Understanding Culture - Understanding Ourselves

There is a story about a little fish which was born not so long ago in the ocean. Like any young child, the little fish has a strong sense of curiosity and likes asking questions. It only takes a while for it to learn about the sun, the sky, the ships and the other sea creatures. But one thing is troubling it. It doesn’t know what water is. It goes around visiting the older and wiser fish. But no one can tell the little fish what water is.


I was reading a great assasin/spy book by Barry Eisler called Rain Fall. The main character is a man who is half Japanese/American (caucasian). He was in a conversation with a Jazz musician who studied in America.

"So, four years in New York," I said. "That's a long time. You must have had a very different perspective when you returned."

"I did. The person who returns from living abroad isn't the same person who left originally."

"How do you mean?"

Your outlook changes. You don't take things for granted that you used to. For instancce, I noticed in New York that when one cab cut off another, the drive who got cut off would always yell at the other driver and do this'--she did a perfect imitation of a New York cabbie filipping someone the bird--"and I realized this was because Americans assume that the other person intended to do what he did, so they want to teach the the person a lesson. But you know, in Japan, people almost never get upset in those situations. Japanese look at other people's mistakes more as something arbirtrary like the weather, I think, not so much as something to get angry about. I hadn't thought about that before I lived in New York."

"I've noticed that difference, too. I like the Jpanese way better. It's something to aspire to."


A few pages later, the main character is in a conversation with another Japanese.

He smiled. "You are Japanese, but American also, yes?"

My expression was carefully neutral.

"Regardless, I think you can understand me. I know Americans admire frankness. It's one of thier disagreeable characteristics, made doubly so because they congratulate themselves for it ceaselessly. And this disagreeable trait is now infecting even me! Do you see the threat America poses to Nippon?"

I regarded him, wondering if he was a crackpot rightist. You run into them from time to time--they profess to abhor America but they can't help being fascinated with it. "Americans are...causing too many frank conversations?" I asked.

"I know you are being facetious, but in a sense, yes. Americans are missionaries, like the Christians who came to Kyushu to convert us five hundred years ago. Only now, they proselytize not Christianity, but the American Way, which is America's official secular religion. Frankness is only one, relatively trivial, aspect."

Why not have some fun. "You feel that you're being converted?"

"Of course. Americans believe in two things: first, despit everyday experience and common sense, that "all men are created equal"; and second, that complete trust in the market is the best way for a society to order its affairs. America has always needed such transcendental notions to bind together its citizens, who have come from different cultures all over the world. And Americans are then driven to prove the universality of these ideas, and so their validity, by aggressively converting other cultures to them. In a religious context, this behavior would be recognized as missionary in its origins and effect."


I am baffled at how hard it is to understand ourselves. We usually aren't able to leave our culture, whether it is church or American, to give us a better look at it. But we need to discover a way to distance ourselves from our culture in order to truly understand it.

Watch out for the potholes.