Saturday, June 5, 2010

Drifting, or finding a path...?

This entry is more of a reflection, so a warning that there may not be much of substance here.

I've been thinking a lot recently about life. Where will I be two or three years from now? Five? Ten? Of course it's impossible to know, so perhaps I've been thinking more about where I'd like to be, what I'd like to be doing, and whether or not I'll be alone. Hard to know. So much of our future depends on the people we meet, and many of the big decisions that we make are heavily influenced by the people who are important to us - our friends, our family, our special someones. I'm still young, but as my friends and peers begin getting engaged and married, I'm starting to think that sometime within the not-too-distant future it would be nice to begin a family of my own. No rush, but as I evaluate the things that are important to me, that goal emerges atop most others. Doing so before I hit my 30's would be nice, I think.

My recent trip back to America also hit me with a somewhat bitter-sweet revelation. For quite a while I've been kind of proud of the fact that I've lived in Japan, become "internationalized." But everything is a trade-off. I've been back and forth a few times now, but reverse culture shock hit me particularly hard this time around. The weight of the average American compared to the average Japanese, the amount of delicious yet disgustingly unhealthy food offerings, the (lack of) manners of airport staff compared to the near impeccable presentation of almost any Japanese employee. And then there were the little things that almost make you question your sanity. I swear that on the way to the ATM, I asked my mom how much cash people usually take out in the States. In Japan, it's not uncommon to walk around with $200-$400 worth of cash, because people don't use credit here...but back home, I really couldn't remember how much is appropriate to keep on your person. 

Of course many if not all of the things that hit me would eventually in time return to being "normal" if I returned to the States. But I realized that the longer I'm here, the farther and farther I drift away from "belonging" in the US (or feeling like I do, anyway)...and from Japan, as well. 

The longer I remain here, the easier it becomes to just keep on remaining. The language gets easier, I become more and more familiar with the culture and adept at routine activities that were once a challenge. I make friends and grow to care about people here. But at the same time, I will never belong here. People from other countries move to the US all the time and become citizens. They cease to be "foreigners." But I will never be Japanese. I'll always be a foreigner, even if I lived here for the next 50 years. And if I have children here, there are those who would consider them non-Japanese, even if they were born and raised here. 

There are many things I've learned to smile and nod at, but after having lived here for almost 2 years straight, and having studied Japan and Japanese for about 6 years now, I can't help but cringe inside whenever someone is surprised that I can use chopsticks, that I can eat Japanese food, that I can speak some Japanese. I've been to dozens of Japanese drinking parties, and yet sometimes people are still surprised that I know the custom of pouring drinks for those next to you but not for yourself.

Sometimes I ask myself - how many years do I want to endure that? But then, is life so much easier back home? 


  1. I've been here 20 years, and am actually afraid to go home, yet find it increasingly hard to remain here as the environment for foreigners in Japan is growing less and less friendly. As the economy sinks continuously, the Japanese are becoming more hostile in general toward us (and each other). Somehow bad manners back home seem less bad than they are here because you know it's neither personal nor a manifestation of prejudice. Here, you know it's one or the other since people generally are polite to each other.

    Being here changes you such that you no longer belong anywhere. You've been here a lot shorter time than me, and I can tell you that it really doesn't get any better on either side of the Pacific. You're not going to fit in no matter what.

    Japanese people who live abroad ("returnees") suffer the same problems. They also have problems adapting to either environment after spending a substantial time in a Western culture.

    That all being said, I think that one can view this as a growth experience. You have to learn to be open-minded and flexible about both cultures, and try to take it all in stride. If not, you risk becoming too enamored of one culture and too antagonistic of the other, and that's not really a positive or mature response (it's more of a defensive one), so we can grow or we can cope in a destructive manner by developing skewed attitudes. It's okay to be unhappy with and pleased with aspects of both cultures though. I think that's not an unreasonable response so long as one has an educated and unbiased perspective on the whole, neither elevating nor deriding one culture or the other.

    Good luck.

  2. Sorry for shocking you. Will try to lose some weight before you come back next time :P

    Orchid's advice seems pretty solid.

  3. If you can't fight it, embrace it: you'll never get rid of the amazed onlookers every time you whip out your chopsticks, so ham it up and become a mini-celebrity. Affect a cute foreign accent even if your mastery of Japanese is flawless. Have fun with it. The alternative is to fight it, and, as you've already pointed out, that's a fight you'll never ever win.

  4. Orchid - Thanks for your thoughts. I agree, one must take the good with the bad and be careful not to judge either place unreasonably or overly harshly.

    Gobbler - Hey man, you looked good when I was back - you already lost a bunch of weight.

    Xamuel - It's not so much that I've been fighting it, trying to be Japanese. It's just that I'm trying to live my life and be "normal." I'm not sure which country you're from, but for example in America if you met someone who was from another country, I would consider if somewhat insulting and patronizing to fawn over them in such a manner. "Oh my, you can eat hot dogs? That's great!" That said, I know it's not done out of malice, and that's why I can tolerate it.

  5. Was being sarcastic. Guess it doesn't work well in text.

  6. I can definitely understand what you're talking about. The whole reverse culture shock hit me, too. I couldn't believe how many people in North America are overweight. I was surprised about airport staff in the USA and Canada being rather uptight and lacking in friendliness.

    I've been in Japan for more than 5 years now, but I've been enjoying it much more in the past year than the previous 4 years. I guess it's a change in attitude for myself, or it could be that I have some great friends right now. I still get the surprised looks when people see I can use chopsticks or eat sashimi. But you know what? I find that I'm treated the same as Japanese customers almost anywhere I go. There are some exceptions, though. Some staff try speaking English. However, in my neighbourhood, the local shop staff in stores I frequent never try English with me, because I always use Japanese with them. They're also quite friendly with me, as they are with other customers. Same with in the area I work in. I get the occasional "otsukaresama" or "konnichiwa" from others who work in the same building as me, just as they do with other people who work there.

    Sure, this all sounds positive, but I do understand your worries. I've felt them often, as well. ,But I've learned to get past that, and I feel very comfortable in Japan.

  7. Jay - Yeah, you're right. In everyday life, I'm treated normally. Usually shop staff are well-disciplined enough to keep their "日本上手"'s to themselves. And with my friends and girlfriend it's not a problem. Hell, it's usually not a problem...just sometimes can build up and be quite frustrating.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

  8. There are bigoted and discriminatory people everywhere in this world. Try not to pay much attention to their criticisms. However, you can think of it as a whetstone for character development and be grateful for the challenge they provide to keep living to your life utmost. Fitting in is fine, but it is far better to see the universals of all humans, and see yourself as belonging to our species than any trivial and arbitrary subdivision therein. 気をつけてね.

  9. Lukas, that is true - there are bigoted people everywhere. Most of what I've experienced in Japan, though, doesn't seem to be outright racism or ill-intentioned discrimination - it's just a lack of understanding or a lack of experience with foreign people. There has been some condescension and some a-holes, but by and large that's not what I've encountered here.

  10. About chopstick compliments; in one of the English textbooks I teach from it specifically says not to compliment foreigners on their chopstick skills. Maybe textbooks should include more little pieces of advice like this

  11. What I sometimes like to do is make as big a show as possible of using my chopsticks badly. One in each hand, usually does the trick. The funny thing is, you might still hear the odd "hashi, jouzu da ne."
    Honestly, though, I think the whole "my aren't you good with chopsticks" thing is simply one of many bland stock conversation pieces for foreigners. And we both know how much the Japanese language revolves around stock phrases.