Scarves, Though Summer

Jul 24,2013

Part of a series on cultural misunderstandings on which I pontificate from time to time.

I remembered this because I was browsing eBay for scarves (I tend to browse for seasonal items all year long because I never know when something I like might pop up unexpectedly) and in passing I noticed this one that reminded me a little of one I used to wear, because it's green and Indian. Now it's acting as a wall covering in the entryway to our house, just behind the coat rack.

I bought a green silk scarf from an Indian clothing store in San Francisco and used to wear it in college quite a bit. I brought it with me to Japan, and when I made my appearance in an elementary school I found several teachers snickering at me, though I couldn't get them to tell me what was wrong. Finally the principal pulled me into his office and said, 'That...thing you wear around your neck--please take it off before the children see you.'

I obliged, and didn't wear it again; in fact, thinking green scarves might be verboten in rural schools, I packed it away and didn't wear it again until I went to work in a slightly more metropolitan area. Then when I wore it to the office one day I was greeted by the same mysterious snickering. Fortunately, though, this time someone had the blunt honesty to say, 'You're wearing a furoshiki'.

'A what?'

'That's a furoshiki.'

'Actually, it's a scarf...'

But, having solved the mystery, I decided it would be better not to wear it in Japan if it would be that widely misconstrued. I went generally for more conservative plain or plaid patterns and stuck to them, with a few exceptions. I had noticed the prevalence of beige plaid Burberry scarves among high schoolers; in fact they were so ubiquitous that I assumed that schools themselves issued them to add a gobbet of respectability to the whole navy polyester ensemble. When someone in the abovementioned office walked in wearing one of a day, I asked her if it had been part of her school uniform.

She looked at me like I was crazy.

In a similar vein to my apparent faux pas, though, many Japanese make the mistake of overdoing the Burberry during trips to the UK, unaware of its chav associations; the Japanese visitors are nonplussed as to what's wrong with it and are often simply told by the natives, 'Just don't'.

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