Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mistakes We Make

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.


Viki in Chiba said...

Well, said! I grew up in safe Idaho where we still don't lock our doors at night! But that doesn't mean there is no prejudice. I remember not wanting to date a Hawaiian boy in college because he was 1/4 Japanese! I didn't think I was prejudiced just grew up in the 60s in such a protected white bubble I didn't want to leave and to think I married a whole Japanese!

Anonymous said...

Great blog as usual Shari!

I was just wondering... how would you personally go about analysing and/or questioning a culture (in particular the Japanese culture) without generalising?

mike said...

I agree, very well said. It shows how our perspective can taint our viewpoint. Getting a sampling of that perspective from a single source can oftentimes leave the receiver with an unwarranted impression of a place...either good or bad.

Where I live, we have our share of crime, job prospects are few and quite enough prejudice...however low key. But we have a great community, lots of people with many different backgrounds. I really can't imagine living anywhere else.

ターナー said...

A lot of the Japanese people I meet think all Texans own guns, wear cowboy hats, and ride horses to travel. Maybe this is something I should be perpetuating rather than correcting...

Shari said...

Viki: Hi and many thanks for commenting! I think we grew up in similar bubbles though I don't recall any prejudice against Asians in my area. One of the most popular girls in school was of Asian descent (she wasn't a very nice person though).

Barry: That's an excellent question! I think that generalizations based on getting information from variety of sources and people (and having experience with that culture), but a lot of people make their generalizations on too limited experience.

For instance, despite having grown up in America, I'm not sure I knew enough about it at 24 to know what it was really like anywhere except the rural northeast. And I think I was incapable of knowing my limits because of a lack of experience with other parts of the U.S.

I think generalizations are OK as long as they are qualified as such. I'm working on writing a piece right now and one of my quotes from it is something to the effect of we have to remember generalizations are blurry, indistinct photos of a mass of people, not sharp, high-definition pictures of individuals.

I'm mainly about rejecting pigeonholing, absolutism, and closing the door on other explanations (something which the foreign community does so quickly once they think they "know" Japan).

If I had to offer a "formula" for crafting a generalization, I'd say it'd be ask a lot of people (or consult a survey that has done so like those on "What Japan Thinks") to make sure your supposition fits the majority, look at what you see around you with an objective and investigative eye to verify that what you're told is what is really happening, and read the material of folks that have covered the issue and have enough experience to speak with some authority.

Thanks for the very interesting comment! I love the ones that make me think.

Mike: Sometimes, your situation makes me so wistful for being home. If I were living where I grew up, I could drive to your place on a day trip! One thing that you and your blog make me realize is that personality is very much shaped by locale. We share a common lifestyle and a mindset resulting from it that I don't necessarily see mirrored by folks who grew up in other regions of the U.S. The beauty of realizing this about yourself is that you know that it happens all over the world. Thanks for commenting. :-)

Turner: LOL! I think that you can thank movies and George Bush for a lot of the Texan stereotypes. ;-) At least they know your state exists. Pennsylvania is the 6th largest state in America and the seat of its history but no one knows what it is. As far as most people are concerned, there are pretty much 4 dominant states - California, Texas, New York, and Hawaii. Thanks for commenting!

mike said...

I definitely think that the environment that a person is raised in is a big influence in how they perceive the world. Even in areas as small as individual neighborhoods. It seems we tend to put blinders on to other areas and concentrate on our own. This, too, can lead to false impressions.

Believe it or not, I have never been to Pennsylvania! :) In fact, I've only been out of Ohio a handful of times. This means that my views of other places are colored by only what I have heard. My vision of Japan was from that which I have read in tourist guides and such. Your blog, and the numerous others on Japan, has changed my views. They show that the Japanese are indeed human and have the same general problems that we do. It is actually quite refreshing to know we are not alone!

Shari said...

My feeling has always been that there are good and bad points to most places and lifestyles and people have to weigh the value of any area's particular good points.

The inclination to seek easy answers, reach pat conclusions and "the grass is greener" thinking often lead people to assert simplistically that one place is superior to another, but the reality is quite different in the case of areas of similar development.

Emsk said...

Even in a small country like the U.K. there are huge cultural differences. At my school there is a lot of interest in the U.K. seeing as there are fewer Brits here, perhaps. I'm amazed that I've become the expert!