things i shouldn’t say

11 08 2007

Just as a disclaimer, this week has been relatively boring, so I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel to find anything to write about.

I almost died yesterday. Well, that’s an exaggeration; I almost had my leg run over by a car. I was going for a run in the rain—yes, probably not the safest thing to do, but I like it and there isn’t much of a choice in this town. It’s either run in the rain, or don’t run at all. Anyway, I took a corner too tight, fell and my leg slid under a stopped car. The old man driving got out and asks, “Daijobu?” I was, in fact, daijobu.

As I sped off on my adrenaline rush, I realized the gravity of the situation: I could have had my leg run over. I wondered if (enter again the JET handbook’s warning) an American would have gotten out of the car to make sure I was alright. My thoughts wander when I run. Is Japan that different? What did I expect to see before I came? I honestly hadn’t thought about it since I’d arrived.

I had always thought, and many Americans do think, Japanese culture is so interesting because it’s a juxtaposition of modern technology and ancient tradition. Well, even as my Japanese history professor beat into our skulls that we couldn’t go on thinking that Japan is so simply described, I naively did. People’s impressions of Japan as I knew them spanned the gamut from vilifying to venerate, although rarely in the middle. I was surprised there was so much dissension about a relatively benign country. It’s not like we’re still in World War II (oddly, there’s a show on NHK about World War II right now).

On one hand, I saw Japan so rooted in tradition and history that it is xenophobic and homogenous. I vicariously spent a summer in Japan through an ex-girlfriend to whom Japan was a lot of cold stares and children screaming “gaijin from school buses’ windows. Japan was women being objectified and denied civil rights. (As a brief aside: there are lots of essays on this subject both explaining and condemning this cultural phenomenon. I’m going to avoid going into it.) On the other hand, there is the idolatrous respect for Japan given by the Japanese-Americans and East Asian Studies majors at Penn and elsewhere. I failed to see that opinions differ so greatly because the country isn’t simple. You can’t make sweeping statements about this (or any) country, and I fully recognize that the generalizations I’ve made in the past apply only to my specific situation.

So rather than worry about what I was expecting, I realized should appreciate the fact that I am happy here: there is nothing here making me feel unwelcome. I’ve gotten a few stares, yes, but usually only as precursors to students getting up the courage to talk to me in English (I’m the same when I try to formulate a sentence in Japanese to my coworkers). I feel like a serious effort is being made to make me part of the community: my supervisor excitedly took me to meet every public servant in town. I was thrown a party attended by most offices of the town government. I wasn’t attacked by a bear (a friend of the superintendent actually was a few days ago). Sure the lack of diversity in town bugs me. I’d love to see a black person. I’d love to see a gay person. Hey, I’d love to see a Chinese person. But I’m the visitor here, and it isn’t my place to complain.

There is good and bad in every situation, and rather than choosing between seeing Japan as the ex did or seeing it as a fervent nationalist would, I choose to view it piecewise and recognize that experience is as much a result of perception as it is one of an accumulation of memories.

Tomorrow I’m off to a nearby “big” city with a neighboring JET. It’ll be nice to talk in English about the new sights.

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