The metro and the magpie |
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The metro and the magpie

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By Kobayashi Tomonori | | Updated: Feb 14, 2022

[Japan] Kobayashi Tomonori, Fudan University

Kobayashi Tomonori [Photo provided to]

At dawn, when the chirping of magpies (Magpie means happiness or joy in Chinese folk culture) flew into my ear through the slightly opening window, the feeling of happiness arose spontaneously.

My company sent me to China for the first time several years ago. Many high buildings were all around me. When night falls, lots of buoyant people are active on the surrounding squares. They are enjoying the square dance or talking and laughing with friends.

Such a vibrant lifestyle of Chinese people deeply impressed me with the observation of many things I fail to imagine before. Until now the memories are still very vivid. I was very interested in studying in China and quit my job in Japan. After one year study in Shanghai, I chose to stay here for a job.

Generally speaking, my life in Shanghai goes well without embarrassing troubles. However, I still observe life here differs a lot from my hometown in Japan.At first, I like attending various activities to perceive the change of the four seasons. For example, we enjoy cherry blossoms in spring, see fireworks show in summer and occasionally go to the park to trace glowworms.

For these enjoyable moments, I feel lucky that the beauty of four seasons can be captured near home. Japan is not a vast county so that I need not travel far to view the amazing nature. Comparatively, China is really a large country with the extensive territory.You need to go far to view the natural landscape of four seasons.

Secondly, the sense of distance between people is not easy for me to understand. In Japan the words we use when we talk to family members are different from those used in the workplace. When talking to the bosses or the clients, it is not appropriate to say “hello”, “good-bye” or “bye” in a casual way. Euphemistic expression is required.

In China it is not rare that people speak “hello” or “bye” to colleagues in the same way of talking with family members or friends. When I communicated with my bosses or clients, I would wonder occasionally if my expression in Chinese is too casual. If suppliers or younger colleagues talk to me too direct, I would be annoyed with slight anger.

After a while I had different understanding of the sense of distance.

The campus of Fudan University [Photo provided to]

One day, at a metro entrance an old lady tried to tell me something. I didn’t understand her, but I figured out from her emotions and actions that she needed help for carrying her luggage to the steps.

When I was on the steps with her things, suddenly I realized that I was never asked for help by passersby in Japan, where it is quite hard for people to do such requests. While carrying the things for the old lady, the fresh feeling and understanding came into my mind that the distance between people was drawn closer.

Sometimes I noticed that two people carried a piece of luggage together or a man helped his female companion carry a handbag or tie shoelaces for her. In Japan, we rarely behave this way as we feel it is too intimate.

These things reflect the relationship between people in China. Just as people often describe a company as a big family, the whole society is like a big family with intimacy.

Living in Shanghai, I am gradually aware that there is a wall between people In Japan and we lack the patience to others. In the metro we regard the passengers next to us as bombs and try the best to avoid running into bodies or clothes of others. If a stranger is talking in a lift, other people will keep silent like just coming back from a funeral even if they are with family or friends.

I always think that language mirrors a country’s culture. When using Japanese as a euphemistic language to express, while respecting each other, we also build a firewall in our hearts.

When I had business trips to Japan together with my Chinese boss, since our Japanese client can speak Chinese and my boss doesn’t speak Japanese, we communicated in Chinese. The distance between two parties was shortened right away. It was like a chat between friends. At those moments I admire the sense of intimacy of Chinese people immersed in their language.

Hearing the chirping of magpies at dawn, I retrospected that my previous thinking was too superficial. Here also exists the beauty of seasons and the differences are how it is presented. Similarly, the discrepancy in the sense of distance between people just shows the different way of expressing respect.

Walking at winter night, I was eating the dumplings bought from a roadside stall and looking at people in harmony.To come across with a new side of the things, you need to use your heart to observe and feel.The metro on that day was swaying gently.

The story is from "My Beautiful Encounter with China" Essay Competition organized by the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchanges (CSCSE).