Relationships and Cultural Exchange

Members of my Japanese class at Nanzan University

I've been living in Asia for almost six years now, but I have only recently begun thinking about the idea of "cultural exchange"-- mostly thanks to one of my brilliant student/friends from the study abroad program I worked on this fall who often spoke to me about cultural exchange and its challenges.

"For cultural exchange to work," he said one time to me, "Both sides have to want an actual exchange."

This might seem like an obvious statement, but its implications are important. When my student said this, he was referring to the experience of being a foreigner in Japan studying Japanese culture and religion. Japan was a "closed country" for centuries-- meaning foreigners were not allowed to enter, just as Japanese were not allowed to leave-- and though this changed over a century ago, Japan remains fairly isolated and racially monolithic. Western countries have a fascination with Japan, and there are lots of tourists who come here. But while there are many tourist bureaus and study abroad programs, the relationships that form in these situations between Japanese and non-Japanese are usually of teacher and student, or "gracious host" and "grateful guest." Very, very rarely, does an actually exchange among equals take place. In my opinion, there is a huge difference between a host/guest relationship and actual, mutual friendship. This isn't to say the blame is all on Japan, because when we show up as tourists or even students of a foreign country's culture we are looking to gain a certain kind of thing, to extract a certain special kind of experience for ourselves. And similarly, the host/guest relationship can be a beautiful, unique thing, as it is in the tea ceremony, but it's different than an exchange between equals.

In cultural exchange, both sides have to want to be there. True cultural exchange is rare because, like my student pointed out, both parties have to be willing and self-aware enough from the beginning to actively seek out this exchange. The kind of self-awareness necessary for cultural change is the awareness of oneself as a unique human being conditioned and shaped by karma, culture, language, history, biology, and personal experience. One of the beautiful things about Buddhism is that it recognizes we are united in our universal desire to be happy and avoid suffering. However, our unique karma, culture and history shapes how we view the world, how we react, what we value, and even what we like and dislike. A brief perusal of world news gives clear examples of how incredibly difficult it is for people and cultures to communicate across this divide.

Since humans are nothing without culture-- and by culture I mean not only the art and customs of our unique communities, but also the values and privileges that shape our experience-- acknowledging who we are, our identities, and how we have been shaped by our culture has to be the first step in inter-cultural exchange. For example, in conversations about race in America, usually the first thing that happens is getting white people to acknowledge that they are in fact white, and then from that, coming to an acknowledgement of white privilege. Without an acknowledgement of race, there can't be a conversation about it.

Most expats who live in Japan will tell you that it is very difficult to form meaningful, lasting friendships with Japanese people. It's so infamously difficult, in fact, that we devoted an entire class period to discussing "How to Make Japanese Friends" in my Japanese language class. We brainstormed ideas and came up with a short list including things like "learn Japanese," "acknowledge personal space," "don't say your opinion too strongly," and my personal favorite, "wait a long time."

In my experience, forming good relationships with Japanese people-- or any people from outside my own culture-- does include giving up, at least temporarily, huge parts of myself that I deem essential. For example, to form good relationships in the monastery where I lived, I had to constantly restrain myself from saying my opinion or speaking out against practices I thought were unfair. Expression of personal views and preferences has an entirely different connotation in Japan, and to get along with other people I had to be hyper-aware of my own natural tendency to want to "be honest" and "speak my truth," which is usually viewed as arrogance or lack of tact in Japan.

Still, I can learn Japanese, be polite, and silence my personal opinion till the cows come home, but unless the other side wants cultural exchange, it's not going to happen. Most of the Japanese people here who I have long-lasting relationships with are those who have traveled outside of Japan-- who have lived and studied abroad or who have a deep interest in the English language and Western culture. Not surprisingly, they are often people who have a (negative) reputation for being "interested in foreigners." But there is an interest, commitment, and willingness on their part to show up for Westerners and communicate across the divide, with self-awareness. This is pretty rare.

It's very difficult to have a meaningful, mutual friendship-- i.e a cultural exchange-- with a Japanese person who does understand what it means to be Japanese. I think this is true not just of Japanese people but with all people, myself included. I did not understand what it meant to be an American until I left America, and similarly, I've found that Japanese people who can articulate Japanese culture to Westerners are those who have spent a considerable amount of time away from Japan. They know who they are and so they know who I am.

I'm writing here about culture, but of course when I say "culture," I really mean "people." Human beings are culture. So when I'm writing about "cross-cultural exchange" in a literal sense, as in dialogue between countries, I'm also writing about the relationships we have with people within our own communities. Any meaningful relationship between two people is going to have to entail mutual willingness and commitment, as well as the ability to give up certain long-held ideas about who we are and our own, unique importance.

I fell in love for the first time my sophomore year of college, right when I was beginning to practice Buddhism. Looking back on that time, my heart goes out to all of the nineteen year old girls in love with boys their age, because I'm pretty sure theres no male less equipped at being in love than a teenage boy who has just left his parent's home for the first time. Needless to say, I was madly in love with a boy who had no idea what to do with my love-- how to reciprocate or deal with my emotions in a responsible way. At the apex of my one-sided love affair with this well-meaning but utterly hapless nineteen year old boy, I went to a dharma talk by Ethan Nichtern (who apparently has blown up recently as a famous teacher, but who at the time was I think twenty-five or six and did shots with us in the kitchen while showing off his tattoo. He was pretty cool).

I asked Ethan Nichtern a question about generosity. I can't remember the question exactly, but it was about how to know when you are giving or trying too much. I framed it in the context of Buddhist practice but of course I was also thinking of my romantic relationship. He said, "Sometimes people are not capable of receiving the generosity we give them."

Those words worked magic on me because they framed the problem as a lack of capacity, not a moral failing. Sometimes other people simply do not have the capacity to meet us where we are or see us for who we are (or would like to be seen). Sometimes they simply do not have the interest. Recently, as I reflect on my time in Asia as a Westerner attempting to learn Japanese language, culture, and religion, I've realized that actually I have given up on seeking out friendships with Japanese people in the way I used to. What I mean is that I am tired of trying to force some kind of exchange, assimilation, or understanding where there cannot be any. I am done trying to seek out friendships with people who will only ever see me as their "American friend," rather than as their friend. I have stopped seeking out Japanese friends because deep down I know that a lack of my personal willingness and enthusiasm on my part is usually not the problem. I have willingness; others usually do not.

And yet, even though I have given up, I am also committed 100% to showing up for communication and connection if it's there. I promise myself that I will always show up to do the work, self-reflection, communication, learning and yes, self-sacrifice and renunciation of culturally conditioned values and ideas, to make meaningful cultural exchange happen. I have simultaneously given up and remain eternally optimistic. I will always take that step forward across the divide, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly-- if and when the other side does too.


  1. Not so fast, Ms. Greenwood!

    I know, I'm not the one who has spent the last half-decade immersed in Zen and Japanese culture, but I have had the experience of losing a friend because I hesitated. The hardest thing is to move beyond doubt, out of context; as near as I can figure, this happens when I extend compassion beyond the walls, and allow the wind that reaches everywhere to be the long or short of breath.

    I have to find a rhythm, to move beyond doubt as a matter of course. I feel that I have made progress, by recognizing my activity is about subtle pressure in the fluid ball of the abdomen, as I comprehend the long and short of inhalation and exhalation.

    I hope that I can avoid losing another friend.

  2. I found during 7 years in Tokyo that the more unentertaining I was (I find this quite easy) the more I was treated pretty normally and although I didn't make lots of friends, the ones I did were good and based on stuff we had in common rather than me being a weirdo from abroad...I remember an old lady saying, "He's quiet for a foreigner! Is he OK?"
    So I'm with you, I think, in giving up without giving in.


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