19 July 2012

reverse culture shock-predeparture

After 5 weeks in far west China I made a short week of visits with friends in Japan. It was refreshing to move from a position of almost total benighted ignorance of languages (Uyghur, Kazakh, Chinese) and society (Urban Urumqi, campus culture, autonomous Xinjiang province distant from Han majority eastern China) to a position of semi-ignorance in Japan, where I can hold a conversation and accomplish much of what I need to do for daily life. Suddenly the signs and spoken announcements are clear and understandable for meaning and for culture (expectation of what is being intended, precedent and why one should find value in such). But then as I begin the return path from Japan to the trans-Pacific leg out of Beijing, I begin to think ahead about the USA, where I have not striven to keep current on headline news, people or places.

Three vignettes cause me to think about who are the U.S people that I hear about from the people around me.
1. (photo) On the platform at JR Osaka I begin to see people who are visibly foreign to Japan (of European, S. Asian or African descent). I reflect momentarily: probably their experience is like mine recently in China. They only barely skim the cultural and linguistic surface, managing to get from point A to point B thanks to the alphabetic subtitling of public transportation signage. But the vast ocean of meanings and individual lives and aspirations is out of reach. Upshot: foreigners have their own rich universe of meanings, but there is little interconnection to the society and language outside their own. And among the people raised in the USA there is even less likelihood of ability, interest or exposure to other languages and lives. Reverse culture shock: most of my people (if those on the train platform are such) are monolingual and are poorer for it individually and collectively.

2. Airport check-in line includes so many visually non-Japanese bodies, voices, and faces (well maybe 10-12 all together). I reflect: here is only the second person of African descent that I have seen in the past 7 weeks (one here, once in Urumqi at the university), and here the bodies seem too tall, too heavy and altogether too big, bulgy and pointy-nosed. The posture or presentation of self makes gives me the impression of aggressive, confident, entitled to own their own destiny. Reverse culture shock: identity of self and in the eyes of others has much to do with surface appearances. One's point of reference gives a relative scale of what is the range of 'normal' so that when one's world has relative uniformity, then those people who are outside that boundary stand out extraordinarily. Probably the reverse is true, too: when you see diverse range in skin, hair, clothing, body-type then the experience of a place of relative uniformity must seem restrictive and the fine-tuned differences may get lumped together as "all the same."

3. Food hall at International Youth Hostel at Hagoromo (Hamadera Koen/park) in Takaishi: 20 somethings with N. American accents are somewhere behind me bemoaning the lack of clean clothes and need to line up for using the coin laundry facilities down the hall. The talk goes to employment woes and apartment living, college experiences and career interests. The trigger to my reverse culture shock is the flat, slightly nasal voices (Midwest?), and the shared script; that is, they seemed to be in the same boat, paddling the same pace and riding the current in the same direction. There was an unspoken oneness of monolingual, monocultural conversation that feels suffocating after the opposite extreme of Urumqi, where it is routine to hear or speak several languages from one moment to the next, with the accompanying cultural narratives that go along with each. Reverse culture shock: the mainstream, single current, one directionality of consumer culture and brand name living that I associate with those young people's voices. This dirth of social and linguistic diversity is stifling, unproductive (of qualitative variety, but productive of quantitative scale: mass markets) and maybe dangerous.

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