The Art of the Unsatisfying Reply

I guess this will be the 3rd on a series on racism and microaggression in Japan.

I’ve become pretty skilled at answering problematic or microaggressive questions in ways that open doors to bigger, bridge-building conversations or at least leave me happy that I didn’t reinforce someone’s parochial worldview.  I might do this when I see the parochial worldview being evidenced as harmful to me or others like me (“Do foreigners eat cake every day?”), or harmful to the person speaking (usually because it reinforces a negative stereotype about a group that the person is in, a la “Japanese can’t learn languages”), or just because I find it annoying in an indignant enough way that I want to make a strategic response rather than just end the conversation.

By the way, when asked by students, the best definition of “indignant” I’ve been able to give is “the kind of angry that you use to build your identity”.

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 9.06.17 AM.png
I often tell students to look up words on Google Image Search (Safesarch on, of course), but these give no clue as to the edifying joy that comes with indignance.

If you want to see the opposite, a seasoned professional at validating ignorant worldviews without technically lying, watch any interview with “foreign talents” on network TV.  Because these people are well known, and the memeplexes that their utterances support are Kyoto Station-like unignorable eyesores of the cultural landscape, people may speak to even non-professional foreigners like yourself expecting a stereotyped interaction along the lines of:

“Sushi is almost as popular overseas as being loud and having big noses!”

That is, an answer that recognizes and reinforces the same fundamental divisions between this and that, here and there, what is noteworthy and what is not worthy as in the asker’s worldview.  The skilled “foreign talent” knows that this type of question is really just a tap on the red button in the ideological Skinner Box and spits out a treat processed to taste like factual information – like when I saw Daniel Kahl expound his theory that Japanese education is superior because it takes Americans 12 years to learn only 26 letters.  Dispensing Pez like this is a way of making a decent living, although apparently wears down your ability to reason without reference to national stereotypes.

The unsatisfying answer, on the other hand, does not respect the asker’s way of viewing the world or accept even the integrity of the building blocks that make up its propositions.  In Japan, the egg-bloated mother dichotomy that gives birth to legions of worker and soldier dichotomies is Japan vs. Foreign Country (because of the way nouns work in Japanese, it’s unclear whether people believe gaikoku is one foreign country or many – the tendency to call people “a foreigner from Brazil” rather than simply “a Brazilian” is a point for the former).  An unsatisfying answer to a microaggressive question doesn’t just correct the factual content of the premise while respecting its terms, a la “Actually Singapore is safer than Japan in that it has a lower murder rate, and most of Europe has fewer fatal car accidents”, but challenges the definition of Japan or safe.   These are some ways of doing that.

Subsume their dichotomy into another dichotomy

“Yes, I think Japanese anime is popular in foreign countries, because we’re in a foreign, non-Spanish country now and it seems very popular here.”  This is fun, but not very educational because it takes a very empathetic person to see their ignorance mirrored and learn from that.  The expressions people make when you repeat a national myth to them, changing only the names (“Only Canadians really understand the 4 seasons”), can be interesting too.

A related school of argument, and a very easy one given Japanese history, is to tie everything back to China – tofu, chopsticks, bowing, the seasons (they have kanji after all), vertically-aligned society and of course rice.  This will satisfy you and possibly any Chinese people within earshot but vastly disappoint your questioner, probably not in an enlightening way.  And if you want to be intellectually honest you have to historicize the concept of “China” as well and point out that the China that is the origin of all these things is not the same country that produced the Great Leap Forward.

Challenge the internal consistency of the dichotomized parts

“Some people showed a lot of support after the big earthquake and some others just dropped some spare change in a jar at the register at MaxValue.  I was happy to see (Korean-Japanese businessman) Son-san donate so much to reconstruction” Really, deconstructing received categories is something every educated person should always do.  In this case, when invited to generalize about Japan or any other country, emphasizing internal differences or examples of people within one population holding the supposedly unique traits of the other are good ways to dismantle the premises of the question without simply disagreeing.  It’s not productive to simply say “Japanese actually seem pretty hostile to nature”, but better (and more accurate) to say that some people actively protect the environment and most others are willing to sacrifice some trees and fish for expedience.  Only the government seems to have visceral contempt for nature.

Turn the dichotomy into a gradient

“There are levels of politeness in English, although it’s not usually taught as part of formal grammar like in Japan.  It’s even stricter in Korea.”  Perhaps this shows the degree to which questions like this get under my skin, but I’ve devoted a lot of time to researching which parts of the earth actually do have rainy seasons, which national languages really are difficult to learn (answer: all of them), which countries consume the most fish and rice (Chile and Bangladesh respectively, last I checked), and other topics on Wikipedia so I can always respond to a question intended to have only two possible answers with a list rich with asterisks and n/as.

But why do I do this?  In the end I think I’m still partly the elitist I was in high school, assuming everyone with different tastes than me just hasn’t heard the same things I have or wasn’t prepared when they did.  I’m basically a Bob Dylan fan for liberal humanism.  When I meet someone I’m full of this unreasonable expectation that they’ll either value the same things I do or be willing to learn.  I guess this is another symptom of having been in eikaiwa for too long, but if I’m being honest it’s also a reason I fell into eikaiwa in the first place.  Hopefully I’ll be able to take this skill off my resumé in the future.

Other Skills
  OOP, HTML, Javascript, JQuery
  Japanese (JLPT N1)
  Condescending non-answering of ignorant questions

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