Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Random Memories #41

I grew up in a family situation which was very far from ideal. It certainly was not the worst experience a person can have, but it truly depends on where you put the bar on how bad an upbringing has to be in order to be considered a problematic one. For instance, if you consider that you have to be sexually abused or physically assaulted for a situation to be "bad", then I can proclaim that I was raised pretty well. Of course, you can move the bar anywhere you want based on others life experiences to make a dysfunctional upbringing seem pretty good by comparison. Children are sold into slavery, starved, or forced into prostitution at very young ages in some countries. Being beaten seems like a good deal if you compare it to those possible outcomes.

In terms of the issues I dealt with as a child, my father was a disabled alcoholic and my mother emotionally volatile. Both of them were products of their difficult upbringing. In the case of my father, he was beaten as a child, essentially abandoned by his mother to be raised by an abusive grandmother, and poor. My mother was raised by a judgmental, highly critical mother who made her feel like a failure at every turn, though she was marginally better off economically than my father. She felt unloved and unwanted as a child and got married at an age younger than the legal one at that time in order to escape the sense of her own black sheep status in the family.

My father was emotionally distant, as is unsurprisingly the case for a man who had to disconnect from intimacy due to lack of trust issues as a result of being beaten as a child. My mother, who needed lots of love because she'd grown up with such conditional positive regard, married him for validation that he could not give. As a result of how her sense of self-esteem was so low and her upbringing so emotionally unsupportive, she could not tolerate being wrong. Any time she asserted something dubious and was challenged, she lied. In fact, she fabricated stories and "evidence" so often that I'm sure she believed her lies over time. If you pushed back against these falsehoods, she rapidly became emotionally unglued and hysterical as a way of stopping the unbearable cognitive dissonance that resulted.

As a result of these experiences, I grew up very much opposed to lying about anything. I was incredibly blunt and straightforward because I was reacting to the false realities my mother was spinning daily. I could not or would not distinguish between a lie told to protect someone and a lie told to protect oneself or enhance ones own self-interests. As a child, I also did not realize that my mother was "indulging" in weaving her tales as a form of psychological survival. I just knew that I hated the cycle of lying, questioning those lies, hysteria, and then having to give up and walk away to escape the intense drama. If she had just been honest about what she knew and didn't know or been able to admit that she was wrong about something, I felt our lives would have been easier.  I guess the point was that hers would not have been bearable had she had to simply accept that she was wrong on occasion.

It's rather ironic that I moved to a culture in which lies are far more acceptable than they are in Judeo-Christian cultures. We have an undercurrent of not bearing false witness in such cultures (that's one of the ten commandments, for those who didn't grow up inclined in the ways of the Christian bible - and no, I haven't been a Christian for many years - and please do not turn comments into some sort of attack-fest or pissing contest about religion as that's not what this is about and as I'll be instructing my husband to boot such comments in moderation). In Japan, it tended to be the overwhelming experience that people lied to save faces - their faces, others faces, and the face of ideas and society.

The idea of "saving face" is often misunderstood by Westerners who romanticize the notion as some peculiar Asian thing. It really means that people don't want to embarrass themselves or others or face an unpleasant confrontation. That sounds so much less exotic than "saving face", but it's what it's really all about. As someone who hates to lie (and is bad at it anyway), it was a challenge for me to adapt to this culture without sacrificing one of my core values. Lying was simply unacceptable to me because, once you were lied to, you could not be trusted to tell the truth ever again.

Unfortunately, very early on, I found it difficult to be totally honest. In my days at Nova, I was constantly asked one question in particular. A completely honest answer would have been insulting to the Japanese and made me look bad in their eyes. Since I was teaching, and I wanted my students to enjoy their time with me, I had to skirt around the truth, and I hated it.

The question that I was asked hundreds of times was "why did you come to Japan?" If you think teaching is "easy", imagine what it is like to be asked the same limited range of questions with boring answers ten times a day, every day, for at least a year. "How old are you?" "Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Can you use chopsticks?" "Do you like Japanese food?" "Can you eat natto?" "How long have you been in Japan?" "Why did you come here?"

One thing I can definitely say I acquired while working in Japan was a great deal of patience and tolerance. If you want to know what it is like to become truly zen, teach for a few years and be at peace with having to do and say the same thing over and over again. It's got to be much easier for the monk in his monastery praying and meditating while raking little plots of sand to be all zen about life than what a teacher does over and over again (and I'm not just talking about English teaching in Japan, but all teaching all over the world).

The real answer, the absolute, unvarnished, unadulterated truth to the questions of why I was there was because I had a dream month there with my husband before we were married and things had gone badly on multiple fronts for us when we were living in California. I didn't so much "love Japan" as hate my life in California after leaving Pennsylvania to live with my future husband. I was running from something more than to something. Also, frankly, both of us had college debts to pay back and we knew we'd make more headway economically in Japan than we would in the extremely expensive Bay Area. Sure, we had jobs there, but the cost of living was so high that we couldn't chisel our debt much if we remained there. Based on his year working in Japan alone before we got together, we knew we could make more money faster and pay everything back.

I couldn't tell students that I was there not because I loved their country and culture, but because I had a positive association with a wonderful time in my life which was not really related to Japan itself and I wanted to make money. The fudged answer was that I'd been there before and had a great time (absolutely true) and wanted to come back again to have more of such experiences (sort of true, but incomplete).

Money never entered the discussion, though students often talked about how foreigners came there to make a lot of money. The truth was that we didn't make "a lot" of money, but rather our expenses were lower because we didn't need to have a car and our transport was paid for and the exchange rate sometimes worked in our favor and sometimes did not. If you timed sending money back at the right moment, you did pretty well. It was like playing the stock market in that way. Also, frankly, there were expenses that we didn't pay because we didn't know we had to like health insurance and certain types of taxes. If the company didn't tell us about them and the government didn't send us any paperwork, there was no way for us to know what our obligations were.

I never grew comfortable with the answer I gave because I felt disingenuous about it. That being said, I don't think that being totally blunt would have served anyone except my own sense of having to be so. The truth was more complex than the students would probably have understood with their limited linguistic capabilities and more negative than the students needed to hear. The truth might have left a bad feeling in the room and cast a pall over the lesson. I can't say for sure what impact it may have had, but chances are that it wouldn't have been good.

As the years went by, I realized that my reactive bluntness was not an especially mature way of managing relationships. I still do not lie, though it is certainly true that I forget things and may unknowingly contradict myself as my opinions and feelings change over time. I remain dedicated to offering the best truth I can and even looking to documentation of the past to check my memory (and I fortunately have a lot of it). However, I have learned that it is not a lie to choose not to spill out every single detail or to talk vaguely instead of specifically. It is better to do these things than to say something which will unnecessarily make someone feel bad or damage your relationship with them.

I also learned that you have to know your audience and determine the level of information for the type of relationship. My students were likely indifferent to any reply I gave and satisfied as long as it was vaguely positive toward Japan and Japanese people. They weren't looking to hear my life story in excruciating detail. The truth is that they were just looking to make conversation with the limited vocabulary they had, not dissect the reason a foreigner arrived on their shores. It wasn't a therapy session or a lie detector test. It was the same sort of situation in which the clerk at the market asks, "how are you". He doesn't expect the truth and doesn't want to know that you've been having horrible menstrual cramps all day and as you stand in line are having a fresh wave while you wait for him to ring up the damn chocolate ice cream that you crawled out of bed to buy. He expects you to just say, "I'm fine, and you?"

I think that the risk of starting to view lies the way that they are seen in Japan is that it is often a slippery slope. Once you start lying for one reason, you can get into the habit of doing so for less virtuous reasons than smoothing over and simplifying interactions with acquaintances or avoiding embarrassment. More than one Japanese person lied in a self-serving way in situations which were incredibly pointless and damaging. Of course, the same can be said here in the U.S. as well. The main difference was that their culture, on the whole, views that less punitively than ours does and that can be a bitter pill for someone raised in a different culture to swallow, especially someone who grew up thinking that causing someone pain with the truth was better than lying.

In many ways, the repeated questioning and exposure to the types of situations I encountered in Japan helped me mature in my responses to people. Rather than being so absolute about "the truth" because I grew up with someone who lied so much and so often, I learned that things are usually more nuanced. I may have learned that had I stayed at home as well, but I'm guessing that it would have been at a greater cost as I would have had to lose friendships over time to my bluntness before I got the message. The circumstances in which I found myself created a learning environment that I'm not sure I would have had had I stayed home. I was able to adopt a different perspective which included finer discrimination of circumstances with far less heartache because I was operating in a culture in which the rules were different and that made me more open to changing myself and my views.


  1. Blunt or as my aunt would say: tactless and rude... was something she put me to work on from when I was very young. As Thumper was instructed, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all." - I still find myself cringing moments after saying something I could have said in a nicer manner or just kept my trap shut. As an adult I have developed a yield sign where they should be a stop sign. I have also learned that, for myself, keeping shut is the wisest choice. I talk too much, so silence is good. Gives pause to the conversation, my husband who has gotten to know me very well, knows my pause or silence means something is amiss. So he asks what's wrong and sometimes I have to skirt the issue. "I have a headache." Which is not untrue, but I don't give reason for it; which is usually stress related when it does happen. As I am not prone to headaches or taking medication for them he usually leaves it at that because when I do have a headache I let it pass in silence.
    Some times he notices that my moments of quiet are because I have the urge to say something truthful that will cut like a hot knife. And I can honestly tell my husband straight out, I am going to be quiet because I don't want to say something I will regret. It's really hard especially when emotions are running high. It's really hard to keep your mouth in check when your emotions run high. But it is much harder to repair the damage done by truthful words that don't need to be said aloud than just agreeing to disagree.
    Those darn careful balancing acts! I feel you on the teaching on infinite loop of repeat. Step-son had little to not guidance being raised and I think these days my top three words are: no, please stop that and listen all preceded by Andy. He is relearning how to behave in social situations. So he has to unlearn the old behavior and learn the new one, all while I try not to lose patience and with it temper. I think I can join the ranks of Zen Master right now. One of the big ones he needs to unlearn is his profuse lying and then brushing it off as a joke. Argh!

  2. I've had this conversation with my wife and part of it is the Judeo-Christian aspect, part of it is the George Washington (I cannot tell a lie), part of it is how Americans are SO accustomed to being lied to (by over-aggressive telemarketers, used car salesmen, politicians) and another big part of it is that we Americans are such a diverse lot.

    In Japan, where moving to different countries is extremely rare and well over 97% of the populace is Japanese, it goes without saying that lying to save face makes a ton of sense.

    On the other hand, in America where we have a very transient population, many shady individuals AND an immigrant culture whereby different people are American and still have a very different set of cultural norms, it makes total sense that lying is very much admonished.


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