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June 29, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Living in Japan cures geographic myopia

With friends on a visit to New York City

(June 11, 1992)

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the famous illustration by the artist Saul Steinberg that appeared on the cover of the New Yorker magazine some years ago.

The illustration was a map showing a New Yorker’s view of the world as he or she looked west:  9th and 10th Avenues and the Hudson River took up fully two-thirds of the picture, then came New Jersey. Beyond New Jersey, in a memorable distortion of geographic fact, a vague vastness represented Nebraska, California and the Pacific Ocean. Insignificantly, at the edge of the picture, were the former Soviet Union, China and Japan.

Myopia is the name of the disease that accounts for this perspective, and at one time New Yorkers seemed particularly susceptible. “The city”, Manhattan, was where New Yorkers lived. And if you lived in any of the other four boroughs you were from out of town. (I hear Brooklyn is now acceptable.) You definitely could not call yourself a New Yorker just because you lived in New York state – forget it.

For my husband, who grew up downtown in Greenwich Village, a visit to the streets above 59th was akin to going abroad, and street numbers with three digits constituted a wilderness.

I managed to venture from my uptown New York City (three-digit) block, and as chance would have it, I lived on the tiny island of Langeland in the south of Denmark before I had even been west of Pennsylvania. I’ve traveled overland in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but have never been in Indiana or Alabama. Paris is familiar territory but Phoenix is unknown. Stockholm is one of my old stomping grounds, but I’m still waiting to visit Seattle.

These days I’ve come to realize that one of the pluses, an overlooked bonus of living abroad, is getting to know those people who you wouldn’t know ordinarily, compatriots from such strange and unfamiliar places as Kansas and Texas and Arkansas. Before I came to Japan I’d never met anyone from Iowa or Minnesota. Oregon and Montana were just names of states. Idaho was where potatoes came from, and South Carolina was known for rice.

The last place my husband and I lived in the United States before coming to Japan in 1975 was a small town (pop. 900) in central Vermont. The town was practically settled by “back to the land” types, and many of the town’s residents worked for the local small liberal arts college that represented the only industry around.

Our friends and neighbors were writers and poets, carpenters and cabinetmakers. There were several potters and weavers among them, some dancers and musicians. We were all “varying degrees of hip” as a friend (from Nevada) summed it up. There was not a lawyer or businessperson in sight.

We agreed on most things – you know, all the vitally important stuff: brown rice, no sugar, wooden toys, and no polyester. Consensus came easy and political talk was unnecessary – we were on the same side.

Now in Japan, our American friends and acquaintances cover a pretty broad spectrum: physicists, chemists, missionaries, translators, entrepreneurs, and media consultants. I’m glad to know these people, and have found knowing them has enriched my life. But it’s clear the concentric circles we moved in when we lived in our own country, probably would not have brought up together.

Considering we’re from the same country and go by the same common appellation “American” – culturally we can be as different as people from opposite sides of the globe.

We don’t think alike about most things, and nowhere do we diverge more than when it comes to politics. At times it seems wise and even prudent to steer the conversation away from talk of economic policies, military build-up, and social welfare programs. But well, it comes up – and we manage to disagree – and stay friends.

I guess it’s good to remember, especially, in this American presidential election year, friends don’t always have to agree.

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POSTSCRIPT

I have now been to Indiana and Alabama — having been invited to lecture in both places.

In Indiana, I gave guest lectures at Earlham College, renowned for its Japanese Studies program.  And I was invited to speak at the Japan-America Society of Alabama, where I was also interviewed on the radio.  It was the first time for me to visit the South. I received a very warm welcome, and a highlight was visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham.

Brooklyn is definitely on the map – and if you could find a place there now, you’d be happy. There are only a lucky few who manage to find reasonable and affordable housing in Manhattan anymore. That borough is now, essentially, a preserve of the wealthy.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. 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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