Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TTYU Retro: Some thoughts on culture shock and cultural sensitivity

I first went to live in Japan in 1991, when I was a senior in college. I was excited. I was as prepared as I knew how to be, having studied Japanese language and culture for two years in California. When I met my host mother, I bowed to her and said "Yoroshiku onegai shimasu" (roughly, please be kind to me) with more sincerity than I'd ever felt before.

Kyoto was a serious adjustment. I was living in the south, so I had to learn how to take the train 20 minutes and then walk 20 minutes to my school. I was not permitted to telephone the United States from my home phone, and there was no international  pay phone in my neighborhood, so I had to call from the international pay phone at school. I tried to continue taking morning showers, but once the weather got cold that became totally impossible (because I was freezing!) and my family let me be first in the bath and then made sure I said "Osaki deshita" when I came out. At the time I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to say it, and my family never explained it to me. They also chastised me for saying thank you when a family member offered to take me somewhere, because I was instead supposed to say "yes please." I also had trouble with a lot of language elements because I had learned standardized Japanese, and my family and most people in Kyoto spoke the Kyoto dialect - which is very different.

I rolled with it. I figured I was the learner here, and it was their way of teaching me what I needed to know. I needed to be culturally sensitive, hard as it might be.

After a couple of months, though, I started feeling pretty irritated about some things. I would get told off if I was hungry midafternoon. I regularly got told off for drinking too much water at dinnertime. I hadn't been allowed to use the air conditioner in my room when it was hot and muggy - but when it got cold (3 degrees C in my room) and they wouldn't give me a heater, I went to my teachers and complained. I had a conversation with someone who was renting a room from the same family, and we noticed a pattern - not being allowed to use the phone, being told off for using too much water, etc. We'd both been so busy trying to be culturally sensitive and accept a degree of culture shock that we hadn't noticed this family was trying to use us to make money, by taking the allowance given by the school center and then skimping on our care, feeding and utilities.

After Christmas break I moved in with another family closer to the center of town, and all the same cultural stuff was there, but I felt like part of the family. I came out of that experience loving my family and not wanting to leave - and also realizing that I had to be very cognizant of my own boundaries, so I would at least talk with people if I was having serious difficulty, to calibrate my own judgments of events.

Flash forward, then, to my most recent time living in Japan, in 2000-2001. On that occasion I was living with my husband in an apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. There was a ton of cool stuff about living there, and we had friends in the area, but we couldn't see them all the time. The thing I remember most of all was the sense of isolation. Without a host family, every conversation in day to day life ended up being a conversation with strangers, and that meant breaking cultural ice every time I tried to talk to someone. Being a foreigner and scaring people, sometimes literally. Having to explain each time I met someone why I could speak Japanese so well (and their reactions to that varied rather widely from excitement to disapproval). With no one to introduce me, to grease the cultural interactions with familiarity, I was defined primarily as a "foreigner woman." Compared to what some minorities go through (both there and here) it was minor; on the long term, though, I found it exhausting. So was traveling around, since it took at least a half hour to get anywhere, and I get quickly overstimulated in crowds. I dealt with it, but I was tired.

Many things hadn't changed. I loved the ancient dignity of the culture, the art, and the stories. I loved the places. I loved my friends. But the logistics got to me. I discovered that understanding how things worked, and appreciating them, wasn't enough to feed my soul. In a way, I felt like I'd failed at cultural sensitivity. I sure as heck knew I was lucky to be able to choose to leave an uncomfortable situation. But I also felt that I'd gained an understanding both of Japanese culture, and of myself.

In my studies as an anthropologist, one of the things that I've learned is that cultures come in all kinds, and almost anything I feel comfortable with due to my upbringing can be brought into question in a different cultural context. I've also learned that language and its cultural meanings are inextricable.

As a descriptive linguist and a discourse analyst I've learned that there is no absolute, "correct" language except as defined by a culture. I've learned that the rules of language are malleable - it means one thing to follow the "rules" as they are laid out in class, but one can discover quite another by getting out on the ground and listening to people talk. A lot of those meanings are social meanings, including those expressed by metaphors that we don't question often enough. Furthermore, breaking the rules doesn't always lead to nonsense - sometimes it means something quite specific, and socioculturally different, in ways we don't expect.

I think for most of us there's an area of wiggle room. To some extent, we are willing to depart from our core comfort zone in order to accommodate to another cultural set. Then there's often a point where we stick, because we feel our identity may be lost.

But what is our identity? If I were to describe how I like to be seen by others, it's as a kind, polite yet forthright person unafraid to share my opinions. In Japan I learned that there was a disconnect between my own self-image, and the behavior that would successfully communicate that image to others. The vocal manner, body language, and vocabulary I use in the US convey my inner vision of myself pretty effectively because I've grown up honing them. However, if I were to use those same cues in Japan I would come across as terribly rude and loud. Thus, in order to convey the same inner vision of myself, to Japanese people, successfully, I had to change my vocal manner, body language, and vocabulary.

One of the things I think cross-cultural experience should teach us is that fewer things are immutable than we might have imagined - even our own identities. Another thing is that there's always room for questioning. Also, though, there is a kind of self-knowledge and deeper understanding of the underpinnings of our own culture, which becomes discoverable only through the process of questioning ourselves, challenging our values and seeking greater sensitivity to others, moving away from comfort. That also, as I have mentioned above, means keeping our own compass, and working with others to determine what discomforts are actually due to the cultural boundaries of another group, and what are the idiosyncracies of individuals. There's a lot of commonality available to be found.

An alternate perspective, to my mind, doesn't weaken my own, but teaches me about itself and about myself at the same time. We should all be lucky enough to have this kind of experience, whether it involves going to a faraway country or simply discovering things about our own neighbors.

It's something to think about.


  1. I don't know how you do it. You have very lengthy posts, but almost every sentence contains a very valid point. Kudos.
    Culture is one of those things we as anthropologists try forever to define and explain to "outsiders". But then when faced with it/our own everything seems to go right out the window. It's why I think things like creativity, imagination, humor, and compassion are so important. If there is anything universally human I hope those are at least some of them.

    1. Thanks, Realmwright. I think this is why in anthropology and education people are encouraged to write about the fallibility of their own cultural perspective as part of an empirical research paper. It all enters in. I appreciate the comment.

  2. Don't forget a huge part of culture, especially in groups that are very formal and ritualistic, is your gender. It may actually be the single most important part of your experience IN a culture.

    Even in the 'free' Western-style democracies, your gender and your color (the same as or different from the dominant one) determine a large part of your cultural experience.

    I remember reading a post from an American English teacher in Japan who realized too late that since HE was teaching at a girls' school, he had learned female Japanese. Very funny.

    I grew up in Mexico, and my family lives there still, a whole huge extended group. When I go to visit, I slip into a persona as close as I can to my female cohort - but I feel every detail. Good training for a writer of fiction.

    1. ABE, I did think about talking about gender, because gender discrimination was a very interesting element of my experience of Japanese culture shock. As a Japanese woman one would get discriminated against in a very different way from the way that a foreign woman gets discriminated against. Oh, and women's language too! It's fascinating... but enough for an entire post in and of itself, and I thought it would be too distracting to go in that direction in the current post. Thanks for mentioning it, though. I'll keep it in mind for a future post. Thanks too for sharing your experience in Mexico!

  3. Wait, so what does "Osaki deshita" mean in context?

    Great post, as always.

    1. Thanks, MK! And thanks for pointing out that I didn't explain "Osaki deshita." In that context it essentially means, "I had the honor of going before." It's a way of thanking the others for letting me take the first bath. Honestly, I wish I'd known at the time, because I *was* grateful!

    2. Thanks for the explanation! :)