One of my students attends a U.S. college on a military base. The people she meets in her classes are mostly from poor areas of the southern part of the United States or urban centers. The class is made up of (by an overwhelming majority) African American men as is the teacher who conducts most of her core courses. Though it may seem irrelevant, this fact is actually an important one in mulling over the point I'm about to make.
No one would deny that the experiences of black folks in America differs from that of white folks, Hispanics, or Asians and it would seem that a lot of the fellows who end up in her class come from areas with a lot of crime and poverty. Their world is one where plenty of people grow up surrounded by violence, gang activity, and prejudice which shuts them out of opportunities to improve their lot in life. They paint this picture of a "usual life in America" for her on a regular basis. To her, America is a place riddled by violence where everyone has a gun, many people have done time in jail, and minorities are routinely and overtly mistreated.
The mistake my student makes is that she believes that the experiences and perceptions of a handful of people who she shares classes with on a regular basis are accurate representations of life in the U.S. While I would not argue at all that the world her classmates describe is a real part of life in America, it's certainly not the entire experience or even necessarily a representative, generalized picture. Somewhere between bucolic, crime-free rural life where there is little or no racial strife and urban lives of squalor and violence is a more average picture of life. I'm not saying I can even paint that picture, but rather that it's a mistake to believe everything an individual or small group of individuals tell you about their culture is an accurate picture of that culture.
One of the main reasons you can't believe everything you're told about cultures which you don't grow up in is that people color their observations with their emotional reactions. Their bitterness or anger can skew their views just as an affluent person who grew up with a silver spoon can be skewed into thinking life is a pie-in-the-sky lark where life is a choice of amusements on a playground. Another reason you can't believe what you're told about other cultures is that people simply do not know everything about their own culture and are generally inclined not to admit it, particularly if they think they know the answer and figure you won't know if they fudge it.
The latter was a fact I was reminded of when I re-read "Dave Barry Does Japan." While the book is a humor book, and does not represent itself in any way as an authoritative guide to Japan, it is a good example of a foreign person coming to Japan and accepting answers given by individual Japanese people at face value. When Dave doesn't understand, it's a joke, but he earnestly quotes the Japanese about what things are really like and sometimes, the information he's given is misleading, incomplete, or incorrect for people living in urban (or rural areas). Additionally, some of the information you get from Japanese people has to be considered in light of the fact that they wish to present Japanese culture in the most positive light. Conversely, some of the information you get from Americans reflects the fact that, in an effort not to look like flag-waving zealots or to illustrate how bad their life there was, they often portray American in a more negative light.
A lot of foreign people make the same type of mistake that Dave Barry did. That is, they feel that whatever Japanese people tell them is factually accurate. After all, who knows Japan better than a Japanese person? The problem is that, just as the Americans who tell my student America is a modern Wild West full of prejudice, any particular person's perceptions are the reflection of selective experiences and subjective editing. It's not enough to believe one person or even 10 people who tell you something, particularly if those 10 people grew up in the same sort of circumstances and similar locales.
The main problem is that after they've asked a question and gotten an answer, most people tend to move on and ask different questions rather than proffering the same one again and again to test the overall validity of the information they've been given. This is understandable considering the wealth of new information to be gathered when faced with a wide, fresh world of culture to learn and understand, but it also leads to a lot of "authorities" on a culture which propagate skewed views.
The gaijin living in Japan tend to be one of the most combative and territorial groups when it comes to accepting any sort of perspective which doesn't mesh with the one they currently hold. Often, there is no "right" or "wrong" but a variety of situations, experiences and facts which vary based on geography, economic level, and social status, but the authoritative foreigner will challenge you to a verbal dual to the death to prove he knows better than you.While none of us can be totally versed in any culture (including our own), the important thing is to keep an open mind and egos in check when presented with opposing experiences and information.
The "truth" about a given culture is a bit like infinity. You can approach it, but you're incapable of actually reaching it.