When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.
Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.
But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.
We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?
We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.
So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?
I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.
It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.