To become Japanese?

I have been forming these thoughts for a while, and I’ve already talked to a lot of fellow JETs about this topic in person. So if you’re one of those people, sorry for the repetition! Maybe I’ll be more eloquent on paper (well, on screen).

I always used to envy friends whose families had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. It seemed like there was this huge facet of their identities — that of having a mother culture — that I lacked. My family has been in the same country for generations; we never had to pack up our heritage and bring it to a new place. We never had to work to preserve the traditions, clothes, language that were important to us; these things already surrounded us, they were already part of the dominant culture. I always felt a little deprived, passed over, for not having the kind of cultural history and identity that I could see was so important to my friends’ families.

Coming to another country has helped me to become aware of my American-ness and how profoundly it has shaped who I am. Some people begin their journeys abroad as visitors and then become permanent expatriates; they create a home in a new part of the world. I have a strong feeling that the opposite is true for me. As I wrote in the last post, I feel that I belong in America, whatever its flaws may be; at least they’re intimately familiar ones!

This position of being between cultures — of growing up in one culture and then being transplanted to another — is one that people approach in a variety of ways. Some hold tight to what they are used to and fail to see any value in assimilating; they create an individual-sized American bubble in Japan, or a Mexican microcosm in the United States, and so on. Others attempt to balance the familiar and the strange, the old culture and the new, while still others dive enthusiastically into the new culture and try to soak up as much of it as possible.

Which brings me to my main point: The great paradox of the JET Program is that the Japanese government hires Westerners with the aim of bringing a small piece of authentic, pristine Western culture to Japan — and yet, many of the people who make the final cut are Westerners who want more or less to become Japanese. It’s this perfect, circular irony, like The Gift of the Magi or something! As Japan works hard to accommodate our difference and learn from a different culture, some JETs work just as hard to efface those characteristics that make them un-Japanese.

As you’ve probably figured out, I don’t believe we should become Japanese — indeed, I don’t think we can. I do think that we can and should learn from and appreciate the culture that surrounds us. So it’s a balance. If some behavior or belief that you brought from home is important to you, you can find a way to fit it into your life here. If it’s a hot day, I’d go ahead and wear that spaghetti strap blouse, even though I haven’t seen any Japanese women dress like that. But at the same time, I make every effort to eat new and strange foods, to notice and emulate the behavior of the people around me, and to speak Japanese.

At its best, I think time abroad should teach you an infinite number of new things while also showing you exactly how and why your home culture is precious to you.

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