Saturday, February 18, 2006

Breaking WA and Losing Major Face

My first intercultural disclosure to the Shock-a-Comm Blog occurs in 1977. To set the scene I was 11 years of age and living on an island called Okinawa. People nicknamed the Island “The Rock,” as it was one mile long from side to side in the thinnest part and about 60 miles from end to end. Baseball is what we did. Okinawin’s play baseball everyday of the year. Baseball is part of their culture and as long as we had base-a-ball-roo we learned to communicate with Okinawin children our age with sand drawings and symbols. Let’s just say we played a lot of ball!

If the Dodger’s Coach Cooley is still out there, I want to thank you for your grooming and all the opportunities you provided in baseball and in cultural understanding. I loved to hit that ball! Unfortunately, the baseball strikes and 1979 destroyed my love of the game and my desire to play ball, even today the baseball dream is gone (another story in itself). Call me a hopeless romantic.

Getting back to 1977, I made the All-Star team as a Center Fielder the first time and a third baseman the second. Our team was preparing for a trip to Japan. We were a diverse group of young boys heading off into a new cultural experience. We were going to Japan without our parents and we were going to live with our Japanese hosts. Awkwardly, we were not prepared culturally for the excitement that lay await for us ahead.

A ship pulling out of Naha, the name I do not recall at this time, is where the journey sets off. If you haven’t traveled with a diverse group of American boys your eyes are about to be opened. Our team consisted of all American children in the 1970’s, but for today’s society I will classify the children as; Japanese-American, African-American, Anglo-American, Native-American, and Mexican American. The team had full run of the ship for two days and the team was out of control. We didn’t travel first class, we were in an open seating, sleeping area. No, there were no chairs we were on one of the huge tatami mats. If you are unfamiliar with tatami, a tatami mat is a Japanese style of floor covering designed for comfort and durability. Tatami Mat is constructed of 4 layers of natural fiber sheets, covered with a high grade, tightly woven rush-straw, sewn to the base layers, and then bound with a high grade wooden border. Anyway, I think you get the point; there were no beds, no pillows, and no sheets. How in the world does an American boy sleep? Exactly, the team dropped off our luggage and baseball equipment on the tatami and went on an adventure. Thinking back, did we remove our shoes? It is customary in Japanese culture to do so. I can’t remember, but I would guess not. No one touched, moved or removed our personal belongings. As a side note, I don’t recommend doing this on an American Ship. Unfortunately, there seems to be a secret code called “Finders Keepers” in the United States and a possession is 9/10ths of the law assumption. Although I would say most Americans live with integrity as a value there are enough immoral individuals to ruin it for the rest of us. In other words, when in the U.S. operate under a “lock-it-up” syndrome. Today, this is a global human decline, which is not uncommon in many cultures around the world. I have my opinions on this too, but I will hold them for now and continue on.

So the All-Star team wanders around the ship as long as we can, some longer than others, although my eyes were burning and trying to shut much earlier than most. I was returning to my tiny place on the tatami to sleep. I found my luggage and stretched out using my bat bag as a pillow. I was totally exhausted and emotionally drained from leaving my parents on the Okinawa shore. As I am an early to rise, morning person I was asleep much earlier than most of my teammates. Some of my teammates left to their own ways were practicing the stereotypical “Ugly American” over generalized behaviors as other teammates and I lay asleep on the rush. For example, when the team ran out of coins for the pinball machine, some of the players decided to get destructively innovative by breaking the back off the ships pinball machine and offering themselves never ending free games. The team members involved played as long as they could until a Japanese Ship’s man discovered the ploy and put an end to their fun. How embarrassing for the Coaches and the individuals involved. I am still embarrassed and it has been decades. As American’s we lost some major face and broke harmony on the ship. How do think this incidence reflected on the Japanese observer’s perception of Americans in general? Trust me, it wasn’t nice and unfortunately the experiences to be shared get worse.

On a personal note: If you were on the ship, I humbly apologize for the disrespect of the 1977 All-Stars. As a collective group we did not act responsibly or respectfully. Most of us were ignorant of the Japanese culture, this includes me. I have been wearing this ribbon of shame and using it to share intercultural learning with others. Hopefully, others will learn from the mistakes we made.

As we return to the tatami and my sleep, I awoke with amazement at what seemed like a sea of Japanese people sleeping all around me. I couldn’t even see the tatami mat there were so many people. Have you ever played Mikado or Pick-up-Sticks? Envision this, as in the game the people sleeping are the sticks. I had individual’s feet up against my legs and heads up against my bags. What American child would be comfortable sleeping with hundreds of Japanese strangers? The Japanese people were all comfortable with this scenario and totally inside their cultural idea of acceptable proximics (personal space)? On the other hand, my western more so American idea of personal space was so much greater in need, due to my observed acceptable American standards.

We are space cravers in the U.S. more than any other culture around the globe. Americans need too much personal space in my opinion. After traveling and working in countries like Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia I have seen the light in regards to space. Am I living it? No, I am still stuck in my American way. However, I am aware and awareness is the key to ultimately understanding.

I want to keep going but I must end for today. Comments, Concerns, and Questions welcome

Today’s Book Recommendation:
Tuan, Yi-Fu, (1990), “Topophilia: A study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values” NY Columbia University Press

If you are traveling and/or working with the Japanese, I highly recommend a company called Charis Intercultural Training Corporation and their 8 hour class called “Working with the Japanese.” They also have a great course called “Working with the USA.” If you are interested in honing your intercultural skills check out all the classes that Charis offers. Requests for more information to Attn: Marian Stetson- Rodriguez.

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