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Just Like You, Just Like Me


Back when my first daughter was about to be born (over in Vancouver, Canada), her mother and I went through a period where we were quite worried about what this child would look like. As neither of us could be considered particularly handsome, we imagined some nightmarish situations: say, her Japanese mother's fairly flat face, with my somewhat impressive English nose stuck in the middle of it ... things of that sort. We were thus quite relieved when the baby turned out to have what seemed to be fairly 'standard' features (as did the sister who came along a couple of years later).

To my eyes, I was happy to see that this new little child turned out to have an almost completely Japanese appearance. Her mother in turn, was happy to see that this new little child looked almost completely Western! Were we seeing the same baby? Of course we were. It was our own eyes that were different. As the years passed, I came to realize that it was just not her mother and I who saw things this way. Canadians who met my daughter commented on her Japaneseness, and after we came to Japan, everybody here instantly recognized her as a foreigner.

The reason for this seemingly paradoxical behaviour is actually very simple, but has very wide ramifications. Whenever we see something new to us, we only notice the differences, never the similarities. My daughter's very Japanese nose and facial shape were invisible to her Japanese mother, who noticed only the Western eyes. This feature was unnoticed by me, who saw only those points that seemed particularly Japanese.

This same sort of behaviour is also apparent on wider scales. A traveller visiting a foreign country for the first time looks about him in amazement ... the buildings, the people, clothing, the food ... he sees all those things that differ from his home environment. "How very different these people are from us." he thinks. When he returns home, he is full of stories about all the new things he has seen. His friends hear these stories, and their image of that country as "... different from us ..." is thus reinforced.

I can easily understand how, back in the days before airplanes made travel a common part of our lives, and before TV brought foreign images into our homes, this 'selective blindness' of travellers created the general image that foreign lands were indeed all strange places inhabited by strange people. What is less readily understood is why, given these modern aids to contact and communication, nothing seems to have changed.

In the case with which I am most familiar, that of Japan seen by Western eyes, and vice versa, I simply have to think back over my own experiences to see that this is true. Before I had any actual contact with Japan, my knowledge of this country came from books (mostly), the media (somewhat), and travellers to Japan or actual Japanese people (rarely). The 'only see differences' phenomenon came into play in a doubled form. The authors of those books (mostly Westerners) of course emphasized differences, and then I too, as I read, was mostly interested in differences, skimming past anything that seemed too familiar. So when finally, after years of this kind of advance 'preparation', I arrived on these shores, I was quite convinced that I was about to enter a truly new world, where nothing would be familiar, and where all the rules would be different. How would I survive?

Well, of course I did. That was many years ago, and I can now just laugh at those concerns and fears. I had no trouble whatsoever integrating into life here, and becoming a 'normal' productive member of this society. This was possible because although the books were right in basic fact - yes there were differences - they had ignored the other 99% of the story ... people are people. The Japanese were in all essentials, just like me. They got up in the morning, went to the toilet, ate breakfast ... and so on through the day. They had the same desires, the same needs, and the same problems. They felt the same emotions, and the same bonds to the people around them. Maybe that 99% figure I mentioned is indeed a bit exaggerated. On further reflection, I think it should be revised upward!

After all these years of living among the Japanese people, I am now totally convinced that those presumed 'deep' differences are in actual fact, nearly irrelevant. Shoes off/shoes on. Pull tools/push tools. Eat rice/eat potatoes. 'Honne~Tatemae'/'straight talking'. Such differences count for nothing when compared to the reality - two people standing side by side, pretty much identical in biology, and pretty much identical in real 'homo sapiens' culture.

My friend Emiko went to Egypt last year, not as part of a tour package, but as an independent traveller. We asked her before she went if she had been 'reading up' on the country in preparation, but she told us that no, she didn't want to go with her mind full of preconceptions. When she returned, after a couple of weeks in that 'exotic' country, a group of us waited eagerly to hear her tales ... but we were to be disappointed. She didn't have much to tell us. Her host family had been completely 'normal', the father a school teacher, the daughter a college student, etc. She said it was like visiting her own family! Of course, she had a good time visiting famous sights, and eating interesting food, but far and away the most valuable thing she brought home was that even in an apparently very exotic country such as Egypt, where the religion is different, the food is different, and the climate is different - there is one thing that is not different - the people. She learned in just a couple of weeks what took me years to learn, and what many people never learn. People are people. They are you and me.

I know we can't change human nature. We will always tend to see foreign countries in this lop-sided way. It's just the way we are. But it would be nice to think that we can also learn to see other cultures as more like us, and less strange, less threatening. I am waiting for that big day when the astronomers will announce the news that they have finally discovered evidence of other civilizations out there in space somewhere. Perhaps then we will finally start to really understand how much alike we humans all are, when seen in comparison with someone (something?) really different.

But there I go too, falling into the same trap. Who knows, but that those aliens will probably turn out to be pretty much just like us. Father a school-teacher ... Daughter a college student ... Just neighbours in the Milky Way ...