Background: It’s a muggy August day in the staffroom of my base school. I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now. All is quiet — everyone is busy working, or at least they are pretending to work. My Kyoto-sensei (my vice principal) — the kind gentleman who doesn’t speak a word of English — sneezes loudly.
Me: [automatically] “Bless you!”
Kyoto-sensei: [curious stare in my direction]
The only JTE/English-speaking person in the staffroom at the moment: [getting up and casually walking over to my desk] “So… why do you say that when someone sneezes?”
Me: “Don’t you say anything?”
JTE: “No, in Japan we don’t say anything. Some people believe that sneezing means other people are gossiping about you, so we don’t acknowledge it. Why do Americans say Bless You?”
Me: [floundering for a response] “Oh! Um… well, in ancient times, people believed that when you sneezed, your heart stopped, and they would say “Bless you!” because you were blessed… because you were still alive!”
JTE: [looking half-amused] “Really?”
Me: [continuing to babble nonsense] “Yeah, and you know, when we are kids, adults tell us that if you don’t close your eyes when you sneeze, your eyes will pop out of your head! So we say “Bless you” because… uh… you still have your eyes?”
My JTE translates all of this for the rest of the staff (who, by now, are all staring at us, trying to figure out what we are saying). Their response is a mixture of horror and amusement, and laughter can be heard. My Kyoto-sensei looks shocked.
Me: [flustered, clarifying] “But no one actually believes it! It’s just something to tell little kids!”
Too late. The damage is done.
For the next two months, whenever my Kyoto-sensei sneezed (which was often, poor guy), our eyes would meet.
He would pat both his eyes, checking that they were still there, then give me a big thumbs-up.