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June 17, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Cultivating cultural awareness

Our  family at the New Year, 2010 

(November 8, 1990)

“Karen?!! Hey! How’re you doing?”

“Fine, fine. And you? It’s been a long time.”

“You’re telling me. About 15 years. But I’ve heard all about you.”

“Oh really – what’ve you heard?”

“That you married a millionaire, have seven children and live in China.”

“! ! ! ! ! ! !”

That was part of a telephone conversation I had with an old friend during a visit to America. Well, I set the record straight, on all counts, and proceeded to tell my story,

Yes, it has been 15 years. I arrived here in 1975 with my husband, Billy, and our daughter Nanao, who was then six-years old. We took a year to get here, covering a good part of the distance overland. We drove across both Iran and Afghanistan not knowing then that those countries would soon be facing the turmoil they’ve been in almost ever since.

Billy had been invited to study here for one year, and although it was more or less our intention to leave after that year was up – well, what with one thing and another, we haven’t left. And aren’t leaving.

Arriving in this country as an adult, complete with the habits and manners of the society I was raised in, and choosing to live here, I’ve had to adapt and learn a lot. It’s been a painless process, mostly.  But my children, on the other hand, have not had to adapt to or learn anything. They represent what I believe is an interesting example of the fact that cultural behavior is circumstantial, and nationality little more than a superficiality.

Nanao, born in a small town in Denmark, was given a Japanese name simply because I heard it and liked the sound – 21 years ago I was not even dreaming of living in Japan. Still a preschooler when we arrived in Japan, she acquired Japanese so fast that for a while I thought she was only playing a child’s game when she would read to me. Like a typical Japanese teenager, at one point the stars in her life were “Maachi” and Matsuda Seiko. She could have told you the name of “Toshi-chan’s” latest song, but not Stevie Wonder’s. My complaints about the amount of schoolwork she had to do in elementary school, the extra-curricular activities in junior high school, and short summer vacations were met with indifference. She didn’t know anything else.

When our daughter Mie was still in kindergarten we had to sit her down and explain to her that she was not Japanese when she came home saying a kid “called me American.”

“But why not?” she wanted to know. “Yurika-cha is Japanese. She’s my best friend and if she’s Japanese then I want to be Japanese too.”

Just around that time our son Mario was learning to talk. Proving himself immediately bilingual, his first words (used in combination and interchangeably) were “bye-bye” and “baka.”

It’s common for us to see uncomprehending awe when people hear our three youngest children speak. “Oh, they speak Japanese!” they exclaim. Since they were all born here and have never lived anywhere else, they would be in serious trouble if they didn’t. And, “Oh! They sound just like Japanese!” Our children speak Enshu-ben, the dialect of the area where we live. It would be strange if they spoke Japanese with an American accent.

Are they American? Sure. Because their parents are. But the all-purpose gaijin label doesn’t fit – and too often the word serves only to express prejudice and limitation, not recognizing the complex composition of the world and the great diversity among people – even in Japan. Clearly the differences that separate us – the color of skin, the type of hair and physique, the food we eat, the cultural behavior we’ve learned, and the country named on our passports – often define us in shallow ways.

“So when are coming back?” the friend on the telephone wanted to know. We used to hear that all the time when we visited America. No one asks anymore. Like the many others who have continued to live in Japan long after the initial enthusiasm for all those things so wonderfully and uniquely Japanese has worn off and who have no intention of “going back” to someplace, we think of Japan as home.



We have now lived in Japan 35 years – more than half our lives.

Two of our children now have children of their own.

A year ago, Mario applied for the Monkasho fellowship to do graduate study in Japan. The application process and interviews took about a year. When he was notified that he had won this competitive scholarship, and accepted at all three universities where he had indicated he wanted to study, our whole family was thrilled.

Then, a short time later, he was told that in order to receive the scholarship he would have to give up his permanent residency status in Japan. How odd. He is an American citizen, carries an American passport. This scholarship for foreign students, ostensibly seeks to encourage educational exchange and build cultural bridges between countries. I could hardly think of a better person to do that than Mario, whose chosen title is “peace advocate”.

Because of the circumstance of his birth he was denied this scholarship. Of course he could not make a reasonable choice to give up his residency status. This is his home. His father obtained permanent residency status for the whole family after years of living here, being rejected, and finally accepted.

 What a great pity that bureaucracy triumphs over good judgment – and even common sense. 


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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