Jul 8, 2007

How I Got All Culture Shocked Even Though I Tried To Be All Stoic About It, and Have Subsequently Decided That I Don't Mind Being an Outsider

So, a flashback-
Back in the days of high school, I had this system. This was ten years ago- I thought that the lyrics of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were basically the most profound thing, and spent a fair amount of time spouting pseudo-deep anti-profundities with other members of the speech and debate team. One of these pseudo-deep anti-profundities was the Emotional Fiat System.
I can't take credit for inventing the name. The name was the invention of one of my debate teammates, but we both had a hand in the tenants of the system. Also, I'm pretty sure that it was invented during statistics class. The basic idea was that sufficient intelligence could trump emotion in all manners.
Emotion and such, we thought, was for the weak. It was for those people who were too dumb to see through to the truth, too lacking in will to mentally discipline themselves. We believed (or thought we believed) that we could train our minds to always experience a feeling of detatched bliss, always float above the world in a state of Vulcan-like perfection. I think we might have even used the word "ubermensch" unironically when talking about this.
Obviously, we wised up. I haven't kept in touch with my former comrade in stoicism, but I'm pretty sure the Emotional Fiat System went flying out the when I decided that kissing girls is totally cooler than making pretentious pronoucements. After that, I was just confused a lot.
Anyway, that's the type of thing that I like to look back on with a bemused mixture of humor, irony, and wistfulness. You know the various campy emotions contained in Wonder Years voiceovers? That's how I like to think of the Emotional Fiat System.
I think of myself as an emotionally mature person, but part of me is still that weird little speech and debate geek who thought he could get over everything by thinking. For instance, there was a part of me that really believed that I could beat homesickness just by thinking about it. Really. I thought, that if I just kept being cognizant of homesickness as a phenomena, it would never occur to me.
This strategy does not work. At all.
At least this time, I've kept open the possiblity that I could become homesick.
But, that's not really what I wanted to write about. I've already written about homesickness in general, and it's kind of a dull topic as it is. I suppose what I want to say is that, despite my best efforts, despite all my rationalizing, despite the fact that I thought about this phenomena, I got really homesick, and was very, very culture shocked when I got here.
I can only really adequately reflect upon this in retrospect. It's quite strange to think that I went through all sorts of times and episodes where I had no idea that I was having an emotional reaction to an alien environment. There were all sorts of times when I felt strange, was in a bad mood, or depressed, and I thought that it was something sourceless or groundless. I know now that I had a bit of trouble adapting to living in a foreign place, which is something that happens to everyone. Given that prior to this experience I'd never ventured outside of the U.S., that compounded the whole experience.
I'm alright now. But, I remember having all of my strengths kicked out from under me. My sense of humor- useless. Sarcasm doesn't work here. My way of speaking -articulate by American standards, but speedy and incomprehensible to Japanese. Too many colloquialisms and big words. The fact that I'm well-read- doesn't matter. I was illiterate when I got here.
So, for a while, I thought that those strengths were gone. I thought that everything that made me a talented person was irrelevant given the circumstances, and that other, ephemeral, undefined skills were needed to succeed here. In particular, I thought that I was an idiot because I could neither speak nor read Japanese. At present, I'm one of the only foreigners that I know who doesn't have more than day-to-day fluency (All of my coworkers speak Japanese, as well as a few other foreign friends). Plenty of other people can have conversations. I can do stuff like go shopping and order things. For quite a while I thought I was a sort of pariah for my lack of language skills- it was as if I was some sort of intruder or uninvited guest, that my ignorance was something hateable. Not only was I an intruder, but a stupid intruder, a barbarian, lower in intelligence than Faulkner's idiot man-child.
Which, of course, was a load of bullshit.
Most foreigners here don't speak Japanese. The fact that most everyone in Okayama-Kurashiki does is rather freakish. Also, Japanese is not some incomprehensible super-difficult code of mystery that foreigners can't learn. The spoken language is actually really easy, Hiragana and Katakana quite simple compared to the Roman alphabet, and even Kanji starts to make sense when you study it a bit and see it all the time.
Studying Japanese, having the bits of the language fall into place, was something that reminded me that I could do this, that I was not an idiot, and that I did, indeed, have skills.
So they came back- My sense of humor? Hey, I can't use baroque sarcasm, but I can still make my students laugh with weird stuff and over the top humor. I'm still a funny guy. My way of speaking? If I can make big, weird sentences and whatnot than I can definitely be concise and understandable to non native speakers. The fact that I'm well read? I love to learn stuff already, so that definitely makes learning about the language and culture much easier. I'm also dorking out over Japanese history. Last night a student of mine and I talked all about Japanese folktales. It was great.
It's odd, though, thinking that all of the lousy parts of moving to a foreign country are a step on the way to this kind of thing. I'm having a great time, but integral to having a great time now is having a less-than-great time then. Every so often, I think to myself "Wow, I'm in Japan," and exult in that fact.
Now, I actually sort of enjoy being a foreigner. That might sound a bit strange, and there might come a time when I get sick of the sensation, but now I actually like the fact that I'm an outsider. I'm looking out my apartment window right now, and I can see all manner of cars, a few bicycles, and some people in the nearby parking lot. All of those people are having a normal Sunday, doing things that they would do on their day off. Lucky me, though, I'm having an adventure. I'm in a place where I'm challenged and bothered and aggravated and inspired by everyday things, much more so, I think, than any of the folks presently within my field of vision.
I like that, actually. And I like to think that right now, somewhere in Portland or Eugene, some Japanese exchange student is looking out their window onto a normal American day, all the while struggling with English and a strange culture, and all the while loving it. I hope that's happening right now. I'm sure it is, actually.

6 comments:

Sydney said...

Oh my God Joe if you don't write a book or start writing for a newspaper I swear to God I will come over there and beat you with a shoe until you acknowledge that you are a supremely gifted and articulate observer of the human condition and that to keep your insights out of corpus of recorded history is a crime against humanity and nature.

::deep breath::

I totally remember the Emotional Fiat System! I seem to remember arguing with you and Travis (was it? or Aaron? Did Travis just glom onto it because it used the word "fiat"?) that the whole idea was impossible bullshit. I also remember having to have "fiat" defined and redefined for me about a hundred times. And I remember being at a tournament at Pacific (I think - maybe Willamette) and having every one of my arguments answered with a karate-chopping motion and the mantra "Fiat!" It was an exciting time to be alive. :)

Joseph said...

No, no. You are wrong. Bonsai emotions are clearly the way to go. A stoically trimmed tree of feelings. Speaking of which, I need to find my clippers...

Sydney said...

I was all into Banzai Emotions a couple of years ago. I was running around, jumping out of bushes and declaring things like, "I am anxious about the upcoming election!" or "Sometimes I feel joy at just being alive!" at the top of my voice. It was really freeing.

What? Bonsai? Oh, no, no you're right: that's totally different.

Also, I would like to submit: Gonzo Emotions. I think that is what most teenage girls have most of the time.

Beau said...

While I doubt I could get away with it in a hearing, the karate-chop and "Fiat!" counter argument sounds devestatingly effective.

Joseph said...

Actually, Beau, I believe that Clarence Darrow ended everyone of his closing statements by doing exactly that. So you might give it a try...

Sydney said...

You have to say it like kids do when they're talking over you.
"So, Jimmy, where do you want to go for dinn-"
"Ice Cream!"
"Um, okay, for dessert. But what about d-"
"Ice Cream!"
"No-dinner first. I'll just ask your fa-"
"Ice Cream!"
Except replace "Ice Cream" with "Fiat." Just don't let the opposition finish a sentence. Also, make sure you stand each time, throw your head back, stick out your chest, and just project that "Fiat" so that the whole back of the courtroom can really feel that karate chop.
Also, make sure I know when this is going down. That would be worth skipping a day of work to see.