Cultural Blindness

In addition to all the gazillion readings I have for my three sociology classes this semester, I’m also reading two other books for personal pleasure. One book is The Christian Delusion: why faith fails (TDC), edited by John Loftus, who is also the author of Why I Became an Atheist which I read last year.

I already talked about my conversion-deconversion story, so today’s post is not about that. In fact, it’s not even about religion (at least not directly). The cool thing about reading is how some things stick out and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what you’re reading at that moment. I’m reading TCD more so out of curiosity than anything else. Sometimes we read things that people consider radical or outright ridiculous. Not everyone has similar interests, and that’s okay. It’s what makes us human and unique. I mean, I am reading Mein Kampf. Does it get much more radical than that?


In Chapter 1 of the anthology, David Eller, PhD. talks about how there are cultures of Christianities, and on page 45 he quotes Paul Hiebert,

“so long as we live in our own culture, we are largely unaware of it. When we enter new cultures, however, we become keenly aware of the fact that other people live differently…. [W]e learn that there are profound differences in beliefs, feelings and values.”

The quote is used in context to how Christians (or even hose of other religions) are unaware of their own religions or “the differences between religions” as it pertains to who they are and their surroundings. They are so immersed within their culture of living that they don’t know how to compare their system with another system, or they don’t recognize the differences until they step into another culture. I want to take this context in a different path – about ethnic and national cultures, and my own personal experience with this supposed “blindness”.

I was raised on a U.S. naval base in Japan all my childhood. I only recently left the comfort of home in late 2006. Despite having grown up in “American culture”, it wasn’t exactly American in the sense of what I’m living in now. It it actually quite different, one which I don’t think any American civilian will ever understand – not even family members of military service personnel who have never left the U.S. Yes, American Military culture is very different. The values, beliefs, feelings – the overall system of operating on a day-to-day basis is different. Also, I find it interesting that despite these two distinct American cultures, we all call ourselves American. Now is that part of the unique quality of being an American? Or what does it really mean to be American?

When living in a foreign country, one is also immersed (hopefully) in the culture of the host nation. I think it’s expected of you to venture out and learn about the foreign culture. It puts a lot of things into perspective, especially when it comes to understanding who you are, and your childhood culture. Of course, I have seen and heard of many people who get stationed in Japan, who have never left the base for some reason or another. Whatever their justification, it’s inexcusable. Why not take the opportunity to explore?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m half-Japanese so my immersion into Japanese culture wasn’t out of a desire to learn about Japan or expected. It was organic. Despite having lived in Japan for so long, and being bi-racial, bi-ethnic and bi-cultural, I have taken Japanese culture for granted. When asked by peers in class about certain things pertaining to Japan, I sit with my mouth partially open, thinking about my response. I practically know nothing about the culture except a few basics, and despite identifying as Hafu (half), I don’t really know anything about being Japanese, or the complexities that exist within the culture. But I know enough to consider myself a member of that society, as well as a member of American military society. I am now just getting a grasp of what it means to be a member of American civilian society, and even after four years of living in Maryland, I still encounter face-palm-worthy moments of culture shock.

From Urban Living to Rural and Suburban Living

While I enjoy the solitude and beauty that nature often provides during camping  and snowboarding trips, I prefer to live in the city. When I first moved to Md. I started in rural Southern Md. I was thrust into a world where having your own vehicle was a must, or slogging it out for hours on end to get to the grocery store on non-pedestrian roadways with aggressive drivers. Don’t even think about reliable transportation because it’s practically non-existent.

Everyone has a preference. Some people like the hustle and bustle of the city, some people prefer the quiet countryside and others like a mishmash of the two. I prefer the city. Despite the common complaints that the city is “too loud”, “never sleeps” or is just crazy is justified but when you live in a city for a really long time, you learn, I think, to find the peace within the chaos. And it’s more than just tuning out the sounds because that never really works. There is a sense of quiet that you can find even within a city that thrives 24/7, and to be quite frank, I find the country too quiet – very eerie and the suburbs are just annoying. To me, suburbs are like a split personality. It can’t really decide whether it wants to be rural or urban, so the sounds are not a consistent cadence like you hear in the cities. (If none of that made any sense to you, forget about it.)

I have not lived in a city in the U.S., but I did visit New York City for 3 days, and living in at least two distinct areas -rural and suburban- I noticed a common theme: privacy and individualism. Every one here, for the most part is very private. I guess that is a selling point with rural and suburban living. You’re able to isolate yourself from your neighbors and pretend no one else exists. Despite our natural inclination to be social, I noticed that people, for the most part, didn’t want to have much of anything to do with one another. It’s strange. When I visited NYC, there was still a sense of privacy but everyone was very courteous of others within their space. You still got your personal bubble space even while others were actually stepping into it. There’s a sense of respect in a person’s privacy and individualism. It’s interesting how the urban setting has adapted in a way where you can still participate as a close-knit community, but still offer individual space as needed. I think that’s why I’m so attracted to the city. I like being around other people, even if I don’t talk to them. Just that sense of being with other people has a quiet feeling to it.

The one thing I also noticed is a lack of acknowledgement. In Japan, it’s sort of like NYC in terms of city living with having privacy within a community. Everyone nodded to you or said hello, and there’s a sense of communal acknowledgement that yes, you are part of the community and you exist. For the most part, I noticed while going to the grocery store, or even walking around campus here in the suburbs that there is none of this sense of gratitude and acknowledgement for your fellow beings.  I admit that I do not, for the most part make any effort to say hello to other people but I have committed myself to change that. When I walk to my bus stop in the morning, I have started saying good morning and hello, and making eye contact with people passing by to get to their cars. It feels slightly awkward at first, but in the end it feels good to let people know you acknowledge them.

Automobile Dependency

Coming back to the topic of being dependent on your own car-

When I first moved to Md. I knew I would be living in a rural area with unreliable public transportation. (To be honest, I didn’t even there was any form of public transportation until I needed it to get to the community college.) I was not keen on being automobile dependent and I confess that while having your own car can be liberating, convenient and an expression of individualism, I continue to grudgingly despise the heavy dependency on personally owned vehicles. I just dislike living in rural and suburban areas, but I will make one positive comment about rural Southern Md. and most of the suburban areas around D.C. – they make for good photographs.

Despite my slight distaste for being heavily dependent on a car, I absolutely despise the Metro system. What can I say? After living your life with the reliable public transportation system of Japan, the Metro quite frankly is a piece a terd lying next to an intricate lace doily.  So I’m stuck in this ever vicious cycle of vehicle ownership versus utilizing public transportation. I have a car, but out of a personal desire to limit its use for economic and environmental reasons I also use the UM Shuttle and Metro.

I have been spoiled with awesome transportation systems.  The Keikyu rail and bus, and Japan Railways (JR) are efficient and reliable. I never had any problems with public transportation growing up but once I moved here, I couldn’t rely on time tables for buses or trains because nothing was ever on time. (Why do we even have time tables? ) I also couldn’t help notice, in addition to how unreliable and inefficient the system was, how poorly maintained (in my perspective) the stations and trains were. The metro rail always, always has some kind of maintenance going on with the tracks and it’s frustrating how inefficient they are with utilizing those sections that turn into single tracks. The entire line gets affected regardless of how many stations the maintenance work is on, be it between two neighboring stations, three stations at the end of the line, or  two stations in the middle of the line. It just doesn’t make sense how they operate.

In addition to the monetary issues that make it near impossible to keep up with maintaining the metro system, I also noticed that the lack of faith in public transportation and its use by a majority of the population is a result of attitude. Unlike Japan, where practically everyone utilizes the public transportation system collectively, here in the U.S., it’s all about individualism and a reliance on self. If you rely on public transportation you are poor and unsuccessful (unless you work in the city). If you rely on public transportation you are not “good enough”. It’s pathetic really.

Rather than working collectively to improve a system for the public good, people would rather further their own individual interests for the sake of furthering their own interests with disregard for their community and environment. Public transportation is a good, a necessity. There’s nothing wrong with relying on public transportation because the more it’s utilize, the better it gets.

Aggression and Rudeness

The Japanese are stereotyped as being respectful, nice and passive. For the most part, it’s true. There is a sense of avoiding conflict, and resolving issues in a respectful, passive way – usually through mediation. And practically everyone is nice. On the base, it was slightly different. Everyone seemed to be more on edge, they were anxious and came across as rude but not necessarily aggressive. I guess that’s the American part of the culture. When I moved here I noticed that people in general, especially on the road just didn’t give a damn. There’s a willingness to show aggression at any moment, and I find that people come off as rude. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, after all I’m only speaking from what I have experienced in my corner of the country. And, I also feel like people tend to kick common sense out the door. There’s no sense of awareness to their surroundings, and because of this, people do stupid things that are extremely annoying.

To Offend, but not be offended

The other thing I also noticed, and I guess this could go in with the aggression and rudeness factor, is that people here like to confront other people to the point where it becomes offensive, but they themselves don’t like to be offended. People try to impose their beliefs-religious, ideological, political, etc-on other people to gain converts into their way of thinking, but they abhor it when the same things are done to them. If you don’t want to be harassed and offended by what other people have to say to you, then don’t do it to other people. At least not in a harassing manner where you would come off as belligerent.

Paralleled with this idea is how people here like to talk, but a majority of the talk is about irrelevant things. Taboos in American culture are off

limits, spoken of only by “radicals” who actually want to help our society for the better. We have a lot of social ills that need to be addressed, but rather than having productive dialogue about the issues, a majority of the population would rather blame people for lack of self reliance, and wish the problems away.

Sex education, sex in general, environmentalism, community, global warming, poverty, drugs, religion, etc.

We talk about these things, but only words are coming out. There’s no desire to understand why these problems exist and how to help. It’s easier to just blame the people who are victims of these systems, and that’s all people want: the easy way out. But the most convenient method is not always the right method.

There needs to be serious conversations about these topics. Conversations that promote open mindedness and the sharing of ideas- constructive

criticism and dialogue rather than victimization and dismissive behaviors.

I’m excited for the opportunity to be in the U.S. and attending university for my B.A. I’m learning a lot about American culture outside of the military, and getting to understand what Americanism could mean. It’s difficult to say how I would truly ever identify myself culturally. I am a U.S. citizen by birth, but having been raised overseas on a military base, there is what most single-race individuals might consider a conflict of interest. There’s an obsession, I find, with identifying with one label but it’s not that easy. For mixed-raced individuals who were raised in a multi-cultural home, racial identity is not a matter of choosing the “better race”. There’s more to the process of racial identification. This is the same with ethnic identification. We can’t just choose one over the other. It doesn’t work like that. While I like to think that I come off more ethnically American and racially white than Japanese, I don’t identify myself as just American or white. I’m both, white and Japanese, part of American and Japanese culture.

Those were my musings for the day from a little passage I read in a book about religion.

Good night, good luck. And for those who are enduring the thunder-snowstorm, take care and be careful!

Your Turn: In what ways have you experienced “cultural blindness”? Has it helped you understand who you are culturally, or hindered you? Share your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Cultural Blindness”

  1. This post makes me miss living in Japan even more than I already do.

    When my family and I first moved to Vegas, our neighborhood, our side of town had no form of public transportation. After living here for seven years, it wasn't until 2009 that bus stops were finally being implemented in our neighborhood. Even then, as you have mentioned, because public transportation is so heavily stigmatized here, the buses are in such poor condition that it completely trumps all the benefits.

    The only time I have ever utilized America's public transportation system was in New York. As comforting as it was to be back on a bus and a train, it is simply incomparable to that of Japan's.

  2. Gina this is awesome, so true! You are amazing.
    The other day I heard a person complain about having to walk to their car and then drive to the store. The distance to the car was a joke, I laughed to myself thinking "you wouldn't make it in Japan". I miss using the trains, not just using them but the walk there too. Coming back to the US I found myself asking "why don't we in the US do this like they do in Japan?" Keep writing Gina! I love your work!

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