Friday 7 December 2012

You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham

Bright lights, big city.

I had a Jewish friend once. Well, more than one, and I still have some. Friends, that is. And Jews, of course. I don’t ‘have’ Jews, I mean. Jewish friends. Some of my best friends are Jews. No, christ, not like that. I didn’t mean it like that. And ‘christ’? Bollocks, that’s even worse. Err…

In the course of my life thus far I have had and continue to have many friends of assorted ethnicities and denominations, and the one of whom I shall presently be speaking is Jewish. The incident I shall now relate occurred several years ago, at which time she was employed as an ALT. In the intervening span of time we have, for a variety of reasons, lost touch somewhat. Clear?

It was about this time of year, as it happens. Start of December, which means that we’ve all just got the rancid, ash-cold taste of Halloween out of our mouths only to be asked to ‘do a christmas lesson.’

              “J-san,* can you prepare a christmas lesson for the students?”

              “Well, no. I’m Jewish, remember? I could do a hanukkah lesson if you like.”

              “Hanukkah? Is that what you call christmas?”

              “Not really…”

              “Can you sing any traditional christmas songs like Silent Night or Mariah

              “I can sing the dreidel song.”

              “I don’t know it, are the words difficult?”

              “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel….”

              “Oh. And you sing that at christmas?”

              “No. As I said, it’s not… Never mind. Mariah Carey, you say?”

God bless us, everyone.

“Fake tales of San Francisco echo through the room.
More point to a wedding disco without a bride or groom.”

So there are three aspects to this. The first is the way Japan lumps the rest of the world together as a single homogenous ‘other’. Depressingly I must point out, again, that this is hardly a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, but is just taken further here than in many other countries. I’ve seen various apologists excuse this as the legacy of the sakoku period - Japan’s two-century span of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.

It’s a workable enough explanation, but not an excuse given it’s been 160 years since Matthew Perry arrived and forced open Japan’s doors with a mixture of intimidating naval firepower, sarcastic quips, and floppy mid-nineties hairstyles. Japan has now been ‘open’ for nearly as long as it was ‘closed,’ but elements of that older thinking remain. In barely five generations it’s gone from being essentially medieval to one of the most economically and technologically advanced nations in the world, and frankly it’s not surprising that social change hasn’t kept up with that hectic pace. But still, for a society so obsessed with the minute gradations of difference within itself you’d expect a bit more awareness of the differences without.

A new drum, you say?
Why on earth would I want that?

“Fake tales of San Francisco echo through the air.
A few bored people at the back all wishing they weren’t there.”

The second aspect is how, having lumped together the rest of the world as ‘other,’ Japan has created institutionalized expectations for certain specific people to act as living embodiments of that ‘other’ in its entirety.

When I taught in JHS a few years back, one of the textbooks had a lesson on Rosa Parks, and I was asked to give my opinion. To a bunch of JHS second-years. Explaining weighty social issues to Japanese 14-year-olds in English simple enough for them to understand is like trying to draw the blueprints for a jet fighter using crayons. At best it’s going to involve some pretty ugly smudges and omissions and more than likely will end up giving a less than detailed view of the finer points (‘One day, a bomb fell on Hiroshima…’).

But someone, somewhere has decreed that English classes are the most suitable forums for these discussions. Because they’re ‘foreign’ issues? Because discussion and debate are ‘foreign’ modes of communication? I don’t know (though my suspicions on that score are probably pretty obvious), but what it means is that I was fairly regularly asked to provide a foreign viewpoint on heavy topics. Or maybe the foreign viewpoint on heavy topics. The lack of articles in Japanese is unhelpful in this regard.

And so it was that I, a young middle-class white man from racially homogeneous rural England, found myself expounding on the experience of a middle-aged black woman from the racial powder keg that was the American Deep South in the 1950s to a class of bored and restless Japanese teenagers. That sentence says something about globalization that is either exhilarating or depressing, depending on your outlook. And while I gave it a good go, I’m clearly not the best person to be speaking to those issues. When, however, the JTE finished by saying, “So thanks to Rosa there’s no more racism in America,” I realized that I’m perhaps not the worst, either.

It’s not just the deep and meaningful stuff. If anything it’s even worse with the light and fluffy. Witness my near-breakdown when asked to explain Halloween for the umpteenth (well, third) time. I have never been trick-or-treating in my life, and the only reason I have any idea why a jack-o'-lantern is called a jack-o'-lantern is because I looked it up on Wikipedia after becoming sick of other teachers asking and having to bullshit my way through the answer.

I still can't explain this, though.

“And yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem…”

But bullshit I did, which is the third aspect. Having been hired to provide this experience of the ‘other’ I found myself all too willing to do exactly that, regardless of any relevant experience I may (or, more realistically, may not) have had. Part of it’s personal. A rather immature desire to ‘internationalize’ these people by exposing their ignorance of the wider world wherever possible, even if it meant glossing over mine as well. Plus I’ve always been ‘the clever one’ (my brother was ‘the sporty one’ and my sister was ‘good with people’ as my parents desperately tried to differentiate between us in the forlorn hope of mitigating our sibling rivalry). I hate not knowing, and I hate not knowing something other people expect me to. Especially if that’s part of the reason I’m getting paid.

Both of those desires are linked to age and confidence. I’m more secure in myself now, so saying ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t feel like the admission of failure that it once did. I’ve also realized that by viewing my colleagues and students as ‘these people’ I too was guilty of that homogenization of the other. Some of them are very smart indeed and could teach me a thing or two about the world if I don’t give it the Big I Am.

Coming to Japan, the land of conformity, as a representative of the bullishly individualistic West you do feel it’s your role to act up to that. All the while ignoring the howling irony of conforming exactly to the role expected of you: the role of the non-conformist. It would be more non-conformist to conform, as it were.

The other part isn’t so personal though. Basically, society – any society – exerts real pressures on people to fit themselves into expected manners and modes of behaviour. And time and time again people unconsciously find themselves doing just that, regardless of how they may really feel about things, or whatever objective ‘truth’ there may be to the issue. People expect a punchline to an anecdote, and so I do J a massive disservice by making it look like she caved in, whereas in reality she stuck to her guns and did a hanukkah lesson and everyone went home, if not happy, then better educated.

And that’s the key. Education, learning. Keeping people happy is only important in so much as it contributes to their education. Fulfilling people’s expectations keeps them happy, but doesn’t necessarily teach them anything.

By falling into this expected role as a single voice for the rest of the world I was perpetuating the problems, not fixing them. There are wrong answers, there are better and worse answers, but there’s rarely only one correct answer. However unconsciously I was doing it, however unconsciously I was being encouraged by others to do it, I was still laying claim to having that single correct answer for the rest of the world. When you break it down like that it’s obviously ludicrous, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes the best answer is not to give one at all.

“So get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

*Her name really does start with J. Honest.


  1. Halfway through reading your post, more thoughtful than my notion, I imagined you teaching them about 'A penny for the Guy', making them read and watch 'V for Vendetta'. Good education should fuck you up... Then again, I am reading Vonnegut again: Armegeddon in Retrospect.

  2. I hate getting the same question over and over again from the same person. Every winter they will ask me if it snows in Sydney. I know this doesn't exactly fit into what you're talking about, but it does in a way because they are just asking the questions to ask them, not because they give a shit.

    I also get the question followed by an answer by the questioner. For example, "did you go and do hatsumode last year?" "Oh, you couldn't have, you're a Christian" (have never been to a service in my life and I actually did do hatsumode after drinks on NYE.)

    I have also never done Halloween in my life and used to get upset about being asked about it all of time. However I think you could just bullshit your way around it (refer to the first point.)

    I feel even more sorry for the Jewish, any European person who doesn't like/cannot speak English or people from Western countries with an Asian decent.

    1. Stumbling out of a gaijin bar many years ago I first met a friend of a friend. Chinese parents, but born and bred in Northern Ireland, with an accent to match. The first words out of my mouth were 'I bet you confuse the fuck out of people.'

      Fortunately he took it in the spirit it was intended. And I was very, very drunk at the time.

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  4. I've had extremely similar Christmas/Hannukah experiences both as an ALT, and as a TV reporter, and having to explain to the SAME directors and producers EVERY YEAR that I don't do Christmas gets really annoying. I actually got invited to a party in December a few years back and when I showed up, it was clearly a Christmas party but some of the guests had been instructed not to mention Christmas in front of me, because "Bobby hates Christmas." I guess my annoyance was more obvious than I had thought.

    But I've had other Japanese people that it's ridiculous that I don't celebrate Japanese Christmas, because it's just a party, it doesn't mean anything. But just because it doesn't mean anything to them, doesn't mean it doesn't have meaning. I think I could probably churn out an entire blogpost on that theme... but this is neither the time nor place. :)

  5. I have no problem going to Hatsumode, or breaking bread were I invited to a dinner during Eid, and I have been at my best friend's house for an evening around Hannukah, though not the main night. On the other hand, I have known my two Orthodox, and two close Reform Jewish friends, to be overwrought about Christmas. It has to be said that the Reform friends are less than the others, and I would expect no different for stridency among roughly corresponding Christian denominations.

    I get that Christmas is Christian, and I get that being Jewish in a Christian culture puts you in a different place to it, and I get that there are horrible ancient and 20th C. reasons to be on guard against Christian culture so that secularization of Christmas is not reassuring; however, it is still possible to be overwrought. You have to deal with the dominant culture where you live. For the reasons I just stated, I am prepared to be patient with my best friend, and certainly with another friend whose mother survived Auschwitz as a child, somehow. But a Jew in Japan?

    Let me put it another way. Why take the fight to the Japanese? Japan doesn't have much to answer for to Judaism (except that sub-culture who believe the 'Elders of Zion' crap).

    No, I don't expect someone to be the representative of a Christian festival anymore than I should teach the dreidle song. And it is entirely appropriate to point out that one does not celebrate Christmas, why not, and that you will not in Japan. Yet, when I go to a Japanese, Jewish or Muslim home or place of worship I try to show respect, which has always been appreciated. I am an atheist who was a Catholic, I am still sensitive to symbols of worship to 'false gods', but I do not consider a respectful demeanour and the removal of shoes to be this: it is respect to the people whose beliefs these are.

    Hell, I don't know. Try humour the next time you are told to act the Christian. Ask them if they won't put on a Chinese or Korean festival.

    1. Out of curiosity, who are you responding to when you talk about "taking the fight to the Japanese?" I thought the post was using the Jew in Japan during Christmas to talk about the bigger issue of Japan conflating all foreignnesses into one foreignness and expecting us to represent it.

      I identified with the specific Jewish example, and wanted to add that a lot of times, my explanation that "Jew's dont do Christmas," (my foreignness is not THAT foreignness) has been interpreted by Japanese people as an irrational/hate-driven/dangerous opposition to that foreignness. They couldn't imagine me not celebrating Christmas for any non-insane reasons, because to them Christmas doesn't have any religious significance. But the whole, "it doesn't mean anything to me, so I can use it as meaningless" argument doesn't work. That's the same one the publisher of that Gaijin Hanzai mag used to justify the use of "nigger."

      I don't have any problem with the Japanese secular celebration of Christmas, and I would have no problem being at a Christmas party anywhere in the world. I don't care at all about the "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" debate. I do think it's weird that they went from "ALL FOREIGNERS ARE CHRISTMAS" to "HE'S NOT CHRISTIAN, SO HE CAN'T KNOW THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS PARTY!" which was what I meant to convey.

      And from experience, that kind of humor has never worked. Try replying to "Can you use chopsticks?" with "Can you use a fork?" Or "Do you eat bread everyday?" with "Do you eat rice everyday?" I have a friend who's been in country for over 7 years, and STILL does this, despite never getting anything but sincere, sometimes puzzled responses.

    2. "Why take the fight to the Japanese?"

      Why indeed... I can't remember when exactly, but at some point I realized that doing so is like going into Disneyland and yelling at people "Hey, you do know that outside these walls there is no Mickey or Minnie, right?!" Would feel (deservedly so) like the biggest asshole on the planet.

      I long ago dropped any feeling of responsibility to be a cultural ambassador or one who could educate them in any kind of way about the fishbowl they perceive as the rest of the planet. They feel they've got a good thing going here (and, in many ways they do). Let 'em enjoy Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for a little bit longer. For indeed, a little bit longer may very well be all they have...

    3. Ant - I know what you mean about dropping the cultural ambassador bit, and am heading that way in my personal life, but at work it's still my job, however wearying. If not me, then who? (And we're back to the single voice for the rest of the world again). FWIW my take on Bobby's first post was less that he was pissed off with Christmas, so much as the was the question was constantly asked but never really listened to. I can certainly relate to that.

      Bobby - If I'd thought about it a bit more, there are prety obvious connections to the micro*******n bunfight we all enjoyed a few months back. What you are, not who you are. Same old same old.

      When I was talking about institutionalised expectations I almost linked to a ton of pages for Bobby Olugun (sp?) and other gaijin talento, because it seems to me that they fall even harder into this trap than your average ALT. I'd be interested hearing your take on that, if you're inclined to share.

  6. I find the whole Westerner = American thing as annoying as fuck. And, to be fair, it's not just the Japanese who do it. There are a lot of US bloggers in Japan who write about how the Japanese are different from Westerners because they have Christmas cake, for example.

    I did find that when I talked about Australian holidays, people were really interested. Especially Melbourne Cup day - a holiday where women get dressed up in fancy dresses and hat and drink champagne while watching a horse race is well liked by Japanese women :) I had one student who decided she'd come to Autralia for it!

    1. Yeah, it's a growing up thing, as I hinted at. As a kid the only 'normal' you know is how your family do stuff, so you take it as read that that's how everyone else does it too. When I was seven I remember being amazed that my friends's mum made baked potatoes in the microwave (and still am, to be honest. What use is a baked potato with soggy skin?)

      These people are children, basically, just larger and with frequent flyer miles.

    2. Haha, don't tell them about that! This year there was even a article in one of the British tabloids commenting about how much of a drunken mess the Cup was, which says a lot coming from England.

    3. @kamo - I started with my cousins once as a kid and my auntie didn't cut our toast into triangles. I was so shocked, wondering what kind of redneck ghetto I was in! Actually knowing the area as an adult, I wasn't far wrong. It's funny how the little cultural differences are the ones that shock you.

      @Momotaro - I was going to attend a fancy dress party once as a slapper at the end of cup day - shoes in hand and dress covered in vomit and grass stains.

  7. Bobby, when you're a guest, and like it or not that is what all of us are and will ever be, you try not to shit on the carpet. Maybe the hosts put the carpet in a stupid place, like over the toilet, but there it is. When any of us cannot find a way to do this with grace, then a trip to the airport is the only solution that will work for us, much less any Japanese people.

    Because of where the carpets are put here, as it were, even though I speak passable Japanese, have a Japanese wife and two children with her, have lived here five years in total, blah blah blah... I will be getting on that plane with my family in the end. Others choose to stay, and good for them. Nobody should take any shit, but after a few months here nobody can be surprised they'll have to deal with some preconceptions. They can deal with it, leave, or act like a tool. Those are the choices.

  8. I am sure my time in Japan was made a little easier by the fact that the Lord of the Rings was coming out and that helped some people differentiate NZ from the US. Also, being from a country with "summer" xmas - the most unnatural of christmases, apparently - was helpful because it forced my students to figure out, geographically, why a place would have to endure such hell.

    Still it didn't stop a lot of people - having to explain Halloween did my head in in particular - especially as some of the JTEs had spent time in the US on exchanges etc while I had spent exactly 0 minutes in the US.

    Touching on the issues mentioned at the top - if you want to do peoples' heads in - both Japanese and a lot of dismissive Westerners - there are a few things worth noting. 1 - Sakoku is kind of made up...well not completely but Japan was not as unusual as is often thought. So in other words, the Japanese have even less excuse!

    Second, many Japanese are very unaware about how diverse discourse on "Japanese" ethnicity was in the Meiji-1945 period. "Japanese" was more of a civilizational, linguistic and political concept (as it had mostly been, with elitist overtones, since 645AD) than a ethnic or racial one up until 1945. The "homogeneous Japanese" concept is a post-war construction, arguably.

    Just thought it might be of interest to yourself. Key point is that both of these insights were based on new research uncovered by Japanese themselves from the 1970s, sitting alongside the nihonjinron "unique" Japanese discourses. But you of course know which one was picked up and popularized ;-)

    1. I think you've touched on the heart of the matter, and something I'm continually struggling with myself. It's very easy and entertaining (and it really is) to write about the misconceptions foreign visitors have about Japan: the conformity, the homogeneity, the ambiguity and on and on. But so many of these conceptions are bought into and almost deliberately pushed by the Japanese themselves, for all that they're clearly dodgy.

      The homogeneity is the big one, even though, as you point out, there are significant elements who don't see it that way.

      Thanks for popping by and the thoughtful comment.

  9. I think that by being here and etc youre doing a good thing in increasing awareness of other cultures. I worked in Korea though and it was often clear that they might not want the whole cultural exchange thing too often. Black teachers etc can have a tough time there (as here) and they saw it as their duty as teachers to try and get the students to realise how much more integrated things are in the west. To me it seems fair enough, but the fact appeared to be that they didnt want you to venture too far away from the specific idea they had of you as a foreigner, and certainly didnt want you to try and teach their kids about the ethics of western culture. Humiliating to realise this but I think you can take some heart in the fact that you are contributing to a part if the world that is getting (at least a bit) gradually less racist.

  10. Further to all this, when I was teaching English in England my boss advised not to talk too much about English culture less it seemed too neo-colonial. I think the role of alt does require to be a cultural ambassador, but until my job description says it spefically I usually try and stay well away from this role.

    1. It's an interesting point. I know a Canadian ALT who refuses to go into the 'cultural stuff' for similar reasons. From a purely linguistic point of view it's a valid enough stance. The history of the English Language(s) is inextricably linked to the history of the English Speaking Peoples and all that covers, but unless you really want to get into detail regarding why certain words are higher register than others (say) then it's a history that's largely unnecessary just to learn the language.

      I guess it's a question of what you've been hired to do. Most ALTs in Japan have been hired with the quite specific goal of 'internationalization' in mind, so the remit clearly goes beyond simple language tuition. But I could easily see how that would be less appropriate in a TESL situation. It's very easy to get overly preachy about this kind of stuff, which runs the risk of being ultimately counter-productive.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Always nice when people browse the archives.

  11. Well I quite agree that it is tied into the culture and history, for example with more advanced students I sometimes do a lesson about words English has stolen, from French and etc. Another favourite of mine is when they bring up the word "gentleman" to describe British guys, and getting into detail about that word. Absolutely all this helps them as it makes the subject interesting to them, creates a passion (maybe). The counter point could be though that, say for example Arabic was the lingua franca - what would the mums and dads be thinking about when their teachers came to give a cultural class? Funny to imagine it if youre from a very white English town like me anyway. Interesting blog anyway keep it up

    1. Heh, 'gentleman.' I get that all the time when I let ladies go through a door before me. 'Ah, Ladies' First. English Gentleman.' You really can hear the capital letters.

      Of course, all the other times I let men go through before me ('cos I'm just polite like that) go completely unremarked upon. I realise that's fairly tangential to your point, but it does bring it back round to the idea of fitting into preconceptions regardless of their accuracy. Glad you like the blog, feel free to come back often :)

  12. One thing I used to do would be to give an example of how in gentleman terms, you have a fight with someone who say, pushes in front if you in a queue (more British stereotypes), but you have to do it in a gentlemanly manner. No weapons or below the belt stuff for example.

    1. Well that's just it, isn't it? How much do you need to conform to stereotypes in order for people to feel you're doing your job, when part of your job is quite specifically to demolish some of those stereotypes?

      That said, I do at all time carry around a pair of white cotton gloves lest I need to strike a knave across the face with them before challenging them to a duel with pistols at dawn. So there's some truth to it, at least.