For the past 9 weeks I was an active volunteer at the Kyoto based NGO Reborn Kyoto, a non-profit organization conducting philanthropic activities in developing countries to foster women’s financial independence. Since their establishment in 1979, Reborn Kyoto completed successful projects in 7 countries and are now in the process of their 8th project in Rwanda. The organization offers women from ages 18-35 free vocational training in sewing skills and technology and also hires them, after the completion of their training, to produce in-house designed pieces using fabric of donated kimonos from all over Japan. The finished products are sent back to Japan for sale in department stores, Reborn Kyoto’s flagship store and artisan markets to generate revenue. The clothing are very beautiful pieces with much variety, from winter coats to summer dresses for people of all genders and ages.
With zero sewing capability (granted, I did once sew an unwearable skirt), I approached the organization to volunteer my time in the hopes that I can contribute my efforts to a cause I was interested in. As a result, I shared a lot of quality time with around 10-15 local Japanese volunteers, all senior women who have a passion for sewing and participates twice a week to produce pieces for sale in-house. While I cannot sew at all, I enjoyed running small errands for them, completing small tasks, and chit chatting for 2 hours at a time every week. There were many noted differences between the local volunteers and me, like age and locational differences. However, the most memorable realizations and lessons were cultural ones.
Initially I did not know how to best conduct my demeanor in front of the other volunteers who clearly had way more experience living and working than I did. Maybe it was the language and culture barrier, but I found it difficult to start conversation at first. In this situation, it occurred to me that the only culturally appropriate behavior Japanese textbooks ever taught me were cumbersomely long sentences of keigo. So I tried my best to speak as respectfully as I could. My clumsy efforts at keigo (i.e. ending sentences with ~でございます) only drew light laughter from them. They seem rather amused at my proper tone and overly humble word choices. One person kindly informed me that the keigo I was using is best reserved for formal business settings and that I should speak comfortably in front of them. I was grateful for any hints or cues on appropriate conduct and immediately dropped my keigo with them.
From this I realized two things; one is that while Japanese textbooks are very difficult to write, take a lot of skill to perfect and should definitely be lauded for effort, cultural lessons are best learned outside of the classroom. The second thing is the immense complexity of keigo. It is not only learning the set phrases and sentence structures that is vital to navigating the respectful form, but also understanding when and how to utilize it. Keigo is not merely just phrases of respect we need to blindly memorize, like any other cultural lesson from our textbooks, it encompasses very real social interactions that either enables your usage or kills it. My initial conversations with the local volunteers demonstrated precisely that; no matter how much keigo I knew, as long as I was using it in the wrong context, it came off silly and unnecessary. Perhaps the only benefit that came out of this episode was being able to break the ice a little while I sat in a small Japanese style room surrounded by older Japanese women all sewing skillfully.
An additional cultural observation after many weeks of volunteering is the act of ippukukyukei (tea time), or simply in my mind, ocha taimu. Every day at 15:00 someone from the organization (usually the administrative assistant) makes tea, puts out some snacks and gathers everyone for a 10-15 minute break. During this time people quench their appetite with tea and a small snack while chatting with one another about any topic of interest. I missed ippukukyukei for the first few weeks due to schedule conflicts and was offered tea and special snacks on the side to take home. I was treated very kindly by everyone, but always as a guest only. While I did not mind their kindness, I almost found it difficult to refuse the snacks and integrate myself into their team. I could feel that they were paying special attention to take care of me as the foreign guest. Again, I did not want to object to their kindness, but I was surprised by the amount of time it took before they saw me as one of their regular volunteers.
That said, this week, after a little over 2.5 months of volunteering my services, I am happy to announce that I have successfully integrated myself into the volunteer circle by proactively asking to make tea during ocha taimu (I know I am conflating the terms but in my mind they are one and the same). I am extremely pleased with the fact that I am no longer regarded as a guest but a part of the team. Everyone drank the tea I made and said it tasted delicious. Note that by “made” I mean putting in tealeaves, adding hot water to a big teapot, pouring said tea into cups and served to everyone. Whether the tea was actually delicious is besides the point here, I truly think that was their way of showing their gratitude. While this process of insinuating myself into the volunteer team was rather slow and comparatively different to any of my past experiences with institutions and organizations in the U.S, I was content with the baby steps and victories I carved out for myself through this CIP.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time getting to know these local volunteers who I would probably never come into contact with if not for this project. I hope to keep in touch with one of the volunteers, Kuroki-san, who looked out for me from the very beginning and taught me many life lessons, like sewing buttons onto shirts, creative ways of utilizing kansaiben, and many more stories from her life. Like many of my other experiences in Japan, my CIP activity is another example of 一期一会 that I have learned to treasure.