Rin Ichino is a Japanese exchange student from the University of Tokyo spending a year at Bates College in Maine. When she arrived, she found that there was something about her new campus life that made her uneasy – the lack of chores. From cleaning the buildings to emptying the trash, there are maintenance staff to take care of almost everything. But is her discomfort about it a difference between the Japanese and American cultures, or something else? Here’s Rin’s story:
On the first day I arrived at Bates College, I found myself alone in my new house. I was the only one of the twelve students who would be living there to arrive before classes started. Every room was empty, dark, and quiet as I walked around the house by myself.
It was a hot day for the end of August in Maine, and after going in and out of a couple of rooms looking for an air conditioner, I heard a cheerful voice asking, “Hey, how can I help you?”
I turned to find a woman with bright blue eyes in a blue shirt and blue jeans. She was the housekeeper for my house, with two other houses under her care. We introduced ourselves and by the time she finished showing me around the house we had made friends. She told me I wouldn’t need to clean the house, buy our daily goods, or worry about messes after parties. She would not come to our house everyday but told me to ask her for any help I needed.
Living the easy life
Once everyone else arrived on campus and the year got started, it didn’t take much time for me to find that this situation was not unusual. I need to do almost nothing for myself in this campus life.
I can run into the dining hall almost anytime and fetch anything to eat and drink; I can grab a mug with coffee or tea and throw the empty mug into one of the big cans placed all around campus. I don’t need to clean, I don’t need to take the garbage out, I don’t need to do my dishes, I don’t need to go shopping for food. All those things are in the facility service staffs’ hands.
All I have to do for myself is laundry (most of which will be done by the washing machine anyway), and keep my room organized (and how often I do that is up to my roommate’s and my tolerance for mess). I also need to sort out our trash into several recycling bins, but not in such a complicated way like we do back in Japan. I learned not to bring my handkerchief with me because there are paper towels in every restroom.
Trying out this super convenient life, I was astonished to see how little I need to do, except for academic work, and to find how uneasy it made me to outsource all the chores in my life.
As a kid, I always shared all the household chores with my family. I have been told to take care of myself and to impose on others as little as possible. In my elementary, middle, and high school, we cleaned out our school buildings every day, including classrooms, hallways, and restrooms. It was regarded as an important part of our education. The saying “reap what you sow” is so deeply rooted in my mind that I found myself feeling guilty to have my mess dealt with by someone who had nothing to do with creating it.
Is this life an American thing?
At first I thought my discomfort with being tended to like this stemmed from my Japanese mindset or cultural difference between our two countries.
When I talked about my uneasiness with one of my American friends, she didn’t get my point. She saw it as a simple give-and-take: we pay money for their services, they provide us with a comfortable life. It is just our roles. We students are here to study, and the college staff are here to get paid for their jobs. Both roles are equally important and fair.
According to her, we don’t have to feel guilty or sorry for them as long as we do what we are expected to do, such as throwing empty mugs into designated cans, not spilling out leftover food, and sorting the garbage properly.
Her businesslike viewpoint on daily services was eye-opening for me, because I have never thought of household chores as exchangeable goods. I think this mindset is very American. But then again, as she asked me, do I feel uneasy to have my room cleaned and even my bed done in hotels? Do I worry in restaurants about the luxury of being served my food and having to do nothing to eat something delicious? No, I have taken them for granted.
The same thing is happening in campus life here. So perhaps more than a cultural difference it may be just that it was new for me because this is my first time living on campus.
Another friend also doubted it was an American thing to feel at ease being taken care of in this way. In her view, most people in America are equally used to taking care of themselves as I was. Rather, this lifestyle is a unique feature of living on campus, which few but the richest students would have experienced in their home lives.
It surely is a strange situation to live and share together with many strangers, and in order to avoid useless conflicts and complains, it is an easy and reasonable solution to have professionals take charge of shared houses. It is efficient and sanitary, too, to have someone who knows how to clean, cook and do other necessities for life.
A cultural difference, just not the one I thought
Come to think of it, my university in Japan actually did have many services for students as my university in the U.S. does. I was not on a meal plan, but I could get meals in campus dining for reasonable price. I didn’t clean out campus buildings by myself; the cleaning staffs did. I didn’t have to do anything with the trash; just recycle as appropriate. And back home I didn’t feel uneasy about this at all. The only thing I didn’t have was free to-go mugs, because it was not regarded as proper to drink something in classes or in the library.
I think one of the reasons I feel differently about it here at Bates College is my experience back on my very first day making friends with my housekeeping lady. Making friends with the staffs is something that had never happened before; not on campus, in restaurants, or in hotels. This fortunate encounter made me more conscious about who is around me and how we relate with each other on campus. Plus, at such a small college we see the facility staff pretty frequently, so it is easier to have personal relationships with them, and we get a sense of solidarity as a community.
So there may be a cultural difference, just not the one I originally thought. In American culture it is easy to start conversations with strangers. We have relaxed conversations with people like the dining hall staff and the housekeepers and get to know them, which wouldn’t be as common in Japan.
Whatever the reason is, I am still keeping in close touch with my first friend at Bates College, my housekeeping lady. Every time I see her in my house, we update each other, talking about what I am up to in college life, or how we spent our Thanksgiving or Christmas. Since she knew how nervous and lonely I was on my very first day, she was delighted like a mother to see how I am adapting to my new life gradually. I appreciate not only her service in my house, but also her unique role in my life, as neither a peer student nor a professor.
All that worries me is forgetting how to manage household chores when I go back to living alone in Japan.