Living in Japan is living in a thought experiment.
What if you could take away the institutional cues from your environment – your idea of a hospital vs a clinic, for example; the idea of what policemen do, or the role of teachers. Strip away the idea of how you achieve wealth and success. Next, remove and rearrange social cues: The train becomes a quiet place for resting. Your superiors are the people older than you, not necessarily the hardest working or most qualified.
Because the institutions have changed, so have the people around you. Society is organized differently, so accomplishment requires a different set of skills. Different definitions of accomplishment lead to different tactics for reaching goals. The culture praises traits that help them meet that different set of goals; they don’t value the traits that helped you achieve goals back home.
In fact, many of your positive traits will become incomprehensible. I was born in a culture that values efficiency. I came into a culture that values perseverance. Long attention spans are praised here, patience is expected. I’m lazy and scatterbrained. It doesn’t help.
So what else happens? How do you start reacting to this new environment?
Monkeys Eat Corn
Perhaps it’s a bad sign that after reading about monkeys, my mind wandered to my life as an expat. But a recent study, published in April in the journal Science (and a NY Times story here) made me think about social adaptation.
In the experiment, researchers dyed two batches of corn – one pink, one blue. For two groups of monkeys, the blue corn was soaked in a disgusting liquid, and the pink stuff was standard monkey corn. For the other groups of monkeys, they switched it.
So, two groups of monkeys grew accustomed to pink being inedible, two grew accustomed to blue being inedible. Soon enough, the monkeys only ate one color of corn (the delicious one).
Then the scientists stopped making the other color taste so bad. Once the monkeys got used to which color was good, they both ended up being the same. What happened was interesting: High-status monkeys never bothered eating the gross-colored corn, but low-status monkeys occasionally had to. And even though these low-status monkeys knew that the corn was identical to the good stuff (identical, now, aside from the color), they still favored the “good” color when they could get it. Meanwhile, babies who grew up watching mom eat one color of corn barely even registered that the other color of corn was even food. They’d shit in it.
Monkeys shitting in food have a lot in common with me, as an expat. I’m not always down on my life, of course, but anyone in one culture can get accustomed to interacting with certain things in certain ways. It’s a given: The institutions shape how we interact with them, and then that shapes how we interact with each other. Sometimes this institution is a school or job hunt, and sometimes it’s the people giving us corn.
But then the researchers did something really cool. They took some monkeys and introduced them to the monkeys in other areas – areas where the opposite color of corn was “the good stuff.”
Wild Vervet monkeys, trained to eat only pink-dyed or blue-dyed corn and shun the other color, quickly began eating the disliked-color corn when they moved from a pink-preferred setting to a blue-is-best place, and vice versa.
These guys went in, looked around, and lost their old cultural identities. This is, at a literally primal level, a version of culture shock. Humans, lucky us, have a much more complicated set of adaptations to deal with. We don’t just want to eat some corn, we want our identities validated.
The different ways things are done in a different culture causes people to value different things and to express them differently — to the demands of different environments and institutions. So while in America I’m praised for my directness and efficiency, in Japan, that stuff just isn’t as valuable. And stripped of the stuff I’ve always thought I was good at, I start to panic. It’s like I’m a vervet who was really good at finding pink corn scattered across the brush, and now here I am, being told that everyone wants the blue stuff.
Some of the youngins don’t even know you can eat the pink stuff! The imaginative capacity of the people around you is built around fundamental assumptions reinforced by institutional arrangements. The head boss wants blue, so blue’s valuable.
You enter school and must adapt to the school; you enter work and must adapt to the office. Your parents worked in a particular way, so you expect your children to work that way. Even when you leave these environments, a lot of the adaptations stick around.
We’re often forced, through lack of imagination, into applying our background in one place to a new place where our ways of doing stuff may not actually work or be wanted. It’s what every human being does, everywhere, when confronted with the unexplainable: You try to relate to it using what you know.
You’re expected to show up to work 10 minutes before the work day so you can sit in your desk and wait for the bell that starts your work day. It sounds insane, but you do it, because that is what your job values. Before long, even though you know it’s ridiculous, you might find yourself feeling slightly resentful of anyone who comes into work after you – even when they’re still early. You start watching, observing, and then adopting the culture.
Which might be fine and good. Except that it might also, eventually, spark an identity crisis.
One of the really nice things about humans is that we are children for a really, really long time. That means we get the benefits of safely playing in the world before embarking on it “for real.”
In another article from the NYTimes, I came across this quote:
Kittens may pretend to be cats fighting, but they will not pretend to be children; children, by contrast, will readily pretend to be cats or kittens.
The article suggests that human evolution has been driven by this kind of imaginative capacity amongst children, because it prepares us not only for the tasks that we will, inevitably, set out to do, but also prepares us for a wide range of wildly abstract tasks that we may never need to solve.
Imagination as adults molds itself to the problems that need solving. When adult imagination is applied to a problem that doesn’t need solving, we just end up calling it art.
Children explore the world through playful imagination, says Dr. Alison Gopnik, a UC Berkeley professor who studies play. Adults, on the other hand, exploit it:
To exploit, one leans heavily on lessons (and often unconscious rules) learned earlier — so-called prior biases. These biases are useful to adults because they save time and reduce error: By going to the restaurant you know is good, instead of the new place across town, you increase the chance that you’ll enjoy the evening. Most adults are slow to set such biases aside; young children fling them away like bad fruit.
Or pink (or blue) corn, as it were. And while this kind of mental shorthand in adults may prepare a Roman for a pleasant night in Rome, the same knowledge is useless in Kathmandu. A kid might find himself having a better dinner – because they won’t rely so heavily on what they think they know.
How to Climb a Mountain
So the thought experiment: Placed into a new culture, with new demands that reward new traits, how do you decide your definition of you, and what part of you is your imagination that’s been molded to the institutions you grew up in? With these institutions gone, how much of you do you know is really you? How do you decide what habits to cull and which to hold on to?
Adaptation eases the social pressure, of course, but the endless series of social and professional expectations can have a draining effect on the agency and free will that most Americans call their “selves.” It’s an identity crisis! I, for one, began to resent the endless stream of unexplained changes I was starting to make.
Initially I embraced adaptation, priding myself on not walking while drinking soda, then finding myself panicking, too far on the other side of the line, when I’d realized how miserable I was feeling under the weight of thousands of daily compromises. I slowly climbed back to myself, but always careful to stay within the boundaries of my adopted culture.
Fundamentally, of course, showing up to work early; never expressing my objections to decisions of superiors; asking the permission of multiple people to do simple tasks, such as going to the bank on my lunch break; submitting my holiday itinerary to the evaluation of office managers, etc – these are not expressions of my “true spirit or nature,” nor are they intended to be humiliating.
They’re merely a conflict between what my home institutions have taught me is valuable – free agency, independence, critical thinking – and what my new institutions feel are valuable – group-orientation, respect to hierarchy, selflessness. The tension between these cultures manifests in the constant batting down of your personal expression. In America, this expression is what makes you yourself.
One’s true self, though, probably isn’t found by shuffling between the conflicting expectations of the institutions you were born in and the ones you work under.
Even the rebellions are shaped by the institutions. When I took a trip to Korea, I was tired of the rigamarole of seeking permission for international travel. Instead of submitting my itinerary, I submitted a vacation plan that listed five days in a city 20 minutes away and submitted it to my school. They had no idea why I would be staying 20 minutes away for five days but stamped their approval.
I saw it as striking a major blow of victory for my independence of spirit. An insurrection against paperwork and bureaucracy. Nobody tells me what to do!
That rebellion, of course, was shaped by the institution I rebelled against. So, was it really me?
Cantankerous independence is on that national checklist of American traits, after all. It’s unlikely that I would have found myself taking pride in fudging the truth on a piece of paperwork in any other context.
This is the deeper level of the thought experiment. You’re in this new society and you are bringing habits from the old, and you are tasked with finding “yourself,” theoretically, something that exists independent of those two extremes. Some celebrate their home culture, or find pride in their nationality for the first time; Texans start carrying around rodeo lassos, Englishmen start wearing bowler hats.
There’s no shame in this, of course. Stepping outside of your culture can reveal it from a distance, giving you insight into what makes your culture unique. Once you expand your imaginative capacity to a new set of problems abroad, you can start appreciating the elegance of the solutions at home.
But where are you?
In the Salad
To answer this question we have to go back to an idea I mentioned earlier: When imagination is applied to a problem that doesn’t need solving, you end up with art.
Art may be too loaded a word. Watch kids in a park, they’re doing the same thing. Hanging out, making stuff to do, inventing games, applying all sorts of unproductive imagination. Art and play are the raw manifestations of ourselves, often, though not always, free of the constraints of the institutions we’re supported by.
Art and play have rules, but they’re just contained to make sure we enjoy the game. We can enjoy leisure because the intention is only the pleasure of being ourselves. We invent ways to kill time.
Of course, institutions are man-made. We invented them to solve collective problems and societies organized themselves around the best ideas.
Expats – even those who travel for a short time – are required to expand their imaginative capacity, because they are required to navigate an entirely new set of institutional constraints. If we apply ourselves to imagining new solutions, we’re expanding our ideas about what is possible.
Rather than become constrained to the social or institutional conventions of home, and rather than rebelling against them, we can invent our own possibilities, interpretations, solutions and work-arounds, shift our definitions of what we value and what we don’t.
We don’t have to define ourselves by reactions to everything – especially when we’re stuck helplessly applying our old ways of working to a new situation. We can tap on our inner capacity for invention. We can approach it as helpless children, or we can embrace it – as helpless children.
Perhaps it is clumsy and stressful, and easier to tweak our existing recipes to work for a new palate. But there is a lot to be said for finding a “third way” aside from rebelling and acquiescing You can build your own alternative, try to see things from a new set of eyes, play around as you try to figure out what works.
Make it Up
A lot of my time here was spent worrying that I was meeting the wrong set of expectations. Now that I’m leaving, I’ve realized: It doesn’t actually matter. It is nice to overachieve here, after starting with so many disadvantages, but no one is going to notice anyway.
Taken as a game – as a form of play, or even a creative process – this invention of ourselves requires an openness to extreme uncertainty. That’s hard. Anxiety will rise naturally from any search for resolution and certainty. The trick is letting go of that need. I always imagined that the stakes in Japan were really high, that this uncertainty could be eradicated through “knowing.” This is perfectly healthy – it inspired me to learn the language, study the customs, etc. But knowing only took me so far.
If it’s a game – if we’re playing at this – then not knowing isn’t so bad. Uncertainty isn’t a failure to adapt. It just means there’s no routine yet – that we’ve stumbled into a gap between what we thought we should do in our “real life” and the unknown expectations of our new life. Uncertainty doesn’t always have to be a failure; it’s an invitation to invent a new routine.
Maybe it means becoming more tolerant or accepting. Maybe it means saying “yes” more often, or “no.” You can make the game, simply, to stop freaking out about the uncertainty. Don’t worry if you slip up; it’s just a game, the rules are being made up, and nothing serious is at stake. You aren’t going to go crazy, it just feels that way. Let go of certainty, and you’ll be fine.
When imagination is applied to a problem that doesn’t need solving, you end up inventing yourself.
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