Thursday, January 17, 2013

Help Me, Please!: Being Helpful in Japan

I have been pushing a big TV along the school's hallways for a week. I needed it to project a powerpoint presentation in most of my classes. Although it's on a cart with wheels, it was still heavy to push. For a week that I have been pushing it in almost every class, no student tried to extend help. When I pass, they would just move away. Some would totally ignore me. And then there are also some students whom I need to raise my voice to move away. (With that big TV, I think it's common sense to unblock the way.)

(See more on Japanese Children here)

I find the student's unhelpful behavior puzzling. These are the same students who would fetch me at the teacher's room and carry my things, (usually just a book and some light materials). Casually, I asked a teacher who also uses the TV if students help her. She said if the students knows that the'll be using the TV, they would get it for her and set it up in the room. If not, she said she manages on her own. This behavior is odd to me. For me, it's about being helpful even if you don't know. I mean seriously who plans to open and close doors for people who have full hands? Who plans to help lift a heavy load of others? Things like this just happen. You just have to be willing to extend some little help when a need arise. But the Japanese think otherwise. 
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A Japanese friend who lived in the US for several years explained that Japanese people tend to help when you asked them for it. This is not being 'unhelpful' for them. This is actually 'saving your face.' Japanese people are hesitant to extend help, especially to foreigners, because the person being helped might feel embarrassed. However, once you ask for their help they will do their best to help you out. I totally agree with this. Everytime I would ask someone on the street for directions, he/she would really try to find a way to show me the way or get me there. Sometimes even if they don't know the way, they would really do their best to find someone who can help me. The key is to ask for help. Once you ask for their help, it becomes their responsibility to help you. 

(More on Japanese Culture, here.)

As for the students who carry my things, they are actually class leaders who have the responsibility to help the teachers. They help me out not because they like me or because they are helpful. So their being 'helpful' and 'unhelpful' does not really mean anything. It's just part of their job. Again, it is their responsibility to help you. 

This concept of helping contrasts with how I was raised. Helping is not a responsibility. It is an option. People who help are just kind enough to lend a hand. If no one is kind enough, no one will help. But if someone is, you will just be grateful that someone is there even without you asking. On the other hand, the Japanese concept of helping focuses on the one who needs help. If you have the guts, ask for help. If not, bear your own burden. You're lucky if someone is responsible to help you. You're unlucky if someone asks for your help in difficult situation. They become your responsibility.

So as for me, the next time I'll need the TV, I'll certainly ask for help from the class leaders. I think it's a simple thing to ask with no pride at stake. Also, it's their responsibility to help. 

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