A surprise met me when I stepped into the apartment of my English student. After teaching Yuka weekly for a few months, I expected a tidy room. Always before, in anticipation of my visit, she’d secreted her children’s plastic trucks, dolls, building blocks† in plastic bins or cabinets. But this time, to the left of the front door, stood large boxes with papers, shoe boxes and various unknowns peeping out. Something was up.
I took a seat at her dining table where we usually study. Looking through her kitchen I saw a wall had disappeared! An enormous piece of cardboard stood there instead. “What happened?”
“Water came,” she explained.
“From above?” I motioned upwards, towards the apartment on the second floor.
“When did it start?” I asked.
That’s the day we have our lesson in the morning.
How could so much damage take place? I wondered if a pipe burst while she was at the park with the kids and so the deluge of water wasn’t detected earlier.
Rather, she had promptly informed the supervisor, but no response. Why?
Shortly after our last lesson, she’d noticed their kitchen ceiling was damp and a few drips visible. Yuka phoned in the problem to the manager, leaving a message on a machine. Probably something like, “Water is coming into our kitchen” since words like “wet” and “leaking” are not part of her basic English (nor of my Japanese, despite living there six years and studying the language throughout that time).
By that night the moisture had turned to trickles. Her husband contacted the supervisor too. Still, no response.
On Wednesday no one appeared on their doorstep to see what was the problem. No one even returned their calls until Thursday morning. By then, water had flooded the kitchen, the hall and their bedroom closet. I wish I could have seen the supervisor’s face when he saw with his own eyes what had happened and imagined the cost of repairs. Due to the severe damage, drywall would have to be removed and large fans installed to below out the moisture and prevent mildew. Then the wall needed reconstruction.
How could the owner or his on-site manager be so unresponsive? I’m sure Yuka and her husband were mystified at why the landlord did not come immediately at the report of unwanted water in their kitchen. The delay allowed a deluge.
I’ve tried to imagine what happened on the landlord’s side. A picture appeared in my mind: me holding a phone, fifteen years ago. It was during the first months after we returned from six years of living, and adapting, to Japan. I was in severe pain, wanting medical help. I left a terse message at my clinic’s nurse’s station. “I need to see a doctor. My back really hurts.”
In fact, I hadn’t been able to get out of bed that morning—my husband had to roll me off. An attempt to take a six-inch step caused me to shriek from the excruciating pain.
When a nurse returned my call in a couple of hours, she offered me an appointment for two weeks later. Waiting two weeks with incapacitating pain was unimaginable, but it never occurred to me to say, “I can’t wait that long” or to explain why since her business like tone did not convey any sympathy. I took the appointment and hung up, sad and desperate.
That night I talked to a long-time friend Monika, a nurse, about my inability to get timely help. “Exactly what did you say?” she asked.
On hearing how I reported my pain in an even voice with no distress leaking through, Monika told me, “You have to say you have severe pain. You need help urgently.” She wanted me to modulate my voice, to stress the words “severely” and “urgently” by saying them in a louder voice and higher pitch.
Speaking so to a medical authority was unthinkable. Having been immersed in Japanese culture for six years, I’d picked up their predominant style of inter-relating: a reluctance to impose or demand, especially to an authority. In order not to impose or presume on others, emotions are often held in check. To express emotions loudly is childish; polite and well-functioning adults are those who hold in their suffering silently. I’d picked up this manner of interacting since ninety percent of my interactions were with Japanese neighbors, friends, school teachers and fellow churchgoers and my husband leans towards this manner of interacting.
I told Yuka, “The apartment manager probably thought it was only a little water, a drip here or there. When an American experiences a malfunction of this magnitude, they’d sound like this.” Then I demonstrated, trying to be worked-up, as emotional as a stereo-typical Italian. “‘There’s a LOT of water coming down from the second floor into our kitchen and hallway. You’d best get someone in here soon!’ We express our emotions in our voice and convey the urgency of the situation. I imagine that you and hour husband sounded polite, respectful and a bit hesitant. So they thought they could delay because it was not a big problem, not a lot of water.”
I could tell through her eyes, meeting mine, that she understood.
The supervisor likely assumed that if the situation indeed urgent, they’d say so. Their voices would sound loud and demanding. He pictured a few drops leaking in, not a steady stream. He probably didn’t know he was presuming, while Yuka and her husband believed the landlord would know the situation is urgent by the details given and the second contact.
Can Yuka (or her husband) remember and apply lessons learned here to the next situation? I wonder too about the supervisor. Perhaps the cost to the landlord will cause him to choose or instruct a supervisor more carefully.
The Japanese ways work well in a society based on their assumptions, but not here. Yuka and her husband may have read about American culture contrasted to Japanese, but written text usually deals in generalities that don’t give the specifics needed for a given situation. It’s difficult to go from a generalities to the specifics needed for a situation, like: How long do you wait for someone to return a call? What will produce the results you need without sounding rude? I hope, when another challenging situation occurs, these two intelligent Japanese will consider what they’ve learned and, better yet, ask a friend or teacher to aid them in communication strategies. If they call on someone to serve as a cultural coach, they can get what they need sooner next time.
On the other side, I hope the supervisor will ask more questions to the next visitor or immigrant living in their complex who calls with a concern. We live in a multi-cultural society and need to consider that others may not share our assumptions; they may not know (as is also true of us) that they have assumptions.
I’m grateful for my girlfriend who heard about my inability to get help for my back and coached me to do what felt so strange at that time, given my six years of life abroad. It felt wrong to ask for immediate help, but I had to change. Without adapting back to American ways, I couldn’t get what I needed. So when I called the next medical gate keeper I told her, “I have severe back pain” (with a strong emphasis on “severe”) It’s urgent.” The inflection of my voice showed my anguish. The nurse offered an appointment for the next day.