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I am doing an internship in Tokyo and share my flat with two Chinese women. They speak only Chinese and Japanese, I speak only English and some other European languages, and my Japanese is not sufficient for everyday conversation yet.

We did some small talk using Google Translate, but I don't know how to interact with them on a daily basis. They come from work quite late in the evening and cook and eat together, and I feel really awkward, because I don't know if I should join them and if they consider me rude if I do so, or if they consider me rude if I just stay in my room.

They asked me if I wanted to share their food once and I declined because I had already eaten, but now I wonder if that was rude, too. I spend way too much time worrying about that and I would enjoy my time in Tokyo much more if I wouldn't feel so awkward in my flat all the time.

Does anyone have an idea how to navigate this situation?

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If you're willing to, show interest in their culture.

I faced this a few times. At 1st lunch/dinner time opportunity, I usually "share and compare": I show a vegetable, and say the word in my language. Then, in their language, with an interrogative tone in my voice. The person will be glad to say it with the proper accent, and won't feel rude because you asked. In order to do that, either I search for the name before, or use my very little knowledge of the foreign language. More often, people like to help, and like the ones showing interest in knowing their own culture. And many cultures share/understands the meaning of body language and "hands talking" for eating, speaking, reading... We usually ended laughing together because of our mistakes.

Read about their culture, the very basics: what to do or not, and when.

Be nice, smile, respect them, apologize if needed when in a confusing or awkward situation.

That's more or less the basics, and no more needed to start/have a good relationship.

I learned, from the very beginning, how to say: is this ok to you/your culture when doing this?

You then can try and explain how and why you do that in your culture. But I don't know if you can't do that so early when dealing with a new language. Explaining without judging is important.

Don't be annoyed by the lack of knowledge, as it's both sides.


TIP: use a blackboard, split it into columns and rows. Then, use it to communicate and learn: ie. Draw a dinner plate, the scheduled time, and the word in your language, then, your mates 1.

  1. Know when you'll be eating
  2. Write the word in their own language. Repeat for the basics, like sleeping, being home, studying, working, shower... Share. Learn.
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    "Then, in their language, with an interrogative tone in my voice." While this will work in most languages, it won't work for languages that are tonal, like Mandarin Chinese. Still, good suggestion. – Thunderforge Aug 25 '17 at 3:00
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Great question WatermelonLemon, especially considering the cultural difference present in this question. I am a ethnic Chinese who grew up in the USA. Let me help you shed some light on this.

I make an assumption here, please don't get mad at me non-shy Chinese friends. Stereotypes do exist, Chinese are generally shy, especially traditionally Chinese women. Great job showing initiative in using Google Translate to communicate. Because of that, they most likely were a little more open to you and it might have contributed to them offering to share their food with you.

However, you refusing the food was definitely a mistake. It is not an offense, but it is a signal to them that you backed off. Even if you already had food, you should have said yes, joined them, complimented the food, and suggested a time when you will make dinner for them. This is not a terrible situation though since everything is still new. Simply go on and take the initiative again and offer to make them food or take them out to dinner.

Basically in a new encounter situation, Chinese will usually do a little bit of the tit for tat kind of small favor trading before establishing whether you are friend material. We are usually shy and wish you to make the first move, but sometimes we can makes moves first too.

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