When subjected to culture shock over a longer period of time... culture shock can turn into a persistent state, a syndrome.

My hope is that through an objective look at the next 3+ years I will be staying in Japan, I will be able to circumvent these symptoms and provide valuable insight to others who may look to follow a path similar to my own.
>>gaijin syndrome explained<<

lesson 4 : barrier to entry

I've sat on an idea for a few months now, pondering and poking at it little bits at a time. This idea first came to me after making an overnight trip to Tokyo, the nature of which allowed me to clearly see the distinction between the environments in Tokyo and the countryside. I spent most of my summer vacation summer playing the role of translator for my travelling friends and family before giving myself a week of leisure time in Tokyo. Now I can confidently elaborate on this idea which I like to call a 'barrier to entry' that encompasses a foreigner placed in the gaijin stereotype.

Anyone visiting a foreign country with a national language different from one's own will undoubtedly encounter the language barrier. This term is used to describe the inability to achieve complete understanding of another person or situation due to the lack of a common communication language. This broad term covers little things (like not realizing that the green light on a traffic signal is called 'blue' in Japanese) to more complicated things (like failing to see the humor in puns on a Japanese variety show). While the traveler may have an ability with the native language, it often is not the same as the native's ability, and so all kinds of details are missed. It's simply part of learning the language and culture, something that is hard to avoid when immersed in it.

A barrier to entry, however, is the obstacle placed in front of the language barrier. If the language barrier is a castle wall, the barrier to entry is the moat. A foreigner placed in the gaijin stereotype must first convince the native that they can communicate in plain Japanese before the native will speak at a level with a tolerable language barrier. Just as I quoted in my post staring ignorance in the face,
It's like having to untangle your headphones before you listen to music. Every. Single. Time.

It is especially difficult in the countryside where the natives are not so accustomed to interacting with foreigners. The first problem is that most foreigners encountered by native Japanese can't speak Japanese. The second problem is that the native Japanese don't know how to communicate outside the context of the limited, fumbling, scripted conversation practice they got in English class growing up. Communication through body language, symbols, or even using pictures is a skill for some that has not been learned. Even more, the anxiety of confronting a foreigner may be so great, they will go to great lengths to avoid the foreigner altogether.

In Tokyo, the first reaction is varied. With regards to people who interact with customers daily in their jobs, many will just try Japanese with me first. Those that are confident in their English ability will try a phrase of English instead. Depending on my reaction, they decide which language to use. If I appear not to understand the spoken Japanese (often due to background noise, soft voices, or contextual confusion), the speaker might switch to English. If I respond to the English with Japanese, the speaker might try Japanese again. Sometimes however, the conversation might go back and forth a few times before I have to clearly state that Japanese is OK. Other natives yet will just ask from the start 'is Japanese OK?' In this way, it is obvious that the people of Tokyo are much more experienced with talking to foreigners with varying degrees of language ability.

The barrier to entry is more of an obstacle of confidence than understanding. It takes confidence for a learner of Japanese to take the leap and tell someone you can speak Japanese. Proceeding to misunderstand the following conversation is an undesirable embarrassment that takes confidence to beat. And learning how to deal with such a situation is key to gaining the necessary confidence.

Practicing how to overcome the barrier to entry in Tokyo where it is considerably less obtrusive than the countryside has given me a newfound confidence which I hope to bring with me back to my daily life. Learning how to describe my ability with Japanese from the start so that others are confident in using their Japanese with me has been my greatest lesson this summer. From the beginning, I had continued to respond to questions about my ability with irony (saying 'no, I don't understand at all' in Japanese) or modesty (saying 'well... only so much'). Having others rely on me for translation this summer really helped me to break away from such behavior and admit to others as well as myself that I can in fact speak Japanese.

Amazing, isn't it? Six years of study and only now can I confidently admit to having an ability with the language. Learning and using a foreign language is a constant battle of confidence. Just like with sports, some days you are just not on top of your game. But with enough perseverance I'll have the confidence to try a certification test. Then at least I can say for certain how good my Japanese really is.

lesson 3 : deniability

This week marked the end of my first full year working/teaching in Japan and I feel like a new post is long since overdue. I feel this way partly because I have had two different topic ideas floating around in my head for about two months now; but mostly I feel this way because for the first time today I was able to diagnose myself with the very thing this blog is meant to keep in check: gaijin syndrome. I had to remind myself that I am keeping this blog for self-reflective analysis. This blog is for gauging my own potential decline into a state that may possibly be the cause of many foreigners leaving Japan, or acting out within Japan.

At the one year mark, more than ever, it is best to explore my current perspective on life and work for a foreigner teaching in Japan while trying to learn the language and "blend in": Living here is difficult. The word "difficult" being a relative term needs to be made clear:

  • difficult : (adj.) requiring an amount of work, motivation, courage, humility, and failure greater than that to which one is comfortably accustomed.

To elaborate on this point for living in Japan, allow me to explore specific details from my living situation.

Example 1. Learning a new language is difficult for people past a certain age because it takes more work and motivation than they have become used to with their native language.

Spending a year exploring conventional as well as experimental methods of language learning has revealed a lot about my own ability with language in general. I'm a slow reader and a slow writer. At times I can be called a slow talker. If there is such a thing as a slow listener, I would call myself that as well because even in English I have difficulty hearing and understanding what is being said at times. I have yet to hear of a case where someone's ability with a foreign language exceeds their native language ability (except of course in the case where one's own native ability has deteriorated out of non-use), so it is only logical to assume one's ability with a foreign language will never be better than the best one can be with a native language. Achieving the best level, even, requires a lot of dedication. I am constantly frustrated and humiliated by my own shortcomings of English, especially when they effect my ability with Japanese.

Example 2. Living in a culture where one is heavily stereotyped as being unable to communicate on a basic level is difficult because it takes more courage than in one's home culture just to go out into public--something that often feels like a constant battle with said stereotyping.

Occasionally I let myself play the part of a foreigner that doesn't speak Japanese, but never before now have I actually had the obstinate defiance towards attempts to communicate. This feeling is born from being conscientious about the contention with the foreigner stereotype in Japan, and being beaten by it. Times when culture shock is setting in and you want to eat a good meal from your homeland or shut out the foreign environment for a while--these are the times when one is most vulnerable to being beaten by the foreigner stereotype and contracting gaijin syndrome.

And the worse part is that gaijin syndrome can be contagious. Hanging around other foreigners who frequently make comments or deductions about interaction with the foreign environment in which you are both living and relating it to the foreigner stereotype can have an undesirable effect. It is easy to listen to these claims and begin making some of your own just for kicks or perhaps even speculation, but that is when the infection begins.

Example 3. Teaching in a language foreign to one's students is difficult because it takes more humility and failure than one may be used to in a past line of work at home.

Not only is it a difficult thing for the teacher, but for the students as well (see Example 1 above). Foreign language learning is not so difficult when done alongside native language learning simply because the learning activity is the same, just with different content. It's like raising two children just a few years apart as opposed to waiting until the first goes off to college before getting pregnant with the second. In the latter situation, your teenager is easier to feed, clothe, and take out in public than a baby (all parental-defiant angst aside). Going back to the beginning again would be a major shift in your daily activity, and you probably don't remember how you did it the first time. In this regard, maturing a second language is no different.

If it were not as difficult for the student, then perhaps it would not be as difficult for the teacher. One major problem I am forcing myself to face now is the conflict between my own wishes for my students and the wishes the students may have for themselves. For me, Japanese was an implement of my dreams and through my own dedication to learning the language and culture, I was able to fulfill my dream of exploring a wonderland far different than home. Since English is the primary language of communication for the global world, wouldn't the promise of foreign lands be enough to motivate my students to give 100% in their English studies??

Most are content with graduating from a Japanese university and working at a Japanese job to lead an ordinary Japanese life. Even those that spend a year abroad end up abandoning whatever dreams they had for many reasons, such as financial difficulty, the ever-increasing scale of foreign language study, or simply being content with what they found abroad. So a teacher has to resort to "clown tactics"--performing tricks and handing out freebies--or risk losing the students' attention to the forces of mediocrity.

I chose these three points in hopes of illustrating the problems with my current perspective, and highlighting what needs to change. When beginning my new classes this year, I told my students that nothing is really difficult--it just takes a lot of work. My hope was to plant the seed for unearthing their potential in the course by giving them a different way to think about difficult tasks, because it is in thinking that a task is difficult that one begins to lose hope of finishing it.

So in taking my own advice, I present what I believe to be the key to living successfully in Japan: deniability. All criminal implications aside, my point is to willfully ignore these antagonistic situations described above.

★ Language ability certainly has a limit. Neuroscience is discovering the genetic characteristics of learning that prove these limits. Dwelling on one's potential limit is the most detrimental to learning. The true test of ability is through successful communication. Make a habit of enjoying the good conversations and forgetting the bad.

★ Stereotypes exist everywhere in the world. Travelling from country to country, you will appear different in every local people's eyes. To many, these stereotypes offer security as it gives them a set of rules for how they should interact with a stranger. These rules come from assumptions that are made based on characteristics of the stereotype. But you can't control the way others react, only the way you yourself react. So pretend the stereotype doesn't exist. When locals make a generalizing statement of which you are an exception, act surprised. Accepting the stereotype when it is presented to you will only reinforce it, whereas questioning it will plant the seed of doubt in the other's mind.

★ Purpose is one of the hardest things to live without. In fact, it relates to the three upper tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Aspirations form the columns of purpose. Unfortunately, not all aspirations can be shared. Why teach English to these students? There are many answers to that question, most of which probably aren't sufficient. Many are only learning it for fun thanks to the "clown tactics" employed by teachers they had before you. Most of them probably wouldn't satisfy the government-mandated English requirements if it weren't for these tactics. Others have probably already decided they will never use outside of class what it is you are teaching them. Worse still, 90% of anything they learn in school probably won't be used outside of class. This is the heaviest and hardest to ignore. But there are exceptions. Teach to the students with the potential. Do it simply enough that others can follow along and you will have the added effect of not ruining interest out of complexity.

Last year, inspired by a book about teaching, I asked my college Japanese professor about her personal objective as a teacher. I guess I was expecting something like "to spread cultural awareness and interest in Japan," but what she told me was more like "to give my students a class they can enjoy." I didn't quite understand it at the time and was a bit disappointed. I thought I was different because I had actually hoped to use what I was learning in her class after graduation. In retrospect, it wasn't much different for me though. As a student in an engineering major, my Japanese class every quarter was the one break in my schedule that I looked forward to. The content and assignments always felt lighter and friendlier than those related to my engineering discipline. I always said it was Japanese that kept me sane.

If I could do the same for my students--provide something new and different than their usual Japanese lectures while giving an outlet to those interested in the world outside Japan--maybe I can be happy with that purpose.

I've come so far. Yet I still have so much to learn.

lesson 2 : making friends

Last week marked my 9-month anniversary of returning to this beautiful and mysterious island nation and the start of my new life. Having three quarters of a year under my belt, I feel like I have grown significantly into a new kind of person. What kind exactly has yet to be seen as I continue to learn the language and culture while balancing a job that asks me to remain for educational purposes as the same American I was growing up. I can see this growth by looking back at the translation notes I had made on Japanese syllabuses, older posts on this same blog, and one-shot lesson plans I had created as my first attempts to teach non-native English speakers about technology.

This time, I specifically want to address a post of mine back in August '09 where I wrote about how a sushi chef reacted to my very presence in his restaurant.

First impressions are hard to overcome (and second are the most important... isn't that what people say?). But even harder still are stereotypes and prejudices. There are many ways a Japanese person may respond to a foreigner. I've listed them below by order of preference.

  1. Nothing Special
    Often the older a person is, the more likely they will have this response. This is when they address you in whichever language they find most comfortable, often mixing English words with Japanese, or just chatting it up without a care for how much you understand. This reaction is the most beneficial for learners of the language. Even if you aren't studying, the Japanese person won't have any inhibitions against finding a way to communicate.

  2. Exotic Stranger
    The most common response from young people of the opposite sex while in public places. The Exotic Stranger suddenly becomes the topic of a hushed discussion amongst a group of friends riding the same train or sitting in the same vicinity as the foreigner. When in an outgoing mood, you can have some real fun with this reaction.

  3. Teach Me, Sensei!
    When students who actually enjoyed English class in school meet a foreigner, they are more prone to this reaction. The foreigner can benefit from free meals and often an ego boost in exchange for the opportunity to practice language skills. This is refreshing at times, but eventually the English conversation can wear out its welcome if the two of you don't connect on something stronger than the language alone. With as much stuttering and struggling a learner can do just to complete a sentence, it's no wonder language classes at school are only an hour long. I'm sure I've met some Japanese who felt the same way towards me.

  4. Fuuuu©# @__@;;
    This one I think is best demonstrated by the video below:

    Those who more or less slept through required English classes in school are thrown into a frightening recollection of being humiliated in front of their peers. A white foreigner appears to be no different than the teacher that made them feel like a helpless child because of their inability to communicate. These people often default to the one English phrase they remember as their only defense to being forced into the awkwardly nostalgic sensation as our demonstrator, Jun Matsumoto, has done. Even if you claim to speak 'sukoshi nihongo' (a little Japanese), this individual may not even try and see how much you know due to the assumption that you really can't do any at all.

This last response is the most frequent and troublesome, and certainly the least productive when it comes to making friends. One of the benefits of my school having so many foreign teachers is that the students say they lose their fear of foreigners after having graduated.

I've tried many different ways to respond to someone stricken by the symptoms of #4 above. I have tried preempting their 'I don't speak English' by responding to their inquiry into my Japanese-speaking ability with 'iya, zenzen hanasemasen' (Nope, I can't speak any Japanese). Unfortunately the Japanese concept of humor is severely lacking in the category of irony. I just end up sounding like they would had I let them continue to line 2 of their well-rehearsed dialog.

Being a foreigner, you have to learn how to deal with each situation in turn. There may be times when you stand out like a rock star, but once you get into the swing of things, you may find that you can in fact blend in. I experienced this recently when I was meeting a friend at Starbucks.

I had arrived early and sat down in the corner to read my magazine. When my friend showed up, he actually walked past me twice before sitting down on the opposite side of the cafe and texting me to announce his arrival. 'Surely I don't blend in that much...' I thought. Then again, perhaps my friend is just unobservant.

Finally, I'd like to respond to myself 9 months ago. While you certainly shouldn't expect to 'fit right in' from the moment you land, you can expect to reach that point eventually. So long as you can recognize that you are no more or less human than a Japanese person and that it is only your personal backgrounds that differ, you will come to learn how to adapt to the people around you in the most beneficial way. Communication is the key.