As an American living in the Far East, I have opportunities almost daily to exchange bits of culture and kindness with the good people of Okinawa - and they are very good people! I feel like the experience of living abroad has made me much more open to allowing myself to learn from others.
Earlier this week as I was in the process of getting back to Okinawa from the States, I had a couple of interesting exchanges with strangers of foreign extraction, and in both instances, I was made better by the experience.
The first occurred at O'Hare Airport in Chicago while I was waiting to board the gigantic Boeing 777 that would stay aloft for over thirteen hours without refueling as it ferried an international conglomeration of individuals from Chicago to Tokyo.
An oriental man who was sitting next to me at the gate leaned over and asked me where I was from. After explaining that I was from the United States but lived in Okinawa, I returned the query by asking where he was from. He told me that he was from North Vietnam, a fact that I thought was highly interesting because (a) there is no longer a "North" or "South" Vietnam, but only the singular country of "Vietnam," and (b) North Vietnamese were the mysterious and shadowy enemy of the United States during my formative years, and indeed, some of my high school classmates had gone to war and fought the sinister North Vietnamese.
But this stranger stressed the "North" part of his heritage. Did he want to shock me or make a political point, or was he just being specific as if I had told him that I was from the Ozarks instead of from the United States? This man and I talked for awhile, and I found him to be quite pleasant. I told him that friends and I had talked about traveling to his country, and asked if many Americans visit Vietnam. He said that they did. When I asked about the best time of year to visit, he recommended the summer. Considering that Vietnam is quite a bit south of where I currently reside, and our summers are muggy on Okinawa, I found that answer to be puzzling. Obviously, more research is needed before we pack our bags and head off to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
The last I saw of the man from North Vietnam was when I helped him find his seat on the plane.
The second bit of cultural exchange that I engaged in was at the other end of the same flight. I was in the Narita Airport near Tokyo trying to connect my netbook to the airport's free Wi-Fi. I found the tab to click on, but when the instructions popped up, they were completely in Japanese script. After several unsuccessful tries at converting the page to English, I approached two young Japanese women (who were probably in their twenties) and asked for help. The three of us sat on the floor at the airport as the women worked with my little computer and helped me fill-in the blanks on the screen. Eventually I got connected to the rest of the world!
There are nice people everywhere, but my travels have convinced me that when it comes to courtesy and good manners, few can compare to the Japanese.