Growing up in the United States, I always had the feeling that I didn’t belong. From a very young age, I remember sitting outside on the front steps of our house, gazing into the distance, feeling the wind blow through my hair and wishing our family would just pack up and move to some far away town where no one would know me and I could re-invent myself and start all over again. Maybe I could figure out how to fit in, if I could only have a second chance.
Later I became interested in the Japanese culture and language. Something about it really resonated with me, and I decided that the reason I felt so out of place must have been because I actually belonged in Japan. So I decided I would move there– and I did. And I felt more at home there than I ever had anywhere else. Maybe I had been Japanese in a past life, and had just happened to be born in the wrong country this time around. (That became my running joke: “I was Japanese in a past life.”)
And I continued to be convinced of this for years. I identified myself as “Japanese at heart”. My Japanese friends agreed with me, too– they said I didn’t seem like the typical American at all, and that I was even more Japanese than they were. And in so many ways, it was true! I was (and still am) reserved, modest, quiet and polite. I had all the marks of a traditional Japanese girl.
After a couple years of living in Japan though, a startling realization began to creep up on me. It took a while for me to accept it, because I knew that if I did, I would have to start steering my life in a totally new direction. But eventually I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that whispered, “What if you don’t belong here, either?”
I began to realize there were certain things about Japanese culture that I couldn’t really accept into my worldview. What bothered me the most was the Japanese work ethic. Working as the only foreign teacher at a high school in Yokohama (the second-largest Japanese city next to Tokyo), I got a taste of it first-hand. The expectation that you should give everything to your work. That your work should be your life. I came to dread the morning commute on the train every day, because it was full of stony-faced people in suits whose expressions just spelled out “I don’t want to be here.” It was depressing. So many of my Japanese coworkers came in before 8 am and stayed past 7 pm every day. They never stopped. They were always busy with something. And this was considered normal! These people had no lives outside of their jobs. I didn’t understand how they could live that way. As a foreign teacher who wasn’t responsible for much besides teaching my classes, I didn’t have quite as much work to do, but it was hard not to succumb to the pressure and feel like I should be doing more. When you see everyone else working so hard, you feel like you should be working hard too. That’s the Japanese work ethic: You give 110% because that’s what everyone else does. You stay late because everyone else does. You might not feel like going to that drinking party, but you go because everyone else is going. You don’t take a vacation because your boss doesn’t. You sacrifice your individual desires for the sake of the group.
And I couldn’t accept that. I thought about quitting several times during that year in Yokohama, because it was almost too much for me. (Though fortunately there were also a lot of positive things about the job, such as some really wonderful students, that motivated me to stick it out.) There were too many things I wanted to do outside of work, and I knew I could never dedicate my life to my job. I knew that I could never work for a Japanese company, or live a normal life in Japan as a Japanese person is expected to. For the first time, I began to think that maybe I really wasn’t so Japanese after all.
But I still wasn’t American, either! There are certain norms in American culture– mainly the idea that Americans should be outgoing, talkative, friendly people– that I simply can’t fit into. I never have been and never will be a typical American.
So I’m not American, and I’m not Japanese. But why should I have to “be” anything in the first place? Do I have to identify myelf with a certain culture? What if I want to just take what I like from several different cultures and leave the rest behind? Because aren’t I a unique individual, who can’t be labeled or fit into a box?
Ironically enough, this idea of valuing uniqueness and individuality is a very American concept. (!!) So maybe there is a little American in me after all. And you know something? I can accept and appreciate that now.
That’s why I think learning about other cultures is such a beautiful thing. Cultures are formed by groups of people, so naturally cultures aren’t perfect, because people aren’t either! So the idea that we should have to conform to all the concepts our cultures impose on us is just silly. But just like most people have something good in them, every culture has something good in it too– something we can learn and grow from to make ourselves better people. My favorite part of American culture is the way we value individuality and independence, so I embrace and celebrate that. And my favorite part of Japanese culture is the way they have of not taking anything for granted. Japanese people never forget to say thank you, and they usually say it more than once! I think that’s beautiful, and I try to make this sense of gratitude a part of my own personality. I’m excited, now, to see what the other cultures of the world have to teach me! Because I think that the more cultures I can learn about and understand, the better a person I can be.