Sorry, that was me

It could happen in the lunchroom, at a café, walking down the street, in your home. You never know when it will strike. It begins innocently enough. Eyes meet, eyes dart secret whispers, dramatic laughter, fingers point.

They are laughing at you.
Not with you.

Your day is destroyed.

Well, it’s not that bad, nor that dramatic. I think we’ve all experienced a time when our paranoia kicks in and we think we’re being laughed at. It can be humiliating.

20131125_MothIn order to survive, I’ve had to brave the sometimes scary, always foreign, world of shopping. It is in this space, this folk space, where I’ve experienced a slew of cultural interaction. The service industry is where I’ve experienced the down and dirty secrets of culture. Such an intriguing space.

Most of the advertising we receive about other cultures is either the romanticized depiction of royalty and upper class, or the empathy inducing portrayal of the downtrodden. Even within our own culture most popular media focuses on the financially secure. Rare are the examples we see of people or families struggling to get by. It is too depressing. But this is the majority. Struggle is the majority. Instead, we are fed the dream.

Japan’s service industry clearly illustrates the hierarchal rules the society is based on. Everybody knows where they stand on the ladder.

Except me.

I have no idea where I belong. There are good reasons for this. I’m not Japanese. I’ve also never known my place. So there’s that. But there’s more.

As a core ideal, I believe that everybody deserves respect. Unless they actively try to destroy it. Status does not determine the amount of respect I give. Although, I am particularly respectful when someone helps me. The people that just so happen to help me the most are cashiers. They are the front lines of culture. They are the people, the folk, I remember. I don’t even know their names. But still, they receive my respect.

Apparently this can lead to problems.

20131125_ShrineSince Japan is so hierarchal and everyone knows their place, if I give a lot of respect to someone below my rank, they have to go even further than normal. This may be seen as an annoyance caused by me. I disrupt the flow. Throw a kink into the mix, if you will. I’m like a car wreck you never see that disrupts traffic for miles. Sorry, that was me.

I wonder at which point I have to resolve this issue. Pretty soon, my cultural identity begins to get confused.

In my experience, some groups are better than others at preserving their cultural identity. Take my family, for example. Within three generations we have lost our immigrant cultural identity. Finnish was spoken in my mother’s household when she was growing up, but there was no Finnish during my childhood. I’m not making any judgments, just an observation.

I didn’t know my Finnish grandparents but I can imagine they held a strong attachment to their Finnish cultural identity. I do too, but it was something I had to actively seek out as I struggled through identity issues during my formative years.

And now here I am in another new culture. I don’t know my place. How Japanese should I become? I am here and I will do my best to learn and understand. But I will never be Japanese, just as I will never be Finnish. I can, however, appreciate and learn from those cultural heritages, even ones that I don’t have an ancestral link to.

I think it is important for us to maintain a strong link to our cultural heritage. There are so many beautiful things that we shouldn’t forget about.

20131125_BridgeI am the awkward foreigner.
I am the awkward native.

I throw, monkey wrenches, kinks, and a spectacular collection of other damage causing implements into the metaphorical mix.

Your way is beautiful.
My way is beautiful.

Let’s appreciate and learn from the beauty of each other.

Sorry, that was me.

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The Awkward Elephant
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About Matthew J. Durocher

Matthew Durocher is a graduate of Michigan Tech University. He acquired his BA in English along with a minor in Music Composition and a certificate in Writing in Spring 2012. He plans to attend graduate school for ethnography and folklore studies in the near future. And here is his musician bio: Musician/Composer Matthew Durocher has been involved with a distinct variety of music over the years, ranging from traditional ethnic music to electronic beats to full symphonic scores. His style is one of passion and musicality. One foot is firmly rooted in tradition while the other slides dangerously close to the clouds.
This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Japan, Reflection, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sorry, that was me

  1. Mabel Kwong says:

    Beautiful post with lovely writing, Matthew. Being born in Australia to Malaysian parents, I myself feel foreign a lot of times. For instance, should I speak my native language Cantonese more or speak English 100% of the time (especially at home)? I agree we should strive to maintain our cultural heritage as there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from our culture’s histories and values.

  2. Oh this post could have been written about me Matthew! After 12 years in Finland, some days I’m still the awkward foreigner traipsing about careful not to stir up too much dust :D I had no idea you had Finnish ancestry! Living in this cross-cultural setting, I sometimes don’t know how to articulate my own journey (thinking perhaps that it might make no sense to anyone else but me). And so again, I thank you for sharing yours. For in it, we find our own voice. Sharon

    • Sharon, Thanks for commenting! My mother’s side is from Finland. I’m a third generation American.

      I agree. It is so difficult to articulate these confusing feelings. Sometimes it feels like I’m blathering nonsense. It makes me feel good that somebody else gets it. Thanks for sharing as well.

      And one of these days I’ll get to Finland as well. Have a lovely day!

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