The Cross-Cultural Sweet Spot

My Alma mater is International Christian University in Tokyo. One of my school’s many claims to fame is that it’s a friendly place for Japan’s kikokushijo (returnee children from abroad) to get reintegrated back into Japanese society.

The kikokushijo are the daughters and sons of Japanese salary-men who brought their families with them on overseas assignments, where their children were educated in non-Japanese schools, most of whom grew up bilingually, many thoroughly indoctrinated into the foreign host culture well before they returned home to Japan.

Many kikokushijo children speak, in addition to English and other European languages, flawless Japanese, although their Japanese is sometimes constructed within the parameters of a Westernized thought-process. This phenomenon can make even grammatically perfect Japanese sound “funny” to sensitive native-Japanese ears. Said another way, Japanese is a language that speaks in feelings, nuances and vague subtleties, a style that logical, straightforward, truth-loving Westerners have difficulty grasping much less mastering. Fluency in a language doesn’t necessarily mean mastery of the nuances.

Keep in mind that I graduated from ICU in the mid-1980s, so the kikokushijo at the time were still a relative rarity in Japan. My expectation going into ICU was that I’d meet interesting, freethinking, international students with broadened horizons and opportunity knocking on whatever door they would dare to open.

Well, I got some of it right. But reality threw me a couple curves.

Lots of my kikokushijo classmates were interesting. Some had lived in New York, others in LA, yet others in more exotic places like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Most spoke exquisite English; one just like the Queen of England herself!

And many had broadened horizons from living abroad. But I can’t help but believe that if, after graduation, certain classmates had chosen to look in the right places and take on the risk of joining (for example) a “gaishikei” international company, opportunities were theirs for the taking. But then I was a young, idealistic American filtering life through my risk-loving values.

Now and then I run across an ICU grad doing well in the business world, and it warms my heart to know others like me are out there plugging away for the cross-cultural cause. But it also reminds me that there just aren’t enough multi-cultural folks in the world to fill all the gaps. We need as many of these gap-fillers as we can find!

For whatever reason, almost all the kikokushijo at ICU were females. After we graduated, we all went our separate ways. Haven’t connected with any of them since and have no idea what they’re doing today.

I’ll go out on a limb and venture a guess that lots of them got married and had 1.4 kids. Right on–motherhood is one of the noblest of callings. Whatever path my classmates took, I hope that many are still contributing their bilingual/bicultural talents to the world, if not professionally, then at least passing on their experiences and wisdom to their children, our future.

What surprised me the most about kikokushijo? Well, initially that so few of them had the inclination to even try straddling the cultures. Japanese society is a tough place to be if you can’t blend in. Too many kikokushijo were so pained by the prospect of not being welcomed back into the fold, that they took extreme measures to abandon what they learned abroad, some even going as far as purposely speaking accented English or just “forgetting” it altogether. In short, many tried forcing their way back into Japan, some choosing to act more Japanese than even their “pure” Japanese compatriots who had never left the country.

Then there was the other extreme: Japanese kids who had “gone native” wherever abroad they happened to spend their childhood, in most cases somewhere in the U.S.

Interestingly the kikokushijo who had truly gone native seemed to have had the strongest sense of personal identity, or at least they pretended convincingly.

Makes sense if you think about Japanese society. It is not at all welcoming to folks who stand out, particularly anyone perceived as an “outsider”. Indeed, Japanese who spent too many years abroad are often considered “foreigners” by their own compatriots.

U.S. culture, in contrast, exalts and romanticizes the oddball; the more the nail sticks up, the more colorful you are, the better. (This phenomenon doesn’t kick in until college, though :-)) In America belonging isn’t as important as the freedom to express and “actualize” oneself.

Perhaps this is why the gone-native kikokushijo seemed angry: they went from unbridled freedom in America to having to re-engage with their strict, hierarchical, collectivist mother culture. Indeed a tough adjustment to make! Not surprisingly many of the gone-native crowd had no desire to be welcomed back into the Japanese fold. And I must confess, this is the group I identified with the most; in their shoes I would absolutely have chosen freedom over belonging.

My theory is that those who identified strongest with being “Japanese”, particularly during their time abroad, were hurt the most when they returned to insular Japan’s harsh reality. Rejection hurts in direct proportion with how much one values belonging. This flavor of kikokushijo valued their “Japanese-ness” so much, that their compatriots’ refusal to accept them back in the fold was a shocking affront to their very identity.

Twenty-five years later it bums me that a good portion of my classmates chose not to get involved in the cross-cultural field. For whatever reason, they couldn’t quite hit that cross-cultural sweet spot. That’s because to belong in Japan, one must conform to the norm, never stick out. You sell your soul to the collective knowing that if you don’t, the cost of not conforming is rejection, if not overt ostracization.

Also forget the notion that the individual has a right to happiness; in Japan it’s all about making the collective happy. This is where conformity becomes essential. It means burying your identity where no one can see it, tethering it to the group, accepting that in the larger scheme of society, the individual is but a small, insignificant fraction of the whole.

If that doesn’t suck the identity right out of you I don’t know what will.

I suspect that many kikokushijo are still working hard today to maintain their aura of “Japanese-ness”. Perhaps some found reintegration and acceptance after all these years. I sincerely hope they all found happiness.

But what I’d really love to know is how the gone-native crowd is doing today. These were the underdogs; the potential game-changers who, for better or for worse, dared to straddle both cultures and seek out their own identities.

In Search of a Multi-Cultural Identity

Looking back, I believe my repatriation back to America when my son was but a year old was a stroke of good fortune (for him especially). Even Tennessee, a place I’d never claim as being particularly tolerant of diversity, was a better place for my mixed-race son to form a core identity than Japan. Japan would’ve been okay until about the time Ry hit elementary school when structure and conformity kicked in. Throw into the mix Japanese grandma and grandpa spoiling him the whole time, and we’d have been flirtin’ with a big-time cross-cultural disaster!

Why do I believe this? Based on countless people I’ve met over the last thirty-plus years who grew up exposed to Japan and U.S. cultures, I noticed some patterns:

Generally speaking, mixed-race children who spent most of their childhood in Japan either had to suppress their identities to fit in, be themselves and pay the price of rejection, or take the path of least resistance by hanging with non-Japanese kids from local international schools or the military bases. In the first two scenarios, the identity of the mix-Japanese child is constantly being challenged.

Of course exceptions to this observation exist. One of my readers commented a couple posts ago, that he did well raising his mixed children in rural Japan (in the Japanese school system, I believe). As I see it, this family doesn’t represent the “norm” (if there is such a thing). But his children are living proof that it’s possible to raise well-adjusted kids under these circumstances. My personal opinion is that raising a mixed-race child in Japan would tend to present more challenges than raising the same child in America.

And yet I can think of upsides and downsides for both situations

Pros and Cons of Raising Bicultural Kids in Japan

The obvious upside of raising a bicultural kid in Japan is the ease of staying connected to the Japanese language and culture. And if you’re lucky to live near the urban parts of Japan, you also get added exposure to international people and cultures from around the world.

Then there’s the public school system. Public schools in Japan generally provide a standard, high (average) level of education. But for students wishing to stay outside the Japanese system, quality private and international schools are also available.

Another positive about Japan is affordable healthcare and available work for English speakers, not to mention that the Japanese are, generally speaking, kinder to foreigners than to their own. (As insular as the Japanese can be, they ironically cut foreigners more slack than fellow Japanese.)

As for the downsides to Japan, the most obvious is the potential of being disconnected from the English language and Western culture (depending of course, on what school you attended). In the case of mixed culture kids in the Japanese public school system, the potential goes up for bullying, although it’s not a foregone conclusion as it depends a lot on the school, the teachers, and how big your child is (just kidding).

For parents who choose to keep their kids out of the Japanese school system, American School in Japan and other private schools offer a viable alternative, although tuition can be pricey.

In regard to Japan’s University system, they have some great schools–Tokyo University, Waseda and Keio come immediately to mind. But overall most traditional Japanese universities are not set up to develop students who can effectively engage the international community. Sophia and my alma mater International Christian University would be two exceptions.

And lastly, if the mixed-culture child in Japan happens to have a Japanese-looking face, then the social expectation to conform and “follow the rules” goes up. No surprise then that, under these conditions, asserting one’s individual identity would be frowned upon.

Pros and Cons of Raising Bicultural Kids in America

I know a little bit about this. The upside of raising my children in America was it directly connected them to my language and culture.

My children were never bullied for any reason; their mixed racial background was never an issue. In fact their friends themselves were from diverse backgrounds including Korean, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Japanese, even a few Caucasians!

In the case of our family, we were lucky enough to live in one of the top-performing public school districts in the U.S., so my children were blessed with a high-quality education. Clearly we don’t fit the norm in the “education” category as it relates to the U.S.

Within this context my children forged what I believe is a “core” identity biased toward U.S.-Midwestern culture. With their core as American, we managed to find that elusive cross-cultural “sweet spot” by providing ongoing exposure to Japanese language and culture throughout their lives, including trips to Japan, hooking them up with Japanese friends, watching Japanese videos together, and regularly talking up the positive attributes of both cultures.

Proud to say my children managed to pick up pieces of both cultures that we love. Their Japanese side includes patience, a cerebral approach to developing relationships, and the compassion and empathy to look at the world through other people’s eyes. Their American side boasts creativity and the freedom of self expression, optimum conditions that encouraged both our boys to grow into confident, well-adjusted adults.

There were some downsides to our situation, too. The multi-cultural world we created in the U.S. wasn’t quite up to the task of raising our children with equal native proficiency levels in both languages. No matter how much mom spoke to them in Japanese, the conversation would rarely include vocabulary that they would normally learn, for example studying history, math and science in a Japanese school–not to mention all the vocabulary they’d encounter dealing with Japanese classmates and friends, or what they would absorb from the Japanese mass media (not necessarily a bad thing). This is why it was important for my older son to live in Japan later in life; it was an opportunity to offset the imbalance created from a childhood immersed in America.

In a couple years Grady will have the same opportunity if he chooses to take it. A few years in Japan would add yet another badly needed cross-cultural gap-filler to the mix, so I support the idea completely.

The only other downside of raising our children in the U.S. is the ethnocentric nature of our culture in certain parts of the country. (Not painting America with a single brush here, because lots of folks don’t fit the label.) But I encountered this mindset often during my years living in the South and Midwest.

In broader cultural terms turns out America’s biggest strength is its biggest weakness: being number one for so long has taken its toll on America’s ability to tap into the power of humility. When you’re the only Superpower in the game, the idea of looking at the world through the eyes of others and empathizing with their sensitivities might seem a bit odd, even weak (dare I say…un-American?)!

Now would be a great time for America to recalibrate its thinking. It’s time to better understand and connect with the world around us, a world, whether we like it or not, that we can’t survive without.

Suffice it to say we had to work hard in Suburbia America to develop a mindset in our children, that they were not just American citizens, but citizens of the world.

Hitting the Cross-Cultural Sweet Spot

Wherever you and your bicultural kids happen to live, hitting that cross-cultural sweet spot is the challenge. The reader I mentioned earlier, Grif, found his optimum sweet spot in Japan by sending his kids back to the U.S. during summer breaks. (Hats off to grandma and grandpa for having the energy and dedication to help with the kids’ “education”!)

We came from a different set of circumstances in Tennessee and later Chicago. My wife spoke only Japanese at home and I spoke only English. In pre-school years the ratio of English to Japanese was pretty even: most exposure to Japanese through mom (and friends to a lesser degree), with exposure to English through American friends, television and yours truly.

But once my children hit school age, the daily ratio of English to Japanese shot way out of balance. To offset increased exposure to English at school and decreased exposure to Japanese at home, my wife upped her efforts to communicate with the kids, and made sure we stayed connected with  Japanese ex-pat friends in the neighborhood. And as our children reached their teenage years, we even found opportunities for them to tutor younger Japanese children in the neighborhood.

As I alluded to above, the challenge is helping your mixed-culture/race children nurture an identity they can call their own. The notion of identity ultimately comes from a spiritual place. An identity crisis then, is a crisis of the spirit, the antithesis of inspiration and killer of passion. We wanted our children to be comfortable in their own skin, to be proud of where they came from, to find the peace of mind that comes with growing up in a culturally harmonious home–to be inspired and live life with passion!

My wife and I love many aspects of both our cultures.  Our children had to feel this passion growing up. It’s not that we never criticized Japan or America, but even then it was balanced and delivered with love and respect. From the time my kids were born they were getting positive, consistent messages about both cultures. Happy to say those messages stuck.

But our strongest, most tangible message to our children was non-verbal: We, mom and dad, took on the responsibility of finding and hitting our own cross-cultural sweet spot. And somehow, two people from opposite sides of the planet and completely different cultures, managed to find common ground, work out differences, and in doing so create a nurturing environment that brought together the best of both worlds. In the end, our children are a product and reflection of the culture we created at home.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


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