August 20 - Pre-trip journal
You can’t see it, but I’m rubbing my chin in a kind of Hmmmm manner right now.
I wonder what Japan’s going to be like.
More so than cultural nuances and “Is that a… um, um, wait it’s coming to me… AH! Vending machine! I knew I knew that word—er, phrase!”
In fact, let’s run on that tangent for a second.
I’ve done my fair share of musing on culture since signing on for Rotary Youth Exchange. Pre-Zero Day, here’s my thoughts:
Culture is autopilot.
First, autopilot. Then the culture analogue.
Autopilot is the brain’s shortcuts. It’s why you throw your hands down when you trip, why your hand goes flying skyward every time you hear an oddly purposeful silence in the classroom. Your mind doesn’t fly into overdrive, shouting, “HEY I’M FALLING WAHHHH”. It doesn’t waken from the inner monologue to murmur, “…wait, when’d he get quiet? This is oddly famil—oh! This is the part where I raise my hand, right?”
No, you’ve already done that plenty often. At this point, it’s second nature. Thought is eliminated from the process entirely after so many times, and the action simply happens. You’ve trained your body to react to different circumstances without a cue from the mind.
Culture is a lot like that autopilot part of us.
Except that skipped thought process is the reasoning behind a belief.
The belief that it’s perfectly acceptable to head out regularly for ice cream on Friday nights.
The belief that the most polite thing you can do in a situation is give someone their space.
It’s part of our identity. That with which we define ourselves. The little things in life we take as a given, and from within this mental shell of what we consider facts of life—unchanging and solid before all else—we move forward, making our actions from within this worldview.
Changes in this identity-perspective are earth shattering. A massive paradigm shift is called on in moments of truth, where we must acknowledge a… less-than-minor clerical error.
The change that my daily life will no longer include my father, my mother, my sister, and my two dogs, for example, will no doubt leave me shamefacedly tearing up in the airport terminal come Friday.
The change that there might be days where I go without seeing a word in English will also likely leave me shamefacedly biting my pencil in a mildly perturbed state.
Youth exchange is not the incorporating of another culture into your own identity.
Cultural identities aren’t a two-for-one sale. There will be places where different cultures cross swords and thoroughly disagree, refusing any ground to that compromise thing. In these conflicting areas, a deliberate choice has to be made by the inbound.
During the year abroad, all the students whose names you see to the right will endure the most mentally trying situation any being can take on: cultural assimilation— making concessions that the home culture, if only in certain aspects, is not as homely as the newfound culture, willingly putting their identities on the line for a worldly perspective.
Most people aren’t brave enough to change their identities a little by cutting his or her hair an inch shorter than usual.
The only issue, of course, is that knee-jerk reaction we have to any situation. The one situation that tries to tell us the manner in which we think is about as right as the puppy drinking from the toilet.
People don’t take kindly to situations where they feel… as though their opinions and beliefs are but pebbles before another person’s supposed monolithic opinions and beliefs.
I expect controlling that kind of autopilot will be the greatest hurdle we’ll face this year.
…what a tangent, huh?
Japan holds many things in a higher regard than we Americans. We go so far as to assume a certain humility about certain things, and in many ways, are led to believe it best such certain things are left in a humble state.
For example, today my host mother and myself were in the basement floor of a three-story Seven-Eleven mini-shopping mall.
I, for one, couldn't help but admire the tenacity of it all.
American 7-11's are little more than glorified gas stations, excepting the contractually obligated slushie stand.
Japan's 7&i Holdings mini-mall consisted of four floors: two of gender-specific clothing and apparel, a top floor for kiddie toys, DVDs, mattress covers, and your everyday knick-knacks, and a regular grocery store serving as the basement floor.
My mind was anywhere but the seafood aisles my host mother and I were walking through at the time.
Who had decided that the best company to call when making a mini-mall was 7-11?
Perhaps 7-11 originated in Japan?
Or... wait, is it even a mini-mall? Perhaps "department store" would be a better fit?
I smelled a Wikipedia hunt in the making.
All the while, my host mother-- my Okaasan-- picked up a package of fresh shrimp and turned it over, presumably checking for an expiration date. After waiting a beat, she brought my attention to said backside label.
Having had the opportunity to visit New York City, Okaasan has no laughable English language skills. Though not without bounds, her repetiore of the language is impressive and has served as a vital tool in my ongoing adventures in learning Japanese. The following conversation, though slightly paraphrased in respect to a falliable memory, is wholly true and by most all counts accurate.
"Always check to see where the shrimp comes from." she said with a certain amount of determination, scanning over the black on white text.
I furrowed my eyebrows.
Checking a product's country of make-- it reminded me heavily of when out shopping for rawhide bones for my own dog, Toula. Rawhides of non-American make, you see, have this odd tendency of adding materials best left out of the canine digestive system.
-5 years life expectancy, anyone?
"If it's from [COUNTRY NAME REMOVED FOR POSTERITY]," she continued, decided in the matter and putting the shrimp package in the cart, "always put it back."
My mind still fell back on the rawhide comparison already privately made. I sought confirmation, perhaps out of pride, and went so far as to ask,
It was a laugh truly worthy of some praise, politely restrained as it was for the public setting, and yet taking no small amount of reverie in the inevitable reaction to come.
The politically aware will laugh.
Japanese high schools are not like American high schools.
But let me explain.
American high schools are, in many ways, the bare minimum educational level one can obtain in the hopes for a stable and long term future, as per the beaten path. Japanese high schools, too, are considered quite mandatory for any notions of becoming a salaryman.
Japanese high schools do a fair impression of colleges, with rigorous exams standing between a student and their hopes of academic non-failure, while maintaining its goverment-funded status.
I had the pleasure of being given a small tour of the high school I was to attend, way back in my second week of the exchange-- a tour I was looking forward too! Abounding curiousity aside, it would be a chance to try and familiarize myself with the building before school began.
I... may or may not have traumatic experiences from getting lost in a new school.
Regardless, I found myself surprised at quite a few things the school had to its name:
Multiple buildings, most of which were three stories high, with the main building managing four.
One of the wings was set aside specifically for the arts. I'm half of the impression this is mainly for show and tell, if you will, given the sheer number of works presented in view of many a nature-- traditional paintings, sculptures, and more were in sight in a large part of the wing, dominating the presence.
Though I didn't have to wonder why the showroom was quite so separated from the classroom, we quickly rounded around and--
A music hall.
It's no secret that I've been playing the piano for the better part of a decade, and though I'll be the first to admit my initial fervent disinterest in the instrument leaves me with six years' skill, here and now, I find a certain peace with the piano. (Consequently, I'll be avoiding any occupations in relation to it, but that's another can of worms entirely.)
The tour guide was, quite eagerly, ushering myself and my first host mother over to one of the practice rooms, inviting us to step in. An orchestra-- brass, wind, strings, and I'm afraid I'm not too well familiarized with orchestras beyond these-- made up of students, were at work.
And what a work it was.
I'd heard lesser performances from Broadway. The orchestra, though in my own unprofessional opinion, lacking in subtlety, more than made up for a dulled sense of emotion out of sheer, practiced perferction.
No empty parts, no instrument speaking harshly out of line, and in unison.
I was impressed. The American musician is a soloist-- working competitively, if at all, when in a group. The Japanese musician seemed to be made of tougher stuff.
I was looking forward to interacting with this kind of person.
We exited the practice room shortly after we had the opportunity to revel in that... privilege.
I went to tell our guide quite how floored I was--
"Were you surprised?" the guide asked me, having mercy on my neophyte's grasp of the Japanese language.
My mind was still.
No, I thought, raising a polite smile on my face, I am not surprised.
Surprise in the face of a skill is justified. Surprise in the face of skill itself is arrogance.
"Not quite," I'd replied, not trusting myself to speak too much until I'd had the chance to determine what this meant.
Without communication-- in this instance, requiring a strong command of the language at hand-- comprehension of any given person's personality is out of the question, regardless of who it is who lacks the language. In lacking this knowledge, presumptions based on prior knowledge are made.
Americans tend naturally look down on others. Ladies and gentlemen, we call this arrogance.
This is a stereotype-- prior knowledge, true or false as it may be, that my tour guide relied on in his search to comprehend and communicate with me.
You and I, reader, fall back on this prior knowledge on a daily basis. Someone's hairdo, the words on their shirt, their ethnicity-- our mindset turns in a million and one ways, in the span of a passing glance-- no glance made with the wisdom of retrospect, and all forced to make an assumption in the now, subconciously falling back on stereotypes we discover, before the other person is given the opportunity to make the first impression with a greeting.
Want to change that?
Talk to them.
How was I going to change that?
Learn Japanese so that I could talk to them.
I've been studying the language nigh daily since.
Japanese high schools are more like American high schools than I'd first thought.