Thursday, July 05, 2007

On Insecurity and Validation

One of the curious experiences I have in Japan is students thanking me for liking some aspect of Japanese culture. If a student asks, for example, "do you like Japanese (insert anything here)," and I say, "yes, I do," the student responds with "thank you" as if I had personally complimented him or her.

Some people may say this is an inappropriate response in English and not really what the student means but, trust me, the fact that they are complimented is crystal clear by the sound of their voices and the looks on their faces. They are delighted to hear that I've embraced some aspect of Japanese culture (or at least one they believe is uniquely Japanese). To me, this is a very strange thing as I would never respond to a favorable comment about America as if it were a compliment. If a student tells me he researched Pennsylvania (my home state) and said that it looked like a beautiful place to live, my response would be, "yes, it's very nice," not "thank you."

The recent exchange in the comments section in my previous post reminded me of this situation because a comment was made by a Japanese person hoping to provoke an argument or defensive reaction from me regarding my ability (or inability) to read Japanese fluently. Why is it that this person should care what I'm capable or incapable of? In what way do the choices I make in my life impact him, particularly in regards to what I have and have not studied? The only way in which it relates to him is if he has an insecurity about his culture and needs to know others are embracing it as a means of validation. I believe this same need is one of the reasons some of my students are so gratified when they hear I like something about Japan.

I don't mean to imply that the Japanese have the market on insecurity. In fact, you find that people all over the world are constantly judging others about lifestyle, career, intellectual, and other choices not because the choices that are made have anything to do with them but out of a need to feel superior to others (which is a manifestation of insecurity) or a need to have their own choices validated and confirmed as the "right" or "best" ones. If no one chooses to value what you value, then perhaps you have made a bad choice or failed to enhance yourself as a person.

A very long time ago, I was one of the types of people who felt people should do this or that in their situation even if it was a situation I was not a part of and even if the choices they made had no negative impact on society or on me personally. In order to validate those judgments, I could weave an intricate lattice of connective issues to somehow force the situation to seemingly have an impact on me. I could look at someone who dropped out of high school and decided to work pumping gas and convince myself he'd made a wrong choice or was stupidly limiting his options in life and tell myself, if he failed, I'd be paying taxes to pay welfare to support him. This is, of course, a crock. Anyone can fail at anything and there are actually a lot more menial, low-paying jobs than there are jobs for highly-educated professionals. A person who wants to be a college professor is far more likely to "fail" at finding a great career in his chosen career than a gas jockey.

Sometimes I think we spend the greater part of our lives distracting ourselves from what we really should be working on and prioritizing in life because we want to focus on the quantifiable over that which is unmeasurable. We can easily attach value to job titles, educational levels, material possessions and salaries but we can't measure our own psychological or spiritual evolution as people nor can we easily measure it in others. In particular, we can't measure it against other people and come out feeling we are better than them because the very act of doing so indicates a lack of maturity and spiritual awareness.

In the end, the languages you speak or read, the degrees you can put on your resume, and the money in your bank account mean nothing next to the people you have had a positive influence on in your life and the spirit you've shaped as you head onto whatever you believe lies ahead. The same goes for everyone else so you can't judge their value or whether on not to respect them based on external appearances or quantifiable choices. What is really important about them is how many paths they've crossed and left others happier, more enlightened, or fulfilled as a result of that. Of course, this isn't as gratifying as judging them for the car they drive, the school they went to or the work they do, particularly when you've got ego issues that need a little boost at the expense of others.

Rather than use other people as a springboard for judgments meant to make you feel better about yourself, it's better to let them live their lives as they want to and be happy they inflict no harm on anyone because of the choices they make. I'm hoping that I'm crossing Takechanpoo's path and making his life a little better in some way as a result. If not, I wish him well and hope that he finds a way to let go of his anger against non-Japanese people and finds some contentment.


Roy said...

I think eikaiwa attracts a fair number of people who are struggling through their personal "chip on the shoulder" attitudes towards things foreign and their own cultural insecurities. I've meet many of these types and while most are benign like the kind of people that will say "thank you" to a comment like you mention, some can be hostile like Takechanpon.

In essense they are the similar homophobics who are in denial to that which they are subconsciously attracted. I mean that guy's hate blog is in English so he must have spent some time learning it, right?

Miko said...

Bah, stupid trolls! Just ignore 'em, you guys. I gotta agree with Roy's comment about Eikaiwa attracting these types, though, and it's easy to ignore them when they are just passing through, it's not so easy when you have to smile and act nice to them.

Topic! I once commented to a friend that I regard snow-capped Mt. Fuji as one of the most beautiful sights in the world, and was very surprised when he thanked me profusely, as though I'd personally complimented a member of his family or something. Perhaps that's how he saw it?

red said...

I found your story about Japanese people thanking you when you talk about something you like in Japan very funny. Maybe I've been here too long but I realised that I now do the same thing when someone says that they like Australia or they want to visit it one day. It always seems to go down really smooth in the conversation, too, as if I was expected to say that. Bit wierd really, isn't it...

Shari said...

Roy: As always, you make very good points. I think that during my days in an eikaiwa (which were thankfully limited to 2 years when I first arrived), I was too naive to detect those with chips on their shoulders.

Miko: Perhaps he was really into antrhopomorhizing and felt Mt. Fuji was a member of his family. ;-)

Shari said...

Red: I think we all start to pick up the habits of the Japanese after we've been here awhile. I start every message to my students with a line about the weather because the Japanese feel more comfortable with insignificant small talk at the beginning of correspondence.

Thanks for your comment!

Matt said...

I can't help but see the irony in this post. Making an assumption that saying "Thank you" comes from a need for validation and insecurity. Having it reinforced by other people with essentially the same experience is just a step closer to making this a stereotype.

It could be construed as though you're using your experience with you students, in your own words, as a springboard for judgement.

I do agree that there's a lot of people that live their lives focusing on the quantifiable. But who am I to say that isn't the right thing for them. I think I know how I want to live my life, and it's pretty much a pursuit of happiness. How I go about doing that isn't important. What's important is that I don't assume that I've struck some kind of gold mine of inner truth that should be spread around to all my fellow humanbeings.

Do I have a point with all this? Well, I'm not sure... but how a simple "Thank you" said without sarcasm can fuel a discussion about peoples insecurites is beyond me. And assuming people will "better" themselves according to your standards is a bit presumptions aswell. =)

I'm not trying to defend or attack anyone and I'm only trying to offer another point of view on the matter (I hope I don't come off as overly aggressive, English is not my native language). I realize that my comment could also be construed as me taking the moral high point... heh... =)

On another (lighter) note I do admire your tenacity in the big city. I have heard from others that living in Tokyo for extended periods can be quite strenuous for both body and mind. I only spent a 3 week vacation there so I haven't got much experience with daily life in japan.

ps: I just read through all your posts as I have a keen interest in western peoples experiences with daily life in japan. And I rarely comment blogs, but I felt that I might be able to contribute in a positive manner to this discussion.

Best wishes!

The Swede without netiquette... =)