A few weeks ago we had a visitor who had lived in Japan as a boy, the son of missionaries. We fell to swapping "my life in Japan" stories. We soon found out that we'd both had some interesting experiences simply because we'd been in areas that didn't see non-Japanese people all that often, and more specifically because we're both blond.
In his case, for instance, the neighbors expressed concern because he had blue eyes, and to them that meant blindness. I guess if everyone you know who can see well has dark eyes, and people you know who are blind have light eyes, that sort of concern would be logical. It's not correct when you start applying that rule of thumb to the world population, of course, but it would be logical to worry if you didn't know better.
In my case, I was a twenty-something woman a few years into a newspaper career when I got an invitation from a childhood friend who was over there teaching English. She offered me a free place to stay, and guide service, and local transport, if only I'd come over and give her a native English speaker to talk to for a few weeks, and, as much to the point, an American to chat with. She was going a bit crazy, she said, being essentially the only resident foreigner in town, not to mention an American with no countrymen within visiting distance.
I got a leave of absence lined up, and then found out how unbelievably large the Pacific Ocean is. Yinga.
At long last, after flying (and flying, and flying), and train rides and more train rides, I was in the town where she taught, and was immediately adopted by various and sundry folks wanting to try out their English skills, for one thing, and to hang out with an American newspaper reporter for another (that I represented a small, regional paper didn't seem to matter all that much), and also, I think, just for the excuse to go play tourist themselves. At any rate, I was taken to all sorts of interesting places, sometimes by one group of people, sometimes by another.
One day, a group of young ladies took my friend and me to a place called, if I remember correctly, The Hawaiian Center. At any rate, it amounted to something along the lines of a mall combined with an entertainment complex, and the overall theme was decidedly the Hawaiian Islands. There were shops and eateries, and public baths, and a regular swimming pool or two, and a looped pool with a current in it, that you could either float in, going around and around, or else get a workout in, by swimming against the current. I don't remember what else.
After you changed into your swimsuit but before you got into a pool, you were supposed to shower under a nozzle set up outside the dressing rooms, in full view of people on the two or three levels of this mall (I can't remember how many stories it was, but only two or three I think). So I got into my swimming suit - my brand new, bought especially for the trip, sophisticated black swimming suit which I'd never worn anywhere before - and stepped outside to the shower and went under the spray. I heard gasps. I heard strange murmurings. I looked around and people were staring at me, from the upper balconies as well as ground level, and my hostesses looked like they would faint and some of them were crying.
My first thought - relatively modest American that I am - was that I'd had a wardrobe malfunction with the never-before-worn swimming suit. I'm of an age that I grew up with the occasional swimsuit that got baggy when wet, sometimes with excruciating consequences. (Bikinis, especially those made for rail-straight pre-adolescents, should never have been made of such fabric, in my humble opinion. But I digress.) But, of course, a baggy or shifted swimsuit wouldn't have shocked the Japanese people in that mall. It might have prompted giggles or rude comments, but it wouldn't have shocked people - and people were definitely stunned. And I was definitely the center of attention.
Their distress had knocked what English they knew clear out of my companions (and my bi-lingual friend was nowhere to be found, naturally) so there was much use of hand gestures and stabs at finding a Japanese word I knew that would convey something about the calamity. Finally, by pointing at my hair and using a Japanese word for the turning of the leaves in autumn, I was made to understand that my hair, subjected to Japanese shower water, had, unbelievably - and they were horribly, horribly sorry about it - my hair had gone not-blond, and was now a different color.
Having grown up with hair that always goes dark when it gets wet, it took me a while to understand what the problem was. But then I realized that black hair stays black when it gets wet, so of course if you only knew about black hair, to see hair that was altogether different when wet would be a bit on the supernatural or calamitous side.
I assured my hostesses that my hair - all blond hair for that matter, as far as I know - goes dark when wet and it would undoubtedly return to the usual color when dry, just like always. This was a huge relief, and after confirming it with me three ways from Sunday to prevent spreading false reassurance, they announced to all and sundry within polite yelling distance that everything was all right, that the foreigner's hair always changed color when wet and would be just fine when it dried - as surprising as it seemed, everything was normal.
People stopped being statues, and stopped being unhappy, and laughed a bit (or a lot, depending on how it struck them), and bit by bit people stopped pointing at me, and soon everything was back to normal, on the upper decks and down at ground level, too.
Not that stories need to have a moral attached, of course, but to me this one rather dramatically represents the concept: You don't know what you don't know.
Quotation of the Day… - (Don Boudreaux) … is from page 82 of Liberty Fund’s 1982 edition of Adam Smith’s 1759 profound classic, The Theory of Moral Sentiments – the volume that in...
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