Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cultural Perspective 2: Electric Boogaloo

I learned a very obvious thing after spending some time here. It's one of those things you've known your whole life, but can only truly understand after having experienced it. It's pretty simple: people are still people. Specifically, people that are foreign to you are still people.

Duh, right? Most of us are taught from an early age that people are people no matter where they come from. You've seen many on TV or even in real life. When you bump into someone on the street and exchange pleasantries, there's nothing strange or odd about it whether they're from here or there. It doesn't even matter if they speak English or not.

Or does it? Perhaps if you're in the states, speak native English and are surrounded by people speaking English. If you're in a familiar, comfortable environment and have no problems communicating in the dominant language, then the other person is obviously just some guy who bumped into you on the street. However, even if you parted on pleasant terms and you thought they were nice people, subconsciously in your brain, they were the nice Japanese or Indian or [insert ethnicity here] person you met on the street. We place these labels and their corresponding meaning on people without even thinking about it and put them in a group somewhere outside the social norm.

And what about the other guy? If he doesn't speak English well or quite know how to handle the current situation, how is he perceiving you? Even if they could sense your good intentions, you're also a source of anxiety. When you're in the extreme minority surrounded by people that don't understand and can't communicate with you, every interaction is terrifying.

Nobody can ever completely understand this unless they spend a substantial amount of time in another country. And I mean among the natives. None of this hanging around English speakers and westerners stuff. I'm a shy person to begin with, but then I went to Tokyo. There was a whole week I remember vividly in October of that year in which I didn't want to go anywhere (yep, a huge part of culture shock). For that whole week dragging myself to school was a chore because I knew that every minute I spent outside my apartment there was a chance I'd have to interact with someone. This wasn't because I didn't want to improve my Japanese. The fear was the possibility (perceived as high in my mind) that I wouldn't be able to achieve communication and in the end I'd be that weird foreigner that can't speak Japanese well. In that situation, I was that foreign person you bumped into on the street. I was a completely surrounded by a sea of well-intentioned people that couldn't possibly know or understand me. Communication is one of those invisible things we take for granted all the time, but would be screwed without (for a great read on this topic, I highly recommend Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson).

I don't know where I'd be now without that experience. I still have my share of difficulties and in some ways they're a bit grander in scale because there are few non-Japanese here and as a long-term resident with a job, I'm no longer the super-special student that's going to leave in a few months and never come back. Now, integration is key because the long-term effects of isolation can be disastrous (new ALT's, look forward to the speech from a former JET who new a fellow JET that went so crazy he ate paper in front of him...). This is now my life, not a vacation. It's my first-ever career and I hadn't worked with children in a long time.

When I first started, there was the usual wide-eyed fascination from students and teachers alike, but eventually it led to me developing the whole "stranger in a strange land" feeling all over again. They were strange, Japanese children who didn't (and in some cases didn't want to) understand me. Every day I felt a bit of apprehension when interacting with them.

Then one day, in one of my first-year classes, watching my students joke around and laugh, something clicked in my brain: they're all just kids. They love to laugh and have fun. They're snarky and clever. They each have something unique about them (which also helps me memorize names). The more time I spend with the them, the more the "they all look the same" cliche melts away. I was amazed just how much I was putting them in the outside "other" category without meaning too and they were probably doing the same to me. Every day I can feel the distance closing between us. This growing understanding not only makes life easier, it's also liberating.

It's the whole "this is my life" mentality that helped me with the integration. This is my apartment, this is my city, this is my office, this is my school, and now, these are MY students. There are still some that aren't so forthcoming, but now there is more understanding and I know how to interact with them.

I'd be very interested to learn why we put up these subconscious barriers between us. The phenomenon definitely isn't limited to culture and ethnicity. It's simply a reaction to those who are "different"- people that don't fit our mental structure of what is "normal". Perhaps it aided in survival to label people and make sure they were part of your social group.

No matter what the cause, I've learned that the most effective cure is spending a lot of time in foreign situations and with foreign people. I think this is one of if not the most important change in worldview. I'd like to think most people are decent human beings that don't want to build walls between them and other people, but there are way too many that deliberately ostracize people of other genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations and fervently insist they're not bigoted or racist. They are the ones who need this change more than anyone. Spending time with others forces you to build a sense of empathy for them which in turn results in understanding.

I think this experience will continue to have a positive effect on how I interact with other people who are "foreign" to me. In fact, I think this is part of the purpose of the JET program and ALT's in general. Maybe this is the "internationalization" that they're so adamant about. I firmly believe this is a major life change that everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime. Many people think all college students should be required to go abroad at least once and I agree. With globalization moving faster and faster, we're going to need to start realizing that at the end of the day, "people are people".

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