August 2014, Dodger Stadium
The day was balmy with clear blue sky above the stadium, a perfect day for a baseball game. Our seats were about 6 rows behind the dugout between the third base and the home plate. We had great seats, because my four-foot-ten niece is in charge of ordering steel for an auto manufacturer in Los Angeles, and, courtesy of the owner of a large scrap metal dealer, she has an open invitation to sit at his seats in the Dodger Stadium. She had invited me to a late afternoon game against the Chicago Cubs. A baseball game, to me, is about the most boring game I can think of (in the same league as sailboat race, of which Damon Runyon said, “It’s like watching the grass grow1”). It’s hard for me to understand my indifference to baseball. An iconic American game, baseball had become a national game of Japan, and my mother avidly watched the games. Her favorite team was Hiroshima Carp, and she used to say that Japanese players were good enough and could join American teams if they only ate more meat. I guess Ichiro ate a lot of meat. In any case, how could I refuse my niece’s invitation to a Dodger’s game?
Accompanied by cheerful chatter, the seats began to fill with young and not-so-young fans in blue and white baseball caps, white t-shirts with blue lettering, blue t-shirts with white lettering, blue and white banners, all proclaiming their loyalty. Given the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles, I was surprised to see so many shirts with the red lettering of the Cubs scattered around among the crowd. They were fans that know the names of all the players, the stats, the batting orders, pinch hitters and all the strategies and tactics each team might use.
After some flurry of activities on the field and a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, the dual began between the two teams belonging to the tribe of baseball players. Members of another tribe yelled, groaned, swore, booed and hollered depending on where their loyalty lay. The stadium was packed with over fifty thousand people, but it was relatively quiet, unlike at football games; I don’t think much happens in baseball games, but to be fair, things do happen, between long intervals.
Feeling lost, not knowing whether to shout for joy or boo in frustration, I watched a young boy in a white uniform sitting two rows in front making appropriate noises with enthusiasm; smiled at a father explaining the game to his young son; spied an elderly couple in baseball caps marking score sheets; and I ate my hot dog while looking once in a while at the plays on the field. Even though I know the rules of the game and can follow a game, I am an outsider, not a member of the fan tribe that knows or the player tribe that performs. I can’t feel the anticipation, the tension, the joy, the disappointments, even anger, at anything happening on the field. I can’t share in the emotions that bind the players and the fans. I felt left out, like I didn’t belong in the stadium.
Dodgers won, 5 to 2, as the sun turned pink and orange over the stadium on that lovely August evening. Many were happy, my niece especially, being a diehard fan; some were disappointed; I was glad the game was over. But, I did have the best hot dog ever.
Language as Culture: My Sister and I
My sister in Japan and I talk on Skype quite often. Once in a while my husband sits around the living room reading his iPad. When he’s there, he keeps interrupting with,
“What did you say?”
I reply, “You just heard what I said.”
“You switched to Japanese.”
Since my brother-in-law’s understanding of English is also dubious, similar conversation probably occurs on the other end.
I have Japanese friends who came to the United States and have learned English. We converse either in English or in Japanese, but we do not mix them. This is because Japanese is a class-oriented language: Japanese men exchange business cards to establish the hierarchy between them, which informs how they should speak to each other. For women, the husband’s status filters down to the wives; a boss’ wife expects more formal address from a subordinate’s wife. But, in general, language differences among women are subtler and focus more on age differences and teacher/student relationship2. Because of the social structure implicit in how we speak, switching to English introduces confusion in the relationship, so we stick to one language or the other. Between men and women, women have the lower status (surprise, surprise) and must speak humbly to men regardless of rank. In the 1970’s and 80’s when Japanese men used to visit me about my research work in artificial intelligence, I always spoke to them in English. We were then equal. The only problem was that they often did not understand English very well. Nonetheless, I think they also enjoyed the neutered relationship.
Once in a while I try to figure out why I switch from one language to another. My current thinking is: if what I am about to say seems more efficient or more expressive or more nuanced in the other language, then I will switch to that language. For example, ‘amaeteiru’ seems more efficient than ‘behaving like a spoiled child,’ or ‘frankly speaking’ seems easier than ‘sotchoku ni ieba3’ Another thought is that since my sister and I understand the different cultural nuances, we can communicate more fully and clearly by using both languages. More practically, I switch to Japanese when I don’t want my husband to know what I am saying.
Inside and Outside
I have a daughter who is an equestrian and at one time belonged to a polo team. One day she was asked to take care of a Japanese visitor who wanted to go riding. She, in her jeans, t-shirt and a riding helmet, met the young man at a stable. He was wearing a riding helmet, a dark brown riding jacket with a velvet collar, beige leather-patched breech, gloves and riding boots of Italian leather, and a whip. (I imagined his stance resembling one of General Patton’s poses; legs apart, whip in hand, gazing off somewhere.) The young man began to mount the horse, got one boot on the stirrup and with some help, got his other leg over the saddle, and promptly slid off on the other side. As hilarious as I found the story, I also thought, “It’s so typical.”
Belonging to groups is very important to the Japanese. So much so that the groups one belongs to often determines his identity. The love of uniforms among the Japanese is to announce that he belongs to a group, whether that is of golfers or sanitation workers. The young man was announcing that he was an equestrian, no matter that he was a bumbling novice; it was important to him.
The most significant group is the tribe of Japanese. Everyone not Japanese is an outsider, a ‘gaijin’ (written as ‘outside person’). A gaijin can never join the Japanese tribe. Masayoshi Son is the Japanese founder and CEO of SoftBank, an international telecommunications company, a chairman of Sprint (which SoftBank acquired) and in 2013 was named the 45thmost powerful man by Forbes Magazine. Although he was born Japanese, looks Japanese and speaks Japanese, he will forever be a Korean, an outsider, to the Japanese, including me. Membership in the tribe is based solely on lineage.
I was born in Japan as an American with a dual citizenship (much like Ted Cruz with his Canadian citizenship) and have lived in the United States longer than I have lived in Japan. Nonetheless, I am considered a member of the Japanese tribe — once a Japanese, always a Japanese. I consider myself totally American in my outlook, behavior and attitudes; that I am in control of my future, mostly; that I behave in the same manner among different groups of people, most of the time; and that we can always find solutions to problems if we put our minds to it. I have always acted and believed to be on equal terms with men. (I was one of those who preceded the women’s movement.) In a way I had no choice, since I found myself the only woman in many college classes (math and sciences) and in my early career (IBM programmer in the early 1960’s, before there was such a things as computer science). I listen to, and defer to experts in any and all fields, but not to too many others, perhaps a bit of a snob. This is me as a member of the tribe of Americans.
When I pass through a stainless steel counter at the Customs at Narita Airport, most officials speak to me in Japanese and say, “Welcome home;” others speak to me in English, “Welcome to Japan.” I think the confusion among the officials is caused by my body language; I look Japanese, quack like Japanese but don’t waddle like Japanese. Seeing me walking briskly in slacks, looking straight ahead, the officials detect something un-Japanese. What do they see? I am a product of American co-educational colleges and a career dominated by men. So, some probably see an independent, assertive Japanese woman; some see a foreigner. I don’t know if I am happy with those perceptions, but looked in a certain way, they are both right.
Once I cross the Customs barrier, I become Japanese: deferring to men, speaking to people according to their social status, wearing clothes appropriate to my age (drab) and following myriad social behaviors expected of Japanese. My transformation amazes me. It’s as if a switch was turned on without my permission, and I get really annoyed with myself. Why am I letting men go out the door first? Why am I being curt to waitresses? Why are my lunch companions only women?
On the way back, when I pass through the Immigration at Narita, get past the security and am on an airplane for home, the switch is turned off, again, without my permission, and I become an American; unless, of course, I am on a Japanese airline.
— July 17, 2016 Stanford
1. American newspaperman and author Damon Runyon (1880-1946) made famous the “watch grass grow” expression when he wrote at the America’s Cup from Newport in September 1934: “There is nothing more unexciting than watching a yacht race unless, perhaps, it is watching the grass grow.”
2. Having taken classes, such as cooking, flower arrangement, sewing (those that, supposedly, enhance the skills as a housewife), and others, like painting, calligraphy, quilt making (perhaps those that indicate broad interests) are very important. Often, at marriage reception, her accomplishments are announced in the celebration, and husbands often boast their wives skills.
3. My explanation implies that the brain stores a concept in a way that is independent of what that concept is called in different languages. I am sure neuroscientist andlinguists willridicule such an idea. But, I feel as I am walking through a maze of concepts and I pick one that matches what I want, and only then, I look for how that is expressed in one language or the other. Eugene Nida, a linguist known for his theory on translation, had a theory I can relate to, but I don’t think there’s much understanding of what goes on in the brains of bi-lingual people.