When I taught my F101: Intro to Folklore classes, early in the semester I would introduce a concept known as “normal form.” It’s a pretty simple concept to understand. It states that within all the different variations of any given tradition, the version that will seem most “normal” to you is the version you were first introduced to. That version then becomes the standard by which you measure every other variant you might enounter. But here is the important, non-judgmental thing that I wanted my students to remember: Your normal form is not intrinsically any better or worse than anyone else’s normal form. It’s just different. And different does not mean wrong.
For example, I grew up hearing the children’s song “little old house in the middle of the woods, little old man by the window stood.” My wife grew up hearing it “little old house in the middle of the woods, nice old man by the window stood.” A small variation, but big enough to make me cringe and want to “correct” her every time I heard it the “wrong” way. But according to normal form, it isn’t really wrong, it’s just different than the way I learned it. It’s just not my normal form.
I admit that when I first came to Japan in 1991, I was a little grossed out by the toilet-sink unit in my apartment. To conserve space, the Japanese had built a water spout right on top of the toilet’s water tank. When you flushed the toilet, water came out of the spout, reminding you to wash your hands… in toilet water. It was not normal to me, and it took me a while to feel comfortable touching that water, even though I realized I was getting it on the front end, before it came into contact with anything I had, um… placed in the toilet myself. But the Japanese are generally a meticulously hygenic people who take great care to wash and be clean, so as long as the water was on the front end and it was clearly separate from the other toilet business, I figured I could get used to it, and I have.
Yesterday, however… well, you just have to see this for yourself.
I was at the DMV to take a driving test. I saw this sign in the public bathroom stall and just couldn’t believe it. The picture is a little fuzzy, but here is an example of some brainiac Japanese engineering wizard who decided to conserve space even more. Why build a spout on top of the water tank when you can put it right there in the toilet bowl?
Instructions for use:
1. Locate the flushing button.
2. Turn the flushing button on.
3. Wash your hands as the water spouts into the toilet bowl.
4. Turn the flushing button off.
Yep. That’s right! Wash your hands right down there above the pretty, colorful whirlpool – just be careful of swirling debris.
So much for the relativist fairness of normal form. Sorry students. This is simply wrong.