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Saturday, March 27, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

On splitting the cultural fairway


Out on the hometown golf links with an old high school chum, I soon ended up in trouble -- for our initial drives found me in ankle deep rough and him sitting pretty on a small rise in the center of the fairway. Before plunging into the weeds, I complimented my friend on his position, and he returned with this tee shot wisdom: "There is no such thing as a perfect lie."

Due to a grammatical error, I at first thought he was referring to sex and not golf. Soon though, I was bewitched by the writer's love of irony, and rather than search ahead for my wayward ball, I instead found myself gazing back at the "perfect" lies I have told myself in my time in Japan.

And here's a lulu. I once claimed that my wife and I would surely raise our children smack in the middle of our two cultures. We would split the fairway with our language, customs and values, and give our kids an even share of respect for both our backgrounds. Our two sons would thus become equal ambassadors of not one but two native lands.

As newlyweds we both swallowed this idealism hook, line and putter. We believed -- like a gung-ho golfer convinced that he can hole out from the distant fringe -- we could somehow pull this off. After all, there were two kids, two of us and two cultures. The numbers lined up nicely. Straight shot. No sweat.

At the time we had no idea how much we were kidding ourselves.

But -- to be fair -- we did not take our eye off the ball. We lived in Japan, yet took frequent trips to the States. With Japanese language all around us, we aimed at English at home. Our sons went to Japanese schools to start and then international schools to finish. We seemed to have a balanced game.

The results? Well, one boy now describes his dual background like this: His cultural mother is Lady Murasaki, while his cultural father is . . . Ronald McDonald.

"That's not true at all," comments my wife. "Why, your Dad is nothing like Ronald McDonald. For one thing, he doesn't have the wardrobe. Nor the hair."

The boy clarifies. America, he intones, is the land of plastic and fast food. It is a civilization of cars, always on the move, often not going anywhere. It is where slogans take the place of ideas, where appearance defeats substance, where truth is tested by the Nielsens and not time. It is obesity and waste of body and sometimes mind. It is a nutritional nightmare marketed as a "happy meal."

Meanwhile, he continues, Japan is different. Japanese culture, he claims, contains much less glitter and far more grit.

"That's not how I look at it," I tell him. "For every Big Mac, I see a Cup Noodle, for every paper plate, I see a disposable chopstick, for every Britney Spears, I see an Ayumi Hamasaki. And so on."

My son agrees . . . to a certain extent. "But," he argues, "Japan has other levels. Does America? If so, they are harder to see."

Now none of this is new. Our two children have routinely disparaged both their parents' native lands. As with most kids, the grass has always seemed greener on the other nine holes, depending on which side they were playing at the time. They have flipped here and flopped there like discriminating fish trying different pools.

Yet this son seems to have tallied his score card. And he has not ended up in the middle.

To his right, his brother is still scribbling in his totals, but the results at present look equally one-sided.

My wife, I can tell, is smugly satisfied with this. While we have not been in competition, she still feels affirmed by her children's leanings.

"Don't worry," she soothes, "I am not going to rub this in your face. Neither am I going to say, 'nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.' I won't even call you Ronald. . . . I'm just going to dance around the room." Which she does with a smile wider than a slicing three-wood on a long par five.

But this doesn't bother me -- not even when she steps on my toes. Nor does it even sting that my children may end up feeling much more at home in their mother's culture than mine. For our sons have reached ages where they can make adult evaluations based on their own experiences.

Besides, I know they cannot wash away their upbringing anymore than can anyone else. They are always going to have their American moments, moments when they will lean back to the culture of their father.

I can only shake my head at the starry-eyed idealism of my own youth, to have at one time thought our kids could equally straddle both lands. I should have known better. For everyone needs a place to plant their feet, and it is OK for even the finest of cultural bridges to be broader at one end.

Back on the links, my wise friend listens and puts it this way:

"Your children have what mine don't -- a choice. My kids view the world from one angle only. It may be a good angle, but it's still limited. They can't always pick out the nicks and cuts on their own upbringing. Yours can. Perhaps it's been hard for them too, but it's still a precious asset, no matter which way they end up turning.

He then offers to let me kick out from the weeds and hit my shot from the short grass.

"No thanks," I tell him.

For when you live between two cultures, you grow accustomed to playing from the rough. It happens all the time.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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