Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Self-Absorption and Sibling Rivalry

One of the things that I find especially annoying in a crowded city full of shops with narrow aisles is the habit of people who stand in front of some item and needlessly ponder it; blocking all access to the item for others. Today, I was at Yutakaraya, the local extra cheap fresh food market, and wanted to get what I needed and hit the road. Unfortunately, there were two older ladies standing in front of an enormous pile of packages of onions (6 onions to a bag for 99 yen) pawing at the packages and having a discussion about them. The packages were virtually identical and there were so many of them that you couldn't possibly find the best of the lot without wasting several hours of time. I had to struggle to reach over at an angle and snag one. They never looked at me or moved an inch. This is from a group of people who generally can't resist gawking at me when I'm out and about. It's inconceivable that I'd suddenly gone invisible after many years of being so riveting that few could resist rudely staring at me.

Even when people in Tokyo know they are blocking you, they pretend that you aren't there. This is part of a relatively pervasive habit among Tokyo residents of pretending that others don't exist so that they do not have to behave politely. You see this on the trains with old people and silver seats (seats designed for the elderly and handicapped) where young and healthy people will stare zombie-like at their phones or a book and pretend they don't see the more deserving party standing in front of them.

I also encounter this on the streets when walking or riding a bike. People absolutely do not look at on-coming foot or bicycle traffic because they will have to acknowledge your existence and step a foot in a different direction. As long as they don't glance in your direction, they can continue to dreamily meander all over the sidewalk. I'm pretty sure that Tokyoites are incapable of walking in a straight line or looking in front of them after all my years here. Perhaps it's one of those genetic differences my students earnestly claim the Japanese have but foreigners don't know about or understand; like having a different digestive system which can't digest western beef.

My husband, who is not an aggressive person and is quite tolerant and patient, gets so tired of all of this shirking of personal responsibility that when he sees one of these zombies approaching, he refuses to move and just lets them plow into him. They usually say excuse me and act shocked or, worse, act as though he has acted rudely in not watching where they are going.

This may be another "city" behavior but I'm inclined to believe that pretending to be or being completely self-absorbed and oblivious to others wouldn't work quite as well in western cultures where people are likely to shout at you or at least bring your behavior to your attention verbally in a manner which you couldn't easily pretend to ignore.

Besides encountering the onion inspectors, I also witnessed a little ironic sibling rivalry at the register as I was checking out. A woman with a son, daughter, and a baby in a carriage bought one package of chicken legs and checked out. The daughter was about 9 years old and the son was, perhaps, 7. The daughter asked to carry the bag and her mother gave it to her and moved ahead with the baby carriage. The son then proceded to grab the bag and initiate a wrestling match with his sister over the right to carry it.

The reason this is so ironic is that, later in life, this boy is likely to grow up and saddle his wife with all the bags she can carry and be unwilling to shoulder any of the burden. I've seen many cases where a woman is laden down with shopping bags while her husband saunters ahead of her unfettered.


Sean P. Aune said...

Again, afraid this isn't a Japan only thing. My FAVORITE (and mind you, I live in a town of 17,000) is the person who will be going down a grocery aisle, will see something on the other side that interests them, will then stand in the middle of the aisle so they can keep one hand on their cart, grab the item from the other side...AND THEN WILL READ THE LABEL WITHOUT MOVING! In a Japanese store this would be an easy feat, in an American market, we're talking some major real estate to accomplish this! They know you're there, they don't care!

Now something that is pretty small town-centric is the passing cars syndrome. Let's say you're on a side street and two cars are passing each other where the drivers know each other. Why, doesn't that seem to be a good time to stop right there and chat driver window to driver window? I mean, it IS only a side street, and surely the person behind you is patient enough for two old friends to exchange a few words!

I feel today's blog entry coming on:-p

Shari said...

I hadn't thought about the small town car thing but now that you have mentioned it, I recall that my mother used to do that! It used to bother me when I was in the car with her because it was boring for me to wait while she did this and I was acutely aware of cars behind us being put out by what she was up to.

I am a little surprised that people in the U.S., especially in big cities, don't simply say, "excuse me, but would you mind moving so I can get to the ~?" or saying something overtly rude to let the other party know what they're doing. I guess Americans aren't as aggressive as I recall them being. ;-)

Sean P. Aune said...

We're aggressive about weird things. Put us in a car and we seem to think we are gods. Put us face-to-face and we seem to severely back down.