Tag Archives: International Christian University

Reflections on the Life of a Kindred Spirit

 

Bonanza!

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 everyday: 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 whomever 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 important, 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 calibre–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 at, 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 one’s 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 chords–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 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 

Advertisements

The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

Knowing others is wisdom;  knowing yourself is enlightenment–Lao Tzu

Folks who hear me speak Japanese often marvel at my “knack for foreign languages.” Truth is I don’t have a knack. I’ll admit that I always did okay in English at school and had a decent grasp of grammatical concepts from an early age, so maybe I’m slightly smarter than the average bear when it comes to learning languages. But that doesn’t constitute a knack.

It also doesn’t hurt that I come from a long line of Irish talkers; both my parents were articulate, and raised us to speak standard, grammatically correct American “Midwestern” English. In this sense I’m carrying on the great Sullivan tradition of talking.

The Navy provided the conditions that made it possible to learn Japanese, by sending me to Japan at the tender age of nineteen. My eventual fluency in Japanese was a product of sheer effort backed by a powerful primordial motivation:  I wanted to talk to all the beautiful Japanese ladies (yes all of ’em), most of whom didn’t speak  a lick of English.

I was discharged from the Navy in Japan in 1979. In April 1980 I enrolled in Waseda University’s one-year, intensive Japanese language program. That year at Waseda was a turning point. It was the year I learned to carry on a basic conversation (however clumsily) in Japanese. It was also the year it dawned on me that learning a foreign language didn’t assure effective communication would happen. I learned the hard way that if you don’t understand the values, assumptions, thought process and culture behind the language you’re studying, then it’s better if you don’t speak the language at all.

The idea of distinguishing the spoken word from the concept of “communication” might sound odd, maybe even cryptic to someone with limited experience with other cultures. To simplify the concept let’s use driving a car as an analogy.

We can all agree that a car is essentially a transportation tool to get you from point A to point B. You can learn the mechanics and technique of driving that car — how to start the engine, put it in gear, turn left or right, press the brake to stop, etc. This would be analogous to learning the grammar and vocabulary of a foreign language. Problem is, if you don’t understand the “rules of the road” then how would you know that a red light means “stop”? Or which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on?

Extending the analogy, by learning and using a foreign language without knowledge of the cultural “rules of the road”, your language ability ceases to be a tool, and now becomes a dangerous weapon. And that’s exactly where my development was at that point in time: unbeknownst to me I was “driving the car” on the wrong side of the road, and in doing so, running through red lights and over my Japanese hosts, rather than building meaningful connections as I should have. It took several years of hard-knocks to figure it out.

Again and again I stumbled onto clues that something was missing in my communication repertoire. Wasn’t sure at the time exactly what it was, but I had the foresight to enroll at International Christian University in Mitaka Tokyo, where for the next 4 years I would continue studying the Japanese language, and eventually major in communications with an emphasis on Intercultural studies.

I stumbled onto intercultural communication when I signed up for a class in my sophomore year entitled, appropriately, “Introduction to Intercultural Communication.” Taught by a stodgy American professor, I showed up the first day of class thinking we would be studying the finer points of Japanese culture. Imagine my surprise when the professor announced that we were going to focus on American culture.

I immediately decided to drop the course, but politely waited until the end of class, after which I approached the professor to ask when he’d be offering a class on Japanese culture.

The professor couldn’t answer my question but gave me great advice that stuck with me all these years. He said, “if you really want to learn to communicate with other cultures, you have to understand your own culture first. That way you have a baseline for comparison and are better equipped to deal with any culture.” Then he added, “Unfortunately most people don’t understand their own culture. Focusing on self-understanding is the best place to start.”

I took his advice to heart and didn’t drop the course. And it proved to be a humbling experience, because I realized for the first time that I had been unconsciously projecting my values onto my Japanese hosts since I had arrived in Japan. To quote Rick Perry, “oops.”

Here’s a Zen parable that beautifully sums up the notion of knowing oneself:

Two tadpoles are swimming in a pond. Suddenly one turns into a frog and leaves the pond. Upon the frog’s return to the water, the tadpole sees the frog and asks, “Where did you go?”

“I went to a dry place, ” answers the frog.

“What is ‘dry’?” asks the tadpole.

“Dry is where there is no water,” says the frog.

“And what is ‘water’?” asks the tadpole.

“You don’t know what ‘water’ is?” the frog says in disbelief. “It’s all around you! Can’t you see it?”

The moral of the story: Values so permeate our cultures that we take them for granted; so immersed are we that our values are invisible. Without self-awareness, it’s impossible to connect with others.

In concrete terms I had been assuming that just because I, as an American, valued individualism, freedom, self-expression, equality, logic, and truth, that my Japanese counterparts–and every other culture in the world for that matter–naturally shared these values.

How wrong I was!

This “introduction” to my own culture proved to be a major turning point in my life. But it was more than that. Once the light bulb clicked on my worldview suddenly had a panoramic vantage point. The notion that something as abstract and “invisible” as a cultural value had so much power in connecting (and driving apart) people was an epiphany. And it kindled a passion for cultural anthropology, eventually leading to the profession that I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years practicing.

Learning a foreign language was indeed a game-changer for me. But only because it forced me to look at myself through the filters of another culture and “see” my own values. Unfortunately it took too many head-on collisions to realize I was driving on the wrong side of the road, evidence that maybe, just maybe, I’m not smarter than the average bear?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

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