Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Big Shoes to Fill

During the winter, I keep the CH's and my Birkenstock sandals in (never used for trash) trash pail by the entrance. I do this so our shoe box area (the genkan) isn't full of shoes and the students who come to my apartment have room to park their footwear. Occasionally in winter time, I'll fish out my sandals and put them on for a quick run outside because putting on other shoes takes more time. Last time I did this, I tossed them haphazardly back into the pail such that one of them was laying on top face up.

Last Saturday as one of my students was leaving, she was zipping up her boots and noticed my displayed sandal. She said, "oooo, big!" I told her that that was my sandal and she said, "very big!" My feet are size 8.5 in U.S. sizes, and about a half size too big for the biggest size of shoe for women in Japan. I either have to get shoes from back home, or buy men's shoes (this only works for tennis shoes). My feet are also quite wide because I haven't tended to wear shoes much my entire life and that has resulted in rather splayed bones.

I wasn't offended in the least by what my student said, but I did wonder if that was the sort of thing that generally would be considered offensive back home. I guess a lot depends on how self-conscious someone is about their foot size. This did remind me of the fact that Japanese people are generally more liberal about commenting on body sizes and imperfections than Western people are and that it isn't considered offensive in their culture. They say the same sorts of things to each other, perhaps more often than they say it to us. It's one of those cultural differences that can be a bit hard to adjust to at first because Western culture generally frowns on talking about anything related to bodies which is outside the norm, particularly in terms of something being too big.

In the end, I take what the student said as an indication of her increased comfort level with me as a person after being my student for over a year now. Perhaps I can mention her teeny tiny feet at some point in the future to return the favor.


Kelly said...

I think it's the same with all asian cultures. It's the norm.
I have friends from Singapore, China, Malaysia, Japan, Thai, Philippines, and they all have no qualms about addressing people's weight or shoe size or bra size directly to them.

When i first went to Japan to meet my in laws, they commented on my "small head". I was abit confused at the time because i didn't think my head was particularly small, but if so, i didn't want it pointed out in front of everyone.

The first time we went it was tsuyu and i didn't take any sandals. I am a US size 8 and i looked around but couldn't find any women's shoes to fit me, in the end i had to buy a pair of male's sandals, because the highest size i could find was a 7 and it was too small for me.

Do you think being a teacher of english, you should point out that culturally it would be a no-no if your students said that to someone overseas? I don't know how many of your students intend on going overseas, but they should be made culturally aware. Some people are not as understanding as we are.

Orchid64 said...

I do believe that it's my place to tell students if I think the information is valuable to them. This particular student has no plans to go overseas and is learning business English for communication at work (in Japan).

For the most part, I do tend to point out such things even if the student doesn't plan to go abroad, but I like to do it when it's not related to their interactions with me. I don't want to risk putting them off by framing it as something they did to me and shouldn't do to others.

Thanks for your comment!

Girl Japan said...

I am not sure if I agree %100, I do think at times (and I am sure they know, especially if it is in reference to size-- big) it is a bit rude, some of my j-friends and I have talked about this, she has long feet, but not wide, and her MIL referenced to how BIG she was now than before-- it was hurtful for her, I do think they comment easily in reference to body size, shoe size (not nearly as much as first gen Chinese)but I think that is due to lack of education..

In your case, I think the relationship was at a comfortable level and and the student felt comfortable with you- this is no doubt a positive comment, I think with these situations- it would be case by case? Of course this is just my opinion.

Shoe size, I'm a 7 1/2 but found some size 7's fit if they are wide but on some occasions I have to get a 24.5 if they are really narrow (esp high heels).

Orchid64 said...

I can easily see where you might disagree, and, of course, I could be wrong! Mainly, I reach my conclusion based on how the students have spoken to me about themselves. I can't tell you how many times students have told me they look/are a little, very, or just plain fat or that they look like monkeys (something we'd never say about them because of the racist overtones).

Part of my former job included a telephone lesson with the set topic of "my appearance". During my 12 years with the former company, I literally did this call over a thousand times, possibly far, far more. The things I was told were highly personal and negative at times. I had the feeling people weren't holding back their bad points in any way, even though we were on the phone and the students could skip things like having a big face, big feet, small eyes, etc. This sort of candor made me think that there isn't the same level of embarrassment and humiliation associated with owning up to one's perceived physical shortcomings.

Now, there is a difference between talking about yourself and someone else, and doing it in English and Japanese, so my conclusions could be wrong. ;-)

Thanks for your comment!

Sherry said...

I somewhat agree with Girl Japan. I think there are times that it is in fact very rude to other Japanese people to have someone point out things about their body in a negative fashion even if it is more common in this culture than in our owns. I think it is just less likely that someone who is offended will confront the person about what they said so there is never any reason for the offensive people to stop saying the things they say. I mean isn't that part of the reason we don't usually say such things? We know it will upset and hurt the other person and they will more than likely come back at us, or at least point out our rudeness? However I do agree that is is much more acceptable to talk about other people's bodies and voice your opinion about their bodies in Japan than it is in say the US or other places.