One of the side-effects of taking a World Cultures class is, one is continually confronted with how they interact with other people, especially those in other cultures or groups. On a daily basis, especially in such a diverse society as America, we come into contact with people of varying beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds. And yes, how we interact with some of those people can many times come out of our belief that the stereotypes we have come to know about them are indeed true or the only relevant thing about them, if they are true. We forget that stereotypes, even the ones based in truth, are many times fallacious assumptions that lead us to perceive people in a particular way, therefore limiting our ability to effectively analyze or receive them as an individual person. Of course, many times we go about our days this way and of course it can be harmful, but moreover, it does both us and others a disservice in the long run, as it can serve to both alienate and diminish opportunity for both friendship and common ground to be found.
Stereotyping: Racist or Misinformed?
This theme of culture bias and stereotyping is quite present in the essay On Becoming American, by Tadasu Imahori. He speaks of being born Japanese and coming to live in America during the 70’s. Imahori-san expresses his own struggles with identity, especially in two very different cultures: American and Japanese. He expresses his coming into contact with varying people and their comments to him that were either steeped in stereotypical bias or perceived racism, evidenced both by his interactions with the hotel attendant and the police officer. The thing I found interesting though, is that he seemed more inclined to attribute these interactions with racism than with people’s own cultural naiveté.
In the “Becoming an ‘Other American’” portion of the essay, he says, “When I found this daunting similarity between my experiences and those of Takaki and Nakayama, I was no longer uncertain about the reason why I was not fully accepted as ‘American.’ I knew that my culture and my ‘foreign’ status are the same to the ‘racist American’ society” (Imahori 263). This is an interesting perspective he takes and the irony is altogether
present, considering how homogenized Japan is and has always been. The truth of the matter is, when someone does not understand something that is foreign to them, they tend to rely on such stereotypes that they have come to believe are accurate representations of who or what a person really is. This phenomenon is not particularly right per se, but does it exist maliciously? Relying on stereotypes may cause people to make uninformed or perhaps even insensitive inquiries, but it is important to acknowledge when it is from a place of well-meaning or a place of malice. There is a clear distinction, I think, between actual racism and merely possessing a lack of knowledge. I would posit that more often than not, on a daily basis we come more into contact with the latter than the former. Imahori-san also many times rebukes the assumptions that people make in assuming he was a “Japanese-born Japanese,” which he was of course. No matter how I look at this, it strikes me as problematic to find complete fault with assumption.
To me, an assumption is merely the brain’s attempt to bring a stranger into a realm of understanding so as to find a common thread between that stranger and oneself. It is a way for one’s mind to remedy the dissonance between thinking and understanding. Assumption is a natural human cognitive response to not knowing and through that assumption, inquiries can be made; thus, leading to communication as to the merits of said assumption and of course on to understanding one another. I think the view Imahori-san puts forth, seems to come out of a sort of inability to accept oneself. Every person, I think, has multiple versions of themselves within the one. When those selves come into contact with one another, through the lens of the external world, it causes a person to question their value to others, which of course has more impact on their perceived value than on their actual value.
Othering: Society or Self?
In his essay, On Living In Between, Imahori-san speaks more along these lines. He says,
“Rather, my cultural maverick identity is a variant of my ‘other Japanese’ identity, and my ‘foreigner’ identity is a metamorphic transformation of my ‘other American’ identity. Therefore, I continue to also identify as being ‘other American’ and ‘other Japanese.’ I am neither Japanese nor American” (Imahori 270).
This entire section is evidence to me, at least on the surface, of someone who can not accept themselves for what they are and thus they attribute themselves to being neither. In actuality, he is both Japanese and American: being a citizen of both countries. Presumably, no one has told him that he is not a part of these two cultures. On the contrary, he has perceived himself to not be a full part of either, because he fits on the outside of them, in a manner of speaking. In actuality, many who might be inclined to inquire of one’s heritage, are genuinely interested. This again, aids in understanding.
I think the common misconception in human thinking is that we are what we perceive others to perceive us to be, rather than traversing our world confidently in who we are and how we can share and improve ourselves, others, and the various cultures and perspectives that live within us. Though I do see his disconnect from both of these very different cultures, I also see how problematic and dare I say how specious that type of thinking can be as well. It seems to me that if one sees oneself as an “other” or as an outsider, that this can cause a person to, whether consciously or subconsciously, put others at arms length because they either feel others can’t or don’t want to understand them enough accept them without asking questions. The truth of the matter is, however, that the main way many of us know how to attempt to get to know someone of another culture, is to make such inquiries. Now, admittedly, we should always attempt to approach others without the built-in preconceptions with which we have undoubtedly become familiar with, but there is another imperative here: for those of the “outside” culture to also attempt to be patient enough with those of us, who may simply be ignorant of a culture we were not raised in.
In Conclusion: Personal Note
In reading these two essays, I have found that they do force a person to look at themselves and their own interactions with the world around them. Talking about other cultures and gaining a glimpse into individuals who may or may not be foreign to our nation, can open up the doors of communication and understanding with people who are different from us. One of the things that I believe can aid all parties involved, in this strange terrain we find ourselves a part of, is attempting to learn enough about cultures we most often come in contact with, to demonstrate an active participation in the process of understanding and ultimately, communicating. One way I have done this in my own life, is to learn Japanese.
Learning a language is a process that immerses you in that other culture. It teaches not only how to communicate more effectively, but also what aspects of the other culture pose an obstacle to your own, which of course allows you to engage the critical mind to find ways of commonality, between yourself and others, so that the obstacles can be traversed together. Anecdotally, I grew up in an area of Georgia where I was always surrounded by people of varying backgrounds and cultures which has given me a love for making friends and learning about other cultures. Through my upbringing, I have also gained a way of seeing the world that lends me to believe that lowering a person to their aesthetic or cultural markers can many times do more harm that it does good. Reducing someone to “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “long-hair,” “short hair,” “blue eyes,” “brown eyes,” or any other immutable group descriptive, can detract from the simplest fact that they are a fellow human being who is complex and has a wellspring of rich heritage within themselves, as you do. None of those things determine who a person is on the inside. In fact, they only further condition and proliferate people’s biases and cause them to hold fast to their belief in stereotypes. For my daily interactions, so that I can have better interactions with all sorts of people, I will always try to be what in Jewish culture is called a mensch, or rather, an honorable and kind person. It seems to me that if everyone would try to simply be a mensch, that every interaction we have with any individual would bring us all into better understandings of one another. Fewer people would be “othered” and fewer of us will have done the “othering”.