Wednesday, October 3, 2012


When I first started taking Tea Ceremony lessons, my understanding of it was stereotypically foreign.  "Tea Ceremony.  I learned all about it in grade school.  Tea Ceremony is that exotic, Japanese way to drink tea, right?  Sounds like fun!  Sign me up!"  I didn't realize that in taking Tea Ceremony lessons, I would be experiencing- weekly- an event that many Japanese never experience in their lifetime.  

When we host a Ceremony for base events, I- a woefully ignorant student of less than a year- am more well-versed in the procedure we are performing than many of our Japanese guests.  This was a shock for me.  So often, as a Westerner, I automatically exoticize Japan.  "Japan.  I love Japan! Land of kimono, hyper-new electronics, geisha, tranquil gardens, massive temples and heated toilet seats!  What's not to love?!  Or I sum Japan up in a few, stereotypical sentences. "The Japanese are so much more in tune with nature! The Japanese have such a higher appreciation for beauty! Japan is so weird!" 

In reality, the everyday of Japan is mostly filled with concrete, expensive energy, crammed public transport, cheap convenience stores, and brightly-lit supermarkets. Sounds a lot like...the United States. Girls follow the latest fashions, boys play baseball, kids go to school, adults go to work, everyone watch lots of television and spends too much time on their smartphones. The Japanese are not all that different from Americans, as it turns out.

Exoticizing is easy.  It requires little work.  I can pick and choose which things are worthy of my appreciation and which are not. Shrines?  Super fun!  We don't have shrines in the States, let's go! Uhhhhh... where to buy dish towels?  Do I really feel like hunting for dish towels? Forget it, I'll just order them on Amazon. Hunting for dish towels isn't exciting like hunting for shrines.

Japan deserves better than that from me.  

In exoticizing, I only push Japan and its people away.  When my search for the new and different causes me to lose interest in the everyday, then I have begun to cram Japan into a box I've stamped Other.  My understanding of Japan becomes warped and twisted into something a Japanese person would never recognize.  How weird would it sound to hear a Japanese visitor to America declare, "I love America! I saw the Liberty Bell and visited Colonial Williamsburg and went surfing in Hawaii.  Americans visit those places all the time! Quilting is so American...all American women must quilt, right? America is so dangerous, isn't it?  If you send your kid to America for an exchange program, she might get shot.  Would Canada be better?  Wouldn't such a conversation sound bizarre?  Would any American recognize those sentences as accurate descriptions of America?  I don't know about you, but I'd be just as excited to visit Hawaii as a Japanese tourist would be!  

So those are some of my thoughts.  When we move back to the States, and people ask, "How did you like living in Japan," will I perpetuate stereotypes and regale them with stories of Exotic Japan?  Or, instead, will I talk about how I learned that Japan isn't that different from the United States, after all?  

Turns out, when you live somewhere for awhile, "weird" doesn't look all that weird, anymore.

Even driving on the left side of the road isn't weird anymore!

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