I heard once that, the older you become, the more conservative you get. I am starting to think this is true for me.
To give some background to this revelation: I have been working my way through this interesting, interactive lesson on understanding other cultures: At Home in Japan. It purports to show us how our upbringing and native culture prevent all of us from understanding the innermost common sense and lifestyle of other cultures. Misunderstanding and culture shock are the fault of no one and everyone, it says. However, the farther I get in the lesson, the more I think it is hopeless to try to understand and participate in Japanese culture — or any other culture, at that.
Some people seem to revere Japanese culture so much that they completely assimilate. Several foreigners I've met have assimilated so devotedly that, as their fellow countryman, I am completely confused and annoyed by their behavior. To me, their rule-mongering seems like weakness; their indirectness seems like passive-aggression, and their dismissal of Western ways seems like a massive betrayal. Everything these assimilated Westerners do runs counter to my notion of a compatriot, and I find I can't relate to them wholeheartedly.
But really, I suppose I ought to learn from these assimilated Westerners. If they've done the assimilating right, they've actually given me a spotless portrayal of the Japanese mindset, while still using a language I understand.
That intense affinity for rules and orderly conduct? Japanese to a T. Example: signs near Kyoto escalators warning grown adults not to walk on them, because it's dangerous — "please stand in double lines." My reaction was, "I'm an adult, and I can take care of myself! That's ridiculous." But the Japanese reaction would be, "That's how it goes; it's for everyone's benefit."
A tendency to avoid direct confrontation in order to protect the feelings of everyone involved? Japan's a master. I can't give an example, because I'm in the dark — who knows what criticisms I'm missing that people are hiding from me!
I know that Japan has a history of isolationism, both geographically and politically, which has contributed to its reputation as a homogeneous and closed society. I doubt this will ever truly change, much as I doubt America's reverence for individualism and openness will change. People say that Japan is becoming more open, and more diverse, as if it's a good thing. But I think, with respect to Japanese values (though I could be mistaken!), this might be akin to saying, "Yes, America is becoming less outspoken and bold! It's great for the rest of the world!" Some people might agree with either sentiment, but neither of these things make sense: the Japanese model is not to be as diverse or open as America, and America's model is not to keep quiet about... anything.
Japan's withdrawn attitudes represent centuries of social conditioning, and the resulting culture simply doesn't have parameters for completely accepting me — an outsider — as a part of that culture. So, I'll never truly understand Japan. There are so many books on understanding Japan, and so many opportunities for Westerners to join Japanese society in small ways, teaching being one of them. But the layers upon layers of cultural history surrounding Japan are built for only a select few devotees to pass through. I don't feel comfortable assimilating to something so foreign, the way I have seen some fellow Westerners do. I am proud to be an open American who shares my true feelings as a way of connecting with people, who values my own and other people's individuality, and who challenges the status quo. These things are not better than the Japanese way, but they are the way I have been raised, and I am happy with that.
So, the older I get, the more conservative I am becoming. I am becoming less open to adapting to another culture. In a way, I think this means I am less open to accepting another culture, which sounds very conservative and closed-minded of me! Of course, when I'm home in America, I believe myself to be accepting of everyone. Is this accurate? Do non-Americans actually feel as accepted as I try to convey, or is my attitude doomed to be misunderstood by people who weren't raised in the culture I was?
I am realizing that this thing I do, where I move across the world for several months, is great for gaining perspective, but at the end of the day, I don't want to renounce my culture. I give props to anyone who leaves their native culture in order to assimilate somewhere else. I think the trouble I have is that, where I'm from, anything goes, and we accept people's differences, in our own way. But outside my own realm, people do not "do" acceptance the same way as me, so their ways can feel confusing and even hurtful.
Writing this, I realize I'm feeling hurt by the lack of easy American-style acceptance found in foreign cultures. I shouldn't take it personally, I know. There is no handbook for understanding "acceptance" in other cultures. But it's not easy to learn on my own! In fact, most guides I've found to understanding Japanese culture are full of "don't do this," "don't do that," "if you do this, the Japanese will be offended," etc. It's exhausting, and frankly off-putting to be told what to do like that! It makes me appreciate how wonderful it is when you know 100% that you are accepted somewhere. It's easiest to do when there's no language barrier, which is why it's hard outside your home country. But when you get to 100%... that's the true, elusive spirit of being home.