The Wrong Impressions

I’ve been living and working in Japan for nearly 3 months now.  It feels like longer, probably because I adjusted relatively easily.  So easily, that I sometimes wonder if there’s actually something wrong and I just don’t realize it. ^o^

Anyway, the topic of impressions has been on my mind lately.  Besides teaching young Japanese students another language, the point of the JET Program is to further internationalism and teach students about participants’ home countries.  But in the case of the United States, is that a fair thing to expect?  I’ve lived most of my life in Michigan.  Been to a handful of other states, but nothing deep.  Whenever students, other teachers, or neighbors ask me something about how things are “in America,” I can’t help but hesitate, because I’m all too aware that I don’t know what things are like in an entire country.  It doesn’t help that many Japanese themselves tend to talk about Japan as a whole.  For example, one person asked me, “Is Japan a convenient place to live?”  I said, “F. is a convenient place to live.” (“F.” representing the name of my neighborhood.)  The person seemed confused by my answer.  And it really, really doesn’t help that all too many Americans are ready to answer such questions with “In America, such and such is this way.” Or even worse, when English-speakers feel it is their place to “educate” Japanese about other English speaking countries, regardless of their level of knowledge of those countries.

Sure, we can make some generalizations.  If it were only about geography, it would be easy.  But here comes another sticky point: it seems to me that the American participants on JET are, by and large, from middle and upper class backgrounds, and they are overwhelmingly white.  The “America” that they present to Japanese is very different from the “America” that I (an immigrant from a family that was not well off, and someone who grew up in Detroit proper) know.  It’s not just JETs either.  There’s currently a foreign exchange student from the States at my school. Let’s call her “Cathy” for simplicity.   For one assignment, most of the class did presentations about Japanese language and culture, while Cathy’s group presented American culture.  Cathy presented many things as facts that are not facts for the average American.  For example, she showed one slide that had a very large, new SUV on it and explained that that was her car, and that most American families have at least two cars. She even talked about this dance–I forgot what it’s called. She didn’t say “debutant ball,” but it’s the same thing. In my mind I couldn’t help but scoff.  Meanwhile the students were left in awe at such a display of wealth (and by extension, power).  Of course, they wouldn’t be in awe if they realized that the average American is, despite what they are shown by a handful of Americans, not rolling in the dough.

Another wrong impression is not directly the fault of Americans themselves.  There’s a friendly takoyaki lady in my neighborhood. Most of the neighborhood foreigners stop by her shop, and she likes “English Talk,” as she calls it.  On more than one occasion, she has commented to her Japanese customers, “Americans are amazing!  They can speak so many different languages.  But Japanese people only speak Japanese.  That’s a shame, isn’t it?”  Sometimes the customers will answer something like, “Yes, it’s embarrassing, isn’t it?” I’ve tried to explain to her on at least three separate occasions that such is not the case.  But she thinks it is because all the Americans she has come into contact with happen to at least speak a little bit of Japanese if not 3 or 4 languages.  In my case, I told her, I speak several languages because I was an immigrant.  So, my native language is Spanish, I had to learn English at a young age, I studied French but it was so similar to Spanish that it was too easy, and I studied Japanese for the challenge.  I also told her, the other Americans she meets are probably more cosmopolitan than the average American, evidenced by their choosing to live in Japan, so they cannot be taken to stand for all Americans.  Now, I suppose it’s possible that the takoyaki-san is just saying those things out of politeness.  But I doubt that, given that most of the times she has said these things, she wasn’t talking to me, but to her other (Japanese) customers.

Epilogue ~The Things I Miss~

Related to the topic of class, but not necessarily to the topic of wrong impressions…I miss being able to speak ghetto.  People who only know me through this or my other blog may find my saying that strange, given that asides from geeking out and using emoticons, I write in very proper English.  To me, writing is a formal thing.  But speaking is fluid, changing with the situation.  Given the racial and socio-economic makeup of JET participants, I automatically had been using completely standard English.  After a while though, things started slipping out.  I said “I’m straight” to mean “No, thanks” to a friend from Hawaii and she didn’t know what that meant.  Sometimes I’ll drawl things out.  That’s another thing about the way I speak: it’s not completely of one place and one place only.  It used to annoy me, as a teenager, when one of my brother’s friends would say I spoke “country.”  When I got older I could understand what he meant, and as other people pointed out to me instances where I randomly spoke with a slight Southern drawl.  Where did that come from?  Was it from the first six months in the States, spent in Louisiana? Even though I didn’t know English at the time? That’s what I think.

Several weeks ago, hanging out with some other JETs, a black JET said to me, “I love how you’re ghettoer than I am,”  the implication being that a black person should be ghettoer than a Hispanic person.  But she didn’t grow up in the ghetto, so why should she be ghetto at all?  That’s the thing: while describing people as “ghetto” is largely associated with black people in the U.S., a wealthy black person is not going to speak like one from a poor region and a poor family.  To me it is then a matter of course that someone who is not black, but who is poor and growing up in a predominantly black city, will end up speaking like they do.  In other words, “ghetto.”  Of course, not every black person in the ghetto chooses to speak that way, in the same way that not everyone in the ghetto chooses to speak that way.  But one can’t ignore that where one comes from has a very strong influence over how one speaks.  While I’ve always known that I have to use standard English in certain situations, to me that never meant that I couldn’t use slang or speak ghetto in other situations.  I never felt the need to take on mannerisms that were more highly associated with the black experience, such as all-out Ebonics terms like “finna” for “gonna,” but I didn’t force myself not to speak like everyone around me just because I’m not black.

I honestly feel more out of place with other foreigners than I do with Japanese.  With Japanese people, I already know that they will most likely never consider me a member of their “in-group” no matter how much Japanese I can speak.  And that’s okay with me.  But while in the States you’d never think “I’m gonna get along great with ALL my fellow Americans just because they’re Americans!”, here, with a limited number of other foreigners around, I think subconsciously, I at least, had been thinking, “the other Americans are my in-group.” But things aren’t that simple.

Well, I really don’t have a witty way to end this, and I’m tired. ^_^;

By the way, “The Things I Miss” is a song by My Bloody Valentine.  It’s one of their more tripped-out pieces.

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The Importance of Diversity on Television

Something I wrote in my mini-blog, the Broken Ankle Log there on the side, got me to thinking.  I think it deserves its own post. Here’s what I wrote over there:

Two days ago I met an older gentleman student who lost his foot in the service some 30 years ago.  When he saw me approaching on my crutches he smiled kindly and asked what had happened.  My fellow students have generally been nice and offered to help me if I need something, but it was a bit more ‘comforting’ to talk to someone who’d also experienced being unable to walk (he now walks with a prosthetic).  It made me think that there need to be more characters with disabilities on TV shows.  It seems like we mostly see disabled people on TV as “inspiration” stories, stuff that kinda says “this teenager who lost his legs is out there surfing, so what excuse to you ‘able-bodied’ people have for sitting around on your asses?!”

So I was trying to think of characters and TV personalities with physical disabilities, or other things that put them outside the mainstream.  I thought of the kid from Malcolm in the Middle who was in a wheelchair, Joe Swanson on Family Guy, Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, and of course, Dr. Gregory House.  There was the show Blind Justice on ABC, but that got canceled pretty quickly. I also thought of Josh Blue, who won the fourth season of Last Comic Standing.  On Detroit’s local Fox 2 news, there’s Lee Thomas, who did a report where he took off the makeup that hides his vitiligo.  But are there enough people with disabilities or who are otherwise outside the mainstream on television?  I don’t think so.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Disability, “the prevalence of disability in the U.S. population has been measured fairly consistently at 18-19 percent.”  [Source] Granted, they’re talking about all forms of disability combined, but either way, I think it’s a fair amount of the population that deserves to be represented regularly in pop culture, especially television shows and movies.

Why is this important?  For the same reason that it was important to rewrite school textbooks so that they reflect the fact that girls and women also exist, instead of always writing math story problems and examples with “he” as the only pronoun, or referring to all humans as “mankind.”  For the same reason that it’s important to have racial diversity on television, and body size diversity.  Pop culture is such a huge part of our lives in this country.  We spend so much time immersed in it, that we need to see ourselves reflected in that world.  Otherwise, we might ask ourselves, “why do I not see people like me out there?  Do I not exist elsewhere?  Is there something I don’t know?”  Here in the US we say we value individuality, but in truth, for any human being, complete, true uniqueness is frightening.  It’s why all of our fictional heroes with superpowers yearn to be “normal.”

I recall an interview with Whoopi Goldberg where she said that it had been so amazing for her to see Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, how it was wonderful to see a black woman on TV that wasn’t a maid.  (I think this interview was on the extra features of one of the DVDs for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)  Interestingly, a friend of mine dismissed Lt. Uhura, saying she was nothing but an intergalactic secretary.  Perhaps it’s hard for people my age to understand the impact Nichols had all the way back in 1966, but I’m sure many young black girls back then were happy to see a black woman on TV who, as Goldberg said, wasn’t a maid, or in a disparaging role.  The main reason I started watching the now-gone soap opera Passions was because I was flipping channels, saw a white woman making an effort to say the name “Luis” correctly, and thought, “what the hell?! Hispanic people on daytime American television?  I’ve got to see what this is about!”

Even now, TV shows are much more diverse racially than they used to be, but it’s generally a segregated diversity; that is, there are shows for whites, blacks, to a lesser extent, Latinos, and I can’t think of a single show with a Native American, Asian, or mid-eastern cast (at least not in the US.  There is Little Mosque on the Prairie on the CBC, but in the US, unless you live close to Canada you probably haven’t seen it).  On many shows, the person who is of a race different from that of the main cast is usually the lovable idiot character, such as the white firefighter on Tyler Perry’s House of Payne or the Asian girl on Hannah Montana.  These characters are so unimportant I can’t even remember their names (though I haven’t seen too much of Hannah Montana).  Though I most definitely think that these small acknowledgements that not all people are white are better than nothing.

I’m not advocating that all shows become “melting pots.”  A while ago Larry Gabriel wrote a column in the Metro Times about how sometimes he just doesn’t want to be the black guy that’s “integrating” a joint.  I personally feel better in Mexicantown, where I live, than I do in Detroit’s suburbs, and it’s not because I’m afraid of running into a white supremacist who’ll beat me up.  It’s because I know that in Mexicantown, if I want something specific to Hispanic culture, I can probably get it.  It’s nice to know that I’m surrounded by people who know what semitas and platano frito are.  It’s silly, but a wee part of me is disappointed when a good friend says they don’t like Mexican food.  (I’m not Mexican, but with one exception it’s the closest thing around here.)  I want them to enjoy what I enjoy.  That’s generally why people become friends.  Symbolically though, sharing food is on another level.  Likewise, I understand the positive impact it has on people to see that a show’s main cast reflects them, and thus can reflect their life experiences.  I just think it would be better to work diversity in, in a way that feels natural like on Scrubs, rather than having token diversity.  There, I said it.

So, we see that racial diversity on TV is important.  So is diversity of ability.  (Which reminds me, in Detroit there’s a group called Diverse Ability.)  As it’s natural to seek comfort when going through any hardship by finding others who are suffering the same, it was comforting to make the joke that I am now like Dr. House: with a bum leg and hopped up on vicodin, to have that cultural reference.  Or to call myself Fullmetal Ankle.  Or meeting that gentleman who smiled kindly, with understanding.  For me, the disability is temporary, but for many others, it is not, making it even more important to have reflections of real life’s people with disabilities on television.  Plus, it would also help people without disabilities to stop the reaction we sometimes have upon seeing someone in a wheelchair or using a white cane: pity.  For the most part, people don’t enjoy being considered pitiable.

I’m writing this mostly to offer some food for thought, as I think it unlikely that a television exec with the power to make changes or a screenwriter is gonna land on this blog.  But you never know.  Gotta put positive stuff out there to the Universe. ^_^

Ack! Update: After I published this post, I noticed something: all of the TV characters and personalities I thought of who have disabilities are men!  I can’t think of any female characters with disabilities.  Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII wore what looked like a leg brace, but there’s no evidence in the game that it was anything other than a costume design choice.  I can only think of movies about real-life women who had disabilities, such as Helen Keller or Frida Kahlo. What’s up with this?

Really?! Update: So the first comment I got for this was spam from an adult video company saying that their mission is to represent diverse people to serve all clients’ needs.  And the thing is…I think porn probably is more diverse than TV shows.  @_@;;  Whatever your fetish is, they have a video for you!  Of course, this one good thing does not compensate for an industry that includes images of women being brutalized in its repertoire.  It’s just kind of ironic to me.

Laughing At vs. Laughing With?

Just wanna throw a question out to the universe, as this came up in one of my classes today and it really bothered me, and the class’ answer seemed unsatisfactory to me.  So I want to throw it out to you and know your thoughts.

So here’s the situation, imagine yourself in it.  You’re taking an Anthropology class.  The Professor is an experienced cultural anthropologist specializing in a particular people, a people that are not of the dominant culture, are often misrepresented and misunderstood.  It’s obvious that the professor is very passionate about understanding these people and teaching others about them.   This is not a specialized class, it is “Introduction to Anthropology,” and the professor is using her knowledge of these particular people to illustrate in detail the general concepts of anthropology.

Now, it’s the third week of classes.  Because of issues of seniority and availability of classes to teach, your professor, who was an adjunct faculty member, has to relinquish that class to another professor, a tenured one.  The first thing the new prof asks the class is, naturally, what have you gone over with your old professor?

And someone blurts out the name of the particular people the professor was really passionate about.  Immediately, nearly the entire class laughed.

I was like, ???.  It was absolutely true that we’d spend a lot of time talking about those particular people.  Which is why I didn’t understand why the class had laughed; it was a simple matter of fact.  It seemed like they were, on a subconscious level at least, partaking of the mainstream culture which says it’s okay to laugh at certain people (especially if there’s no one of those people around). If that was the case, how ironic to have that reaction in an anthropology class!

It was really bugging me, so at the end (which mind you, today was 2 hours earlier than usual, so why everyone was in a huff to leave was also irritating) I asked the class:

“Given that this is an anthropology class, this has been bugging me.  When Prof. B asked what Prof. K had been going over, and someone said “the such and such,” nearly the whole class laughed.  I’m not one myself, but I found it offensive and would like to know if you would have laughed if the people our former prof had been talking about were the _______ or the _______.”

Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people in class felt personally attacked, which was certainly not my intention; I was attacking the mentality (which is one ingrained by our own American culture and most of us are unaware of it).  But suddenly everyone’s raising their hands, getting more animated than usual.  Here are some of their responses:

“We weren’t laughing at the people, we were just laughing at the prof for being eccentric.  It’s like laughing with, not laughing at.”

“People make fun of me when I talk about ________.  People just think it’s comical when you’re really passionate about something.” 

“No, it’s just because somebody actually said what we were all thinking that we laughed.”

Now, to me, the last one seems reasonable, and may perhaps be the case.  If so, then I’m willing to admit I’m blowing things out of proportion.  But, even if that explains some students’ reaction, I doubt it explains all of their reactions, especially given their other answers to my question. In response to the first one, that the prof was an eccentric, I asked, “Why was she eccentric?” I think they thought she was eccentric because of the particular people she’s interested in, and would not have had that view had it been a different, more “usual” group of peole. I also don’t think it’s a case of “laughing with,” because the prof took her studies seriously and I’m sure she doesn’t think her studies are merely “funny” nor “eccentric” (which, keep in mind, is usually used to disparage someone). When another student said that she’s made fun of for her passion, I said, “But should people make fun of you for that?”  No one answered that question.

So, knowing only that much, what do you think? 

Now, let’s make it specific.  Let’s assume the professor’s specialty was in your culture and people.  Let’s also assume that your culture and people are not the dominant ones, and that you are often stereotyped and misunderstood.  Now, put yourself in that place: at the moment when the class laughs because the answer to the question was your own people, how do you feel?  

Reflect for a minute.

Now, let me tell you who the actual people in question were.  And again, I myself am not one, so it’s not that I felt personally offended so much as generally offended and, more than anything, disheartened that it seemed like these students are in a class about cultural understanding, nodding their heads, yet understanding and examining nothing, as if it has nothing to do with their lives. Our former professor’s specialty is the Roma people (more widely known as Gypsies).  The professor did spend a lot of time interweaving the general concepts of anthropology with specific examples from Roma culture and life, and I understand that because it’s probably an unusual field of inquiry for most people, that part of class really stood out in the students’ mind.  So when I posed my question, I asked, “Would you have laughed if the prof’s specialty had been Blacks or the Irish?”  The class was quick (a little too quick) to say that they would have also laughed in that circumstance.  But I seriously doubt it. 

What do you think, O World?  Am I being overly sensitive?  How would you feel if it had been your own people?