Tuesday, 23 October 2012

They Are Just Like Us, Except When They Aren’t

At the start of September my city holds an English speech and recitation contest. For the speech section third grade junior high students (grade nines) deliver an original speech in English on any topic they like. Usually the speech is composed in Japanese then translated into English by a teacher, but we all act like the kids have actually written them themselves. They usually follow tried-and-true Japanese speech formula:
“I was bad at sport/subject/musical instrument. I wanted to quit. My team mates/teachers/band members encouraged me. They never gave up. I got better at the activity because of them. We had a big competition/tournament/exam. We won/ lost/ succeeded/ failed. I did my best and learned an important lesson. I’ll do my best in the future.”
That covers 90% of the speeches. The remaining 10% tackle actually interesting topics including human trafficking, growing up with parents who are deaf, or war. At this year’s contest a number of students spoke about experiences with international exchanges. Some had hosted home stay students for a short visit from our sister city in China. These speeches also followed a predictable formula:
“I was worried about how to communicate with the Chinese and if we could be friends. It turned out they were just like us. I learned a lot. I want to study English more and communicate with foreigners again.”
Despite the formula, there are some interesting things to deduce from these speeches.
 First, the cultural indoctrination that it’s hard for Japanese to communicate with foreigners doesn’t stand up against personal experience. Sadly, I don’t have confidence that this memory lasts. In three years I think it is likely that these kids will be back to thinking “it’s difficult for me to communicate with foreigners.”  One girl said “Can a shy Japanese like me get along with an outgoing Chinese?” I am sure she knows that there are many Japanese people who are not shy, and many Chinese people who are shy. But the stereotyping messages are so pervasive that it will take more than a short home-stay visit to change them for good.
Second, the belief that foreigners are profoundly alien is so strong that something as simple as a Chinese girl enjoying (the ancient and inscrutable Japanese art of) playing basket ball was surprising. Her hither-to unquestioned belief was shaken by direct personal experience. A huge part of what ALTs do in Japan is just… being normal. We blow people’s minds by eating rice. The totalising stereotypes are strong, but they can be broken down.
For me the more interesting anecdotes were the ones that revealed genuine differences. The trope of “she seemed so totally different from me, but then we discovered that we both loved ice-cream, so I guess really we’re the same!” is incredibly frustrating in its trivialisation of difference. An American kid eating a sandwich while a Japanese kid eats an onigiri isn’t emblematic of cultural difference, it’s window dressing. The differences that cause conflicts, misunderstandings and international tensions are differences in world view, different priorities and different ways of assigning responsibility. Bread versus rice is not why the world is more suspicious of post-war Japan than it is of post-war Germany. When I was a university student in Nagoya I was participating in some intercultural-communication-something-or-other event and the Japanese girls I was paired with explained that Japanese children use red crayons to draw the sun, while European children use yellow crayons. They were convinced that this was a significant and profound example of cultural difference. Being in a somewhat cantankerous mood by that point (I know, ME? Cantankerous? Who would have though! XD) I mentioned that actually when I had spent time in the UK I had noticed that the sun seemed much paler and weaker… possibly more yellow… than it did in Japan.
Anyway, back to the interesting anecdotes. One girl had done a short home stay in New Zealand. She related her surprise when her host mother told her to turn the lights out and go to sleep at eleven pm. Thinking that this was a peculiarity of her host family, she checked around the town and discovered that in fact, going to sleep by eleven was normal for thirteen-year-olds. She pointed out in her speech that it would be impossible to complete the daily schedule normal in Japan without staying up until one or two am at least. If one were to unpack this, some really deep-seated and interesting differences in educational systems, the role children play in society and beliefs about health, wellbeing and parenting would emerge. Much more interesting than whether the sun is yellow or red, surely?!
Another girl had visited a cousin in America and spent some time with his friends. Whenever they asked her opinion or what she wanted to do/eat she answered “I’m fine with whatever”. Eventually they got frustrated with her and told her that not having an opinion about anything was like saying that she didn’t care or didn’t have any thoughts of her own. She was shocked by the confrontation and their accusations, and spoke regretfully about not having been able to explain to them that, in her words, ‘agreeing with everyone-else to avoid being disliked is Japanese culture’. I think that has a lot to do with being a teen-aged girl rather than being an exclusively Japanese characteristic, but that is what she said.
Where am I going with all this? I suppose I am being contrary but I would really love to have the chance to do a class on international communication that could say: “Get over the surface things. It doesn’t matter if you use chopsticks or a fork. But don’t pretend that the deep differences don’t matter. Unless we recognise the chasms our differences sink between us, we can’t work constructively to bridge them.”
I want to teach this class in Australia, too. We have a multi-cultural society of which I am very proud. But tensions have been simmering for a decade now, and it isn’t helpful or constructive to respond with trite lines like “no matter where we come from, all parents love their kids”.
Having children move between boarders and communities is so vital for this task of understanding. It’s also why hate groups like the American Family Association are telling parents to keep their kids home from school on "Mix it Up at Lunch" days with considerable success; imagine the harm to good Christian children if they ate lunch with a classmate who was gay or Jewish or Hispanic? Not only do I think that international exchanges are important but also co-education of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, rich and poor children, is something I wish we saw more of. It is why I am committed to exclusively public and secular education. There's a short but good description of the importance of secular education in Bosnia at Friendly Atheist (again?! what can I say, I am a fan girl). You can only begin to explore the meaningful differences when you cease to be distracted by the surface ones. When you realise that “they’re just like us” you can put yourself in the position to try and understand why and how someone just like you has come to be not very like you at all.
I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone other than me…

Share this article :


  1. Hey Soph :)
    One thing I've noticed that I think is interesting is the extent of diversion we can place on these "simple" observations and conversations. There is a Chinese girl I work with and I would say that we are friends. We've worked together for 5 years and we have had lots of conversations. (She credits me for the improvement in her English conversation skills.)

    Anyways, the point of all this is that after all this time, I've finally begun to wonder if we would be friends if she wasn't Chinese. So much of our conversations have been based on one of us explaining some cultural nuance to the other that I think our real personalities have been masked.

    Recently I've realized that many of her opinions (which I attributed to her being Chinese) are actually quite frustrating and if she was a native speaker I think I would have told her just what I thought of them... not that I'm cantankerous either =]

    Nevertheless, I always find international conversations to be very enlightening, not just about the other person's culture, but also about myself.

    Although nothing is as weird as being told the spirits in the room don't think you're doing the right thing. Silly rabbit... I hope you remember this or I'll feel really dumb o.O

  2. Hiya! I am so excited to find out if you attract a lot of traffic to this journal?

    1. Hi Darrell. No, I think mainly just my Dad and some friends read this.. plus randoms who google weird word combinations like "cock mastectomy". I get a creepy number of those kinds of hits. I hope that hasn't ruined your excitement. Speaking of which, I am now likely to hits from people googling "hits cock excitement", but what can you do?


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.