I grew up in the textbook definition of a small farm town. For eighteen years of my life, I lived where you could catch index finger waves every time you met another car on the single lane highway. The one fast food drive thru in town would recognize my voice or vehicle, and ask “the usual?” always around 3:17pm on my drive home from school. The river was a 15 minute drive away, but driving to a mall was an all-day ordeal.
My boyfriend was from a rival high school about 28 miles away, and our houses were only about 5 miles apart. We dated through college, and I will forever be proud to say that I married my high school sweetheart. Businesses in town were small, people were kind, and the nights were quiet. There were some generally awful people mixed in, as will be in any place you live, but for the most part, it was a beautiful thing to live in a population of just a little over 2,000.
A lot of this small-town awareness and kindness left my memory when my husband and I moved around 3 hours away to a town of around 50,000- maybe close to 100,000 when you include the suburbs. To some, this is still a small town, but for me, it was the biggest move of my life. Finally, I lived in a town with a Target, and it was only 7 minutes from our apartment.
We loved the new town, the new found freedoms that retail convenience brought, and the new friends we found in this town. Don’t get me wrong, Joplin will forever hold a very dear place in my heart, and the friends that we left behind there are some of the best people I have met in my twenty-three years of life, but Joplin also provided me my first real taste of how unkind human beings can be. It was my college town, my first years on my own, and my first chance to see exactly how corporate, big America functions on a daily basis.
I so thankfully graduated with enough scholarships to cover all 4 years of my post-secondary education. So before Drew and I were engaged, I was just a college kid lucky enough to only want a job for a little extra gas money to make it home on the weekends. In October of our first year in Joplin, I applied at probably 40 different places in town, and immediately received a call back from Kohl’s, looking for holiday hires. I accepted a position as a temporary entry-level floor associate, was kept on permanently after the holiday season, and got my first experiences in retail.
Over the first two years I worked at Kohl’s, I was promoted a handful of times until I finally accepted a position in management. Still to this day, I have nothing but good things to say about the company, my co-workers, and the management at the store. Seriously, the people that work there and the company itself FAR outweigh the cons I’ll talk about shortly. But it was in this position that I realized just how awful people can be to a complete stranger.
I managed the customer service department for a while, which meant I got a LOT of phone calls, a LOT of “can I speak to the manager”s, and a LOT of threats to call corporate with my full name on their tongues. Sometimes it was hard for me to separate the angry yelling of a 40-something year old woman from my own self-worth. The lack of a $4 savings that some individuals would get absolutely irate about made me question if people were inherently just really, really crappy humans. I was often called stupid if I counted back change wrong. I was often called a liar if I told a customer a price wasn’t what they thought they saw. I was once even called a bitch when I asked a woman to leave the store after she THREW a pile of clothes at me for telling her we had sold out of her size. Daily, I had men and women come through my line, and not once say a single word to me due to the fact that they were talking on their phones or buried in a post on social media. I had days that I desperately needed a warm hello from a customer, and didn’t even get so much as eye contact. Let me tell you guys, if you work retail, customer service, or food service anywhere in the states, from all I can see and tell- you are a saint.
After getting married, we moved to a suburb of the city in hopes for a little quieter atmosphere. Unfortunately we often found flashing headlights on our street corner, loud banging/kicking at our door in the middle of the night, and possessions missing from our car or truck in the mornings. In the four years we lived there, we only met one set of our eight neighbors. I feared taking my baby out of our SUV if it was dark already, and I called 911 and the police station more times during our stay there than I have in the rest of my twenty-two years combined. My friends houses were broken into, my wallet was stolen twice, and we had to lock our cars even if we were just running quickly into a gas station. We trusted very few people, and we spoke regularly to even fewer.
(Please don’t get me wrong, Joplin is a beautiful and wonderful place to live… this is just the worst of the things we experienced in our part of town, and is just sometimes the nature of a bigger city.) But after around 5 years there, I cried myself to sleep most nights. It was a hard place for me to be after so many years in a town where your neighbors were your family, and you left your purse in your car overnight to find it unscathed the next morning. I wanted something different; I wanted a new existence. I wanted people that knew my name again, or at the very least made eye contact with me before they walked away from my register at work. I was convinced that the only place for us was back in our hometown of 2,000 people- where we could raise our son to graduate high school in a class of around sixty-five other students. But, when my husband and I moved the next time, it would be overseas.
At 18, I thought I would live in my hometown for the rest of my 80+ years of life. Never in a million years would I expect to be 23 and sitting in my new apartment in Japan. It’s funny how God takes us to the last place in the world we would ever think we would want to be, and shows us just how wrong our assumptions are most of the time.
When I boarded our plane at the coastline, and said goodbye to America, I expected another Joplin experience. I expected to cry often because our families are 6,000 miles away, and I expected to ache for the states- especially for my hometown. I expected to find more people who were too caught up in their own lives to care in the slightest about mine. And again, don’t get me wrong- I miss my hometown and my sweet family terribly, and I miss those dirt roads and the quietness of Southern Missouri. But what I have found in Japan so far has left me absolutely astounded.
The Japanese people have a way of existing that makes me yearn to be like them.
From the first time I was bowed to, to the first time an elderly Japanese couple stopped in the middle of the mall to give my cranky toddler son a cookie they had just bought for themselves, I find myself never letting the corners of my mouth drop in this country. I could go on and on all day about how incredible this experience has been so far, but I will tell you the one thing that catches me off guard still- almost a full month after we have arrived.
Upon my first trip to a grocery store, I brought our items to the front for checkout while my toddler swatted at everything possible on the counter. The sweet cashier tried her best to make conversation with me, and I half-heartedly tried my best to reply while doing a million other things- though the extent of my Japanese so far includes “hi”, “thank you”, and “how much is this?” I struggled to pull the correct amount of money out of my wallet, while trying to text my husband who was on the other side of the store waiting for me. At the end of the transaction, I experienced a gesture that I never had before in the states. When she handed me my change, the bags, and the receipt, she fully extended both of her hands to do so.
My thoughts at first were probably similar to any other American’s. “Ah. That’s kind of cool. But so what? It’s a customary thing, right? Just a difference from America? A cultural thing? It isn’t even THAT big of a deal.”
Yes. And those thoughts are precisely what make my heart hurt. The attention and care that she showed me were out of the ordinary for me, though they are a daily occurrence here. I realized in that moment, that I could not accept what she handed to me with both of my hands, simply because my hands were full already. I gripped my phone, illuminated from the conversation I was attempting to have while speaking to her. My keys were intertwined between my fingers in an effort to have my car key separated and ready before we walked into the cold. I had held the receipt, immediately and instinctively trying to check the amount I was charged. I could barely carry the bags she handed me, because I was already so engrossed in everything else that I was trying to do in that checkout line. During the drive home, I reflected on the fact that I was culturally so unprepared for the full attention that cashier gave me.
In this city, the public transportation is quiet. The people on the trains always use headphones to avoid disturbing others. The only people sitting are the elderly, the pregnant, or those with children. Others only sit when there is room, and they often stand up for others when they board the bus or train. People rarely walk and talk on their phones. You see very few phones on sit-down restaurant tables. The service at every restaurant, every store, and every gas station is impeccable. The hosts try to help you understand signs, menus, directions. They attempt to explain what your food is. They tell you the secrets on how to eat it. People notice your baby/toddler and accommodate you when you are struggling. They give your toddler a cookie they themselves just paid several dollars for. Nobody in this town locks their doors. Merchants leave items on the streets overnight. The people here are so kind, but more importantly- the people here are so present.
Since arriving, I have noticed myself putting down my phone more (aside from snapping photos of everything and attempting to translate words and signs with Google translate, of course) and have found myself trying to be present in my attempted conversations with the Japanese locals. Even in my hometown, while the pace is much slower, I can’t say that the people are as present as they are here. It is an incredible feeling to have a human- who is wholly uninvested in you personally- hand you something with both hands, make eye contact, smile, and even bow to you as you leave.
It is so funny how God can take a die-hard hometown-forever kind of girl like me, and thoroughly convince her in just a month that everyone in America needs to leave the United States for a little while just to get some perspective, but I fully believe this now. I wish that every person could spend a week in Japan, just to realize what a shallow person you can be at times when it comes to your attention and who and what you give it to.
Regardless of political view, regardless of gender, regardless of race- these humans we do life with and around deserve our attention. They never deserve a half-hearted conversation, and they never deserve to be spoken down to for something that is completely out of their control. I wish we all could remember that every single person we encounter is a child of the King. They are made in His image, and they deserve our respect. These beautiful people in Japan very rarely even know the name of Jesus, and they get it so much more than I- a hometown bible-belt Christian- ever did.
I never realized what a difference it makes to have someone hand you something with both hands, and to have someone fully invest in your presence before them, even if only for a mere 2 minutes. But this is the attitude of Christ- the One who understands, the One who listens, and the One who is always fully invested in us. Attention and investment like this is somewhat startling, but it is remarkably wonderful. Make conversation, sincerely care about another person’s existence, make eye contact.
Offer your attention. Offer both hands.