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Living in Japan, but not actually There

I real love for Japan.

Recently an article caught my eye “How a love of Japan, led me to stop dating its women.” It details the trials and tribulations of a man trying to not get too deep into Japanese culture by not dating ‘its women’. Or at least that’s what I think it was about.

From the start it seemed a little off. Starting with the illustration at the top, the whole article stunk a little of objectification. I wasn’t sure if the author was bragging of his exploits or trying to make a legitimate point about his relationship with Japanese culture.

And is it just me or does “its women” sound not quite right? How about “women in Japan”? For some reason, I have a pet peeve against using terms like “Japanese people” or “Japanese women”. It always just seems too easy to make a terrible-sounding generalization when using those terms. But that’s just me.

Having an Open Marriage with Japan

What a got from the article is that the author wants to keep Japanese culture at arm’s length by marrying someone from another culture. And yet, he is not interested in that person’s culture. He wants to dabble, play the field of cultures if you will. His laundry list of exploits from various corners of the planet, lends some credence to this armchair psychology.

And I guess that’s one way to approach it. There are plenty of people happily committed to a country but like to indulge in new experiences. There are no laws against that. As long as the country is fine with it, who cares what people do in the privacy of their own homes right?

Indeed, there are a number of foreigners here in Japan that keep themselves in a bubble. It’s actually quite easy to surround yourself with other English speakers, sign up for Hulu, buy your food from the import shop, and generally live in your own cultural island, journeying out from time to time to sample some of the regional offerings.

Culture is the People

To me though, culture is defined and created by the people. After all, most of the things we consider to be ‘culture’ are things that a certain group of people have essentially floated toward over the years or months. The art, the history, etc… of culture is created out of an organic consensus of what everyone sees as cool or acceptable. Shared experiences, like war, and geography have some effect on that as well. But it’s basically the people.

Being interested in the culture, but not wanting to connect with the people, to me at least, is bit of an oxymoron. It’s like going to someone’s house just because you really like their house, but don’t actually want to spend that much time with them. Just keep them at arm’s length as you lounge around their house partaking of their goodies.

In college, I started tutoring foreign students with English. Most colleges and universities have some kind of “conversation partner” exchange where you hang out with a foreign student once a week and get to know them. Often times it can be quite awkward, but once you get over the first few meet-ups, they can be a lot of fun and a great way to learn about another culture.

This tutoring experience sparked my interest in living in another country, and experiencing it first hand. So instead of taking another language college I took linguistics classes, which help prepare one for teaching English abroad, or at least that was what they were designed to do.
After I graduated, I kept volunteering wherever I could to teach English. I used to volunteer at a church with a group of Brazilians who had just come to America. They were so excited to be there and speak English. And I probably learned as much from them as they did from me. It really sparked my interest in wanting to travel abroad and meet more people.

So, I set about narrowing down where I wanted to teach. Doing research on a couple of different countries before finally deciding on Japan as being safe and relatively low risk for a newb like myself. But, not being one to blindly jump into things, I went back to tutoring at my local college in Portland. I met a fun group of people from Kobe, and I knew I wanted to make the move. That was what made me uproot my life in the States and journey westward to Japan – the people.

Because as anyone knows, books on the culture of a country are best guesses really. Not to say they don’t give you perspective, they usually do. It’s just that you really have to travel to or live in it to get a good feel for a culture.

And that is not to say I’m an extrovert. I’m quite the opposite to be honest. I’d love to sit in a cafe and have a chat with someone over a cuppa any day. That is after all the spirit of the Northwest. I just found that tutoring people one on one gave me an excuse to ask seemingly ridiculous questions under the guise of learning English. It was and still is a great gig.

Ain’t No Bed of Roses

In case you didn’t know, marriage is a very serious commitment. The commitment you make in your 20s~40s, needs to stay true into your 70s~90s. It requires regular maintenance and communication. Even ‘domestic’ relationships have trouble keeping it together. When you literally speak two different languages, it ups the ante all the more.

There is also concern about being in a different country as parents grow older. Technology has improved to the point where we can call and even send video to the other side of the world for pennies, but these are still just simulations for actually being there. And let’s face, grandma is not always the best at getting Skype up and working.

Children from international relationships are born to two cultures and languages. Technically, when my daughter becomes an adult, she must choose between America or Japan. Thinking about myself at that age, I didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to make a decision like that. I feel like I have a responsibility to show her the good and the bad of America so that she has some sense of what to do.

The Harder the Battle the Sweeter the Victory

All that being said, being in an international relationship can be extremely rewarding. I pretty much learn something new every day. My wife always provides a unique prospective on things that I don’t have because we are from different backgrounds. Sharing ideas and working together on the trials and tribulations of life has been amazing.

My daughter is always an inspiration. Her quirky way of looking at the world is a constant welcome surprise. Her creative, effortless blending of culture and language brings a regular smile on my face.

I think the minor difficulties of an international marriage make us more aware of the fact that you have to put in regular work to keep any marriage going. They don’t just go on their own. It has been an amazing experience for me so far.

Photo by Toomore Chiang

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