Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spider Web Cracks

“Everywhere you go, people are people.” My grandma said these words to me over 10 years ago when she returned from a trip to Kenya. I believed them, and still do, but somehow after 8 months Japan still seems like a different planet to me, and not in spite of the people, but because of them. In actual fact the parameters that define humanity really are quite narrow, especially when you allow the imagination free rein to consider all the potential variations that could manifest themselves in the human condition. The catch is that we are sensitive, hypersensitive even, to the slightest deviation from what we’ve learned to be “the norm.” We are creatures of habit, and absolutely anything that forces us to reevaluate our surroundings casts an alien tint to the whole environment. Logic has nothing to do with it, and understanding does not dilute the response. I can understand how some people have no problem with their food looking back at them with unblinking eyes, and they can understand my hesitancy, but they still find my squeamishness humorous, and I find their crunching on an intact head disgusting. The tables are turned when my colleagues silently stare wide-eyed at me as I nonchalantly munch on an apple without removing the skin. If Europeans can travel across the Atlantic and eat a meal using a knife and fork at the same time and the Americans “looked at us like monkeys,” what do we feel when the Japanese restaurant offers only untried chopsticks, or the African hut offers no utensils at all? Just today my misreading of the Japanese date system (, with the Japanese year system, so that today is 21.4.6) resulted in a bit of chaos, several times in Prague ( a similar mistake resulted in a hefty expiration fine, and returning to America (mm.dd.yy) always forces me to think twice before filling in any paperwork (or gets me strange looks from the bank employees when I don’t think twice). Driving on the left still gives me an occasional heart attack, the dance between bowing and handshaking is a complication frequently added to already complicated introductions, and the sight of knee-high socks with tights or the sharing of motor-functions between a bike, a cell phone, and a sun-brella never fails to make me smile in bewilderment. Last week I arrived at my school’s graduation in my best three-piece brown suit, to discover that I was the only person in a crowd of two hundred not wearing a black suit with a white shirt and tie (as if being a head taller didn’t make me stand out enough). While the Japanese sleep on the floor on a thin mattress and find western beds unbearably soft (my Japanese friends in America quickly started sleeping on the floor), most foreigners here spend a week with stiff backs and buy a bed. Are these big, paradigm-altering differences? No, they are mere matters of preference and condition, easily explained if somewhat harder to accept, and sometimes nearly impossible to adopt. Can these be the variations that drive cultures apart and into conflict, sparking fear and hate and violence? Probably not. But it takes nothing more extreme to shake us out of our habitual auto-pilot and simplifying assumptions and to force us to question everything; to return– in a sense– to wide-eyed infancy, with all the hang-ups of adulthood. These trivial differences are enough to remind me, every single day, that I am in a place that is alien to me, as I am to it, that their way is not my way, that I will always need the words “them” and “us.” If all it takes is a wrinkled nose, a poorly-timed look, or a misunderstood smile to cause discomfort, uncertainty, and alienation, then what of the divergences that creep minusculely closer – while cutting disproportionately deeper – to the foundation we share? Of course we can understand – if we actually want to – how one culture says “individual” like a holy incantation while another uses it as an insult, why a woman unveiled is almost as threatening in one country as a woman veiled in another, that “unclean” might have nothing to do with germs or might have nothing to do with religion, how aid might be taken as a blessing or a burden, or where direct communication might be essential or essentially rude. But understanding only allows navigation through these pitfalls, and while that is the first step, it is still far from acceptance, tolerance, harmony, and community. The theories are clear enough, but face to face with foreignness the truisms - “We all smile in the same language,” “No man is an island” “Wherever you go, people are people” - begin to loose some of their soothing magic. The fact is that we’re not that different, really. An alien race looking down on us would have no trouble identifying us as one race, even without seeing our nearly identical physical forms. None of us are designed to be alone, we seek pleasure, we all know what it means to feel fear, anger, pain, embarrassment, satisfaction, affection, and, although cultural interpretations vary, love is universally understood. In groups we all need an “other” as much as we need a community, hierarchy comes naturally, and despite historical deviations the measure of “success” has always returned to the quantity of material possessions. We laugh, we sing, we dance, we cry, we fight, we love, and we die, every one, yesterday and today, in the east and west, north and south. Perhaps it’s the overwhelmingly foundational similarities that make the petty differences stand out so brightly. Especially evident in the globalized world, we have a remarkable ability to stand surrounded by familiar sights, clothing, brands, technology, faces, and even ideas, and be consumed by the slightest unfamiliarity. With ironically universal consistency, our ability to see aliens usually eclipses our ability to see brothers and sisters. So how to live in a world that is reducing the space of our lives much faster than the diversity therein? While the world is being brought together the people are as distant as ever, the main difference being that now the alien lives next door. Wherever real harmony lies, it is not in factual education. A standard day of errands in town brings us into contact with a dozen cultures, and while it would be a great start to know to bow to this person, to not hand this person money with the left hand, or to look over this person’s right ear and not at his eyes, this quickly descends into a mere memorization of infinite trivia that doesn’t bring true community or even guarantee a hospitable reception (some people have left their culture behind for a reason, or feel alienated by being treated as “different”). So if the attempt to memorize the varying behavior of every culture we meet is a futile dead-end, how can we responsibly respond to the globalized world? This is one of the large questions I’ve set to work out, and I have barely the beginning of an answer. As ideas occur to me, I’ll add to the following list, in hopes of creating a kind of blueprint for the best kind of understanding, a shortcut, if you will, to memorizing the detailed ins and outs of each culture we might encounter. 1. When it comes to responding to a new or foreign situation, I’ve observed three kinds of people. I’m not sure how these behavioral patterns are adopted, or if they can be changed once they are firmly established, but they are extremely easy to recognize. There are those whose instinct is to adjust the environment to suit their own needs and norms as much as possible. Others automatically tend to adjust themselves to the environment despite the personal inconvenience. In the context of multiculturalism, it should be clear which is more conductive to harmonious interaction. The third type is exceedingly rare and still something of a mystery to me: those who can effortlessly approach a situation in both the above ways at the same time without any apparent contradiction. Ex: One evening a few weeks ago I took four hungry friends to a restaurant I’d been raving about. I’d been there for the wonderfully presented and well-priced lunch, and wanted to share it with others. I led them through the bustling city, marched into “my restaurant”, and announced that there were five of us for dinner. After some initial uncertainty (which I chalked up to the usual hesitancy in the face of a group of foreigners) the employees guided us upstairs, showed us where to put our shoes and coats, brought us to a nice table, and left some menus that seemed strangely unfamiliar to me. I tried vainly to find the meals I’d enjoyed before, and after about five minutes the waitress returned with small bowls of unordered food. My Japan-savvy friend and I exchanged frightened glances. Instantly we knew that somehow we had stumbled into a izakaya, a place for Japanese company meetings and drinking parties, usually exorbitantly expensive and operating on a very different system than a typical restaurant. I learned that night that many of these places operate a regular restaurant during lunch time, and change to a izakaya in the evening, which explains why it was different than I remembered. What to do? We’d already been sitting there too long to slip out without affront. The first type of person from my description would of course just stand and leave anyway, feeling no obligation to continue with the unwritten contract he had mistakenly entered into. My friends and I were shown to be the second type, since once we realized what had happened we whispered to each other “well, it’s too late to leave now.” We decided to order the minimum amount of food that would allow us to escape without rudeness (about 4 bites of meat each, which ended up costing us $36), and then fled feeling embarrassed and robbed. In retrospect, I imagine that the third type of person would quickly size up the situation, and then communicate to the waitress that he’d made a mistake (I could have asked “is this a izakaya?” and then expressed shock to find out that it was, giving us a pretence to leave. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to us at the time (probably because we were already in the mindset of paying the price of awkwardness and inconvenience ourselves in order to shield the employees from it, a very Japanese reaction)… But even if the person knew not a word of the language, he could still make it clear that he was looking for something the restaurant didn’t have, or focus on the unordered food, etc). Then – this being Japan– bowing and apologizing profusely all the way to the door, making comments or signs about what a foolish foreigner he is, he could make his escape without causing any unnecessary ripples but also not inconveniencing himself. The keys to this third type, I’m beginning to see, are communication, graciousness, and an ability to charmingly manipulate the situation.


  1. "The keys to this third type, I’m beginning to see, are communication, graciousness, and an ability to charmingly manipulate the situation."

    I would like to sign up to be this type!!!!