Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No Reason to Refuse

One of my long time students, a young woman who I've been teaching since October 2006, had her last lesson last Wednesday. She's going to the U.S. to attend university for a college year and I hope that she'll have a good time of it. She's only 20 years old and has never lived on her own so I'm a little concerned about how she'll get on. She and I had a good last talk about her departure preparations which revealed a few cross-cultural differences which I found very interesting.

First, she told me that her parents reaction to her imminent departure was one of 'shoo, get out of here already!' I told her that I was surprised and jokingly asked her if she was a bad child that they wanted to get rid of. She told me a Japanese word for what her parents were doing that translated into the idea that they felt that clinging too tightly to her or acting overly sentimental about her leaving would "spoil her." I'm not sure that "spoil" was the best translation, but essentially it meant that they were worried she'd be too dependent if they clung to her so they want to push their baby bird out of the nest and force her to fly.

After this discussion, I told her that a Western parent would not hesitate to cry and profess his love for his child with such a separation at hand (at least if that parent was comfortable expressing emotions). In fact, unless the relationship between the child and parent was bad, there would certainly be some heartfelt feelings passed between them at the prospect of a long separation. She said that this explained why her host family during her brief homestay in the United States was so appalled that she didn't feel it was necessary to call her parents when she arrived in the U.S. They knew they'd want their child to call upon arrival in a foreign country.

When I asked her if she had done anything else in preparation, she looked thoughtful for a moment and then her eyes grew wide and she blurted out, "I got a boyfriend!" Since she has not had a boyfriend since I started teaching her and she is leaving for the U.S. tomorrow, this was truly surprising. I asked her how this came about and she said that he was someone she had a part-time job with for several months (which she quit about a month ago) and he called her last week and asked her on a date. During the course of the date, he asked her to be his girlfriend and she said "yes." When asked about how she felt about this young man, she said that she was decidedly so-so about him and that she wanted two boyfriends, one in the U.S. and one in Japan though she wouldn't tell either about the other.

Since I felt it was very odd indeed to get a boyfriend she had little passion for when she was leaving and who she had every intention of two-timing, I queried further and she said that she accepted her former coworker because he was gentle and treated her as having the same status as him. She told me she hated men who treated women as lower than themselves in status. Also, when he asked her, she "could think of no reason to refuse." She also mentioned that she would find his sympathetic ear via e-mail useful while she was lonely in the U.S. because she didn't want to tell her family her true feelings. At this point, I felt it wise to make sure that she knew that any boyfriend she may have in the U.S. will not enter into a relationship so passively with her and that she needs to be cautious.

This is one of those occasions when I have to really suppress the inclination to be ethnocentric. While I think it'd be wrong to conclude that my student was typical, I don't think it'd be incorrect to say that she's not entirely atypical either. It'd also be easy to conclude that she's "using" her Japanese boyfriend, but I don't think it's quite like that. I think it's more like the kind of boyfriend-girlfriend relationship that you sometimes see among kids who are in elementary or junior high school where they say they have a bond, but don't really feel it deeply or act on it in the ways adults do. That is, it's actually just a friendship with the potential for a bond to develop rather than what we'd call a romantic bond.

I've had students stop taking lessons before after very long associations with them and they always say they'll write or e-mail. In fact, most of them ask if they can e-mail me then they never do. This particular student has asked for my e-mail and Skype information and I wonder if she'll stay in touch or vanish like the others. I hope she stays in touch and that I can see her again after her two semesters in the U.S. are over. I'd love to see how she turns out after a year back home.


Emsk said...

Hmmm, this reminds me of a situation I had recently here in London. No sooner did I get back when I met a Japanese guy and we started hanging out together. We had a really lovely time and clearly enjoyed each others' company. I can honestly say that he was the nicest guy I'd met for a long, long time and he showed it in lots of little ways. What's more he was a volunteer worker at my sister's company, so I was confident that he was a genuinely decent, respectful guy. After a few "dates" the conversation got almost flirtatious - maybe this would be nothing to some cultures, but when you ask a British man or woman how they feel about being "naked in an onsen" in public and then ask "why not?" when you say you're glad the opposite gender are not present to witness, it tends to come across as suggestive.

For all the unsuitability of any kind of match between us, I liked him very much. So you can imagine that I was pretty pissed off when he emailed me and casually dropped in that his girlfriend was coming from Japan that week and he wouldn't be able to meet up the next weekend.

Being a fiery Brit I wasn't going to let this go without some discussion, plus we'd been spending so much time together that it warranted asking him what the situation was (afer all, perhaps this was a very casual girlfriend who'd just come over 'cos her casual boyfriend was here, in which case he may have thought he'd better mention it unless it got back to me via my sister). We talked and he admitted he had strong feelings for me and had known all along he should've mentioned the girlfriend, but didn't know how to, and although he wasn't sure about where he and his girlfriend were going he wouldn't cheat on her, as much as he wanted to. Unfortunately by now I had also come to like him a lot too and I was left with the feeling of being made a fool of, especially the evening we went out with some of his British friends, who all know my family, who kept mentioning him and his girlfriend.

I'm quite satisfied that he didn't mean to be hurtful and that he probably got in deeper than he thought, but I was pissed off with him and told him that next time he met a woman he was attracted to he should declare his hand from the off (a simple "Oh, my girlfriend likes that band too" would suffice and would give the woman the choice whether or not she wanted to pursue the friendship). I also told him that I would've been quite happy to be his friend if he'd mentioned her because I would've been aware of the boundaries. He was very upset about this, said he was a "bad man" and that he wanted to stay in touch with me - but wouldn't cheat on his girlfriend.

Neither do I judge him for wanting to stay faithful to his girlfriend - it's admirable and he told me he was proud of his honourable behaviour. But to be quite frank I question that honour and although he truly wanted to stay friends, now he's back in Japan I think it's best put down to shogunai.

So I'm afraid I've read your story and feel quite angry with the student and hope that she grows up before someone gets hurt. I feel that she might learn that lesson quicker if she's the one who does.

Orchid64 said...

I can certainly see why you're angry. As I mentioned, I had to suppress my inclination to judge what my student was doing.

I think her situation is different from the one you encountered in that she has a paper thin link to her Japanese "boyfriend" and there may not even be an expectation of faithfulness. However, your experience makes me wonder if there isn't more to making this bond than I thought. The boyfriend may be a way out if she finds herself in too deep.

Based on the experiences of some other folks, I can say that some people treat foreign boyfriends and girlfriends as interesting dalliances and enter into them with no intention of ever getting serious with them no matter how much passion there is. I'm sure this happens to people from every country, but it's more likely to happen when one party is from a culture where marrying foreigners is considered a bigger problem by their family or society.

My student's behavior instantly reminded me of something that happened a long time ago to my brother-in-law where he was wining and dining a Japanese woman, but later found she had a Japanese boyfriend. In the end, it seemed she was just using him to entertain her while she was in the U.S.

I also think the more pragmatic the general view of marriage is in a culture, the more likely these things will occur. If the view is that passion isn't a main consideration, but compatibility and the success of a partnership on an objective level, the risk of a long-term relationship with a foreign person (particularly one met abroad) is not something many Japanese will risk (though obviously, some do).

I really appreciate your taking the time to share your experience as it adds quite a useful dimension to this topic. I'm also really sorry about what happened. In your shoes, I'd be just as (if not more) angry about it than you. I'd also be far quicker to conclude that he was playing me all along and that the contrition and regret was all faked, but then I've been hearing a lot of Japanese people tell me lately about how often and easily they lie in order to either escape responsibility for something they did or save face (so that thought is at the front of my mind these days).

Dateline Osaka said...

Wow, interesting story by Emsk and continuing discussion.

The first thing I thought of after I read your post was that this nice girl may be thinking it might be comfortable to get a perhaps American boyfriend to help ease the strangeness of being there alone (hell, I think of how convenient and secure it feels to have my husband around to help me out with things and entertain me Japanese style while I'm getting used to things here, and it makes a lot of sense!), but on the other hand, the guy she meets may end up being a real perv who's just using her to say he's got the ever-prized Japanese girlfriend. Is she aware of such creepos? I hope she knows and will be wary of the intentions of some of these guys. She may want to play, but I hope it doesn't upset her if she ends up played, herself...There's all kinds of weirdos out there...*shudder* >_< I hope she stays safe.

Orchid64 said...

Dateline: I think that fewer Western men want Japanese trophy girls than we might think. It's only the highly vocal nature of Japanophilic geeks that makes us think every Western man is jonesing for Asian girls.

I think it's far more likely that she'll break some poor schlub's heart than she'll be in any danger, especially since she's going to a mid-western school.

I did caution her, but she told me that her friend who went to the same university couldn't find any men who were interested in her so the atmosphere isn't likely to be predatory.

Thanks for your comment. :-)

Emsk said...

Thank you for your feedback here. I admit it's put a bit of a sad spin on my first couple of months home. I may have made him sound like a bit of a bad guy, but the truth is he's not. It's simply a case of what he did was shitty. Nonetheless, I do think his feelings for me were genuine if not confused - he liked the idea of a fiery older woman who has nothing in common with his girlfriend, but didn't know how to handle the situation when it backfired.

What you say about many Japanese relationships being less passionate than ours ring true - in a way they might work out better, but give me passion anyday. My young "gentleman caller" certainly gave me the impression that there was scant common ground in his relationship, even to the extent that he spent a lot of money going along with her expensive choice of European holiday when he would rather have done something he wanted to do, and which would've been cheaper. It probably made for an easier life. But you pays your money you takes your chouice in life, don't you?

I'm proud of the fact that I confronted the situation - after all, most straight men and women might wonder why they were spending so much time together, but be too scared to say anything about it. My guess is he had no idea his girlfriend would suddenly come halfway across the world. The fact is he knew he should've said something and we both know when it should've been said. Hopefully he's learnt a lesson.

Personal misery aside, I think the saving face has a lot to answer for. It seems like a giant fib to me though. Your student could easily tell her "boyfriend" that she does not know how things will work out in the US, but agree to keep him as an e-mail friend. Then if a crazed American suitor does make a play for her, she can pull the Japanese boyfriend out of the hat to save her precious hide.

But I'm afraid I've seen so many dishonest situations involving western/Japanese couplings. While this doesn't describe every realtionship, I'm sad to say I hear the same complaints from western friends time and time again. The main one being that he/she didn't know the girl/guy he was dating had a Significant Other.

And sadly in Japanese relationships as well. It was interesting to watch a student at my goodbye party hitting on a young woman who I knew to have a boyfriend. She doeasn't work, but her older besotted boyf does and keeps her in clothes. You can bet she didn't enlighten the poor fool who was drooling!

As for the dangling foreign suitors, plenty of relationships do work out. But I do think it's a very brave Japanese man who does "marry out". The women are much braver.

Anonymous said...

"...on the other hand, the guy she meets may end up being a real perv who's just using her to say he's got the ever-prized Japanese girlfriend. Is she aware of such creepos?" --Dateline Osaka

I find it funny and a little bit hypocritical to focus on a theoretical "pervert" when this girl has declared her intentions to play two guys at once for her own selfish reasons. I think if anyone needs to be warned it's the guys at her future school.