Responses to Strangeness

We all respond to strangeness or foreignness in different ways. Below are some personal stories of how my family has responded to strangeness.

My Parents Visit Japan

My parents had the exact opposite temperaments in many ways.  My dad was a party-animal, fraternity-boy from a big city who became a salesman. My mom was a quiet country girl who became a school teacher.  Being divorced, they each came and visited me separately during my time in Japan.  And both had very different responses to the foreignness of Japan.

My father was often angry and frustrated with Japan.  He didn’t understand why more Japanese people didn’t speak English.  He wanted his coffee served the same way it was back in Ohio.  He resisted taking his shoes off when entering a home.  Japan barely touched my dad — he wouldn’t let it.

My mother visited the year after my father.  She arrived at the airport all smiles and excited.  But the next morning, after our first day, I woke up to find that she had been up for a few hours crying alone in my ‘living room’.  She said she was scared.  She sobbed saying she did not understand the language, the money, or the signs and she felt she stood out and looked awkward.  I realized I had thrown her into the foreignness too quickly.  So I sat and taught her the money, taught her a few words, drew a little map of my neighborhood and we set out for 1/2 hour of shopping.  After little outings like this, within 3 days I could send her out to buy our tofu and vegetables on her own.  After that we went on long trips and had great experiences.  My mother was ecstatically happy and loved Japan and my Japanese friends loved her.

One parent kept strangeness always at a far distance, the other let it affect her deeply and personally.  I am like my mother, I love new cultures, but fortunately I don’t have one ounce of the sad reflex when confronted by the unusual.

My Son in NYC

One summer, when my son was only 7 years-old, he and I did a day trip to New York City.  He loved running in Central Park, staring up at skyscrapers and chasing pigeons.  For lunch we went to Chinatown.  The world changed.  I spoke some Chinese to store owners, we ate very unique food in a restaurant with almost only Chinese clients.  My son started to cry during the meal. “What’s wrong?” I inquired, expecting him to love these new experiences.  He said he was sad that he could not understand the language and felt lost.  So after the meal we walked 3 blocks and left the Chinese behind.  His mood picked up right away.   He is now 11 years-old and loves new, strange experiences, but I remember, like my mom, I did not pay attention to slow introductions.

Questions to Readers:  Tell me a short story to illustrate how you have observed response-to-strangeness in your life?  Put it on your blog and link here if you want — or just leave a nice long comment.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Responses to Strangeness

  1. Rowan

    I would say your parents had the same reaction: Both felt extremely uncomfortable & insecure about being in a strange environment. Men typically respond with anger, women with crying, so women get the sympathy, men get isolated. Would you expect to find your Dad crying? You seemed willing to help your Mother take the baby steps necessary to get enculturated. Maybe your Father could’ve benefited from the same approach.

  2. @ Rowan :
    Very good point and I had thought about addressing that. I actually took many baby steps to help my father: language stuff, trips to place that looked more like Ohio and many more. I think you are right. They had the same reaction. But to further complicate the strike-out vs. strike-in reflex, my father’s pride kept him from letting go and enjoying. He might have been able to do it if he had been stripped of his securities back home and stuck in Japan longer.
    But your point is VERY well taken!

  3. I think there’s something about hearing a foreign language when you’re not used to it that’s especially disconcerting (also possibly because of the general evolved fear of the outgroup).

    I remember as a young child in Moscow I saw two people coming up the stairs of a building I was in and they weren’t speaking Russian (which was probably the first time I heard another language) and also I think they were black (again a first encounter) and I was frightened out of my wits. I think it was that it felt like they were talking about me and possibly planning to do something bad to me.

    Living in a monoculture probably makes it a lot worse since those impulses may get ingrained.

  4. Jen

    Engaging Sunday blog project. Thanks for the sharing your perspectives and thanks for the challenge.

  5. i think early in my youth, i responded much like your dad. then in college, there was a big sea-change for me, and i responded more like your mother sans sadness. a trip to Germany, Austria, and Prague was really eye opening for me. i wrote a poem that went something like this:
    I walk down ancient streets, sit in cafes that are older than my own country.
    I sip tea with new friends with strange accents and wonderful new approaches to life.
    I write these words and drink this tea,
    this tea will last a lifetime.

  6. @Michael :
    That Russian story was fascinating, thanx. You helped remind me of a similar story to post — coming up soon.

    @ Jen :
    I just saw your recent post — a reply to my challenge — it was great.

    @ Zero1Ghost :
    Fun evolution of self, Zero! Great poem.

  7. CRL

    A third response to strangeness: to recoil from it entirely, and run away by turning inward towards one’s own group.

    From this, we see tourist traps, racially segregated neighborhoods, and groups of a dozen or more white people clustered together at my majority Asian high school. I must admit I’ve caught myself in all three, though I tend to avoid the latter.

  8. @ CRL :
    Interesting. Absolutely true. If my father had stayed in Japan, he might have been one of those white folks who just kept to themselves.
    In Japan, I saw a few different types:
    (a) those who kept to their Western communities
    (b) those who immersed and fluent but shunned their own former culture
    (c) those who never learned Japanese beyond baby level and had lots of Japanese friends who enjoyed their Western friends almost like pets.
    (d) those who were fluent and jumped between both cultures

  9. Ahh, the irony of people being from a US state with a Japanese name, but being uncomfortable with Japan. 😉

    I love new things, but I also love familiarity, and sometimes new experiences can make me uncomfortable. When I encounter unfamiliar languages I tend to wish that I knew them. Aside from English, the only other language I can even come close to forming correct sentences in, is Spanish. Yo hablo español un poquito.

    How I react to strangeness depends on my mood. Sometimes I find it exciting and sometimes it makes me want to retreat into familiarity.

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