I found this in my (computer) journal; I came up with it some time last March when I was having insane reverse cultureshock and felt oppressed by having people who lived with me and cared about my welfare, a.k.a. my suitemates.
In Japan, when you sneeze, no one says anything. If anyone says something, it’s you and what you say is an apology: “I’m sorry I interrupted the silence by daring to have a bodily function; if necessary, I will physically scrub the air to rid it of my germs.” If you’re sneezing a lot (because you have hay fever or, god forbid, a cold, in which case you’ll probably be told to go to the “hospital”) you should invest in a face mask so people don’t stare at you on the subway even more than they already do because you’re a giant, ugly foreigner. But I joke; I think the Japanese style of responding to a sneeze with echoing, occasionally accusatory and guilt-inducing silence is much more natural.
In America, when you sneeze, people compete to say “god bless you” as quickly as they can. Who can say the most god bless yous in response to an intense sneeze sequence? How many times do Americans need to be blessed? Why do people sometimes say it in German (besides German being cooler than English)? Americans sneeze extravagantly, they sneeze like it’s going out of style. My mother sneezes like a cartoon character; she actually says ACHOO. I suspect sometimes that she’s sneezing to get attention. (My friend Paige does it too; maybe it’s a blond and/or youngest child thing.)
Why do our souls try so aggressively to escape? / why are demons and/or fairies always trying to get in? / whatever folkloric explanation for “god bless you” Western culture has come up with now? Japan is filled with weird crazy spirits and demons and they have an actual word for getting kidnapped by gods, yet they’re not worried about their souls escaping through a sneeze. Maybe that’s why – when a peaceful walk through the woods can end with you getting eaten by a woman with a giraffe neck, you’re less worried about harmless things like sneezes. (Freaking long-necked demons, the government should really do something about them.)
I wonder if Americans feel bad because their country isn’t haunted enough, so they climb to this flimsy superstition.
When I came back, I had to relearn bless you culture. One suitemate sneezes loudly in the next room (that’s you, Paige). BLESS YOU BLESS YOU BLESS YOU can be heard from every other room; do I still need to say it? We’re not even hanging out together. Why am I saying it? Because it’s polite? Because I want to beat the others to it? Why such a rush to say it when I’m not particularly concerned that her soul will escape? When I sneeze and immediately get four bless yous thrown at my face, I feel smothered, surrounded, a vague uneasiness, an unaccountable instinct to run away. The whole custom is baffling; what does it even mean, to ask God to bless someone post-sneeze?
But now, in September, moving back to the city and living with randoms from Craigslist, I miss having people to yell God Bless You!! at me four times in a row when my allergies are acting up. Having someone to say god bless yous to you means having someone to make sure you’re not dead or dying or trying to die on a regular basis. So, PSA: everyone check on me occasionally to make sure I haven’t tripped and cracked my head open in my room. If you’ve seen me walk, you know this is a real concern.