Monday, July 27, 2009

Cultural Consequences

When my parents visited Tokyo, during my extended stay in the city on a Summer Abroad program, their trip generated an interesting and lively conversation amongst my family members about the “cultural consequences” of visiting a foreign country. Two of my Uncles, my Aunt and both my Mother and Father have each opined about the qualities of their international travel experiences and the efforts made to imbibe in the culture of their respective destinations. As I begin the final week of a nearly two-month stay in Tokyo, Japan, here are some thoughts on the cultural experience…

My trip to Tokyo was semi-structured from the very start, in that I had a class schedule, and later, I was thrust into a busy work schedule at my internship. To some extent, the Summer Abroad program, by definition, limited the cultural choices of each participant. Ultimately, however, every student in the program had an extensive degree of discretionary cultural freedom.

It is interesting to briefly look back on, and compare how individual students made use of their free time.

Some students came into the program with a laundry list of places to see and things to do; they had done their homework, and knew exactly what they wanted out of their visit. These students were really “tourists”, in the sense that they plowed through numerous tourist locales and other ‘destinations’ at an almost frantic rate.

Some students had been to Tokyo before, and knew what they enjoyed most about the city. Whether it was going out to specific clubs, or visiting certain clothing stores and restaurants, these “comfort-zoners” knew what they wanted to do, and simply did it; why mess with success?

And, further still, another group of students did very little on their own. These “programmers” focused on classes, choose to attend social functions in large groups, and only really interacted and associated with people from the Study Abroad Program.

If we try to assess which of these three groups most experienced the true culture of Tokyo, it is difficult to determine a clear winner. The “tourists” have amassed giant online depositories of pictures and certainly have great narratives to tell. The “comfort-zoners” have experienced (again) what they found most to be pleasurable about Japanese culture, be it the food, shopping, night life, etc.; we all have times where we say ‘if I could do it again, this is what I would do…’ And, the “programmers” have learned a great deal about Japanese law, they have toured the Supreme Court and the National Diet, and they have been out with American students to explore the city and culture of Tokyo.

Overall, the cultural consequences of any visit are difficult to define, quantify or measure. I think that is extremely difficult for anyone to actually grasp an understanding of certain elements of the culture of a foreign country. That is why it is called a “foreign” country (once your visit extends past a certain length, it no longer a foreign country…what that length of time may be, however, is genuinely debatable and probably varies depending on the location…).

As for me, there were only a few specific moments during my stay that stand-out as times when I definitely felt like I was absorbing the culture, when I was witnessing Japan at its pure and raw cultural level. Further still, these moments were highly limited due to Japan’s somewhat inherent view of foreigners as outsiders. One of my co-works remarked to me today that to the Japanese, you are seen an outsider whether you have been here for 15 days or for 15 years. In my case, this view was no doubt exaggerated because of my appearances (it is fairly obvious that I am an American) and my inability to speak Japanese (language being such a HUGE part of culture).

These fleeting moments came at times when I would not consider my activities to fit into one of the categories, either “tourist”, “comfort-zoner”, or “programmer”. These moments hit me strongest at times when I was acting simultaneous as all three, and yet somehow acting within no category at all.

Additionally, I believe that the cultural consequences of any visit are invariably personal in nature. My opinion of Japanese culture reflects my moments, while every other visitor will necessarily generate their own perspective. Later on, it is the collective of these individual opinions and perspectives, as they mesh and blend together through the telling of stories and the showing of pictures, which creates a community vision and the ideal of the culture of a foreign country.

Over time, these community visions further blend together to create a national vision of foreign cultures, which eventually results in stereotypical and heuristic thinking, whether ultimately positive or negative in nature. While it may be impossible to ever experience the true culture of a foreign country, through these community and national visions, culture (at least in an amorphous sense) can be ascertained.

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