Wear it or Take it off

By Rika Asaoka

“Ohhhhh noooooo so sorry, oh no, I feel so embarrassed. Of course, I know you take off your shoes at the entrance. Rika, you are Japanese!! This is a Japanese home!!”

My friend visited me from the Netherlands and stayed at my house some years ago. After picking her up from the airport we arrived home. I opened the main door, and we entered the house as I was helping her with her luggage. “Come in, come in” We hurried into the house and entered the living room. My daughters came out to greet her. We all sat around the coffee table, chatting and after a while there was a brief moment of silence. Suddenly all our eyes were on her feet in her shoes, around them were our bare feet. My friend was busy apologising, and her face went all red, the sign of embarrassment.

In Japan, people take off their shoes at the main entrance. Our family practise this here in Perth as well. In the house we walk around without shoes or with room slippers on. There is a distinct difference of “Inside” and “Outside”. There are always shoes left lying around at our entrance hall (they are supposed to be taken away and stored in the shoe cabinet, but it is so easy to just leave them there!).

When a new pattern of culture is experienced and processed with interaction, it sticks to our memory strongly. When we have the “Ah ha” or “Wow” moment, it is embodied in our intuitive mind, not just as obtained knowledge. This “Ah ha” moment is powerful in intercultural learning. It gives us the opportunity to learn and to see things in a new way. It helps us to look at familiar concepts in a new way.

Knowledge is about remembering facts and manipulating concepts. Deep cultural learning is about insights. It is about recognising the pattern of behaviour and meaning (Culture) and making connection with something that is not obvious. Insights come from foreign experiences and intercultural experiences that touch us deeply, triggering reflection and exploration.

Intercultural training is crucial in culturally diverse environments. It helps people to understand the importance of recognising the patterns of behaviours and meaning, to make sense of differences and to avoid making unnecessary assumptions. We learn even when we are not even consciously learning. When things do not make sense, it is harder to make a change. Our learning can be negative if the experience has a negative outcome. Intercultural training prepares people to do the learning in the real world more effectively and positively.

My friend stayed with us for 7 days. After the first day she was determined to master this new culture of taking off her shoes at the entrance. Did her learning go smoothly? Not really, but with her determination, good intention, and willingness to learn the new culture she was able to take off her shoes at the right place without her chanting “shoes, shoes” and without us reminding her by the end of her 7 days stay.

I don’t mention here how many times she swore at herself for not being able to do such a simple thing, or the number of times we found her in her shoes in the house. Every time we had a good laugh. I just wondered if she had taken off her shoes when she went back to her house in the Netherlands.

Let’s enjoy our intercultural learning.