Culture matters. We are born into a particular variety and are typically raised in the same unless for some reason we move…to another region, country or join a different class/group. At some point we choose to remain in our cultures or leave for another. We may even come and go between.
I was born and raised in rural mid-Michigan to a homemaker and a blue-collar automotive worker. We were not religious nor did we belong to anything particular. My culture was as bland as my mother’s dish of macaroni and milk– flavored with salt, pepper, margarine and the putrid froth of powdered milk from a black and white box generic.
The overriding tenant in the culture of my youth was never stated but perceived. It was “take care of your own business…work hard and save.” My dad was often laid off due to instability in his industry, but when he could he worked two jobs. In between his day jobs he built our house with savings bonds he stashed away in a safety deposit box. We moved in without any interior doors or carpeting. The US bonds only went so far and he would not take a mortgage.
Beyond finances, my family was typically Midwestern. We often had impromptu family dinners at my grandparent’s farmhouse down the road where us kids played in the barns and put on silly shows. We had fun but were not at all touchy-feely. You don’t see a lot of hugging in our photos. Respect was love.
Overall I was provided with a fine starting point for a good life, but at the time I didn’t realize what I had. Like many young people, I thought my life was boring and practically devoid of culture.
My view of where I came from changed radically when I went to Japan on an exchange at the age of 16. It was 1980 mind you, and I didn’t really know much about what was going on beyond the three counties that converged at the end of country mile. When I got off the plane in Tokyo I was stunned. The Japanese? Now they had culture! And…I couldn’t get enough. Fresh milk was delivered daily in personal-sized glass jars with paper tops. Need I say more?
So as the Bonsai story (my memoir) goes, I turned in my lame, non-descript bumpkin culture for the exotic Japanese model. Just like that. I became infatuated…began mimicking their ways…and in short order married a Japanese man.
While this may seem extreme, it is not so uncommon. People opt for a different way of life or adopt a new lifestyle as they grow. Some admire another culture and immerse themselves. It is a perfectly fine thing to do– as long as one knows exactly what they are getting themselves into. I did not.
The Japanese culture is a complex one. Underneath all of the interesting customs and wonderfully designed products there is a long history with some rather crazy behavior– seppukku (ritual suicide), kamimaze (suicide pilots) and the taking of thousands of “comfort women” for personal pleasure during war times. Sure I had heard of these things, but thought nothing about them seeing the new modern Japan. Those days were long gone.
From sixteen though my early twenties I studied the language and tried hard to assimilate. My instructor/husband was strict and firm. There were no grey areas in his world and explanations for anything was fruitless as excuses did not matter. Far different from my mild-mannered father, the man I married was prone to fits of anger and demeaning talk to anyone who failed to meet his expectations. This included harsh words and physical attacks against his own parents who had more than supported his follies.
And it wasn’t that I had just made a bad choice when it came to men (oh I most certainly did), but over time I would realize that I had elected to become part of a culture that did not meet my expectations nor match the values I apparently held dear– ideas of how people should behave and be treated…notions rightfully instilled in me as a child.
From the outside, many believe the Japanese to be a respectful lot, but if you are a woman do not expect equal treatment in your house. Your job will be to pacify and deal with a great deal of passive aggressive behavior. Do not expect to be appreciated beyond your housewife/mother functions or adored as you age. All too soon you will become a cog in the economic wheel that is the family unit…existing only to meet the standard expectation of society. This is broad brush but generally it has been the case amonst the married Japanese women I knew.
Of course there are exceptions. Many foreign women are of course happily married to Japanese men these days. I believe, however, that these men are for the most part special and attracted to Western (or other) cultures. Thus it works. For me this was not the case. My husband was attracted to Caucasian women (girls actually), but only from a physical perspective. I, being more than willing to adapt to his culture, became his easy prey. I was for his pleasure for two…maybe three years. Beyond that I was expected to fill the role of any common Japanese wife.
I use the term “prey” because what I would come to learn is that my husband was in fact a pedophile. The first hints of his tendency appeared when he became infatuated with my younger sister when she was fifteen and I was nineteen. The next big clue came when I found photo magazines of naked pre-teen girls hidden in our house. These were purchased legally in Japan, obtained from the local newsstand– a fact he used as his “excuse.” As in, “I’m obviously not the only one that likes pre-teen girls.” He hid behind his culture while criticizing my prudish “Judeo-Christian” upbringing as he called it.
This was not my father’s culture…one that respected real women like my outspoken mother. It was one that wanted women to remain demure.
Of course my ex was a pedophile and probably would have been dispite his cuture, but all the same Japan made it easy for him. He could claim his preference to be normal because no one around his was raising a stink about his preferences. It was all too common. Culture matters.
Take a close look at the Titanic-like iceberg illustration below.
What I saw in Japan, what I fell in love with, was all of the trappings. The beautiful kimonos, the sushi, the “Welcome home” greetings said without fail, the pop music, the ancestor worship at the family altars, the cool new products and ancient arts, folk festivals and such. I never gave much thought to that which lay beneath the surface…the psychological and anthropological aspects of the culture which are generally non-visible to the tourist and terribly confusing to the average expat without considerable study. I should have thought more about how the Japanese communicated with each other…how they handled their emotions and honestly examined their beliefs. I should have, but because I did not…because I turned a blind eye, I’m a shining example of a cultural addict who hit rock bottom.
Do not be blinded by what you see on the surface. Keep your eyes open and study any new culture you consider buying into before actually jumping into the deal. And do not toss out that which you have been given so easily. Recognize the good. Choose your values and don’t let anyone, or anyplace for that matter sway you from what you know to be right. Young people may not see the importance of their humble beginnings, but surely they need to take stock of the good and be wary of that which is unfamiliar. I fell for the mesmerizing culture instalantly– and being uneducated and blind, I accepted more than should have.