Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Shifting Cultures"

When someone moves into a new (for them) culture, the culture they moved away from ends up slightly (or maybe very?) frozen in place (in the culture-jumper's mind) after a certain number of years have passed.  There are many variations and stages to this however, generally taking some form of overestimating or underestimating changes in your absence.  In my own experience and from what I've observed, it's something like this:

If you go somewhere on vacation, you (reasonably) expect things at home to basically stay the same.  Naturally, you realize that minor events occur in your absence, and you may wonder "What happened while I was gone?", when you come back, but basically you expect the change to center around yourself.  You have a heightened feeling of having done something out of the ordinary, and so you feel changed, and questions from friends regarding the trip are welcome, as are any comments that you've changed in some way due to the experience.  You went away for a couple of weeks specifically for change after all (change of scenery, change of pace, etc).

The next step is you go somewhere on business or whatever for - say - two or three years.  This time around, you expect there to be some fundamental changes back home when you return after your extended stay overseas.  But then you go back, and things are amazingly the same.  And it's from this experience that you begin to think that things just don't change that much - no matter how many years have gone by.  (Naturally, there are periods of rapid and radical change in one area or another, but generally this kind of very obvious change hasn't happened.)

Taking it further - you live overseas for ten years, and this time, on the eve of your departure to the old country, you think "Ten years!  A decade!! - I'll probably feel like Rip Van Winkle...".  And you might, but in my case, I went back and was very surprised to find that - culturally - it seemed very much as I had left it.  It was a short trip, so maybe things had changed more than I perceived, but in a broad sense, the culture felt the same.  I, on the other hand, was surprised at how vividly memories from before came back, and how the pre-trip me contrasted with the post-trip me.  (On the other hand, could that just be the effect of time - of getting older?)

And so you kind of abandon the Rip Van Winkle concept and just kind of decide that, while there are detail changes, fundamentally, the culture stays the same.  But... it doesn't!

Actually, I've had two time-related culture shocks in my life (aside from the first shock of realization of just how radically different of a culture I moved to when I first came to Japan):

The first culture/time-shock I remember very clearly.  I hadn't been to Shibuya for a few years, so when I had business in the area, I walked around for old times' sake and looked at the areas I used to spend time in there.  As I walked down the streets, I wasn't picking up the area broadcasts you normally pick up when you go somewhere familiar, so I started looking around intently - trying to figure out what was wrong.  What I figured out that day, and it really was a shock - more of a shock than the ocean-jumping culture shock I had when moving to a new culture (which was expected after all) - was that the young people around me were radically different from the young people I remembered from the Shibuya of a certain number of years before (ten?/fifteen?/twenty?).  It continued to feel like an unresolved mystery, so I returned to Shibuya to look around again.

I think I returned on observation trips two or three times, and something really obvious, but nevertheless profound (and/or mundane, depending on how you look at it) began to come into clear sight.  The young people (including myself) that I shared the streets of Shibuya with a generation(!) before, were not only no longer young, they weren't there!  The vast majority of them would still be alive of course, but they weren't hanging out on the streets of Shibuya.  So as the reality of the situation became clearer, I stopped and looked around and thought: "There it is!  Of *course* things are different!  This is a whole different/new set of human beings!"  Thinking back on it now, I wonder how it would be if you could pick a day from the past, say Friday, August 14th, 1987, and then have all the same people who were on the streets of Shibuya then reassemble on the 2013 streets of Shibuya on a Friday in August.  Instead of a sea of 1987 young people, you'd have a sea of 2013 middle-aged people, but they'd be the *same* people who were there before, so I wonder what the area broadcasts would be?

Anyway, now on to the second culture/time-shock.  This one also happened in Tokyo, but happened when I was suddenly thrust in with a group of young (with one exception) Americans who I worked with on a one-day job.  This was a similar surprise to the time I expected to tune in to familiar frequencies in Shibuya, but a little more surprising since I went into it fully expecting to feel comfortable with the group, but they - like the batch of humans in Shibuya - were a new batch of humans from the US, and - like Shibuya - they were not the same (of course, but hey...) as the young people I knew when I was young in the US.

The concept that the young people you find yourself interacting with were not even on planet Earth when you were their age, is a shocking thing to comprehend.  In some respects, you may as well have rocketed off to another inhabited planet and met a whole new group of people there.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

No comments: