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Monday, 20 May 2013

Politeness manuals

When I was in high school, I worked as a checkout assistant at the local supermarket. During the induction program, the trainers spent most of the time trying to convince us we shouldn’t steal. When I finally started working at the checkout, I didn’t have a clue what to say to customers. My greetings would vary wildly between a sullen glare and a bright “Thank you, have a nice day”, depending on how I was feeling. All I knew was I shouldn’t steal anything.

Supermarkets in Japan take a more thorough approach to customer service. The checkout assistants receive a politeness manual telling them exactly what they should say to customers. And it’s not just the checkout chicks who follow them. The professional pushers at train stations follow politeness manuals too. I didn’t know there could be a polite way to push someone’s body parts into a crowded train, but it seems that there is.

Last week I think I discovered a sort of politeness manual for the general public. I was at the movies and before the movie started they played an ad telling us a list of rules. It was the usual things like “Turn off your mobile phone” and “Don’t talk during the movie”, but then they added “No kicking.” I started laughing but stopped when I realised no one else thought it was funny. It seems that the people in the movie theatre that day took obvious etiquette advice better than Aussies generally do. An example of this was last year when Queensland Rail tried to run an etiquette campaign - their posters became internet memes and were mocked all over the world.

The original Queensland Rail ettiquette poster

One of the many subsequent memes.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that my supermarket didn’t have a politeness manual.

My short story The Busybody of Lindfield was inspired by my time working at the supermarket.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Help me choose a cover for The Ghostly Grammar Boy

The Ghostly Grammar Boy is in the final stages of preparation for it's release in August! Help me choose a cover design from the finalists by voting here.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Top three places you don't expect to see Japanese

Even though I’m in Japan, there are some places I never expected to hear or see Japanese. These are my top three most surprising places.

(1) Graffiti
Trying to memorise the 2000 kanji characters required to read basic Japanese is a major headache for me. So when I see kanji casually scrawled as graffiti I am always surprised. I'm also a little jealous.


Beautiful kanji strokes - get this graffiti artist to a calligraphy competition!

(2) Dogs

So apparently, unlike me, dogs in Japan can understand Japanese. I even met a dog last week who was trilingual. He could understand Japanese, English, and Afrikaans… although the word for “sit” in Afrikaans is “sit”.

Tank the dog should sit my Japanese exams for me.

(3) Winnie the Pooh (aka Poo-san)

I expected at least the names of cartoon characters would remain the same. But in Japan even cartoon characters need to be shown an appropriate amount of respect when using their names. For example, Winnie the Pooh is known by his honourable title “Poo-san” i.e. Mr. Poo.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Reader Reviews: The Ghostly Grammar Boy

"This book has it all. There were times where I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, and then there were some touching moments that just made my heart flutter a little. Throughout the entire book, I was on the edge of my seat. It was so unpredictable with just the right amount of twists and unexpected turns." Cheryl Schopen, Reviewer, Readers' Favorite

"The Ghostly Grammar Boy is a great story with a lot of suspense. I was kept guessing throughout the story. Four out of five stars." Tabetha Collier, Reviewer, Readers' Favorite

"An exciting, intriguing book that kept me on the edge of my seat. I carried my kindle around with me, desperate for any free moment to escape into Fiona's world of ghosts, high school & adventure. Loved this book!"
Rachel Ward

"Fast paced, interesting, supernatural. Ghosts at school, ghosts in love and ghosts attempting murder!"
Jennifer Tarr

"I just started reading the book and can't put it down! A hilarious and exciting read."
Nanako Terayama

For more reviews, check out the Goodreads book page.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Camping in the tsunami zone

Last week I went camping on Niijima Island for Golden Week. I felt a bit nervous when I saw signs like this all around the island. These are the first emergency signs I've ever seen which actually tell you to RUN, rather than proceed calmly to safely.

Sign on Niijima Island.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The laziest machine in Japan

Japan is famous for its futuristic technology. The bath tubs sing as they fill up, meals at restaurants can be ordered by digital menus, and robotic vacuum cleaners whizz around apartments during the day.

But with all the hard work being done by robots in Japan, there is one type of machine that isn’t pulling its weight: the ATMs. While most of the people in Japan bust their guts working overtime, many of the ATMs* close down at 6pm. They refuse to work on public holidays and weekends, and if they do choose to operate at these times, they often charge extra fees for the privilege.


Lazy ATM: Closed Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays

At first, I couldn’t understand this. There should be no reason why an ATM can’t work weekends or at night. It’s a machine. It doesn’t need the time to go home and make shabu-shabu for its family or to trim its miniature bonsai garden. Why do they only work during business hours?

Well I think one of my friends has discovered the reason. She was visiting Japan from overseas and tried to use an ATM to withdraw money but unfortunately it ate her card. She started to panic, assuming that she’d been caught in some sort of scam. Then suddenly a phone which was hidden next to the ATM began to ring.

Friend: Hello? Is someone there? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Rapid Japanese.
Friend: I can’t understand you. Do you speak English? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Long silence. Your card… no good. Cannot use. Card return now. Please wait.

Sure enough, next thing, her card popped out of the machine and the phone line went dead. Someone behind the scenes had been supervising the ATM, seen that her card had been eaten, investigated the situation, and decided to return her card. 

So I guess that’s how you keep everyone employed in a high tech society where robots can do any job - employ someone to secretly watch the robots. Behind every robot in Japan, there could be a human watching. I just hope there’s no one supervising my singing bath tub.

*ATMs at 7-Eleven are usually open 24 hours a day and charge no fees for most Japanese bank cards.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Time to harden up

After two years of receiving unfailing politeness in Japan, I’ve dropped my guard. I no longer steel myself against attitude before approaching shop assistants, or apologetically catch the eye of waiters when I want to make an order. I’ve come to expect the highest level of respect from the service industry, and this has made me weak. 

For example, the other day I went to a restaurant in Tokyo. When I arrived the waiter pointed to our table without saying a word. No ‘Welcome honourable customer’, ‘my sincerest humble apologies for keeping you waiting’, or ‘wow honourable customer, you are so tall and your Japanese is so skillful’. Just silence. I was floored. I convinced myself that the waiter must have assumed that I couldn’t understand Japanese and that’s why he didn’t speak to me. The alternative - that he was giving me attitude - was too shocking to consider. 

When I got to the table I ordered a glass of hot water from another waitress. However it didn’t arrive within three minutes, so I asked about it. Instead of apologising profusely, bowing and rushing off to get it, the waitress dismissively told me to wait longer. I felt glad that it was an open kitchen so that she couldn’t spit in my food. She obviously wanted to.


I'm used to being the whale at restaurants.
Note: Image by gwaar. Some license restrictions apply for reuse. Please see Creative Commons License for details.

My sister was visiting me at the time and she was surprised that I was frustrated by the incidents. No one had actually said anything rude to me. These events would never have enraged me in Australia. In fact, if I’d had to order hot water in Australia, I'd have been the one grovelling because hot water wasn’t even on the menu.  

I’m planning to visit home at Christmas time so I need to harden up. What if I need to call my telecoms company or get my driver’s license renewed? I’ll never survive if I can’t put my shields back up.