I’m going to make a guess about your school. Whether it’s elementary, junior high, or high school, I bet there’s some little table or room where everyone gathers to eat some snacks or drink tea. A lot of times, I think ALTs (including myself!) are intimidated by the group of teachers hanging out at the snack table and tend to just stay at their desks instead. But that snack table is actually your gateway into their social network and more natural communication! So, go and be brave, go and break through the barrier to that shining snack table of light! But…there’s one little politeness sticky point here.
Is it okay to indulge in the snacks?
I certainly can’t speak for everyone’s experience, but I can tell you about my own. For the first few weeks at school, I would only eat/drink something when someone brought it to me. For example, I wouldn’t go make myself a cup of tea. Of course, if one of the teachers brought me a cup, I would be happy to drink it. The only guidance I received on the communal snack box was when I was presented with a saved-up mountain of summer omiyage and told that if I didn’t want anything, it was okay to just put it in the box. As time went on and I grew braver; I started to serve myself tea or coffee. But I still stayed away from the snacks. The promised land still seemed to be hidden behind a veil of confusing politeness.
Eventually, as she grew more comfortable with me, the school secretary told me that everyone in the office usually donates 500 yen for her to buy snacks and coffee for everyone to share. I immediately felt embarrassed, like I had been being very rude by treating myself to their things without chipping in – but then I realized that she was actually offering me a way to be more in tune with the rest of the teachers. Great! This is my way in! About two hours later, I trotted up to her desk with a bunch of 100 yen coins and handed them over. She was actually really surprised and immediately assured me that I could drink and eat anything I wanted, as much as I wanted. She made sure to emphasize this point by going to the snack box, grabbing a handful of candies, and depositing them on my desk. Remember that the gossip grapevine can be your friend! Shortly afterwards, the school nurse, my JTE, and the head teacher all approached me to say thanks for chipping in.
The moral of the story is…don’t do what I did. You literally have a person there (your JTE) who can answer all your questions about office politeness. I would have been spared a lot of anxiety if I had just asked “hey, is it okay for me to eat snacks from the box?” If they say yes, go ahead! If they tell you what the deal is, then just follow their instructions. My advice: if no one asks you to chip in at all, bring something in to contribute occasionally. Even just a bag of senbei or hard candy from the grocery store. Your efforts will definitely be noticed and appreciated. If you’re uncomfortable in the teacher’s room, your life at school will probably be a bit sucky. So, ask the questions, do your part, and eat the snacks!
Linka Wade is a first year elementary school JET in Higashiagatsuma. She enjoys learning how to cook Japanese food, travelling, and researching tidbits of Japanese cultural history and linguistics. You can find her research (told in only somewhat decent jokes) and adventure updates on www.linkalearnsthings.wordpress.com