Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Yeah, but, Where are you “Really” From?

Here I am at 40 years of age, studying culture, an interculturalist, and yet still making cultural faux pas hand-over-hand. Due to cultural faux pas that I recently made, I remembered a book I had read by Professor Frank Wu titled Yellow; Race in America Beyond Black and White (ISBN 0-465-00640-x (paperback).

My latest cultural faux pas was fairly innocent mistake. How easily mistakes are made based upon names, appearance and nonverbal communication. This recent event happened very quickly. I made an assumption in regards to the cultural past of a Senior Executive with a Japanese name. My group was working on getting funding for our company to use an intercultural Web based tool from Meridian Eaton called GlobeSmart. We have also contracted with Charis, to deliver an eight hour course called, “Working with the Japanese.” The Senior Executive was excited about GlobeSmart and interested in the intercultural work we were promoting. Without knowing the background or life history of the Executive, I asked if the Executive would mind speaking as our company representative from Japan. The Executive stated he had previous obligations. I thought nothing else of the interaction. When we departed the meeting one of the ladies working on the Implementation Team asked me a pertinent question “Was the executive born in Japan?”

Immediately my mind flashed back to Professor Wu and his life experience. How could I be so insensitive? I have two actions that need to be corrected. First, I made a personal mistake that needs to be addressed with a cultural correction through this writing. I also need to recognize my peer for pointing out my mistake. The Executive with a Japanese name probably felt my cultural faux pas as it slipped from my lips. Sure he has a Japanese name, but he might be a fourth generation born American Japanese. Second, I also owe the Japan Executive a phone call with a personal apology from me. The good news about cultural mistakes is they become fodder for supporting intercultural training necessities.

In professor Wu’s book, the question "Where are you really from?" implies that everyone goes through life interacting with other people and other cultures (including the concept of race even if we are not mindful of it). I personally use a question such as “Where are you from? I noticed you have an accent.” as an ice breaker. I am truly interested in finding out and speaking to individuals from other cultures. This is what I enjoy and each time I learn something new from each individual.

Today’s Recommendation:

Professor Frank H.Wu, lays out the dilemma of being Asian in America in terms that are spare but evocative: "I remain not only a stranger in a familiar land, but also a sojourner through my own life....I alternate between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through. Although the conditions may seem contradictory, they have in common the loss of control. I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself to be." Wu is not content in being an idle observer or a pawn in someone else's social drama; however, he draws on a lifetime of involvement in the great issues of our times to write thought-provoking and well-researched analyses of affirmative action, racial profiling, immigration restrictions, anti-Asian violence, interracial marriage, and much more.

Click this link to learn more about Professor Frank Wu’s article in the Civil Rights Journal, titled, “Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome.”

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