I am a creature of habit, so despite having lived in Japan for two years now, there are still a few customs that trip me up every time. It’s not so much culture shock- I’m not shocked, disturbed, or otherwise out of my comfort zone, I’ve simply forgotten the way things are done here. I’m going to go ahead and coin the term, “Culture Facepalm,” for the gesture I make every time I forget one of these customs in public. Today’s example of Cultural Facepalm? The mail.
So there I was, at 7-11, trying to mail out a package. (Yes, I mail things from 7-11, not the post office. It’s cheaper. I’ve gotten used to that custom.) I have all my documents in a clearfile document protector, organized in the right order. I have the address written neatly on the envelope in the right format (ok, I left that step up to my wife, whose handwriting is much neater). I’ve just finished explaining to the clerk in relatively clear Japanese precisely what I want to do. Then it hits me: Cue the facepalm.
How to Seal that Envelope: Lick, Stick, Tape, or Glue?
I grew up in the era of envelopes where you had to lick the flap to seal it. You know, before all this email and blog business. Same thing went for stamps. Now, I haven’t seen a lick-and-stick envelope in years now, and I think lick-and-stick stamps died out in the US when postal mail was still under 30 cents per letter. (Man, I feel old!) I remember the first time I got my hands on a booklet of self-adhesive stamps, I wondered it they cost more.
Later, I learned the joys of self-adhesive envelopes, as well. They cost a little more, sure, but my personal volume of snail mail was pretty minimal and, when I was living in the states, mostly travelled in “Business Reply Mail” envelopes, which may be the last mainstream resting place of envelopes you have to lick yourself.
Bring Your Own Glue Stick
Once I started living abroad and using mail for business, however, I learned that neither lick nor stick were common options, especially when you buy envelopes in bulk. Japanese post, in particular is very much a “Bring your own glue stick” affair. Most envelopes I have seen in Japan have no form of stickiness available. That was what raced back into my mind, triggering the facepalm at the 7-11 counter. (Incidentally, the Japanese word for glue stick is “nori,” the same as the popular edible seaweed. Having had the experience of accidentally licking a glue stick-prepared envelope, I can say that both are equally palatable).
As an American, I hadn’t used a glue stick since high school arts and crafts class. In my mind, they resided in the same category of superfluous novelties as saw-tooth-patterned scissors and construction paper. Not so, here. In Japan, a glue stick is as much a tool of the professional businessman as the pen, or personal seal. The thing is, I know this. I send and receive letters all the time at work, but my mind refuses to associate “glue stick” with “mail.” I have adjusted without difficulty to far more difficult things, such as sitting on the floor and driving on the wrong side of the road, but it’s the little routines that trip me up.
And that’s the Culture Facepalm in a nutshell. Thank you to the understanding guy at the convenience store who lent me his roll of tape. Next time, I’ll be prepared. Unless it slips my mind, again.
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