Thursday, February 26, 2009

Saving Culture

If there’s any hope for maintaining a diversity of culture in the world, I think we need to be more specific about the very different types of cultural transference. Off the top of my head I can think of three distinct types that I routinely see lumped together. 1. Absorption. This might look bad on the surface - Japanese festivals populated by Disney-mask-wearing children or South American homes plastered with Bruce Willis and John Wayne movie posters is not what we came to see – but it’s not nearly as bad as it looks. The fact is that every new context produces a new creation. Vietnamese watching “The Sixth Sense” do not see the same movie as when Americans watch it, and the same goes for all music, movies, and McDonalds, for every message and meaning. While it may not look like it, diversity of world-view and lifestyle is still maintained (for now). 2. Improvement. This also looks bad, since we came to see traditional adobe, kimono, and cooking fires, not concrete, levis, and microwaves. But how can we even suggest denying cooling, comfort, convenience, and coolness to people when we wouldn’t dream of giving them up ourselves (think covered wagons, skinning buffalo, and bonnets to get a picture of what that denial would demand of us!). In the end culture was made for man, not man for culture. 3. Craving: This is where the truly negative transference lies. People everywhere, on the most grassroots level, need to realize that what’s obviously better for “them” isn’t necessarily better for “us”. There’s no question that the average quality of life is better in America than in India, but the resulting rush for American products like coke, fast food, and even American art and architecture helps no one except the few Americans behind these products. It’s perfectly understandable that those in less fortunate countries desire the entertainment and comfort afforded by affluent nations. Maybe they’ll manage to move, but more likely they’ll try to adapt those technologies and customs to their own lives. Some of these things will unquestionably improve the individual’s life. Many products, however, are desired simply because of the suggestion of luxury without actually granting any. This results in a waste of financial resources, disuse of indigenous resources, and a general disrespect for elements of the native culture which could stand up to the imported culture in a fair fight. It is those elements which are now being clobbered in a heavily weighted fight that can and should be saved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In the West you do whatever has to be done in order to "get the job done," even if that means behaving badly. In Japan, you do whatever is necessary to "behave correctly." The real hardship for the Japanese comes from "getting the job done" being part of "proper behavior."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In a Word, I'd Say....

We have a new front-runner in the search for a single word to describe modern Japan, submitted by a good friend and fellow JET (you know who you are): "Sheltered" Previous top entries include: "Constrained" "Comfortable" "Dazed" "Unexpected" "Sterile" Those that aren`t a single word but I like them anyway: "There`s something in the water..." "Cookie-cutter country" And a final one you can`t be expected to understand if you haven`t lived in Japan, but if you have then it says it all: "I`m fine thanks, and you?"

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zen And The Art Of Beauty Maintenance

One of my many assumtions about Japan was that people here know how to live in balance with nature better than people in the West...


A Hawk From A Handsaw

The previous post helped me make a connection that might have serious consequences for my "course of understanding." Years ago I realized that all the effort I put into understanding my emotions was not leading me where I wanted to go, because in the end understanding one of your emotions gives you the ability to scoff at that emotion, but not to control it. Now I'm beginning to wonder if understanding a culture might give one the ability to scoff at it and analyze it, but not adapt to it. If understanding doesn't necessarily lead to tolerance and a reduction of friction, then I might be on a wild goose chase.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It often annoys or confuses me that no Japanese person seems able make a request of me without a wide smile (not a sign of friendliness, I eventually learned, but of discomfort). Imposing on another person in any way, or entering into any situation that has even the smallest possibility of leading to a conflict, is grounds for turbo-powered tension-defusing politeness, which means bows, smiles, and “thank-you-so-very-much-for-your-trouble”s and “I’m-so-very-sorry-to-have-inconvenienced-you-with-my-insignificant-request”s all around. This is especially true when addressing a foreigner, because one can never be sure when a foreigner is going to inexplicably go berserk, and because it’s vitally important that the foreigner have only good experiences and thoughts about Japan and Japanese people. Ironically, this never fails to rub me the wrong way. The thought has more than once flashed through my mind “if he apologizes one more time for asking me to prepared a 10-minute English game, I’m gonna punch him.” Thankfully I’ve been able to maintain my plastered smile instead, so far. When you think about it, however, most of the things we laugh at in the West are things out of control in some way, or something that turned out other than the doer intended. Seeing someone slipping on a banana peel, or jumping with fright, farting, diarrhea, sex, over-eating or drinking, and even death can all provoke roaring laughter or stifled giggles, especially when it’s clear that the victim of the laughter does not have himself under control. The sight of someone sitting on a toilet taking care of business, not funny. The sight of someone suddenly having to race to the bathroom and barely making it (or better yet, not making it), funny. Watching a civilized dinner, not funny. Watching someone discover that the pie is just too delicious to resist and messily inhaling the entire thing, funny. The strange thing is that humans don’t generally like it when the situations – or they themselves – are out of control. We like to be in control, and rarely appreciate being reminded of things that might instead control us. And so all these same things portrayed in a different way can be sources of discomfort: death, addiction, bodily functions, injury, and sex among the most potent conversation stoppers if handled clumsily. Perhaps what we think is pure joviality on our part is really the evolution of our own nervous laughter in the face of these things that could make us uncomfortable. It’s our way of handling it, and over time we’ve simply learned to call it “humor.” So it still bothers me that my colleagues seem so uncomfortable about asking me to do the smallest things, but it’s good to realize that we all have odd ways of handling our discomfort. Next time a wildly grinning colleague apologizes for interrupting my bored reading to give me something useful to do, I’ll just think about suddenly letting off a loud fart instead of hitting him.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Excitement At The Elementary School

For the most part Japanese elementary school students are the sweetest, cutest, most lovable representations of humanity on earth. The high-point of my week (as it is for many of the teachers in my program all across Japan) is the day at the elementary school (see video).

But today there were some poorly-hidden exceptions to the rule. I would’ve had no notion of the upheaval under the glassy surface if I hadn't noticed that hardly any of the teachers were in the office eating lunch at the regular time. I asked where they were, and after getting through a couple attempts to dodge the question I was told that two of the 4th graders hadn't returned from recess and had probably ran off into the nearby hills to escape. Most of the teachers were out looking for them. It was snowing, by the way. Then I noticed a 2nd grade boy eating his lunch alone in a corner of the teacher's office. I asked why he was there, and was told that one of his classmates (who happens to be one of my favorite students and is practically communicative in English) punched this boy in the eye and he'd just returned from the hospital. Of course I would not have been informed about any of this if I hadn't pursued the information myself. Now I'm wondering what else I've incorrectly assumed about the going-ons at the schools. I also have to wonder how much conscious effort is put into showing a good face for the foreigner. I've definitely heard students told to behave better so as to make a good impression on "the foreigner", and seen problems and conflicts postponed because of my presence. Sometimes I really wonder how much of the picture I'm being allowed to see.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

To Be Not Alone

A line that stays with me (recited by, of all people, Drew Barrymore, in, of all movies, “Lucky You”) is "You know what I think? I think we’re all just trying not to be lonely." At first glance Japan might seem to refute this. Social interaction here is not what it is in the West, and is not focused on the same goals. My first Japanese friend, who was studying in my University in California, told me that she’d come to America with the assumption –shared by many whose impression of Americans is shaped purely by the image that America exports – that Americans are fiercely independent, self-sufficient, and, in general, strong in themselves. It was only a matter of days before she was confronted with the sights of American college life, dominated by sororities and fraternities, nightly parties filled with strangers, a dating scene characterized by “it’s probably not going anywhere, but it’s better than being alone,” and the omnipresent hum of the mantra “thy shall not eat alone, study alone, play alone, or sleep alone. If thou dost, thou art a looser.” My friend’s ideas about American independence were crushed in light of the obvious dependence on the group for definition and significance, especially when compared to the quiet Japanese willingness to suppress the individual needs and feelings in favor of conforming to the collectively-selected “norm”. While many Westerners would truly be unable to maintain mental health if they did not have a least a couple friends with whom they could really “be themselves,” many Japanese still operate under the principle that the deepest core of one’s self is something to never be shown, to anyone, not ever. And oftentimes they never do, something the average American (like myself) finds unfathomable, in a very literal way. The difference is that in the West people look to others to be recognized and actualized as individuals; in Japan it is to be accepted and incorporated into the group. Both, however, are driven by the fear of being alone. In terms of needing the affirmation of the group, the Japanese can seem greatly more self-sufficient than Westerners, but they are just as likely to go to any lengths to avoid being alone. I see it in the way my Jr. High school boys all sit in each other’s laps and the girls waddle around the halls entangled in group hugs (no joke) and in the way that my colleagues and supervisors arrange my schedule so that I’m never unattended (which strangely does not strike me as supervision, just a mind-set that a person shouldn’t be alone, which explains the fact that never being alone here does not make me feel socialized, but rather provokes that most dreaded sense of being alone in a crowd). When I do manage to get off to a quiet corner for a breather there’s a kind of quiet confusion radiating from the group over my behavior. What really strikes me is how extraordinarily polarized the rules of operation can be in a society, and yet it all comes around to at least one of the same things: people don’t want to be alone. The question I have to ask next, then, is “why?” What do we sense deep within our (perhaps truest) selves that propels us to the arms of company that often demeans or diminishes our dignity as individuals, to fill the silence with the white noise of mindless “entertainment,” or to distort or mask our character, all to avoid coming face to face with ourselves? Whether it’s worth it or not, either way it frightens me.

The Beginning (Introducing the Blog)

It all started on a wintry day in 2006 when my life-long friend Bethany and I unfolded a world map on the floor of my flat in Prague. We’d been raised in northern California, but now I was in my third year in the Czech Republic, Bethany was spending a year in Lithuania, and filled with the youthful sensation of unlimited possibility, we fell to listing all the countries we wanted to live in someday. My foray into Central Europe had sparked my interest culture, and so I mocked up a list of countries that I now call “The Course of Understanding Tour,” consisting of 4-5 countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. It was several months before I actually thought about it seriously... I remember over a decade ago when my grandmother came back from a trip to Kenya, and told me that “the culture is so different, but I’ve found that wherever you go, people are people.” Years later my cultural anthropology professor told us stories about throwing up over the mere sight of dinner in an African jungle: “Culture is not a ‘mind over matter’ kind of thing; it can provoke an innate and uncontrollable physical reaction.” Where’s the common ground between these statements? When you strip away all the differences between us that cause discomfort, fear, or vomit, what “people are people” elements are you left with?... I’m now halfway through a year in a Japanese village. Next I’ll be spending six months in India, and then six months in a Kenyan orphanage. The culture shock I most fear is one day returning to America. This blog is to bring you along with me as I experience many of those vomit-inducing differences, and slowly try to piece together an understanding of what makes us all members of the human race anyway.