"CULTURAL SENSITIVITY" PART TWO
FEEDBACK FROM BOTH CYBERSPACE AND THE COMMITTEE
(Click here to go back to Part One)
(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Fri, 10 Jul 1998)
Last month, June 24th to be precise, I posted you about an invitation I got to a local "International Communication Promotion Committee" (Kokusai Kouryuu Sokushin Kyougikai), where I expressed reservations about being used as a "non-talking head": I feared I would be lending my foreignness but not my input. I decided to do it anyway after further research about the committee. For your vetting I then hammered out a proposal for "How to Put On an International Gathering", as an attempt to foster some sort of greater "cultural sensitivity".
I have had several requests from people wanting to know how it all went, so that will be the point of this update. Structured as follows:
1) REFRESHER ON WHAT I SAID IN MY PROPOSAL (with two additions)
2) YOUR VIEWS FROM CYBERSPACE (long, but worth it)
3) HOW MY PRESENTATION AT THE COMMITTEE WENT
(which is PART THREE, a separate URL)
Here we go.
I will only give my topic sentences, as you probably only just got finished PART ONE. Japanese version here.
HOW TO PUT ON AN INTERNATIONAL GATHERING
Suggested approaches to meeting with people from different cultures:
1) STRESS SIMILARITIES, NOT DIFFERENCES.
2) TREAT THE NON-JAPANESE AS PEOPLE, NOT AS TEMPORARY GUESTS.
3) TREAT THE NON-JAPANESE AS AN INDIVIDUAL, NOT A REPRESENTATIVE OF A COUNTRY.
4) AVOID OSEKKAI YAKI ("unsolicited advice / meddling").
5) AVOID STRESSING ASSUMED CULTURAL INCOMPATIBILITY.
6) SPEAK THE LANGUAGE THE OTHER PERSON WANTS.
7) STRESS FUN OVER AGENDA
Now for the controversial bits (with additions (e) and (f), which I came up with later):
COMMON WORDS TO AVOID IN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXTS:
b) "wareware nipponjin"/"we Japanese".
c) "minna kou omoimasu...shimasu" etc. /"everybody thinks... does things etc. this way".
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."
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. etc.
That's what I said. Now here's what you said
2) VIEWS FROM CYBERSPACE
Date: Mon, 29 Jun 1998
Dave, (snip) You were asked to be a racial token. Of course you resented it. Who wouldn't? But what surprised me is that you never noticed all the tokenism in American society, and thus had no idea how to deal with it when you were the one being used.
I must say that I sympathize with you. I also quickly found that if I didn't play the game the way the Japanese wanted me to I wasn't invited back. Well, I am not here because I want to be someone's exotic, foreign experience (although you can get good money doing that). Japanese in general have frighteningly off-base ideas about the outside world (snip) and need to get serious information. The problem is they think they already have it.
The question this brings up in my mind is why you still want to become a Japanese citizen. You will never be anything more than a racial token to people, and Japan will never admit more than token minorities. Many of them honestly believe that multi-ethnicity is the root of all social evils.
Well, keep struggling. Opening minds is what education's all about.
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
Hurrah for Dave Aldwinckle for his perseverance and apparently never-flagging optimism. I speak from a slightly more cynical, and recently more chastened point of view, however, but I *have* tried in the recent past to raise consciousness on these matters.
Members of my English department, where I am a tenured, full professor, used to ask me (with tongue firmly in cheek) every year to give one of the six "Summer Public Lectures" (Kaki Kokai Koza) in Japanese, which the School of Letters sponsors for the general public to attend. I don't think they ever thought I would say yes, but--much to their suprise, and perhaps later, their chagrin--I volunteered two years ago.
I chose as my lecture title "Koko wa Nihon, Watashi wa Gaijin" (with the "koko" written in Katakana for effect). One of the sections of the lecture covered the "Five Greetings" (Itsutsu no aisatsu) that nonnative speakers of Japanese often hear when they open their mouths and utter even one word of Japanese. (Nihongo ga ojodzu desu, Okuni wa dochira desuka, Nihon ryori taberaremasuka?, and my all-time favorite: Nihon ni iru yotei wa dono gurai desuka?, which I suggested was properly understood as a slightly veiled way of asking "When are you leaving?).
My point was that, Japanese people think they are being friendly (naka yoku suru tsumori) when they make these remarks to foreigners, but in fact their remarks and questions are often alienating and can be offensive since they serve the performative function of othering the foreigner and essentially casting up a wall or barrier to real communication, almost the equivalent of drawing a line in the sand between "wareware nihonjin" and the person who is the object of these remarks.
David and many other issho readers and posters know all this, of course, and I don't mean to preach to the converted, but what surprised me at this lecture was the complete inability of my audience to understand what I was trying to get across. (Mind you, this was probably not simply a language problem. I took no chances with this lecture, and used Microsoft Powerpoint to prepare 50-some slides in Japanese with illustrations , lest my spoken Japanese should fail to get the points across clearly; I also wrote out the entire lecture, had it carefully edited by a native speaker/editor/translator, and even practiced delivering it several times).
I was quite astonished when, during the question and answer period, people stood up almost in tears and said that they really were sincere when they complimented foreigners' Japanese ability and that they did not mean anything negative or offensive by these other remarks (which nobody, by they way, denied were de rigueur).
This was my whole point, of course, that the consciousness levels were completely different, and that there was a complete dissonance in the communication as a result (compliments becoming insults, friendly intent being interpreted as offensive othering), thus making it virtually impossible really to communicate. The inability of my audience to consider that what I, as a foreigner speaking Japanese, heard and what they intended to communicate were vastly different opened my eyes to a very sad situation.
I was reminded of the story of the German boy who went to Holland (not knowing a word of Dutch), saw a big house with a garden, asked someone who it belonged to, and was told by the Dutch person he asked: "Kannitverstan" (which means "I can't understand you" in Dutch). He didn't know the meaning of the phrase, though, and thought that Kannitverstan was a person's name. When he asked who owned various stores and other places, he got the same answer. He naturally decided that this "Kannitverstan" was an amazingly fortunate and accomplished man. Then a funeral procession passed by. He asked who had died and, of course, the answer was "Kannitverstan." He then saw how transient all earthly values were. It is a mildly funny story, but the underlying gross misunderstanding that gives rise to a whole chain of thinking completely divorced from the actual circumstances is the real point. In our case I think both the foreigner and the Japanese bestower of attention are in the same boat.
Perhaps a better analogy for this amazing breakdown in communication is the modern women's movement's objection to sexist language some 25 years ago when almost nobody (neither men nor women) could conceptualize what was going on linguistically. Why were terms like "girl" and "dear" and "honey" offensive to grown women when used by men? Why was the pedestalization of women offensive? These were very difficult concepts to grasp (still are for many people), and it has taken a lot of writing and talking to clarify this linguistic situation and to change it. What men ostensibly intended and what women were hearing were vastly different, and it has cost a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (and in the case of Mitsubishi Motors, USA, tons of money) to get these points across.
Until there is widespread acknowledgement in Japan (starting with the government and Mombusho) that discrimination even exists, and until there is a willingness and concerted effort to change it, especially in the educational system, any attempts at consciousness-raising are doomed IMHO. Since the denial that discrimination is even a reality is nearly total, I have, in effect, thrown in the towel on this one.
So good luck, David. I'm glad somebody has the energy and optimism to keep chipping away at these barriers to international communication and hasn't been driven to despair, Prozac, or worse. Maybe someday things will change and the deeply-rooted provincialism in Japan will ameliorate. I, for one, am not holding my breath.
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
Dave, I can identify with your story about being the token foreigner. I am a psych grad student finishing up my PhD at [X] University now and I was a JET 8 years ago, so I've been in plenty of situations in which I'm just a foreigner and not really an individual. I thought you covered a lot of relevant points in your rough plan of how to put on an international gathering. It did seem to contain a few too many "not" and "don't" sentences which gave it a sort of negative feel. I think many of the sentences you put in the negative can probably be rephrased in positive terms.
I have read some of your other essays and you seem to like to relate things in a narrative form, something you are good at. You might consider using the same approach when trying to get these points across. Embed them in one or two narratives (however many it takes) and tell a story that is interesting, believable, and one that will lead your audience to empathy rather than fear (fear of asking, saying or doing the wrong thing). People often remember narratives much better than they do checklists.
In my grad seminars at [X] University I enter into conversations about intercultural communication from time to time, especially when it's my turn to do a presentation. I once did a presentation on questions Japanese people ask foreigners, and I focused mainly on the chopsticks question. I presented what I thought was a pretty balanced opinion from both sides of the coin, but I was a bit surprised at the reactions from the other grad students and the professor. I was actually taking the Japanese side, but I also revealed what some foreigners think and how they feel when certain questions are asked of them. I also told them about "English leeches". Well, they had never heard any of this before, so I suppose it was natural for them to go on the defensive. The professor (who is over confident in his knowledge of international relations because he spent 3 years in the US) was particularly hostile. It really taught me a lesson about "diversity training." I don't think I'll try another one of those sessions until my Japanese gets to the point where I can skillfully hedge and soften my statements.
Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998
David, Sympathetic as I am, I wonder about one thing:
If everyone is supposed to be treated as a person and not as a representative of a nation, why call it an inter_nation_al gathering? Why not call it an inter_person_al gathering? Why not make it a gathering for everyone who lives in a particular neighborhood? Why not have a gathering for everyone who works at University H, for example? Why everybody who digs Miles Davis? Why not...?
The very idea of an international gathering, like the very idea of the United Nations, is that these people are somehow representing nations. Isn't it?
FMU always gives very thought-provoking comments, so I responded privately thus:
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
From: Dave Aldwinckle
At 5:42 PM 6/24/98 FMU wrote: (snip)
>The very idea of an international gathering, like the very idea of the United Nations, is that these people are somehow representing nations. Isn't it?
Which is why "international gatherings" like these are so fallacious. Making people represent something that they neither can nor are trained to do--whole societies. I can understand that the organizers are being earnest. I just don't like the contrived nature of this sort of thing and the "how-to" approach towards social studies that predominates here. People don't go to these things because they, say, dig Miles Davis, and all have something to say on apprecations of some art, etc.. They go to these things very often to study foreigners like bugs in a jar, IMHO. I'm going to try to ameliorate that, if possible, by suggesting they inject more "social" into the "studies".
Anyway, as always, thanks for your feedback.
But of course, not everyone gives productive advice. That's just the way of the world, I guess. As follows:
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
Subject: Mau Mauing the Flak Catcher
Take your cultural sensitivity and ram it right up your own condescending ass.
Your career and probably your life are predicated on being a professional gaijin. It is the utmost in hypocrisy for you to yammer on about shabby treatment, while collecting "fees" for showing up, being white and living here. I'd like to think of you as a parody, but somehow I can't bring myself to. Really. You appear to have nothing at all to say about Japan other than, "I'm not respected enough." Yet, absurdly, your incessant demand is not only that you be heard, but that you be heeded. Yet you offer no reason that anyone should listen to you other than as a (token) foreigner.
I attended this committee on a voluntary basis. I have not and will receive no fees. Onward:
Date: Wed, 01 Jul 1998
As always you have put together an intelligent, well reasoned set of ideas that doesn't pull any punches and doesn't allow anyone to slip out of the way. You probably hit on every single beef I ever had about similar events. I am very curious how it will be received though. I hope you will be able to communicate to these energetic people that you are representing a lot of people's complaints, and experiences, without being singled out as a whining, ungrateful guest who complains about well-intentioned Japanese hospitality. I was only able to get around the defensive, "we never mean anything derogatory when we call you a gaijin" "we are showing our interest and concern when we ask about your chopstick usage" type of response once or twice.
Good luck, as always on your crusade. I'm glad that you're out there fighting it day by day.
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
David: (snip) Regarding the handout, how quickly can you give me a translated copy? Seriously, I could use something like this in some of the classes I teach. It would be received by students who, for the most part, would appreciate it.
It looks just fine to me. Of course, everyone will have his own little addition to offer. Me? You forgot to include the word, "wagakuni", as a xenophobic example that never fails to light my fire. Though I think it is used more in written than in spoken (or at least, conversational) Japanese. Another that befuddles me when I see it in univ administrative forms, etc: "kikoku" --- what's that supposed to mean to me? Then again, I wonder what it means to you, given your strong assertions that Japan is your permanent home? Actually, Japan is my home, too, but most of the time I consider myself to be __in__ it but not __of__ it and I wonder if this suits me just fine.
Anyway, your handout looks to me as a fine, very useful, piece of thinking. I wish you success with this event. (snip)
Posts like these make it all feel worthwhile. But enough ego massage. Back to pragmatics:
Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1998
Hey debito I see you are still piling on work like one of Dagwood's sandwiches. Take it easy!
The handout looks good. You might want to suggest some of the following: Have participants complete a questionnaire/survey before the event so they can have thought (is that good English?) about the topic(s) Oftentimes, the subject is a particularly heavy topic, but the participants don't really have any opinions because they haven't had time to form them. Then, those who have the most dogmatic viewpoints end up expressing theirs.
Though you mentioned something similar, you want to note that it is important to _structurally_ design the event to encourage open communication. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get Japanese away from the 'every minute planned, every stone turned' itinerary. That's because they think that the socializing will happen a la gasshuku, after the meeting. Thus my (and probably your) habit to leave the evening free if someone wants to go out and talk after the event. There is probably a balancing act between fixed schedules and completely free programs
Things like 'let's introduce Japanese culture' sound quite appealing, but are generally a flop. Why? Because probably the same percentage of foreigners wants to try a Japanese 'do' as the foreigners. How many Japanese people actually DO tea ceremony? Or a better example would be taking a bunch of Japanese salarimen and housewives visiting America to play football. There are reasons why it takes several years to get good at some of these things.
Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998
Dave and everyone,
Regarding Dave's Aldwinkle's invitation to talk at the "Gathering for International Communication" (Kokusai Kouryuu no Tsudoi), I'm a little confused by your posting. On the one hand you say you want to be taken seriously as "merely" a representative of the university (just like any other professor), and that you want an opportunity to present _your_ views on the various topics under discussion. You don't want to be "used" as a representative of a country or way of life you are by your own choice somewhat estranged from. Unless the meeting happens to be an academic or quasi-academic meeting or conference in your own specialty (like the english contest), the only reason you are being invited is that you are a handy foreigner, right? Go with your eyes open.
I sympathize with how you must feel, but I think you do a slight disservice to the hosts of the meeting. Your experience growing up in the US, and in Japan of 10 years, etc, etc, is quite possibly far more extensive than that of the other 250 foreigners in your area. In a way you have a responsibility to _them_ as much as you have a responsibility to your higher ideals of promoting discussion on your own terms (ie. your "talking points" memo -- apologies to Monica Lewinsky). To me your talking points sound ever so much like the "Western individualist" struggling to break out from within a "sea of conformity" ("listen to ME, ME, ME"). Who can be so naive to believe, and promote in public no less, that they are only individuals with no other history, baggage or cultural patrimony (good and bad)? You fall right into the trap of exhibiting and promoting every cultural stereotype of the lone ranger mentality you say they are trying to pidgeonhole you into. I'm also wondering how you expect to promote your views when you are going to recommend that the whole meeting be an informal cocktail party.
You'll be charming in conversation, I'm sure. You'll be the envy of all the other foreigners who don't speak Japanese as well as you do (like me). Your hosts will be charmed by the "wonderfully frank and open exchange" of ideas you will promote. It sounds like you can't win at this game, Dave. No matter what you do you'll be either scorned as a "Japanese" (you do want to be seen as Japanese, I gather, or at least as a Japanese resident) too outspoken for his own good, or as a "typical foreigner" who can get away with saying things "real" Japanese can't, and you'll be amusing for that reason too.
I don't mean to upset you or anyone else on the list. I really respect what you've done with your house and everything... and I've followed all your fascinating posts over two years now, but this post has confused me because it belies a confusion over what you really want to do or think you should do, or how you wish you were perceived by others. It is pretty darned hard to change those perceptions, one speech or one martini at a time. Good luck.
One of my friends would agree with GH. When discussing my proposal with several students of mine, one of them, a really cool guy (a certified US CPA) who has lived for donkey's years in the West, really guffawed:
"You are so SPOILED! What is this 'Don't evaluate the other person's language ability'!? If you go anywhere in Europe and try to speak their language, no matter what your level is, they'll bend over backwards to tell you how good you are! I don't care if you are fluent in Spanish--which I am--if you look different--which as an Asian I do--the Spaniards are going to gush. Same in Oslo, same in Amsterdam, same in London. The only places where they don't gush after you reach a certain language level is the US, where people think speaking English is just something that everybody does, or France, where people think speaking French is something everybody should do.
"The ideas in this proposal are just so AMERICAN! And America, keep in mind, is really very unique in the world for its cultural blindness and tolerance. You want to enforce these Americanized rules in Japan? You couldn't even enforce some of these rules in Europe!"
That really echoed inside. It just so happens the only two languages in which I have any linguistic competence, aside from Japanese, are English and French--thus leaving me unusually thin-skinned towards linguistic flattery. I guess "spoiled" really is the right word.
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998
Hi David, As usual, I agree with your general position on these types of things, and spend a lot of my English classes talking about these types of things. I, too, when I get the chance, try to make the same argument to Japanese people: to treat foreigners, not as guests but as individuals; to stress similarities instead of differences; to encourage people to speak Japanese; etc.
I agree with your points, but thought I would add some input. As you already know, the type of event that you allude to is often (always?) headed by people who want to practice their English. This being the case, I think you should stress the language issue a lot more. The aim, one would hope, of international exchange events, would be to help foreigners feel that they are a real part of the society and to help them become a more meaningful part of the society. Without Japanese ability, this is impossible. Those Japanese who want to practice their English will often avoid those that speak Japanese well and spend all their time with non-speakers of Japanese. Often times, the non-speakers would like to try to speak Japanese but are too overwhelmed. When such "internationally-minded" Japanese ask me what they can do for foreigners, I usually tell them to speak with foreigners in Japanese and encourage them to use the language. Inevitably, they are disappointed.
The primary aim of "International Communication Promotion Committees" should be, I think, to facilitate more meaningful involvement of the foreigners in the community. To accomplish this, foreigners should be educated about ways that they can be involved, actively encouraged to be involved, and encouraged and assisted in improving their Japanese so that their involvement becomes more possible. I would add to your list the following:
1.) INVITE FOREIGNERS TO EVENTS THAT ARE NOT SPECIFICALLY FOR FOREIGNERS. ACTIVELY ENCOURAGE THEIR INVOLVEMENT IN THE PLANNING.
The best foreign exchanges are going to occur when the event is not ABOUT foreign exchange. I know that this will be a difficult sell to a group planning an international exchange event, but these events by their very nature are counter to a lot of the points you make. As you mention, the fun needs to be played up, and the international exchange emphasis needs to be played down. Otherwise, they turn into a "let's meet the foreigners" event. Japanese who cannot speak English (and foreigners who don't want to!) tend to stay away, and the only ones who attend are Japanese who want to practice their English and foreigners who enjoy getting the guest treatment. Seeing foreigners as individuals is ruled out before the event even begins.
Some of the most enjoyable events I have attended in Japan, however, have been events that are open to the general public: undokai's, school festivals, sports tournaments, playing on a soccer team, playing in a local go tournament, etc. Local events, where one can meet people in the neighborhood, are the best. My next door neighbor, a friendly older guy, said to us, "Oh, I didn't know you could speak Japanese!" This was a year after we arrived.
2.) TRY TO GET FOREIGNERS INVOLVED IN NEIGHBOR GROUPS, ASSOCIATIONS, SPORTS TEAMS, ETC.
Unfortunately, many foreigners (at least that I have talked to) don't even know what a "jijikai" is or that there is a local community center. Many neighborhoods have volleyball teams, etc. but foreigners are not always encouraged or even asked to be involved. Many foreigners are not aware of these types of organizations, and would benefit from an explanation about their workings.
3.) PLAN SOME CIVICS CLASSES OR PRESENTATIONS FOR FOREIGNERS ABOUT THE WORKINGS OF THEIR LOCAL COMMUNITY. THE AIM SHOULD BE EMPOWERING FOREIGNERS AND HELPING THEM TO BE MORE INDEPENDENT AND INVOLVED.
In America and many other countries, civics classes for foreigners are common. In Japan, they do not exist. Hopefully, international promotion committees could help to fill some of this void. Take foreigners on a tour of the neighborhoods facilities. Take them to the library and help them get a library card; show them how to use the library; introduce them to some of the political issues of the neighborhood; have a lawyer talk about some of their rights and responsibilities as residents; introduce them to the heads of the PTA, jijikai, and other local organizations; provide information about medical facilities, what to do in the event of an emergency, etc.; provide information about sporting facilities, joining teams, etc. (I would have joined a soccer team four years ago if I new there was a team I could join. I just found a team by chance about six months ago.); provide information and forms on how to get permanent residence and/or citizenship (so we don't have to read about it on David Aldwinckle's home page) and encourage foreigners to think about taking these steps; etc. etc. etc.
4.) ESTABLISH A VOLUNTEER NETWORK OF JAPANESE TUTORS.
Japanese classes often fail because they are structured classes--inevitably "shokyuu" classes--that are geared towards first year ALT's and those who are not terribly serious about learning Japanese. Such classes are usually conducted in English. In getting volunteers, the emphasis should be on having people who DO NOT speak English, and on having all tutoring take place in Japanese. Longer term residents, who would benefit from more intensive and practical-oriented help, may at first be skeptical because there have been so many of these meaningless beginner classes. I am thinking of tutors who will work to help foreigners become more independent in their use of Japanese. Work on writing letters to schools, reading memos from schools, filling in forms, ordering things on the phone, etc. An impossible dream perhaps, but in the States, I worked as a volunteer doing this type of tutoring.
All this was excellent advice. I would have adopted these ideas except that I realized the committee wasn't there as a forum for me to speak, and time constraints would parse me down to about 20 minutes max.
Speaking of the committee, let me tell you how that was. Please go on to PART THREE: HOW IT ALL WENT, in a separate post.