"CULTURAL SENSITIVITY TRAINING"
WHAT'S THE RIGHT WAY TO GO ABOUT IT?
(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Wed, 24 Jun 1998)
Last week I was asked to attend, as a representative of our university, one of these "International Communication Promotion Committee" (Kokusai Kouryuu Sokushin Kyougikai) thingies in our local burg, a city outside of Sapporo proper. Sponsored by the municipal government, the committee states that they want to promote "an exchange of views without reserve (kitan)" between Japanese and non-Japanese, adding that they have 250 registered foreigners (a burgeoning 0.2% of a population of 120,000) to play with. After five years of meetings, they have just received government approval (i.e. funding) to sponsor the first annual "Gathering for International Communication" (Kokusai Kouryuu no Tsudoi--it's amazing how much lack of variation there is in the English translations). Why? They "aim to make their fine town a nice place for both Japanese and foreigners" (nihonjin mo gaikokujin mo sumiyoi machizukuri o mezasiteiru). Hence, a few months in advance, they want a real live foreigner's input into this event at a committee meeting. Guess who our school tapped.
Yeah sure, I first thought, I've heard this all before. I'd go to this meeting and it'd be: "How wonderful it is to have you with us, Honored Guest from The Outside Country. What do you think about all this? Oh, you have divergent opinions? Well, most of them are unworkable because This Is Japan and you just don't understand so you let us think about this for a little while and meanwhile on to other inputs from likeminded people." Yes, experience has made me pretty jaded.
However, upon further reflection (and backdoor research on this particular committee), I came to think that maybe a little input may be not just what they need, but precisely what they want. The members are full of rich housewives, who are in general far more cosmopolitan (from travel), activist on their projects (from boredom), and open-minded than the average male bureaucrat or male university professor (from sheer common sense). From his own experience, my Australian colleague told me they are more progressive than one would expect. Finally, I thought, as it's their first annual event, why not get in some constructive input at the inception before people become prisoners of precedent? If they do it right the first time, more's the better in future.
I sat down with the professor who wanted to shunt this project onto me, and I was quite frank, speaking in English (he's been overseas and so is quite keen on that):
Me: Sensei, I'll go to this meeting on one condition.
S: And what's that?
Me: If they're genuinely going to listen to my opinions.
S: Well, that's what they say they want.
Me: But that's what they *always* say they want. They want input from "a foreigner". That's not how I want to be seen.
S: And how do you want to be seen? (NB: I find it's most effective to walk my listener through this thought process step-by-step so that it will sink in.)
Me: Not *as a foreigner*. As a *person*, giving opinions as an individual or as an instructor of our fine university.
Me: Sensei, I don't know if you understand the word "tokenism", but I don't want to be used as a nontalking head--a name to legitimize the committee without giving me the ability to help steer it.
Sensei, understandibly, didn't really get it, so I illustrated my point with an event I attended which really polarized my views, making The Who my mantra--"Won't Get Fooled Again!":
I was a judge at a high school English speech contest (benron taikai) about five years ago. There were five judges on the panel--three Japanese professors, two White native instructors (myself included). After all the speeches we repaired to the consultation room, where I thought we would have a roundtable evaluation. Nope. The three professors congealed in the corner to hobnob in Japanese, shutting out the other native judge who didn't speak the lingo. So he and I compared notes and decided on our favorite contestant, whom I'll call "A-san".
The three Japanese judges came over and The Leader said, "We think 'B-san' should win."
Says I: "That's fine, but we thought about this too and chose A-san. Here's our criteria." It turns out that we had focussed more on content and logical consistency of the speech itself, and they more on delivery. Which would be fine if one would hybridize the decision.
The Leader simply said, "Well, we chose B-san."
I replied: "Well, we didn't. Maybe we should work together this time to reconsider."
The Leader retorted: "We three chose this person, you two chose that. The majority decision is B-san."
"But you did not consult with us at all."
Finally, The Leader brought out the big guns: "We three Japanese chose this person. This Is Japan and our decision stands."
"And this is an English contest and we are native speakers. Doesn't that matter?"
It didn't. B-san won. The other native judge demurred throughout, for one simple reason: The Leader was his boss at his university. The deck had been stacked from the start and I was getting steamrollered.
Back to the present. Sensei was in tears laughing at the absurdity of this scenario, so I concluded:
"So there I took the money and ran. But I promised myself that I would never find myself in another one of these situations, lending my foreignness but not my input. So I ask you again: Is this group really going to listen to my opinions?"
Sensei's mirth dried up, and he now sat upright and seriously considered my concern. "Yes, I think they would. They would not specifically ask for our school's foreign instructor if they did not want your opinion."
Now it was my turn to bolt upright. "Sensei, excuse me, but I am not a 'foreign instructor'. 'Foreign Instructor' is 'gaikokujin kyoushi' or 'gaikokujin kyouin'. I am neither. My official title is 'koushi', just like you as 'kyouju'. I am an educator with the same status in this university as you. I do not want to be seen as a foreigner giving opinions. I want to be seen as a PERSON giving opinions."
He was nodding with firm assent, so I hammered the cultural sensitivity home:
"Because, Sensei, I am not a foreigner. I am a resident. I live here. Been here ten years. I have Permanent Residence, a Japanese wife, Japanese kids, Japanese land and a house (Sensei interjected that even HE didn't have a house). I pay taxes and contribute to society the same as you. Now I want to make sure I can contribute to this Kyougikai the same as you. I need assurance that I will be seen the same way as this before I can take a seat on this committee."
Sensei was responding better than I had anticipated: "This is precisely why you should be there! More Japanese should know about this feeling and you should explain it to them. I would like to give a speech on this myself, to introduce you, but I'm not sure I can be there that night."
"Thanks, Sensei, but that's not necessary. I prefer to speak for myself. Leave it to me then. I'll go alone."
And so that's how I got volunteered. It seems promising (especially since I know I won't have anybody from my university there to muzzle me), but I want to make sure I do this right from the start myself, with good input from others.
So here is the point of this email: another modest proposal. Below are a few ideas I will translate into Japanese (click here to see Japanese version) and distribute as a handout at the meeting. Pour votre vetting. The tone of the writing might sound stilted or even lacrymose, but I'm doing it in a "checklist" format that I think might appeal to the "how-to" mindset found in Japanese-style social studies. As follows:
HOW TO PUT ON AN INTERNATIONAL GATHERING
By David Aldwinckle, Instructor, HIU
International gatherings are events that are often seen as "important for Japan's future". But they are also events where people simply get together and have fun. The important thing is to stress the fun and not be too serious, because who wants to attend a serious party? To make the party's atmosphere more friendly and welcoming, and less stiff and exclusive, I would like to suggest the following approaches to meeting with people from different cultures:
1) STRESS SIMILARITIES, NOT DIFFERENCES.
When comparing cultures and asking questions about a person's home country, try not to ask pointed questions about whether "this person can or cannot eat nattou", or make statements about a person's chopstick prowess. Never assume that something, from food to even simple skills, is unique to Japan. The best thing to do is never point out the differences at all. If you have an honest question, make it more "Do you have this in your country?", instead of a "You don't have this in your country, do you?" sort of thing. Questions about differences not phrased properly will become annoying to your listener.
2) TREAT THE NON-JAPANESE AS PEOPLE, NOT AS TEMPORARY GUESTS.
Avoid questions such as "Where is home?", "When will you go home?" or assume that the person is only here for a short time. Many people, myself included, live here indefinitely, so this is our home. Be welcoming and friendly, sure, but never say things with the nuance that the person is transitory or does not belong here. Likewise:
3) TREAT THE NON-JAPANESE AS AN INDIVIDUAL, NOT A REPRESENTATIVE
OF A COUNTRY.
The people you will meet are not trained international ambassadors, and the reason for the get-together is NOT to compare countries or promote international friendship. It is to promote friendship, period. Make friends with people because you like them for their personality, not their national origin. Deeper friendships come about when hearts, not governments, meet.
4) AVOID OSEKKAI YAKI ("unsolicited advice / meddling").
Never give advice about "things Japanese" unless the other person asks for it. Never assume the other person knows nothing about Japan. It can be insulting to those who have worked hard to study it. Likewise,
5) AVOID STRESSING ASSUMED CULTURAL INCOMPATIBILITY.
Try your best to avoid any "This Is Japan and We Japanese don't do this" arguments when responding to ideas, proposals, or suggestions [since this committee wants to sponsor ethnic food/dance/costume events in future]. Defeatism will deter people from future participation.
6) SPEAK THE LANGUAGE THE OTHER PERSON WANTS.
If the person wants to speak in Japanese, let him or her do so--for after all, we are in Japan. Don't assume that Japanese is too difficult for non-Japanese to speak (it's simply untrue). And most importantly, don't attend this event assuming that you can practice your language skills; the attendees might think they are just being used, and they will not come back. Use the language that most facilitates communication, but check with them (in Japanese) in advance as to what language they want to use.
7) STRESS FUN OVER AGENDA.
Speeches, events, and fixed seating at get-togethers only drive wedges between people. The event should NOT have every minute planned. Have lots of food and drink and keep the speeches short and few. One speech a few minutes' long at the beginning and one a few minutes' long at the end should suffice. Let people mill about; consider not having fixed seating--as in cocktail-party style. Let people spend the bulk of the time talking one-on-one, getting to know each other. If you have an agenda to fill, bring it up at the very end, say, to see what future international events people would volunteer in. A high participation rate means your party was a success. Allow the booze-induced chemistry and spontaneity to take effect.
COMMON WORDS TO AVOID IN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXTS:
(in English and Japanese)
Address the person by name, or remember the person's country when talking about overseas life. Keep the mode of address personal and specific.
b) "wareware nipponjin"/"we Japanese".
"Nihonjin"/"Japanese" by itself will do, so avoid "we" altogether. It gives people the "in-group"/"out-group" feeling and linguistically erects walls.
c) "minna kou omoimasu...shimasu" etc. /"everybody thinks...
does things etc. this way".
Take care not to make statements that assume that things/situations/people are 100% this way or that. It's almost never true, and it makes you sound superior at times. Just be careful not to overgeneralize about social contexts.
d) "Boku wa [kono kuni] ga suki desu. Da kara anata to aitai."/"I
like this country, and that's why I want to meet you."
Again, see the person as a person, not as a national representative.
e) "Gaijin ga ookute, nippon rashikunai" / "There's so many
foreigners it doesn't feel like Japan anymore."
I doubt anyone is going to be so frank as to say this to a non-Japanese's face, but I remember overhearing it at a 1998 Finland International Trade Fair, part of a conversation between two antsy Japanese. Please take care to not make careless statements that would make your attendees, who may very well speak Japanese, uncomfortable.
f) "Nihongo ga ojouzu desu ne." /"How good your Japanese is!"
This on the surface may not sound like a bad thing, but for many people who are here forever, this can sound insincere (more a conditioned reflex than a reasoned appraisal), if not belittling. Several years' living in Japan of course should mean that they are good at Japanese, and an assumption that they cannot be just increases the "We Japanese are unique and You Foreigners must be lingustically separate" feeling. Try not to make the other person's language skills a topic of conversation.
IN CONCLUSION, the goal of the party is to make your foreign guests NOT FEEL like foreign guests, and the best way to do that is to chat with them much the same way you would chat with Japanese guests. Get to know them as an individual, don't stress cultural differences, and be friendly and welcoming in the languages, of course including Japanese, that are most conducive to open communication. For free and open communication with people from other places is where Japan's future lies.
I presented this information on July 8, 1998 at aformentioned international relations committee. If you would like to see the handout I gave to them in Japanese, click here.
If you would like to read more feedback in English, both about the email post
above and the presentation I gave, click here.
And if you would like to see how it all turned out in the end, click here.
Copyright 1998-2005, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan