Tag Archives: cross-cultural

How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law


We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor. But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half-right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, poker-faced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression.

Japanese dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curveball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”



Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?”

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well, I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”


Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered and accepted a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to her feelings all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it, too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.


After thirty-three years in the U.S., we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on four years ago, so mom now lives alone. We recently moved back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations, with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet, I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgment of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.


Ramblings from the Wrong Side of a Lava Flow


Plume from the lava flow approaching Pahoa Town

As a kid growing up on the north side of Chicago I never imagined my house might one day be in the path of a lava flow. (Lava only flowed in Saturday morning movies, and usually involved dinosaurs). Never once did I entertain the notion that I’d someday live on an active volcano; it was an undreamt future that, against all odds, somehow came true.

It happened eight years ago when my family decided to trade in the brutal Chicago winters for life in the subtropics. We up and moved to the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii, at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When lava started flowing from the north flank of Pu’uo’o vent on June 27th of this year, I wasn’t paying much attention, nor were many other people. After all, the flow front was still well over ten miles away, plenty of time and space to sputter out.

So everyone went about their business: homes were bought and sold, progress on the new park and shopping center didn’t miss a beat. Restaurants continued serving food, stores peddled their wares, the town loiterers loitered. Life went on as it always did in lower Puna.

But the pesky flow kept coming. Weeks later it was advancing in an easterly direction with no hint of slowing down. It now had our undivided attention.

Clueless about the subtleties of our island’s topography, I rationalized: it’s clearly going east into the cracks in the rift zone; with a little luck it’ll drain into an old lava tube and come out somewhere downhill, far away from my neighborhood.

And the lesson here is, don’t believe everything you think, especially the wishful stuff. I had no idea.

Living On the Edge of a Lava Flow

For a while we were doing okay, right up until the lava overflowed from those darn cracks, spilled over onto the north slope, and started flowing in a northeasterly direction. It was now headed directly for our beloved town. And beyond Pahoa, downhill just a few more miles, is my subdivision, Hawaiian Shores.



Notice the location of my house: I’m living on the edge of the projected flow path. Red arrows are mine to indicate general anticipated direction based on paths of steepest descent. (Source: Hawaii Volcano Observatory lava maps)

And still I was hopeful—or maybe delusional is a better word. But even in the depths of denial I couldn’t help but worry. Surely the flow doesn’t have the legs to reach Pahoa Town…does it?

Well, as of today it’s had just enough “legs” to crawl within a few miles of Pahoa. And based on the topographical information provided by county scientists, it’s now poised to roll right through the middle of town in the general direction of our Post Office. It will literally cut Pahoa in half.

For better or for worse, the flow has stalled for the past several days, but it’s slowly starting to advance again, so who knows? Talking to the folks from the county, all their plans and actions moving forward are predicated on the assumption that the flow will continue to advance, and eventually cross highway 130, lower Puna’s lifeline to Hilo. They urged all residents to plan accordingly.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Waiting for Pele

The downside to our holding pattern is how nerve-wracking uncertainty can be. And yet, we’re always being reminded that uncertainty is part of life. Intellectually we know it’s there, but it feels so good to pretend it isn’t. Slow-moving lava has a way of shoving uncertainty in your face.

And here we are–waiting for Pele.

This disaster is a strange one; so devastating and yet forgiving. It’s all happening in slow motion. On the one hand it will allow nine thousand souls to escape a fiery death in orderly fashion. But it will also leave every one of them to a future that promises only uncertainty. What we know for sure is that no matter what happens, life in lower Puna is about to change forever. Some would argue that it already has.

The worst case scenario for lower Puna would be if the lava ever reached the ocean, a potential reality that would cut off lower Puna from its only remaining direct lifelines to Hilo. In other words, the main highway and both alternate routes on the east side would all be covered in lava, and the twenty-five mile drive to Hilo would become a seventy-plus-mile trek on a very substandard road, at least a several-hour, one-way commute under the best of conditions. If and when the situation ever reaches this point, you can bet there will be lots of houses in lower Puna sitting empty.

We’ve resigned ourselves to accepting whatever Madame Pele throws at us, which we’ve concluded isn’t so horrible. In the event that we lose our home, we take comfort in knowing we’ll live to fight another day. We also know that things could be much worse, and it makes us thankful that they aren’t.

Still, part of me wishes Madame Pele would be a little more decisive here, just so the nine thousand people in my community can move on with their lives.

But we all know that’s not how the fiery lady rolls. Until the flow actually crosses the highway, those of us who remain on the “wrong side of the flow” will continue to flounder in lava limbo.

Life Goes On

Even with all the talk of gloom-and-doom, life goes on in Puna today. The postman just delivered our mail. Folks are hauling their garbage to the dump (now the closest point to the lava flow). The electric company is servicing power lines, our favorite restaurant is still packing in hungry crowds. Many other shops are open too. Even our loiterers seem to be sticking to their routines.

But beneath the façade of normalcy tension simmers, you can feel it. Uncertainty is in the air. People are scared. Some are desperate–they have no place to go if the lava flow cuts off access to Hilo.

But no one knows for sure what will happen, that’s why this story is so compelling. And it’s one reason my wife and I have chosen to stay: we need to watch it unfold and share our perspective, even if it’s from the wrong side of the flow.

For a perspective on the cross-cultural dimension of this flow, checkout Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House? 

In the meantime, some recent pictures of Pahoa.


My favorite restaurant, their food rocks. Was thrilled to hear the owners say they’ll stay open “until the lava reaches our steps.”


Ah Mike’s New York Pizza, an enigma. Mike and I had a rough start but I learned to like his pizza and overlook his shortcomings, lol. Mike’s not even there anymore. My wife says we should call it “Not Mike’s New York Pizza Anymore.” Need to eat there at least one more time.


Boogie Woogie Pizza


A true relic of the past. Based on current projections, it won’t be close to the flow.


Luquin’s, our Mexican restaurant


Pele’s Kitchen, a great place for breakfast


Classic Pahoa!


(Blogger’s Note: Through all the sadness and human tragedy associated with this flow, I am completely captivated by this story and can’t stop watching. The flow is creating genuine human drama in our community; a contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. We’ll cover the ripple effect of the flow in future posts, with a focus on the cross-cultural ramifications.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling


“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved the life of Santa Claus. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

On Driving Change Across Cultures & Rolling in the Mud

Installment #6 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1)

The Power of the Team(2)

Leading with Dirty Hands(3)

The Anatomy of Productivity(4)

The Team Owns It(5)

It’s tough enough introducing change into a monoculture organization–although it’s hard to imagine such an animal even exists today in our global economy. But let’s face it, people of all cultural persuasions resist change.

Let me rephrase that: People of all cultural persuasions resist change that’s forced on them. And this is really the crux of the matter.

To use an extreme example, suppose I’m living happily in my home back in Chicago, and suddenly the government knocks on my door and tells me they’re going to build a highway right through my living room, so I have to move out. Needless to say I’d be ticked off and resistant to leaving. If I really loved that home I might even chain myself to a tree when the bulldozers arrived. Or worse, hire a lawyer.

On the flip side, if I were living in the same house but decided on my own to move to, say, Hawaii because I’m sick of shoveling snow, then the decision to change would be mine, and therefore a good thing.

The moral of the story is that forcing change on people breeds resistance. The optimum way to work around this human flaw is through education, engagement and involvement. You educate employees–especially the resisters–to understand the current situation and that there’s a better way; you have them collect the data, help them understand what it means, and challenge them to come up with their own solutions to improving their own work areas. If it’s their idea, they are more likely to put it into practice than if it’s yours.

But whether change is forced or not, when you throw different cultures and languages into the soup, introducing change gets exponentially more challenging. Not only do you have to cope with the normal resistance all people have to change, but you’ve also got hidden culture gaps messing with everyone’s heads.  The logical approach then is to find and tap into common values and motivations that can keep the different cultures “glued” together. The good news is that once common ground is established and the team properly educated, multi-culture workplaces rock with the best of them.

Pulling It All Together

Hope it’s clear by now that the point of my ramblings isn’t about factories and industrial engineering. It’s about applying the broader principles that drive and nurture positive change in any organization.

And to that point, a brief recap:

Improvement starts and ends with structured teams of competent, educated, and motivated employees led by leaders willing to get their hands dirty.

In getting the team to embrace its mission—whether it’s productivity improvement or developing an on-line marketing campaign—it is persuasive and therefore effective to start with the big picture before burdening the troops with details. Context is critical for a shared understanding and eventual buy-in. In my experience, the “deductive” approach has been effective in communicating with cultures around the world.

And while it’s necessary to provide context, ultimately the team has to own the project for any good to come of it. They own it by doing the work, from data collection to analysis to brainstorming through implementation and follow up. The leader’s job is to advise, support and catch folks when they fall. And occasionally roll around in the mud with ’em.

But if you do just one thing right, make sure it’s building solid relationships up, down and across the organization, accomplished by generously sharing knowledge and being humble enough to learn from others, especially the folks on the front lines who are creating value for the organization.

My years as a manufacturing consultant weren’t much fun. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It broadened my understanding of business and management, taught me how to strategically approach improvement, and hooked me up with some quality people who are still friends today.

Thanks to all my great Japanese mentors–even the crazy samurai mentors–it shouldn’t surprise that my management style has a distinct shoyu flavor. And yet, as much as I respect the improvement approach used by these mentors, it has, as my Japanese boss liked to say, “much room for improvement.”

We’ll revisit the “big picture” in a future post, next time from forty-thousand feet. Coming soon.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Slack Key & Zen

Been learning the basics of iMOVIE of late. Just for fun I dragged together some pictures we took in Japan in May, mostly nature shots in the Atami area in Shizuoka. On a whim I set it to an instrumental slack key piece a friend of mine composed, played and recorded. (Mahalo Dwight!) The music is your best reason to click on the clip. The pictures aren’t too hard on the eyes either.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Reflections on the Life of a Kindred Spirit



I met Joe in a bar in Japan called Bonanza. About the size of an American walk-in closet, it was the neighborhood watering hole for the hip rock-and-roll night-lifers in a funky part of Kanagawa prefecture, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies.

Geographically and culturally, Yamato was closer to Yokohama than Tokyo. But the town had its own unique flavor of Japanese funk. Bonanza was a direct manifestation of that funkiness. I loved that little dive.

Bonanza’s proprietor (or “Master” as they say in Japan) was Taro. Word on the street was that in his former life, Taro was a chef at a highfalutin gourmet restaurant in Tokyo, and that at the peak of his career he chucked it all to go rogue and start his own bar, pretty radical behavior in Japan, especially back in the day.

And herein lies a mini culture lesson: most Americans would think Taro did the cool thing by branching off on his own, while his Japanese compatriots thought him a bit odd and reckless. This is a natural gap in outlooks between a young country founded by risk-loving crazy people who braved months at sea in rickety boats bound for a place they’d never been–versus a risk-averse, collective, high context ancient rice culture crowded onto a geographically isolated, volcanic archipelago.

Of course, we were blissfully ignorant of the cultural ramifications at the time, as we playfully scratched at the surface of Japanese culture. Suffice it to say that as eccentric as Taro could be, he was not so odd by American standards. But to most of Japan, Taro was an outcast. And Taro didn’t mind at all, because he’s the one who cast himself out.

The reader’s image of Taro might be that of a slightly atypical Japanese company man, and that’s probably what he looked like clean-shaven dressed in a tuxedo or chef’s outfit or whatever he wore back then.

But deep inside Taro’s tortured soul, he was a radical departure from the Japanese norm. It started with his appearance but went much deeper. The Taro we all knew and loved was tall and lanky, with an unkempt beard and scraggly hair. He wore the same outfit every day: Levi jeans with a matching blue-jean vest and baseball cap to (presumably) hide his thinning scalp, something I only glimpsed a few times the entire time I’ve known him.

To complete the visual, Taro looked like a lawless, wiry, bony, badass Japanese biker dude. But in reality, he was a harmless curmudgeon who, aside from looking twice his age with a foot in the grave, made great food and played kick-ass music.

And I am happy to report today that Taro turned out to be much more robust than we had ever imagined, as he is still alive and kicking. I’m told he looks exactly the same as he did 30 years ago.

This walk-in closet we called Bonanza was cozy–dare I say too cozy–for the uninitiated, large-bodied American, certainly anyone new to Japan. If you lived in Japan long enough you either lost your claustrophobia or went crazy, because, well, the whole damn country is cramped. Picture this: take 40% of the U.S. population then stuff ‘em into one-third of California, and you’ve got a good proximation of Japan’s population density.

What this means in the context of our story, is that when a customer walked into Bonanza, no matter where the person sat, he or she was uncomfortably close to whoever was already in the bar, including the Master. It was that small. The saving grace of Bonanza was its great music (an eclectic selection of blues, jazz, rock, country, R&B and more), the tasty specials served up by the curmudgeonly Master himself, and the pretty Japanese rock-and-roll chicks who, on occasion, graced us with their presence.

Hey Joe

Joe and Steve in Bonanza

So there I was, uncomfortably close to my future friend Joe in a tiny dive in Yamato run by a grumpy curmudgeon, with Eddy Rabbit singing “Hey Bartender” in the background. I remember the song because it eventually gave birth to Joe’s nickname, “Hey Joe.” The lyrics explain:

Hey, Bartender  pop the top on another can

Give me ten dimes  for this dollar in my hand

Turn the knob on the jukebox way up loud

I might drive out the whole damn crowd

But I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Hey, Joe  you’re lookin’ at me like I was half crazy

But ain’t you never  loved and lost a real special lady

She was a sweet lovin’ momma she treated me right

I stepped out on her one to many times

Now I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Drinkin’ and thinking about facin’ tomorrow

Sinkin’, sinkin’ in a sea of sorrow Hey, Bartender

Line ’em up down the bar

I’m gonna try  and wash away all these lovin scars

Now don’t worry ’bout me weavin’ I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

No don’t you worry about me weaving I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Yes I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Thanks to Joe’s fondness for this song, Japanese folks who frequented Bonanza started calling him “Hey Joe,” as in “Hello Mr. Hey Joe!”

Well, when I walked into Bonanza that day, “Hey Joe” was sitting in a kid-sized chair at a tiny table with his buddy Steve. Both were Sophia University students and, from where I stood at the time, wily old veterans of Japan. I remember they were chuckling about something.

To their credit, they didn’t hesitate to let me in on the joke. Joe explained that the chef’s “special of the week” was Taro’s Indian curry rice, which happened to be served in a bowl with a large spoon. Problem was that most Americans who ordered the curry wanted to “show off” their chopstick skills by asking for a set. Taro didn’t speak a lick of English but wanted to enlighten his American customers about a local custom he thought they should be aware of. So he asked Joe and Steve to translate his message from Japanese to English. Grinning from ear-to-ear, Joe pointed to a big sign hanging above the counter that said:

“Even JAPANESE people don’t eat curry with chopsticks!”

A Love Affair with Japan

Over the next year, Joe and I became regulars at Bonanza. In no time we clicked and a friendship was born. And it made perfect sense: we were young, single, happy-go-lucky Americans immersed in Japan in the early boom years of the 1980s, surrounded by classy, hardworking, honest people. In conversations with Joe over the years, we concurred that this was a great time to be young and single in Japan. It was indeed the time of our lives.

So what did Joe and I have in common? Besides the Japan connection, we were both from big American cities–Joe from New York, me from Chicago. We both spent 4 years in the service, Joe in the army, me in the navy. We both graduated from Japanese universities: Joe from Sophia, me from International Christian University. Most importantly, we both had a fondness for Japanese culture, its people, and a soft spot in our hearts for the Japanese ladies.

That’s where the similarities ended. For the record, Joe was much more popular with the local ladies than I ever was. He was four years older and far better looking than me (which is kind of like being the tallest midget). Oh yeah, he was taller than me too. But most important, Joe had “the look” that, for whatever reason, drove Japanese ladies wild.

I think it was his eyes that closed the deal; Japanese women were drawn to his eyelashes, so long and lush that they almost looked fake. Joe wasn’t just handsome, he was–dare I say–handsome in a pretty way.

Joe’s draw with the ladies in Japan was an interesting phenomenon we had discussed more than once. Joe admitted to me that he had never scored big with American ladies. But then the Army deployed him to Japan, and he woke up the next day a powerful chick magnet. Probably didn’t even realize it for the first few days, maybe even weeks. And it must’ve been heady stuff for young Joe to discover his overnight appeal. Suddenly Joe was a kid, a very nice kid, in an exotic candy store. And the candy was jumping off the shelves into his arms.

Years ago I remember discussing with Joe a related cultural phenomenon that we’d both observed in Japan, whereby certain American macho types who had done well with female compatriots in America, would go to Japan and strike out miserably. Conversely, certain American guys who had limited appeal with American ladies found, for whatever reason, their groove in Japan. Joe considered himself part of that latter group.

Without a doubt, some of Joe’s popularity came with the territory of being a “gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan. In some circles, gaijin were treated like rock stars, much better than we deserved I might add. But Joe’s popularity was driven to a great degree by the standards of beauty and desirability Japanese women attribute to the “ideal mate,” often dramatically different than their female counterparts in America. During my decade in Japan, it wasn’t unusual to see nerdy, shy, baby-faced American guys with drop-dead-gorgeous Japanese ladies hanging off their arms–while the macho cowboys couldn’t buy a fake phone number.

To Joe’s utter delight–to our utter delight–we soon figured out that Japanese chicks simply dig different things than their American sisters. Joe would be the first to admit that this difference worked in his favor.

Now I’m not implying that Joe was a nerdy, baby-faced pretty boy. He actually had a kind of exotic European vibe, like a British rock star or maybe a French tennis player. His chic Euro-look, baby-doll eyes and shy demeanor were just too much for Japanese ladies to resist. Watching Japanese women swarm to Joe was a sight to behold. I always did my part as his running buddy by keeping their cute friends entertained. It was a tough job but I did my best.

From Japan to Tennessee

The fun times lasted until we met our spouses. Just kidding. But in truth, hooking up with our lifelong mates–both classy Japanese ladies of the highest caliber–was a compelling motivation to start behaving ourselves. So after we all firmly tied our knots and secured our marriage visas, we stuck a fork in our party life and turned our focus to acting like grown-ups.

A career move enticed me away from my beloved Japan in 1987. My opportunity was with a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer building a new manufacturing facility in rural Tennessee. Joe made his exit from Japan shortly after mine with more glamorous aspirations: he and his wife were bound for Las Vegas in search of opportunities in the hospitality industry. It made sense as they were both bilingual, and Vegas was crawling with Japanese high rollers awash in bubble money.

Fortunately for me, Vegas didn’t work out for Joe.  I say fortunate because it set the stage for us to hook up again. One evening near the tail end of the 80s I got a call out of the blue from Joe. At the time I was living in Hendersonville Tennessee, a suburb just north of Nashville. Joe and his wife were on the road heading in our direction, about an hour and a half away as I recall. They were in the area to check out opportunities and needed a place to stay for a few days. We were happy to oblige.

Joe and Yukiko soon took a fancy to Tennessee and the rest is history. Through an introduction arranged by my HR department, Yukiko interviewed and was hired by the Japanese company right next door to us. (This was 23 or 24 years ago, and to this day Yukiko’s still there; with her talents, skills, and abilities, she probably runs the joint by now.) Meanwhile, Joe tried different gigs before finding his niche driving trucks. My buddy Joe was born to drive.

Now banish from your head the stereotype of truck drivers as ignorant oafs. Based on what Joe told me about drivers he had met on the road over the years, lots of very smart, talented folks are driving for a living, including ex-doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc. But one has to wonder: How many truck drivers in America had a degree in business from a prestigious Japanese university and could speak Japanese?

Some folks might say that driving was a waste of Joe’s talents, but that’s like telling a bird it shouldn’t fly. Joe was doing what he loved and did it well. It was a job that gave him time to pursue his other hobbies and passions in life, one of which was writing. (More on this later.)

My time in Tennessee lasted five years before a career opportunity lured me back to the Chicago area, my hometown. I bid a fond good riddance to Tennessee and never looked back. Tennessee was a beautiful place with lots of kind-hearted folks, but I never warmed to Southern culture. As a “Yankee” from Chicago with 10 years in Japan behind me, the socially conservative mindset of many Southerners was just too large a gap for me to reach across. Gaps would be waiting for me in the Chicago area as well, but they were much more manageable.

And yet my buddy “Hey Joe,” a native New Yorker who, in my estimation was just as socially liberal as I am (albeit fiscally conservative), found his piece of paradise in Tennessee and to my utter surprise, firmly planted roots and stayed.

Friendship Drift

This is the part of the story where Joe and I drift apart. We never had a falling out. In fact, I can’t remember ever having a fight or even less than civil words with Joe. With a few exceptions, our views of the world have always been closely aligned. We always got along well. We just drifted when the currents of life shifted.

If anyone was to blame for the drift it’s me. Without question, Joe put much more effort than I did into staying connected. And as you might expect I’ve got a handy list of excuses: I was focused on building a career and raising two kids; long-distance relationships are tough to manage, and our respective circumstances had changed. And it’s all bullshit.

The older I get the more I realize just how rare good friends are–the ones who add quality to your life and make you a better person–and how much they deserve a piece of your life for your own sake. In practical terms, with technology and low phone rates even back then, the telephone would have worked fine in bridging the geographical distance. Indeed we talked a few times during the fourteen years I lived in Chicago. But it was always Joe calling me. Never once did I reciprocate.

This speaks volumes about me, none of it good. Looking back I sense now that my reticence may have hurt Joe. I was too busy–not only for him but also for my siblings, other friends from the past, even my own kids. It pains me now to think that my lack of reciprocation in corresponding might have hurt Joe. I know that Joe was good with all this. The kicker is, it was my loss.

A Cheerfully Delivered Punch to the Gut

Joe and I eventually reconnected. Ironically it happened after I put even more distance between us, by moving to my current home on the Big Island of Hawaii. The catalyst for reconnecting was facebook.

So for the last several years Joe and I stayed in touch on-line. Then I noticed he had stopped doing status updates on facebook. I was busy myself so his absence didn’t register at first. Then one day (November 9th of last year) Joe finally posted something. I made a lighthearted comment about him being a stranger. Minutes later a message was in my inbox. It was a cheerfully written email that stunned me.

“Hey Tim! Hope you are well. I just want to fill you in on my absence these past several weeks. A few months ago I noticed a lump in my neck that gradually became larger and two weeks ago I was diagnosed with neck cancer after a biopsy. I suspected it was cancer from the beginning and it was confirmed last week.

The doctor thinks it metastasized from elsewhere and tomorrow I will have a PET scan to see where it came from if indeed it actually did. I have not been ill or weak at all and have felt like my normal self since I discovered it in July so it is hard to believe that it is a cancer and not some kind of infection. It just kind of popped up like overnight!

Since I discovered it I have gone on an all natural diet and juicing 1/2 gallon/day along with other herbs and supplements and it seems to have stabilized and even shrunk a bit. It has not gotten any worse or larger, but my lymph nodes are still enlarged.

Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, I will not take any chemo, radiation or surgery as the “cure” rate is only 2% and I’ve seen my brother and friends suffer and die from it. Besides, my research over the years since my brother died has shown that there are natural cures for cancer out there with cure rates above 70%. I will prove if they work or not.

Anyway, I did not want to bother you with this, but I wanted to let you know why I have been a stranger lately. As soon as I know more I’ll let you know and may even put it as my status so the rest of my friends will know what’s going on and the route I am taking to try and beat this.

Take care and I’ll stay in touch. Joe

PS: I am not depressed or anything, in fact I am kind of fired up as now I can prove if the natural route works or not and stick it to the crime syndicate Cancer industry, Big Pharma, and the AMA. And if it doesn’t work? Well, it was a pretty decent life and I’ll have no regrets.”

Needless to say I was devastated. And from that moment forward Joe figuratively held my hand and comforted me while he dealt privately with the consequences.

From the letter above, his courage is evident, awe-inspiring, downright heroic. And his defiance and bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds managed to convince me that Joe just might pull it off. But still I worried.

Cancer and “Natural-Cure” Charlatans

The ethics, politics, scams, and even promise surrounding so-called “natural cures” is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that after a substantial amount of reading up on the subject (thanks to Joe), I can say with confidence that while research is uncovering promising new treatments for cancer, most alternative-healing sites on the internet are scams designed to separate sick, suffering people from their money. Can’t get much lower than that.

This is not to imply that Joe did the wrong thing not taking the “traditional medicine” route. As he wrote in the email above, he saw his brother suffer and die doing conventional chemo, a path he didn’t want to go down.

We’ll never know the outcome had Joe chosen conventional medicine from the start. The reality is it was Joe’s life, no one else’s. It was his decision, and the consequences were his and only his to accept. My job as his friend, as I saw it, was to support him emotionally, and find new information, research, and options for his consideration.

Something I Need to Get Off My Chest

In ensuing emails, Joe provided links to “natural healing” sites, all of which I clicked on and studied. And every single click set off my bullshit sensors.

With red flags waving and alarm bells ringing in my head, I had a dilemma: tell Joe that he was dealing with snake-oil salesmen and risk crushing his spirit; or play along and hope that either, one, he’s right about the natural cures and recovers, or two, he changes his mind before it’s too late.

I chose to play along. When the natural approach failed miserably Joe went to plan B. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was too late. Joe and I continued our correspondence privately. Then on April 27th Joe called me out of the blue. His voice was raspy, his words almost unintelligible. I was able to follow enough to understand that he had been in a coma for several days, during which time the doctor did a tracheotomy. Joe called to tell me he was doing okay, and that he wanted me to know how much he valued our friendship and thanked me for being his friend. All I could think to do was thank him back and tell him I loved him.

Then I did something that I would come to regret: I suggested that it might be easier to correspond in writing, as Joe seemed to be struggling and in pain. “No pain at all,” he growled, but somehow I couldn’t get myself to believe him. Maybe I didn’t want to believe him? Straining to decipher Joe’s words, my ears weren’t up to the task; I was way too distraught to carry on a conversation anyway. Cutting short the phone call to switch to written correspondence seemed, at that moment in time, like a logical way to communicate. It was the last time I would ever talk to Joe.

Upon reflection, it’s painfully obvious that if Joe had wanted to write me an email, he would have written me an email. No, instead he called–in spite of his struggles and the trauma to his throat and vocal cords–because he wanted to talk to me on the phone. I should have listened; I should have comforted him; I should have thanked him for honoring me with such an important phone call. It was a missed opportunity to prove my worth as a friend, a lost moment that’s gone forever.

I struggle now to put my feelings into words. It wasn’t until after we hung up that the reality hit me: Joe had just come out of a coma only to find out he had a tracheotomy, and his inclination was to call me and tell me how much he valued our friendship? I cried for the rest of the day.

“It’s Me Against the Cancer Now”

I mentioned that Joe eventually gave traditional medicine a try. He made it through 3 doses of chemo before opting out. In Joe’s own words:

Hey Tim, Just want to let you know that I am back home again. I had decided to try another chemo treatment and went off home hospice care. It was a bad decision as it almost killed me and I was in the ICU again for a week. My blood was so badly damaged by the chemo that I required a 6-pint transfusion over two days. I was so disoriented that I had no concept of time. I’d take five steps and I was out of breath. Never again. It’s me against the cancer now as I am back in home hospice care. However, I am recovering nicely and am back to my old self mentally. Today I had my first solid food in three weeks. It’s amazing how you have to teach yourself to swallow again. Twice I was on deaths doorstep and twice I made a full recovery. Again, it’s amazing what willpower can do. I just hope that, if there is a third time, that it’s not the one to take me over the river. Well, that’s the update from here and thanks for caring… Love ya, Joe

It was the last email I would get from Joe, his courage intact right up until the end. On July 5th my friend crossed over the river. I found out through a post on his facebook wall.

What Happens When People Die?

I’ve had my share of lost loved ones. Every time it happens the same question haunts me: what happened to the person I loved? Philosopher and author Robert Pirsig pondered the same question after losing his son Chris:

“Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where had he gone to? Did he go up the stack of the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense. It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn’t just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go? The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked “Where did he go?” it must be asked “What is the ‘he’ that is gone?” There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris’s flesh and blood, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren’t Chris. What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of. Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn’t find anything. That’s probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon. Some time later it became clearer that these thoughts were something very close to statements found in many ‘primitive’ cultures. If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh and bones of Chris and call it the ‘spirit’ of Chris or the ‘ghost’ of Chris, then you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter. When we hear accounts of “primitives” talking this way, we dismiss them as superstition because we interpret ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ as some sort of material ectoplasm, when in fact they may not mean any such thing at all.”

Likewise, the “pattern” I knew as Joe Cyr was much larger than myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

Now Joe’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, is gone. My heart aches for a man who was a big brother, always sincere, always supportive, always respectful. If there is a heaven, then no doubt about it that’s where Joe is right now. And if there isn’t a heaven, I take comfort in knowing that he is still in a better place than when he left us.

Footprints in My Heart

Of all the people you meet in your life how many become lifelong friends? How many leave footprints in your heart? In my case, I can count on my two hands the friends I trust unconditionally. This means that of all the folks in the world who met me in the last 54 years (perhaps tens of thousands?), their chances of becoming a trusted friend percentage-wise is kind of like winning the lottery. But having a friend like Joe was a lot better than winning the lottery; he enriched my life and made me a better person. Rest in peace my friend.

For some really fun reading on the adventures of Joe Cyr, check out these stories, in Joe’s own words: Pachipro’s Blog: Experiences of a Foreigner Living in Japan

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012