Cultural Assumptions…or Stereotypes?

March 16, 2010

Recently I read a review of a new novel by a first time author, a former English teacher in Japan. The review began by taking to task the glut of foreigners who come to Japan for two years of an exotic experience and return home with tales to tell that grow taller as the years progress.  The reviewer was assuming that the young woman who had written this novel was among the group of tale-tellers.  While the reviewer turned out to write a positive review of the book (the author did not fall into the category of tall tales of Japan), she did make me think about what I write on this blog and how I think about my experience here.

There are lots of occasions when cultural clashes provoke amusing anecdotes. Aren’t they funny, those Japanese? Aren’t they this or that!  It is very easy to fall into the trap of finding situations that meet my expectations of Japanese culture/Japanese people.   The challenge is to enjoy the moments of culture clash but, at the same time, move  beyond simply confirming my notions – all Japanese are perfectionists; all Japanese don’t like to say “no”. etc.

The difficulty in getting beyond stereotypes is that you need to have enough experience with a wide range of people and circumstances to inform how you think.  And then, of course, we get back to language. How in the world can you move beyond amusing anecdotes if you can only speak in phrase book terms, if that. 

In fact, the issue of stereotypes works both ways.  If we foreigners continue to behave strangely in order to make ourselves understood, how do we help expand the Japanese view of gaijin?  Who are “we” and are “we” all alike?  Today I had occasion to buy two futons from a local department store.  I had gone on a scouting trip with one of the Mitsukos earlier in the day and she helped me choose.  When I went back on my own I realized that, not only did I need to purchase them (relatively straight forward-have yen, pay cashier) but I had figure out if they would deliver them. (Walking down the street, if only 1/4 mile, with two futons, was not a likely possibility.)  The salesperson had no English skills; his assistant had the equivalent of an I-Phone with a translator, and I had my translator. Between our electronic tools, sign language, and a few words like “three”, we figured out they could come Friday afternoon.  But, unlike other times when I thought the whole experience a “hoot”, this time I didn’t want to be the bumbling gaijin but, instead, to have a respectful transaction. Yes, humor works and, as I have written often, that is the way in which most of these transactions have occurred.  But, over time, it would be nice to have an interaction that reflected more than American slapstick and Japanese deference.

I would be interested in your thoughts on this issue. Have you ever struggled with it? Have you lived elsewhere and tried to move beyond the cultural stereotypes?  Living for just one year somewhere is a kind of privileged existence. I know I am going home. I know I don’t have to figure everything out. At the same,  I don’t want to live here as if I am leaving soon.


3 Responses to “Cultural Assumptions…or Stereotypes?”

  1. Dawnie Dee said

    These are the new paths we spoke about, and the shaking up of the status quo that I found an inevitable (wonderful)part of my Madrid experience.

    As ever, race, stereotypes and cultural assumptions are slippery, elusive and vary from lamp post to lamp post, but it’s the ability to consider one’s own behavior, to question areas of dubious authority? superiority? that opens new doors.

    And often, like falling in love, the willingness to risk looking foolish long enough to get our message out across the divide: I like you, I respect you, I want to be liked and respected in return, teach me what you will, learn from me whatever is useful to you, and above all, thank you–thank you!
    Your pal,

    • yonkel said

      Wonderfully written, Dawn. And right on target. It seems to me I am in a constant state of transforming, reforming, unforming and enjoying the disconcerting process as well!

  2. Leigh said

    Hi, Julie,

    What a provocative note — and no surprise. First of all your reports are rich and, yes, amusing, but fondness for the people you have met comes through.

    My time in Japan was so very short that it was colored mostly by amazement … taking things in as an observer … why this … oh, yes, remember reading about that … easier than being there for a year — more than a traveler — and participating in daily life where it is hard/impossible to blend in …

    A year is a good bit of time to spend immersed and you seem to be working through the “overwhelming” really quickly and thoughtfully … have a feeling that your Japanese friends will miss you when you leave …

    am very happy to have you as an ambassador …

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