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Gaijin Dilemma #433

9 November 2009

When I was studying in Cairo almost two years ago, a few friends of mine returned to our classroom at AUC after lunch with a very interesting story.  Rather than sample the fare of the many nice restaurants in Tahrir Square –more accessible than usual, with an exchange rate of 5£ to the dollar—my friends had opted for one of the ubiquitous corner fruit stands in that section of the city, and a few of their delicious tangerines.  As chance would have it, the proprietor of their chosen stand happened to speak some English, or at least enough to ask them where they were from in the United States.  When one of them answered “Chicago”, however, the stand owner’s eyes widened in accord with the newfound gravity of the situation.  He lowered his voice and, leaning in toward her, asked with the utmost seriousness: “Are you carrying your gun on you right now?”

In the nearly three months since I arrived in Japan, I’ve had cause to ponder that conversation quite often indeed.  A big part of my job here, I’m learning, is being a cultural liaison in addition to a language teacher.  Particularly out here in Tohoku (the region of the main island that is north of Tokyo), there are relatively few people who have traveled in the United States beyond the obligatory Hawaiian Honeymoon, and scarcely a handful who have lived or studied there for any length of time at all.  As a result, some of the images that Japanese people have of life and customs in the U.S. are as strange as they are revealing.  Some of the highlights:

  • Americans are practically a militia unto themselves.  I’ve been asked a couple of times about how many guns I own—and always about the specific number, as the notion of Americans not being armed to the teeth is hopelessly naïve.  My friend Koji, for instance, traveled to the U.S. back in August with my predecessor for about ten days.  The photo albums from his trip feature at least four shots of him at sporting goods shops, pointing excitedly at the wall of hunting rifles behind him.  And that’s all before you flip to the pages of his excursion to the firing range.
  • Americans are reckless drivers.  My first three weeks here in Japan, I received daily reminders about traffic safety, including specific threats of being thrown in prison for speeding, talking on my cell phone, and drunk driving.  I can’t help but notice that my supervisors still drive at least five k.p.h below the speed limit whenever I or the other new JET are in the car.
  • American teenagers are, by and large, delinquents. The notion of a school dance, I’ve found, is truly appalling to most Japanese teachers and parents.  That’s not to say the idea is any more palatable to their American counterparts.  But if you happen to have children of your own, think of the movie Animal House, but replace the lead characters with your offspring, circa seventh grade.  The expression on your face is roughly akin to that of my colleagues when they picture American middle schools.
  • Random Street Crime is Everywhere.  Having survived walking around New York on my own, conventional Japanese wisdom has it that I lead a charmed life.

Outrageous as these perceptions may seem, particularly to those of us who have lived inside the sheltered bubble of Madison, Wisconsin in recent memory, pause for a second to consider something: relative to Japan, where gun ownership is all but verboten, the legal limit for driving is a whopping 0.0, and the homicide rate per 100,000 people is .44—that’s approximately 13 times that of the U.S—all these perceptions are, to a large extent, true.

I like to view my job here, and really language education in general, as being in the service of breaking down barriers of prejudice and inequality.  I can’t fight every one, or even many of those battles from a classroom in Northern Japan, but I do what little I can by living and learning with humility, and working diligently to be a positive influence on my community in an area that has had more than a few negative encounters with Americans in recent years.  But whenever I’m asked about one of these or countless other impressions of the United States that, while terrible, also happens to be true, I am thrust into perhaps the greatest dilemma I’ve faced here: how to strike that balance between an obligation to the truth, and trying to build constructive intercultural relationships.

I don’t believe that genuine, meaningful interactions can be based on obscuring truths.  And while Japanese culture demands a certain obliqueness in discussing such things—a trait I’m attempting to master—I desire to represent the America that is constantly striving to improve, first and foremost by owning up to its failings and its past.  That takes on added importance here in Japan.  A nationalism that does not allow one to admit shameful mistakes continues to victimize thousands of survivors throughout East Asia today.  Even though the stereotypes I’m asked to comment on daily are far from the truths of comfort women or Nanjing, being a stalwart cheerleader for American greatness is not a way of presenting one’s country that I am prepared to model.  Not ever, but certainly not five hundred miles from the Korean coast.  Not here.

Yes, affirming the post-apocalyptic state of some corners of America day in and day out takes its toll.  And not just on me, but on the primary goal that led me want to be on JET.  It’s difficult for me to say that I’m encouraging students and others whom I encounter to step outside of their comfort zone, and to open themselves to new ways of thinking, living, and understanding when, for the sake of honesty, I reinforce the negative impressions that many Japanese have about the United States.  I could try to give the details, and talk about how some problems are confined to only small sections of the country.  Depending on the situation, that sort explanation is all that my Japanese ability will allow.  But really, that only suggests that I have no interest in solving endemic problems that plague millions of Americans.  And that the majority of us do is perhaps the only greater shame than the fact that these problems exist in the first place.

It’s a painful irony that encouraging internationalism and representing one’s country are ever at odds.  And I try to remember that what I confirm or say will not be the only factor in forming one’s perception of a society. But given a choice, telling the truth will always win out over giving a uniformly good impression for me.  The first step toward intercultural understanding starts at understanding better where one comes from, perhaps.  It might not meet with Sarah Palin’s approval, but I can at least have some hope that I’m modeling a way of thinking for my students that is as valuable as anything else they might gain from this cultural exchange.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Laura permalink
    10 November 2009 3:11 am

    I remember running into this in India, but with the benefit of having the people I spoke to understand English so I could at least try to articulate my ideas as best I could. Interestingly enough, I also felt and continue to feel this way about how I represent my time in India to people. They tend to want to hear either, “Oh, it was so exotic and amazing!” or “It was dirty and scary and dangerous,” and trying to communicate the combination that I’m still trying to understand is really difficult. I think that honesty is the only way to approach this sort of situation, and all you can do is try to honestly represent at least one aspect of both sides, the good and the bad, so people see that a country isn’t all one extreme. And I’m really proud of you for taking this task on.

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