In the Frontline film, American Game, Japanese Rules the viewer is confronted with how fundamentally different cultures can be, and how what appears to be the same on the surface is often underlain by entirely different sets of rules. Case in point? The strike zone in Japanese baseball expands in response to the increasing strength and ability of an individual batter. What an American would consider to be unfair—the changing size of the strike zone—is perceived to be only fair under Japanese rules—the creation of a more even field of play. The result is a high level of disorientation and frustration on the part of American baseball players who join Japanese teams.
Rules on how the world is supposed to operate become embedded into our entire being from the time we are born. An ability to shift across cultures is a unique gift that few possess. As a colleague recently said to me, of her time living in China, “Reading about culture does not make you able to make those deep shifts.”
Another element in the film above, is a conversation between the film-maker and Japanese middle managers. They are out eating and drinking late at night after a typical long day at work and the film-maker asks: “How many days of vacation do you take each year with your family?” Silence follows. Finally the businessmen begin to say how interesting it is to be asked this question. Nobody has ever asked this question before. An outsider arrives and asks a question, and that question alone creates disorientation and culture-shift.
I recently asked a group of individuals around a dinner table about the cross-cultural encounters that most changed them. I was thinking of my younger daughter when I asked the question. On our way home from 4 months in New Zealand, I virtually saw her shift from seeing the world centered on herself, to seeing the world from above, with its great variety and inter-relationships apart from herself.What followed my question were amazing stories. Some stories were about going to another culture. One person, a bit like my daughter, all of a sudden saw that the world was bigger than herself and that it wasn’t made up of English-speakers. Another, in a visit to Honduras, was changed through trying to reconcile both his life of comfort and Honduran poverty, and the joy and richness of their lives with their lack of material wealth. Likewise one around the table had gone to Ethiopia, only to have their local hosts take them for ice cream at a Sheraton Hotel because they were so proud of its being there.
The other stories were about outsiders visiting them. One of my earliest memories falls into this category. I must have been 3 years old when we had a visit from a minister from Nagaland to our church in rural Iowa. He told me about his ten children, the games they played, and how his grandfather had been a head hunter. My world was expanded and I can still picture him sitting in a chair while he talked with me. The stories from amongst our group—of visitors from the outside—came from two individuals who grew up in Hong Kong. One talked about meeting an Australian couple who came to meet her at her school because they were paying her way through secondary school. Strangers from a far off place—another planet—who changed the direction of a life, a life shift of enormous magnitude as a young woman tried to imagine why these people from so far away had done this. Another talked about taking English at the YMCA in Hong Kong when he was in high school and having a young man from the University of Iowa as a teacher. He was so amazed that someone would come so far and from so far away (where was Iowa anyway?) to teach English, and with such passion, while living on the building rooftop where he had to share a common toilet with others.
“How many days of vacation do you take each year with your family?” An outsider arrives, asks a question, or stretches our imagination just by their very presence, and changes our lives and worlds forever.