Don’t Forget Where You Come From

It’s easy to lose yourself in the quest for complete language immersion. I’ve said recently, more often than just once or twice, that I almost exclusively listen to Japanese music, watch Japanese TV, and read Japanese Magazines, books and Manga. Is this good for my Japanese? Of course, it’s made me nearly fluent without ever actually going to Japan for a substantial amount of time. But is this good for my identity as an American? I’m beginning to think that it’s not.

I live in Chicago. My family is Caucasian. I don’t live in a heavily Japanese neighborhood. Almost all of my friends are Japanese and somehow I’ve managed to spend more than 50% of each day living in a virtual Japan. I now identify more with Japanese people than I do with Americans.

I see people talking loudly on the train and I look at them out of the corner of my eye thinking “jeez they’re loud. They have no sense of social proximity.” I have found that I now have trouble establishing and maintaining strong eye contact when I’m speaking to someone; I have to break away and look at something else for a moment.  I am now overly sensitive to word choice over content.

This is just a small list of Japanese habits and thought patterns that I’ve inherited recently that don’t work particularly well in American society. Of course there are some benefits as well, as any culture has aspects that one would do well to learn from.

For instance, I am now much more polite. I can tell what someone’s thinking without them speaking, simply by reading their gestures, tone of voice and posture. I know what someone really wants to say from hearing them “non-answer.” I have a stronger work ethic and a deeper sense of hierarchical respect than I used to.

Now, all of these things I’m complaining about, anyone can look at and say “that’s not a big deal, get over it.” But here’s where the problem lies.

Let’s pretend I meet an American girl, and she says “do you like this singer?” and I say “I’ve never heard him before, who is he?” She says “OMG, he’s at the top of the charts right now! How could you NOT know him?” and since I am now more Japanese than American, I think “you don’t mean the Oricon Charts do you? Unless it’s Oricon I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What’s your favorite TV show?”

“I don’t watch American TV”

“Who’s your favorite actor?”

“Kimura Takuya”

“Who the heck is that?”

I don’t relate to my own people easily any more. These are superficial examples, I’m aware of that. But every new relationship starts on the superficial level and then moves deeper.

“Why do you love Japan so much?”

“there are so many reasons, it would take a week to explain.”

“ok, what’s not good enough about America?”

“I don’t remember any more.”

People like me are no longer full on American, and we’re not Japanese. We fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s really not a place in the middle to be. It’s like deciding that your best place in life is the hallway between the waiting room and the examination room at the doctor’s office. You can’t stay there forever, either go home or get a checkup.

There’s nothing wrong with loving another culture and the people who live it. There is something wrong with forcing your way into that culture when you can’t stay there forever.

We need to learn how to love Japan as real Americans (if America is where you’re from), not as a proxy-Japanese.


2 responses

  1. Mai Y

    This is the story of my life – I agree about being in the middle of being Japanese (and a bit of South East Asian) and American (although I don’t have an American citizenship). But I don’t think you really need to choose which one you belong to. I think that everyone is on a spectrum and its not so clear cut on who you are when it comes to identity.

    Good post, Elliott!
    I enjoyed reading it.

    January 21, 2011 at 8:15 am

  2. Elliott

    Thanks Mai! That’s an interesting point. Everyone is on a spectrum. Plus, who is to say “what is American”? There are plenty of Japanese people I know who identify fully with Japan and still consider themselves American.

    I guess what I mean is, how can I learn to identify with American culture as much as I identify with Japanese culture for the sake of creating and maintaining healthy relationships with the non-Japanese people in my life?

    That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

    January 21, 2011 at 8:42 am

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