On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar. After a pause, the waiter said, “One does not put sugar in green tea.” “I know,” I said. “I’m aware of this custom. But I really like my tea sweet.” In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation. “One does not put sugar in green tea.” “I understand,” I said, “that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I’d like to put some sugar in my green tea.” (Laughter) Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. Pretty soon, a lengthy discussion ensued, and finally the manager came over to me and said, “I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.” (Laughter) Well, since I couldn’t have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.
My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet, green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice. From my American perspective, when a paying customer makes a reasonable request based on her preferences, she has every right to have that request met. The American way, to quote Burger King, is to “have it your way,” because, as Starbucks says, “happiness is in your choices.” (Laughter) But from the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better – (Laughter) in this case, the ignorant gaijin – from making the wrong choice. Let’s face it: the way I wanted my tea was inappropriate according to cultural standards, and they were doing their best to help me save face.
Americans tend to believe that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice, as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans.