prepare myself before-hand, too, thinking about how I would answer those questions you've laid out as more specific, and thinking about what anecdotes I'd most like to share when I get a chance.

    I also try to think about what 15 second answer I can give to the folks who really aren't looking for a lot of information. Since living in Bolivia, I tend to include a mention of how "I'm learning new things every day" in my quick answer to the usual "how's Bolivia?" questions. That way I figure I'm planting the idea that we can learn valuable lessons from Bolivia/ns, and it offers an easy follow-up question in case they're interested (What sorts of things have you been learning?).