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Saturday, July 25, 2009



Good question, right? I've been a non-entity here for a while. Time to start back up!
Note: the following was originally written over 2 months ago, just before leaving for Japan

The current time is 12:20 PST and I'll be boarding my flight for Japan in about 30 minutes. I'm sitting here in the SKY LOUNGE, feeling very pampered, sipping on a grape juice, and thanking all gods real or imagined that the hardest part of my move is over. I don't have a lot of time right now, but I just wanted to put something down before the craziness begins.

We had an orientation seminar last night going over cultural things, phrases, basic stuff like that. It was mostly stuff I knew already, but one thing the lecturer said made a lot of sense to me, and it's something anyone going to Japan, or any other country, for an extended period of time should try really hard to keep in mind. Paraphrased, she said that an object has no meaning without context. If you look at something by itself without considering the culture it comes from or the history behind it, you can't determine its meaning (other than whatever meaning you want to ascribe to it yourself). This is especially true in Japan, where they love to incorporate bits and pieces of other cultures, twist them around all crazy like, and stitch them back into their own cultural fabric. A lot of times, it results in something really cool or at least mostly harmless. But sometimes they'll take a piece of something that has a lot of meaning to someone and warp it, or assign a new meaning to it and lose the original intent altogether.

One good example of this is their representation of black people in various media. It's not uncommon to see things in modern Japanese culture that you would never see in the US after, say, 1960 (blackface, ultra red lips with ultra white teeth, impossible afros, huge noses, etc.) And it's very easy to look at that and call them all racist and write them off as ignorant savages. And in a way, they ARE ignorant. Because their culture simply doesn't have the historical context that ours does. They didn't have slavery, and most people in Japan has never even met a black person, let alone carried on an extended conversation with them.

So their own perception of black people is shaped by their cultural history, not ours. And I think it's important not to assign our own perceptions to a society that simply hasn't gone through what we have. That doesn't make it okay, of course, and it's our responsibility to teach them as much as possible about these things that maybe they don't have any experience with.
Okay, so that's what I wrote over 2 months ago, before touching down here in Ya-pan. And I can honestly say that even in the short amount of time I've been here, this little nugget has been invaluable. While the people here are people just like anywhere else, culturally speaking it is, quite literally, a world away from what I'm used to. And Pulp Fiction was right - it is the little differences that you notice. Food is the most obvious - the things they eat or don't eat, and the foods that are similar but not quite the same (eggs and corn on pizza?) - but it doesn't stop there. And after a while, you find yourself thinking "My god, what's wrong with these people? Their ATMs close? They don't accept credit cards?!"

But man, it's just the culture, and for each thing that seems ridiculous or insane, you can usually find something that's just plain awesome and you wish your home country had or did. And the more time I spend here, the more tools I gain to look at my own culture in a new light/context and understand it just a little bit better. But you have to have the right frame of mind and be willing to work with the differences/difficulties. It's very easy to just shut down and resist those issues, and try to force their round-peg culture into your square-hole mentality, but it seems much more rewarding to just go with the flow, embrace the good, accept the bad, and learn from the whole thing.

I don't think I could live in Japan indefinitely, I'm just too set in my ways. But the chance to gain some perspective and try to understand how people outside my very narrow slice of reality live has been immeasurably educational even in the short time I've been here, and I don't see my education stopping anytime soon. Okay, there's my insanely long post to make up for the gap! I'll be trying to update this more regularly (and in more digestible form) with some of the random funny stuff I've run into here. Peace!

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