Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cultural Adaptation, What It Is and Isn't

Lately in America, there have some pretty stupid assertions about names and how they are to be pronounced. I haven't followed the details, but at one point some lame politician insisted that a Chinese person simplify their name so it's be easier for "Americans" to pronounce and someone else more recently said that Supreme Court justice nominee Sotomayor should allow people to mispronounce her name if it was easier for them to do so.

Personally, I think America is multi-cultural enough and most people are smart enough to learn how to correctly pronounce a name and these issues are just lame publicity trumped up to pander to people with an extremely narrow notion of what "American" means. There are fewer of these myopic sorts than most non-Americans think, and more of them than most Americans would like to believe.

At the root of issues like this are notions of cultural adaptation (or worse "assimilation") of those of what they view as external origin. In a country like the U.S., which is full of nothing but the relatively recent descendants of immigrants, the notion that a name is "American" or not is laughable. In a country like Japan, which has a largely homogeneous population with a similar cultural heritage, it's an entirely different kettle of fish.

That being said, I think a lot of people who live in Japan for awhile are not clear on the concept of what cultural adaptation is and is not. Most of them think that adapting means allowing the Japanese to do and say whatever they want because it is the Japanese way to treat foreigners in a manner which objectifies them either positively or negatively. People who embrace the notion that "prejudice is a right for the Japanese" would fall into this category.

Cultural adaptation in Japan is a matter of following the same rules that the Japanese do when dealing with the Japanese. That is, you need to say your name backwards because that's the way it is done in this country, and you need to write it and say it in a manner which suits their phonetic alphabet so that they can pronounce as close an approximation of your name as possible. You need to at least try to curb the tendency among those in your culture to be blunt and straightforward and communicate your intentions indirectly so that you don't offend people unnecessarily. You also need to follow the neighborhood rules in regards to trash handling, noise, etc. And you at least have to expect to communicate in Japanese with them when you are applying for services or dealing with the bureaucracy.

Cultural adaptation does not include having to eat Japanese food all the time, enjoy their entertainment, or take part in cultural activities like tea ceremony or flower arranging. It doesn't mean you have to make Japanese friends or try to integrate with Japanese people. You should get along with them, but you don't have embark on a futile attempt to become one of them. Adaptation only applies to your behavior in society where it is important that you endeavor not to trouble other people or place a burden on them which is not placed on them when dealing with the Japanese. It does not apply to your private life or interactions with friends, family, or how you spend your time when you're alone.

It also doesn't mean the Japanese have the right to treat you with prejudice because you're different and you have to defend it or accept it with good grace. The Japanese have the right to treat you like other Japanese people, which granted is sometimes not very nice. One of the big mistakes foreign folks sometimes make is assuming they are being treated badly because they're foreigners. Sometimes, the Japanese treat each other badly and they're just doing the same to you.

The notion that adapting to the culture means you have to surrender your identity or tolerate prejudice is one that those who have identity issues and are desperate to be accepted spout on a regular basis, but the truth is that choosing to be more like the Japanese in every respect has nothing to do with cultural adaptation. The person you are in the privacy of your own home has nothing to do with Japanese people or getting along in their society. It's really none of their business.

Trying to be like the Japanese in every respect is a matter of cultural and personal validation, not adaptation. The Japanese love foreigners who love their culture because it makes them feel that their culture is important and attractive on a global scale. Foreigners who get praised for their Japanese ability, chopstick prowess, etc. feel that they are personally valued and accepted. In both cases, it's more about an insecure individual receiving a reassuring pat on the head than about adapting to life in a different culture.

If we're going to measure people's cultural adaptation, then let's use a yardstick that matters rather than sets of arbitrary criteria rooted in the personal psychological issues of each individual. Let's look at how they get along with the outside world and not how they make us feel about our personal tastes and choices.


Anonymous said...

Oh Orchid, this is a fab topic- I had to do a double take, well and I have been with some wives, (their husband being Japanese), not all but some completely give up their identity to the point they don't know who the hell they are- for example: Only watching Japanese TV, or do things that they normally would not do in their own comfort zone.

I have been a bit hesitant or should I say "rebel" against totally submerging myself into the language- I still have that- I am only here because of my husband, which is true, otherwise I would have only visited, I don't like the culture really, I am not interested in the history or seeing the "biggest Buddha" , I am more interested in Europe, my home and those histories.

But I also know that if I want to truly succeed in business here I have to know as much as the language as possible, I have to get my qualification in Japanese, etc... if I can put it toward something that I am doing for myself, then it is acceptable and not pushed.

My husband tried to get transferred to Paris again, but the GOV closed that specific department, and my husbands licenses, qualifications unless he retook the bar in that country would not have any baring.

I see some wives and MEN that say "I only speak Japanese at home" as to the others who don't are below them.. and I sort of snicker at them-- or the one's who spend hours and hours or get up early to make a bento for kids where they would not do it if they were back home to be MORE like them--

I think one or adapting and intertwining ourselves is important and being accepted as an individual for who and what we are rather than becoming one or the other...

I am myself, just only I am myself here.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, GirlJapan, and thanks very much for your comment. You and I see Japan in pretty similar ways. In fact, I have the same rebellion as you do about language immersion, but I don't think that it necessarily serves me well. In a way, dealing with that resistance is part of my personal growth here in Japan. And trust me that being in Japan has been an immense opportunity to test my character and push myself in directions that I never would have psychologically and intellectually had I remained at home.

Like you, I'm not interested in sightseeing or ceremony. I am quite interested in the sociology, psychology, and to some extent the political and social workings of Japan. However, those interests apply to every country and culture, not just this one. This one just happens to be at hand and easier to learn about up close and personal. ;-)

My attitude toward those who go whole hog in the immersion routine is to live and let live. If that is what makes them happy, then good on them. However, I do wonder how discarding one's identity so completely affects one psychologically in the long run. I know that I've had my share of identity issues since coming here, and I haven't even tossed away that much of who I am relative to some people.

Of course, some people are probably more labile than others. It could simply be some psychological rigidity on my part, but I somehow doubt it. Identities are notoriously painful to restructure, hence the reason pre-teen and teen years are so painful.

It'd be interesting if someone would do a study, but I think that the sample is too small and can't be trusted to give honest responses to surveys.

Kelly said...

What about people who genuinely love making their husbands bento or watching Japanese tv all the time? I am that and I don't live in Japan. Sure, you don't have to submit and do those kinds of things if you don't want to but I'm sure the husband would appreciate it. It's not all about "rebelling", in your relationship you also have the feelings of the Japanese partner to consider and what impact it has on them and their relations. It's not a personal thing if it affects others.

True, I couldn't live there full time, but I don't see a reason to snicker about people who obviously have a passion about Japan and it's culture, and love "immersing" themselves in Japanese activities.

There are parts that you do have to submit to or look like a total ignoramus such as living in a country and not speaking the language. I find that totally unacceptable. I would expect anyone who came to my country to make the effort to speak english, and I'm sure the Japanese have every right to expect foreign residents to speak theirs.

Orchid64 said...

Kelly: I'm guessing that your comment is directed at GirlJapan and not me since I already said "whatever makes people happy" in regards to whatever level of immersion is chosen. The whole point of my post was to separate "adaptation" from lifestyle choices and to not judge people based on lifestyle choices (whether they involve retaining their own culture or making choices to follow Japanese ways).

The problem is that when people judge others based on assimilation, it's very subjective, arbitrary, and essentially personal. It's just a way of judging others to validate oneself and has nothing to do with language learning or getting along in the culture. Foreigners here are constantly telling each other what is and isn't enough adaptation - what level of JLPT, how much Japanese food and foreign food they should and shouldn't eat, what sort of activities they should pursue, etc. The bottom line is that none of that matters when we're talking adaptation. Adaptation is simply getting along in the outside world with others and complying with the rules and laws of the country. The U.S. has people who criticize immigrants similarly - mostly Hispanics. That is part of why this whole naming thing was mentioned in my article. They think anyone who comes to America should fit into their idea of "American", but it's simply not important to alter one's identity to adapt to the culture.

The Japanese have no right to expect anything from people who live hear except that they follow the laws and do not trouble them with their linguistic shortcomings. If people enter the country legally and do everything they're supposed to do by law, and can function in their society without language learning, then it's no one's business but the person who decides not to learn the language. The same goes for any country. As long as they're not a problem and are following the law, it's no one's business what they choose to do or not.

Similarly, if you want to serve Japanese food, watch Japanese T.V., etc., but you live in Australia, it's no one's business but yours. Think about how some Australians would react to your choices if you were actually a Japanese person. There are a lot of Western folks who criticize people who enter their country but choose to keep embracing their own culture rather than the new one. Since you're Australian, they see you as making a choice. If you were Japanese, they'd see you as resisting "adaptation".

Anonymous said...

Hi Kelly, I should have clarified my comment more, I am using those as an example of a few folks I know- I laugh at them because "they" give up their own identity just to "fit in", and I think that is unacceptable for anyone, anywhere.

I'm talking about those bento-making mamas who submerge so deeply into something that they normally wouldn't do elsewhere and then complain about it, and the one's I am really laughing at in a "jaded disgust" is those who give up their identity entirely and then refuse their own culture or upbringing just to fit into the Japanese society.

I used those as examples as I seen a few people go off-the-deep end with with, so much so they are not themselves anymore.

I love my husband, but it is not really something I would choose if I had an a,b, and c choice.

This is why I agree so much with "Orchid" The Japanese have no right to expect anything from people who live hear except that they follow the laws and do not trouble them with their linguistic shortcomings. If people enter the country legally and do everything they're supposed to do by law, and can function in their society without language learning, then it's no one's business but the person who decides not to learn the language. The same goes for any country. As long as they're not a problem and are following the law, it's no one's business what they choose to do or not...

I am not sure what you mean it not being a "personal thing" if it affects others? In that case I would have to selfishly put myself first, next my husband and not care about what "outsiders" think, then we would be living for others and not ourselves, right?

I hope I explained my self better about the "snickering" at what I was REALLY laughing about, do you know what I'm trying to say?

Anonymous said...

Opps.. Just one more thought- I've had to noticeable work harder on my dissertation, after living in Japan for so long and the Japanese that I do write and speak has affected my English, writing, speaking- my accent has changed so much (well it changed when I was in GB and working for a GB department) but when I go back and read, I have found I sound like a Japanese person or speak Engrish-- I just wanted to mention that-- = )

Kelly said...

Hi GJ, I meant by "it's not a personal thing if it affects others" in that you can't do everything for yourself if it also will have a negative impact on other people who have a relationship with you.

Like for example, if you put your personal needs first, and skip out on going with the husband to the company dinner, he looks bad, his boss looks down on him for not bringing his wife, he feels out of place because every one else has their other-halves, and in the future he is looked over for promotion because of that incident. (this is just one example of a friends happening). When something that you do, as a personal act becomes an act that has repercussions on your husband and others are also involved.

In australia it wouldn't be a big deal. But in Japan they expect certain things and if you don't do them then you become or make someone else become an outcast because of it. If I lived in Japan of course my husband and I as a couple are important, but the wider community, and our relationship is most important, if you don't want to end up as a social outcast. So if you put yourself first, you are basically casting your social death in stone.

This is just my opinion of course, and some experience I've had in Japan. I have been forced to do quite a few things like this that have social implications even if I wasn't well and didn't feel like attending.

I think in Japan if your married it's hard to be "an individual". You can think you are and you can try, but if you have a significant other, the way others see you will not be as an "individual" and therefore your actions will always have repercussions. :)

Orchid64 said...

Kelly: This is an issue which doesn't affect me since I'm married, but not to a Japanese person.

I believe I know what you are referring to since I've had married students complain about various family responsibilities. That being said, some of them don't follow through on them anyway, and some of their in-laws don't expect them to do much in the way of traditional things. For instance, I have students who are married to the first son or only son and their in-laws neither require nor expect them to look after them (as is traditional). I've also had students who have had to do ceremonial things like handle the bones of their dead in-laws which they loath but have to do anyway. It really just depends on the person and the circumstances.

In real day-to-day life here though, I don't know how often people are called upon to deal with larger expectations of them. Again, I think it depends on the case. I imagine that any Japanese person who marries a foreigner comes from a family that may be atypical (as the Japanese person himself or herself has to be atypical because they married foreign people and not just anyone would do that in Japan). I think some families know when the foreigner comes into the family that things won't be the same as if a Japanese person married their child. However, as always YMMV.

The bottom line is that marriage does cause us all to be taken along for the ride on occasion. This happens in all cultures, not just Japan. I have to do less of that sort of thing because of distance and the implications of it. That being said, my husband is not the sort who complies much with expectations. He tends to go along with only those things that he wants to comply with.

Kelly said...

What is YMMV?

Anonymous said...

My husband is definitely atypical, but so far (unless I am oblivious) "giggles" I have not had to comply with something that would affect my husband, he is the first born son, but his parents are yet very traditional but then again they aren't.

Hard to explain, his father is the president (he just retired) for a political organization which is also a religious one, my husband made it know to his parents at a young age, that he questions everything, does not do or believe in them because someone tells him so... but because of his dads position, he's was expected to do this, and he was treated a certain way because so, not because of himself as person, there forward he became a bit rebellious.

The only situation I can think of, is back in 1999 we rented a townhouse, and I was vacuuming when I came home from work, a neighbor complained to the owner of the building who I also worked for (temp) that I came in late and various ours of the night, and the car door woke them up...

Before I could say anything my husband jumped in along with me, I said what is the difference your screaming baby at 2am and me coming home from work, noise is noise...

Since then the neighbor down the street would give me dirty looks, and because I complained about the kids playing basketball in the parking lot, the ball hit my car tire once, and I had just bought the car... since then they labeled me a "cold heart", but in truth, I did not care at all...

In that situation I was not going to comply and change my working hours to suit them or my lifestyle...

I guess I will comply if I am comfortable with it, doing the extra , but if I am uncomfortable I won't...

The good thing is, my husband is not into doing the community clean up and stuff like that, so he just says he is busy.... that is just an example.

Orchid64 said...

Kelly: "your mileage may vary"

Girl: I think you were probably being singled out because you were a foreigner in regards to noise. I have Japanese neighbors who are in and out at all hours of the day and night. One of them literally comes in and out at all sorts of hours between 7:00 am and 3:00 am. I haven't a clue what he does, but he's in and out 8 times a day slamming his door so close to my kitchen that I think it's my own door when the window is open. He also smokes and when he opens his door, the stench of stale smoke flies in my kitchen and he smokes out there.

What is more, some of my upstairs neighbors smoke and leave butts burning down the to filter in their ashtrays on their balconies and it smells horrible. They also sometimes get drunk and are noisy after midnight on their balcony. They also have thrown dirt and dirty water off their balcony and showered my drying laundry with both of them. The water was the worst as it dribbled through the plastic planks of their balcony directly onto my clothes. An old couple next door have fights and extremely loud conversations all day in front of their house (the door of which is not 10 feet from our living room). No one complains about them (including us), but neighbors complained about our television being too loud before 10:00 pm. I think it's a double standard because they're not as tolerant of us as they are of each other and are just waiting for us to do anything they can run to the landlord about.

Kelly said...

God that sucks Orchid and GJ.

Anonymous said...

Orchid you are dealing with that NOW? Whoa, I hate the smell of smoke, so I know how you feel... You are a very patient woman.

That same place in 1999 the mother would pawn the kids off on me and say "learn English", "learn English" when I was out washing the car or something... ERR..

I guess I didn't care so much about being an outcast with those two neighbors, cause there was no way in hell I could fathom becoming friends with people that are so narrow minded and...ignorant.

The only other stupid gripe I had was once a month a person is selected to place the recycle bins out, but we paid for that service and I thought the landlord should do it or pay for someone to do it.. I was a little upset that my husband complied with it, just to make things easier.. I thought what was the point paying....

I was probably just being a bitch because of the complain about my hours...

Orchid64 said...

The smoking issues are actually very recent (especially the burning butts and the ashtray on the balcony), and I did have to ask the landlord to ask the neighbor to stop tossing dirty cleaning water on his balcony though I did it in the least accusatory manner possible (essentially saying I knew they were unaware and had no intention to cause me problems, but could they please not do it). The rest is ongoing.

I mentioned those things not to whine about them or whatever because I honestly don't think people do them for any other reason than they are oblivious to the impact it has on others, but rather to make it clear that Japanese neighbors are far from courteous and considerate. They do all sorts of things that cause other people problems and are either oblivious or indifferent to the impact it has on others.

I can understand your feelings about the recycle bins. We also pay a "maintenance fee" of 2000 yen a month so someone will sweep up fallen debris (mostly leaves, branches, dust) around the front and back of the narrow passages around our building and do things like put out the trash net and recycling cartons. That means that they collect 12000 a month from the building for sweeping up once a month (which is how often they do it) and for taking 3 minutes to do the rest once or twice a week. Sometimes, the recycle bins aren't even put out and I have to carry the trash halfway up the street and put it in someone else's bin. We should get what we pay for, but a lot of the fees are just an excuse to wring more cash out of us.