May I Help You

The very first tram ride we took into downtown Hiroshima, Rich was trying to pay the conductor and this gorgeous Japanese twenty something woman says, “Sit down, you pay when you leave.” We do. Immediately, Rich is scouring the map trying to read the names of the stops and decide when to get off. “I like speaking English, where are you trying to get to? Peace Park?” She is standing in front of us looking at our map. The tram lunges forward and this lovely young thing on platform heels almost ends up in Rich’s lap.

If you have reservations of traveling to Japan, you shouldn’t. I promise you that you will not be in this country for twenty-four hours before a stranger will show great kindness.

We are late for church. Really late. We stand in front of the map in Hondori station trying to get our bearings. It’s underground and has six exits. YOU ARE HERE says the map. Luckily that is universal. We find the cathedral on the map. We debate which exit would get us there the quickest. I feel someone looking at us. There stands a smiling Japanese man. He is not more than five feet tall. His face, hands and clothes tell us he is a working man. “Do you need help?” Shiny excited eyes look back at us. “Oh, thank you, yes we are trying to get to the Cathedral, do you know which way is the fastest?” Rich asks hurriedly.

“Please, repeat slowly, please.”

“Do you know where the Cathedral is from here?”

“What is ‘cathedral’?”

Oh noooooooo! Now we are in dangerous territory. I don’t want offend this man or cause him to loose face. He was very kind to offer us help. Unfortunately, he can’t. Especially at this pace. But luckily Rich is not aware of any of this and he starts pointing and talking really slow and louder. [Side note: Yes we all do it. The minute we talk to people we can’t understand we start talking really loud. It’s funny to watch others do it. Totally unaware when we are doing it.] This kind man not only gives us directions but also walks with us as far as he can to ensure we are headed in the right direction.

I thought this was an anomaly. But not too long after that, Rich came home to find me at witt’s end trying to operate all the appliances. So he took me to Molly Malone’s. It is an Irish pub in the heart of the shopping district. They serve Guinness on tap. Gorgeous jazz plays in the background and the menu is in English. We take the train, and come up out of the tunnel to a very busy street. There are so many people on the sidewalk that I hold on to Rich’s arm. We have come out a new exit and now don’t recognize where we are. The minute you step onto the sidewalk you need to move or you will be run over by a bike or the crowd. Funny how the time of day can make a familiar place unrecognizable; bright lights blinking, Japanese advertisements singing, signals beeping us across the street. But where are we? Where is Molly’s? We are standing at the edge looking up and down the metropolitan road. “Excuse me, what are you trying to find?” A very tall, Japanese businessman has stepped out of the stream of nightlife. He is smiling down on us, which is an unusual experience. He helps us see the Molly Malone’s sign, we bow and in a mix of English and Japanese depart.

It happened again this Sunday. I was trying to find a new restaurant I had been to that week. I was jabbering on and on to Rich about it, head bobbing from side to side trying to see and remember something familiar. Again, a young man, by his dress I would guess a college student, came up to us. “May I help you? I like to speak English.” He asks where we are from and is excited we are Americans. I tell him about the restaurant. What I had eaten and that it was an expensive place on the third floor. Unfortunately, there are a dozens of places on Hondori street that fit that description. He tells us he wants to go to America “very badly”. His English is very good, and we tell him that he will not have any problems when he visits. His broad smile reveals his feelings; like the other good Samaritans, eyes shining, smiles wide and all teeth showing. He apologizes for not being more helpful, bowing as he leaves us.

After each of these encounters I am filled with overflowing appreciation. It is a true act of altruism. From the moment they are born, Japanese are encouraged to be shy. They avoid eye contact. When they get on a train, they will turn to face the doors. To step out and do something that draws attention to yourself, is greatly discouraged. These strangers also take a great risk. They know that there is a good chance their English will not be good enough. That these strangers are willing forgo all emotional safety to help someone, well, it’s heartwarming.

We have found the Japanese people very lovely. Wherever we have gone, people have reached out and caught us before we fell. They have been generous with their time and patience. They want us to enjoy Hiroshima. They are quick to suggest where to visit, what to eat, and what to experience. They are curious about us and inquire about our families back home.

To show my appreciation, I have started ending all my interactions with “Have a nice day.” It is not customary in Japan to end this way, but it is the needed filling of an awkward hole in my daily interactions. I always get a toothy smile when I say it so I think it communicates my own appreciation and mindfulness that I feel for those taking care of me.

2 thoughts on “May I Help You

  1. “That these strangers are willing forgo all emotional safety to help someone, well, it’s heartwarming.” I love that you are so perceptive of this tension between a cultural shyness and the warmth that is displayed by the Japanese people. Your sensitivity to this makes me glad they get you and Rich to interact with!


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