Hands Off the Tummy: A Lesson in Pride and Study Abroad

By: Brandon Brooks, Peer Advisor in the Office of Global Opportunities, Chubu University 14-15 academic year

The spirit of traveling abroad is much more easily accessible to those who do not let their sense of pride prevent them from experiencing new, different, and often valuable perspectives of the outside world.

Although I spent months planning my study abroad trip, I have a very distinct memory of myself the night before my year-long study abroad trip started in which I couldn’t find anything to wear. That’s right, 6 foot, 200 pound hairy men also have the age-old dilemma of “nothing to wear.” Scanning my closet, one shirt beaconed to me. Red, white, and blue – the full frontal American flag t-shirt I had bought at a thrift store for the sake of being obnoxious threw itself at me and I embraced it, thinking, “should I? Yes, I should. I should indulge.” And indulge I did, I was that kid at the Columbus Airport bright and early sporting an oh so ever patriotic t-shirt all the way to the land of the rising sun.

Sure, I wore that shirt as a sort of humorous tribute to the ‘Murica mentality, but in actuality I wore it with a genuine sense of pride for where I came from as well.

Pride – it’s something every person from every city, state, and nation possesses. Pride is human, we carry it with ourselves as we move through this world and throughout our lives. Where we are from is forever integrated into our character; to assume one has pride in themselves is to also assume they have pride in their origins, regardless of socioeconomic status or creed.

Gaining a sense of worth from the success that your place of origin has acquired or feeling a sense of growth from the hardships your place of origin presented to you is NOT a bad thing. However, the spirit of traveling abroad is much more easily accessible to those who do not let their sense of pride prevent them from experiencing new, different, and often valuable perspectives of the outside world.

Being from America, I am generally used to people learning my language to communicate rather than the other way around. As an American, I was also never introduced to foreign language study in a very serious manner, because after all, foreign language study in the states is perceived as more of a hobby rather than an essential element of achieving higher education. In a way, we are fortunate, yes, but also unfortunate in the way that we are fed a type of rhetoric that encourages ethnocentrism. Beyond language, aspects of American culture can be seen throughout the world such as U.S. fast food chains and clothing brands; these factors bring a sense of familiarity to faraway places for Americans which can lead to Americans possessing a type of ego or confidence that I personally learned was counter-productive when on my quest to globalize my perspective.

One of the biggest reasons I went abroad was to truly immerse myself into a foreign way of thinking; I wanted to see myself through others’ eyes while I was in Japan to initiate personal growth and improvement without letting my already formed, American perspective get in the way. Deep, I know, but before giving me a round of snaps for my poetic reasoning you really need to know that –

It’s all fun and games until you make the American salty.

I’m sure your mouth is watering just thinking about all the awkward moments and misunderstandings that await you abroad, but while these awkward moments make funny stories in the big picture, they can be painful and embarrassing at the time of their occurrence. Let me share some of my stories with you in which swallowing my pride was like swallowing a watermelon whole.

All my life I’ve been a big guy, from shopping in the husky section as a kid to getting stuck in an innertube last summer – I’m beefy. In America, I don’t stand out too much, I fit into size large T-shirts and never have a problem finding clothes that fit. However, in Japan I was like Hagrid from Harry Potter. Wear a medium in the U.S.? Cool, you’ll have fun barely squeezing into a Japanese large.

When I first arrived at Chubu University in Japan, I was excited to meet my Japanese classmates. Walking up to a group of girls who came to help with the international student orientation, I was greeted with a chorus of giggles and words muffled by hands pressed to mouths. I introduced myself and was waiting for a response when amongst the giggling I hear, “Can…uhm can we… can we touch.” It took me probably 10 whole seconds to begin to understand what in the world these girls were asking. To clear things up, one girl points to my stomach and said “wow!” At that point I was trying to reply in a coherent way while communicating –

1.) No, you absolutely cannot rub my stomach. I’m not a dog and my body is not a toy for your curiosities.

2.) Why, why, why would you ever want to rub a stranger’s stomach after just learning their name?

Before I could think of a way to communicate these ideas in a politer way, boom, I had six manicured hands literally rubbing and poking my stomach. The rubbing was accompanied by even more giggles and exclamations. At least I was getting “kawaii!” (read: cute!) thrown in there too, I guess.

This was far from the only time my weight was openly discussed in a group setting. I remember my house mother (A middle-aged Japanese woman hired to be the gatekeeper for the international student dorm) was sending us Americans off as we were meeting visiting Ohio University faculty to give a campus tour. As we were leaving, she was taking a look at us and commenting on our nice dress cloths. Then without warning, she said something along the lines of, “Brandon, your stomach is practically bursting through your shirt!” Stunned and second guessing my translation, I thought “Smile and wave, just smile and wave”. My silence was followed with, “Brandon, you sure have gained weight since coming to Japan, huh?”

Sure, I had probably eaten my body weight in sushi that day, but I certainly didn’t want to seem embarrassed or thin-skinned so at that point so I played it off and only expressed my frustrations to the American RA that was accompanying us to our destination that day. He had some very important advice to give me.

When you’re abroad and something rubs you the wrong way (literally or figuratively), don’t instantly assume bad intentions.

This isn’t always easy, but it’s very important to understand this concept if you plan on learning about another culture to a meaningful extent.

From my experiences and from talking with my RA, I realized that in Japanese culture, body weight isn’t something taboo in the way that it is here in America. I tried to look at it this way: it was as if my house mother was commenting on the shade of my hair, or my height like as if I had gotten taller that year or something. My weight is what it is, not some forbidden topic that should never be acknowledged. To treat my weight that way is, from the Japanese perspective, strange and rather sad because why hide what’s there. Most people thought my belly was cute, anyway.

Adopting this mindset not only help me to gain a deeper, more holistic understanding of Japanese culture, it enriched my experience abroad and contributed to that globalized perspective I am constantly aspiring to obtain.

So, go forth, have your own awkward experiences. Be fat, and proud, but not too proud to learn a thing or two.

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