Imagine a child exclaiming, “I’m a Chinese-Japanese-mixed-up kid!” index fingers pulling the corners of their eyes up, then down, then in opposite directions and finishing with a flourish of eyes crossed and tongue stuck out like an anime character. That’s what our mom taught my siblings and I to say when people asked where we were from. That was the 70’s in Southern California.
We melted right in with our bowl cuts, bell-bottoms and turtlenecks. But I knew we were different. Mom spoke Chinese, English, and Japanese, which all mixed up to become Jap-lish. Dad only spoke Japanese, if he spoke at all. Actually, it was just one word – baka or stupid – uttered either affectionately in rare praise or more often gutturally during a scolding. We’d respond in English, if we dared. And then, as teenagers, we just stopped talking. That was the 80’s in Southern California.
By the 90’s, at university in Nor Cal, I was determined to start talking to dad again; rather I wanted to talk back for a lifetime of being called stupid. I studied Japanese. It was going to be easy because I could already understand it… Apparently I was functionally illiterate and only knew how to speak down to people like they were children. Thankfully my Japanese teachers understood. I was determined to prove to dad I wasn’t baka.
I proved I wasn’t baka when dad closed the restaurant for a day, boarded a flight and attended my graduation. With Japanese language and literature degree in hand, I went off to work in IT. A few years later, dad died. My desire to talk back to him morphed into a desire to walk back to him. I’ll go to work in Japan! It’ll be easy, I was Japanese after all and had a degree to prove it.
Apparently I was culturally illiterate. I couldn’t understand why, with my practically perfect Japanese, I was so misunderstood in Japan. My very best Japanese was reserved for when I first met people in a professional context. As we progressed, I would say what I meant, and I sincerely meant what I said; which I thought was all part of that social contract of intimacy. But for some reason I couldn’t ever get close to native Japanese and I felt baka for not being able to connect.
My gulf in understanding the Japanese only widened when I married one. It peaked when I overheard my Japanese mother-in-law make the excuse to her friends, “it’s because she’s American” for some stupid faux pas I made without realizing it. Only after divorce and several years back in the states did I finally learn about High vs. Low context cultures and it made all my struggles clear.
The gist of the diversity lesson on High vs. Low context cultures was that, I grew up in a Low context culture where I could rely on my audience to take what I verbalized at face value without need for additional context; whereas the Japanese high context culture relied heavily on the implicit relationships between people and things for full meaning in a situation. Less was verbally communicated and yet more was usually understood. In effect, I was baka for not being sensitive to the greater context of a situation when I opened my mouth to say something (usually a literal translation of what I was thinking in English to Japanese). And I would stick my foot in my mouth like this so many more times in life even in American situations that were made more culturally high context with the presence of context sensitive people.
My solution was to start by speaking English. When I started with perfect Japanese, I was expected to BE Japanese and understand all the social mores and meaning of nonverbal clues. But I am a Chinese, Japanese, American, mixed-up kid and I couldn’t BE Japanese even if I tried. So I always start by speaking English when meeting a native Japanese; so they could put me in the non-Japanese box in their mind first; because I AM a special kind of American, NOT Japanese, and NOT baka.