Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Listen With Your Heart

Recently, I re-took in Disney’s jewel of intercultural eye-opening experiences, Pocahontas. And I’ve been thinking a bit about “cultural sensitivity.” What exactly is that, and what does it mean?

And I’d like to preface this with the (ironic?) disclaimer that these are just my own opinions and don’t represent the opinions of any group whatsoever. They’re just how I personally deal with the world and are not meant to imply that you should deal with the world in like fashion.

So I live in a country that is really far away from where I grew up. I mean that mostly just geographically. But culturally, too, this place is different. There are customs that just crop up, some of which I really like and can get behind, and some of which I feel make no sense at all.

Part of my job is to be a cultural representative of the US. I think it might even be in my contract. “Try to show Japan a good side of America.” right? God, I hate generalizations.

I had a mission once, before I even arrived probably. It might have won me the job, when my gung-ho spirit at the interview told them I wanted to be polite, be good in Japan, so that people would see that Americans can be polite, as well as whatever else they are seen as being.

But, um, I’m an American; I’m not America. I’m polite, it turns out, because that’s just how I roll. Because I’ve caught more flies with honey. Because trying to be charming always got me what I wanted. Not because it’s American, and not because it’s Japanese. I observe and imitate because I want to fit in. I enthusiastically join unfamiliar customs because I like to learn and try new things. And, because often enough, I really like the customs I am learning.

I’m not really doing it for them.

And to me, that’s a significant distinction. It’s important to me to feel like my actions and responses are fairly organic, that they are genuine because they arise out of a true desire to be or do something, not just to prove some point or provoke a certain response.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the assertion that the burden is always on me, who come from power and privilege, to make an extra effort to understand and adapt.

On the one hand, it’s a total no-brainer. Yeah I better adapt if I don’t want to starve or be restricted to the tiny world of foreigners and their imported food.

But to me, it’s not a burden. It’s an opportunity. I didn’t come here to not see a whole new country and experience a whole different thing.

Mostly, I have an issue with the classification of me being the privileged one. Okay, first let me assure you I actually am quite privileged. I was born into a wonderful family, I just ‘happened’ to live in a great public school district, I have the fortune of knowing a lot of great friends and having a lot of great opportunities available to me. I got to go to Vandy on the blessing of my dedication and brainpower. I got to go to Japan. I’m super-mega-rich, even if not in the fiscal sense. I’m cosmically spoiled.

And also, I was born into an English-speaking family; English just so happens to be in high demand right now. I know these things. I know that by accident of birth, I am sitting so pretty.

But I don’t think it’s being American than makes that so. I think that helps. But Americans live at and below the poverty line too. And some of my students are from families rolling in dough. Some kids in America don’t get attention from their families, don’t get nurtured. Are they privileged? I guess in some ways. But not in others.

I guess I just find it arrogant to insist that being from a powerful country makes me a powerful/privileged person. There are lots of kinds of power, influence, and value, and you can never assess the standing of a group without seeing it through your own personal (and cultural) bias. So to insist that Americans ought to be more culturally sensitive because they are the powerful ones actually relies on (and for me, underlines) the arrogant view that America is somehow superior.

Culturally speaking, no one is.

Romaji: Juu-nin to-iro
Literally: Ten people, ten colours
Meaning: Everyone has their own tastes; "Different strokes for different folks"

I expect something from myself, in Japan. I don’t owe it to anyone else and I end up just feeling resentment if anyone tries to tell me I do. I expect something from myself in Japan because I am addicted to learning, because I want people to like me, because I know there is much to see and hear and find and in order to do that you have to listen as you go. You can’t be so full of yourself and your own ideas that you overlook all the cool things around you. Or, I mean, you can, but I don’t want to.

In the end, some of the stuff I encounter I will incorporate into my life during my stay. Other things I will keep all my life. And some I will never understand (it’s possible that they really just don’t make sense..!). And that? Is okay.

I think it’s more respectful to be just a little bit demanding. I expect something of myself in Japan, but I expect something of the people I meet, too. I expect that kid in the second row to make a good faith effort to try to learn from me. Which is why I get frustrated when he doesn’t. I expect my co-workers to forgive me when I commit a faux pas at enaki, whether because of my ignorance or just because I am so freaking clumsy. I expect them to be sensitive to the fact that I am learning and want to learn.

Expecting something, demanding something, well that’s the opposite of being patronizing, isn’t it? It may come across as backward to some, but from me, expectation is a sign of deep respect. If I expect something from you, I demonstrate (not just state) my belief in your capacity to provide it.

So I think that JETs are in Japan partly so they can give, and partly so they can need something from the people around them. People are just people. Some stuff is just human. Other stuff is particular, personal. Cultural stuff is just whatever falls in between.

And just to return to Pocahontas for a second, I at first wanted to take major issue with the language thing. In one scene that chick “listens with her heart” and is able to understand what Smith is asking her. So she says “My name is Pocahontas.” And I know it’s just a movie, and they needed to skip over the whole problem of language, but there is no way.

Still, you do gotta listen with your heart.. you gotta want it. No amount of trying to prove anything will substitute.


  1. Ooooo, I like this post a lot.

    I gave a presentation on getting along with your coworkers at last year's new JET orientation, and I hope that I was able to articulate your thoughts as well as you did here.

    As a presenter you've gotta tell them all the typical stuff - try new things, make an effort to understand, have an open mind, go with the flow. Peel away layers until you find the common ground underneath. Don't live day to day by forcing everything into your orbit - Japan is a place where you can do that very easily, unfortunately, and some people are perfectly willing to get by on complaints alone.

    But you've got to rock the boat at least a little. Otherwise, you'd be a pretty poor agent of cultural exchange. If they tell you to cover your tattoo, ok, certainly, try to understand why a tattoo might be offensive to a Japanese person's eyes. But don't just be a puppy dog about it. Let them know what's up, regardless of whether you acquiesce. In the end it is your personal decision whether you want to cover that tattoo, and I think the almighty Tokyo-dwelling architects of the JET program understand this, and they pay us our salary so that we will make that decision ourselves.

    The ultimate message is to "be yourself," but that's a little more ambiguous than it first appears, and I don't think I've ever considered the personal angle as well as you do here.

    Like you, I also think that the way I behave in Japan is not qualitatively different than the way I behave back home. I am respectful, I do what I like and what I think is right. It's just easy to lose track of that under the immense weight of the continent-size labels bearing down on all of us. AMERICA. JAPAN. I'm viscerally aware that every time I leave the safety of my apartment I've wandered back onstage, and it's really hard to be yourself onstage.

    Whenever I do something particularly Americanish and someone tells me "Erik, just as I thought, you're totally American," I get a little offended. Whenever someone tells me the opposite, "Erik, you're way more [X] than I thought Americans were," I get happy (because it's usually good!) but also a little offended.

    It's only, ironically, when someone says simply "Erik, you're really [X]," that I feel like I'm doing my job. I work really hard to tear the labels out of my partner's conversation. I try to show him that my Americanness does not define me, of course, but also - and this is sometimes much harder - that his Japaneseness does not define him. If that coincides with my job description, great; if not, whatever, *that's* why I'm here.

    This emphasis on the personal is why I like to study the language so hard. It helps me be myself. At a basic level I can tell someone that I think ramen is "delicious," that's certainly not a lie. But with some progress I can tell that same person that I think ramen is "totally phat," which is much closer to how I actually feel.

    All language is already approximation - it's hard enough to convey to a close friend in fluent English your concept of a 'chair,' let alone vast monolithic amorphous poetic things like 'love' and 'time' - and the problem balloons to a ludicrous degree when you're working in a new language under the constraints of a fourth grade vocabulary. I want to get better at Japanese because then I can be more me to the people around me. I want to learn it not because I want to speak it like the Japanese do, but because I want to speak it like I speak English.

    So..... so.... so.... so.... yeah. Listening with your heart is communication. All these things - language, being yourself, an open mind - are tools with which you can work toward communication. But listening with your heart is communication. The raw thing itself.

    But man oh man was that scene cheesy.

  2. Something you both should consider- and being who you are will probably not like- is that your acute awareness of your individuality is a quintessential American trait! America was formed by rebels and risk takers, and it can't help but remain in our blood.
    Those Tokyo dwelling JET folks have an intense screening process, but not one that produces cookie cutter Americans, because such a thing does not exist.
    My concept of Mexicans is based on the maybe 5 Mexican people I know. I see hard working, intense family types, clever and ambitious. I'm not foolish enough to believe that that defines all Mexicans, but being human, I draw from what I know.
    Every Japanese person who comes in contact with you has just added to their internal database on what an American is. Your emphasis on individuality, whether you like it or not, defines you not only as a person, but as an American.
    Great post!

  3. If it's American, I want it to genuinely reflect that.. stereotypes *do* come from somewhere, and I appreciate that. I don't mind if people want to add one and one and one to three after meeting me and some other American and some other other American and deciding, "all three of them have this tendency toward individuality."

    I guess I'm more uncomfy when it works the other way. When people say, ah, she's American, so she must be x, y, and z. What if I'm not? Chances are that I probably am a lot of things they can assume. But what if I'm *not*!! And they never find out?