Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Two-faced living

Living in two places poses interesting challenges.

Thanks to many wonderful suggestions and thought-provoking comments from all of you, I've had some further insights.
  • It's okay to hoard chocolate. Sometimes, daily survival in another culture requires that we make sacrifices. In this case, I may be sacrificing some rules of etiquette but I won't be sacrificing my sanity. Yay!
  • Giving indoor shoes for a toddler who doesn't understand the difference between "indoor" and "outdoor" shoes while seemingly ridiculous to me (why bother?) feels like a step in the right direction toward engendering tolerance from my in-laws. Not one person here has pointed the finger at me and called me a bad mom, but honor and reputation are very, very prized here and I really want to keep mine untarnished for as long as possible.
  • No matter how many times I think I'm starting to get the hang of things and fit in, something new will come up. Yesterday I unthinkingly used my chopsticks to take a piece of food from my husband's chopsticks in order to give it to my daughter. He gave me a "look" and sternly warned me about how inappropriate that is in Japanese culture. Thankfully, his mother, the only witness, played ignorant. (She is a wonderful woman!) In my defense, my husband was reaching across me at the table to give food to my daughter and frankly, I get tired of having his arm in my face at mealtimes (for some reason he refuses to sit on the other side of my daughter so this happens all the time). Furthermore, I was raised to believe that reaching across the dinner table, in front of others, is rude. Can you say "culture clash"??
  • It's sometimes hard to know what I can or should chalk up to differences in parenting style or personality versus larger cultural issues. Living with your in-laws, even within the same country and culture, is bound to result in some discomfort and the revelation that we don't always do things the same way. However, when you add in the "gaijin" (foreigner) factor, things get trickier for me. There are times I don't want people here to think that I'm representative of my culture and that "all Americans do x". On the one hand, I'd like to show that there are different ways of doing things since a lot of Japanese culture seems to be really homogeneous - "there's the Japanese way and it's the only way". But trying to show the "American" perspective is challenging since one of the things I most love about the U.S.A. is the diversity of people and ideas. The last thing I want to convey is that my way is THE American way. Needless to say, I think about this a lot and I find that it's complicated. Perhaps after living here for a while longer, I'll find a way to let it all go and In the meantime, I struggle to figure out how to choose my battles when I'm not even sure where the lines are being drawn.


  1. First and foremost..YAY FOR CHOCOLATE!!! I can only imagine how difficult the inner clash is for you. I think you're doing a good job, though! Any of these things that you're having "problems" with, are issues you can talk to Gboy about? Does he feel the same way about some of these? Can you use him as a sounding board? Forgive me if you already answered these questions before. Also, some things are just parenting issues and not so much cultural issues. I know my husband and I differ on certain things when it comes to parenting. At any rate, I think you're doing a great job! Keep it up!

  2. Exellent, excellent post! Chopstick manners can make you want to eat with a fork all your life! I wanted to comment on your bit about what is "American." I think I always take the easy way out and say my way is the American way. made me think. My way is NOT always the American way. And you are so right! That is one of the WONDERFUL things about American culture! Well, you really made me think! Thanks a lot!!!

  3. All so true.

    Did your DH tell you the background to the chopstick thing? You pass the bone fragments after a cremation from rellie to rellie and finally into an urn that way so they won't do it for food. Having done the funeral thing I have a much greater acceptance of this now as it was all a bit graphic for my delicate closed casket type personage!

    I personally think inside shoes are ridiculous- especially as you have to take them off when you enter a tatami room anyway- but they sure make life easier at obaachan's house so the girls both have them...

    And being an ambassador for THE AMERICAN WAY is tiring huh? I've lost count of the number of times I've had to remind my MIL that it's not all Australians who spend Christmas Day at the beach but my family. I mean look at a map- the majority of the country would have a loooong trek to the beach!!

  4. I always love your posts that contrast American vs Japanese culture. So many things I never think about! Yes, there are many parenting differences even WITHIN culture, much less ACROSS cultures, it would be hard to distinguish.

  5. This is a really interesting post! I can totally relate to you when you wrote "There are times I don't want people here to think that I'm representative of my culture and that "all Americans do x". Not being American, I dont want to be grouped into the even broader "all gaijin do x!"

    Thanks for explaining the chopstick things, thefukases! I knew it had something to do with funerals but didnt know the details.

  6. This is an excellent post!!!!!! J!

    I agree, inside shoes, huh? The only time I wear slipper is if my feet are cold and when I worked at a Juku, we wore slippers, could not fathom how to possibly run upstairs with those on.... Indubitably so, I agree with well, I don't like being an ambassador of an English French-American woman, then explaining why I am a French, English, American woman.. They they end up calling me "hafu"... oh the irony..

  7. Thanks all!

    thefukases - Yes I'd heard about how the chopsticks were used - just totally spaced for a minute. Although he didn't explain to me why it has to be chopsticks for the bones. Why not use tongs of some kind? Funny how cultures evolve....

    And I totally appreciate that my husband is trying to save me from public humiliation. *sigh* It just feels like I'm always *wrong* here, whereas I can't think of anything similar in the U.S. I suppose equal parts of embarrassment would make me feel better.