By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
I am not always punctual. In fact, I admit that I am often a few minutes late. That realization hit me when I was in Japan recently.
When you travel overseas — that distance rouses consciousness of your own behavior — that comparison of your own self with foreigners creates the desire to change and emulate.
What started it was an apology from a bus driver on our way to Yokohama. He was only five minutes late.
How often do you see American bus drivers apologizing for not being on time?
How often do American doctors apologize to their patients for making them wait for more than half an hour or more?
My husband and I don’t speak Japanese. The English apology was flashed on the bus screen, while the driver apologized in Japanese.
We were just happy that the bus terminal was conveniently located outside Tokyo-Narita Airport. After we bought the tickets, we waited only a few minutes before the bus arrived. We didn’t even know the bus was late. Later, I learned that the Japanese fast train constantly flashes out an apology message at the station, for running even one minute behind.
I should have known that punctuality is an essential part of Japanese culture from my 1994 trip. However, that experience made me angry, rather than appreciating punctuality. I was with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce delegation to Kobe, Japan, celebrating the 37th anniversary sister-city relationship between Kobe and Seattle. The tour bus left without us (including me, the late June Chen, and former Seattle City Councilman Tom Weeks) for the airport, so that the driver could follow the “on-time” rule. No one checked if the group had the right number of passengers before it took off. We were stranded at the Osaka Westin Hotel not knowing what to do. Yes, we were to blame, being 10 minutes late. Luckily, the hotel clerk called the bus driver. The three of us took a taxi to catch up with the bus.
During the trip, Japan’s punctuality taught me to deal with my Japan-born relatives who were raised in Kobe. They came an hour and 15 minutes early to the hotel. I was annoyed that they woke me up from my nap. So I learned to adapt to their way of thinking. If I wanted our lunch to be at 1 p.m., I told my relatives to arrive at 1:45 p.m. I knew that they would knock on my door at 12:45 p.m. It worked, but at times, it could be disastrous and confusing. What if they showed up at 1:45 p.m., I would have starved to death.
But I refused to learn from my mistakes. I was still tardy after all those years. Now that I am much older, I realize my own foolishness. I consider those encounters during my 1994 trip as memorable and laughable. Now, it provides great writing material for me.
The bus driver’s behavior simply dawned on me that I had never apologized when I was a few minutes late. That’s just awful.
People who are always late
This trip reminded me of people who are often late, not by just a few minutes, but as long as half an hour or more.
Lately, a friend told me about her desire to lead an organization. I like women to be in leadership roles. But whoa, her character flaw is — she is often late and sometimes, a no-show. And there were no apologies or explanations afterwards.
Should I tell her to learn the Japanese way?
Leaders have to set an example. What if she has to chair a meeting and is late? It means keeping other people waiting. Being late means you don’t respect other people’s time. It is common for some people to feel insulted. You don’t need to be early, just be on time or no more than five minutes late. If you know you are going to be late, call or text to let them know — that’s just basic courtesy. Plan ahead and make an effort to be on time and let go of unexpected minor disruptions, such as a phone call or unannounced visitors.
Which community is worse?
Have you heard of “Indian time,” “Chinese time,” “Korean time,” or “Mexican time”? That’s not funny. The stereotypical view that many communities don’t understand the concept of being on time might not be a healthy depiction, but there is some truth to it.
Once, our Korean American writer criticized the Korean community for always being late to their events in the Asian Weekly. Some Korean community leaders were mad and complained about our writer’s rudeness and disrespecting elders.
So we can’t write about the truth, is that it? Or we have to embellish the stories every time we write about the Asian community?
The trouble is, these community events don’t start on time. Some start more than an hour late. Usually, too many people want to be acknowledged, too many want to have the spotlight, and some speakers hog the microphone which makes the program boring. Or the master of ceremonies doesn’t keep a handle on time and lets the program go way too long.
I have been to thousands of community events. Most don’t start on time and continue into the wee hours of the evening. I am used to it. But is it appropriate to imply that being respectful of someone else’s time does not matter?
I will say that in the last couple of years, I have attended many Korean American events and they seem to have improved as far as guests showing up on time and the event starting on time.
How to keep myself on time
I used to be late all the time when my kids were young. Yes, I used them as an excuse. Now, I really don’t have any good reasons for not being punctual.
To keep myself from being tardy, I frequently tell people, “I will wait for you in my office first, instead of meeting in a restaurant.”
Use tools like your smartphone and computer reminders. Or, have someone as your time-keeper pushing you out of the door when needed. My husband will say, “Don’t you have a meeting?” And I will dash out of the office. Sometimes, when he walks into my office, I sense what he’s about to say …and I will snatch my purse and run.
From now on, if I am late, I will say, “Sorry, I am late,” and maybe, with a bow, Japanese-style!
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.