Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Over the past few weeks I've been in a bit of a funk. I've been homesick, which despite the fact that I consider myself fairly patriotic, after 7 years living outside of Canada happens pretty rarely. This all culminated with me watching the Canada Day celebrations on the CBC, but it is due to a number of discussions in class that have reminded me just how different Japan is from the society I grew up in.

I remember when I lived in Toronto as a very young girl we used to go all over the city during the annual international festival. I used to love visiting the community centres, to taste the various types of food, watch kids perform traditional dances, and admire traditional costumes. Once, after watching the performance at the Latvian Community Centre, where my best friend went every week for language and dance lessons, I turned to my mother and asked her why I didn't have an interesting culture. I wanted to be wearing one of the frilly dresses and dancing up on stage too!

A number of years later my grade two teacher had a system in class where parents were encouraged to come in on the day of a special festival in their culture/religion. The parents would bring in snacks and various items and tell us about their festival or country. We got a break from classes, instead eating, playing games, and listening to stories. I still remember the potato pancakes one Jewish family brought in to share with us for Hanukkah. I remember again complaining to my parents that we were sooo boooooring, not having any special culture to share with the class!

The family of one of my closest friends was from what was then Czechoslovakia. Her grandmother would often spend periods of time with the family and while she didn't speak much English she sure was a great cook - I looked forward to afternoon snack at my friend's house on those days, much more exciting than whatever was on offer at my home.

It took many years for me to realize that my family wasn't nearly as boring as I thought. First of all, since my mother was born in the UK I have dual citizenship. Second, since my father married a Chinese-Canadian woman when I was in high school I had many years of home-cooked Chinese food that means that to this day when I get upset or tired one of the first things I crave is good Chinese food - especially my favourite mapo tofu.

It took even more years, especially those spent outside of Canada, for me to realize just how special and unique the country really is. While I realize that racism and prejudice do exist there, as in any country, the fact that people from different cultural backgrounds and religions, speaking different mother-tongues, not only co-exist, but that children grow up feeling that this co-existence is normal, that different cultures are interesting, is a truly amazing thing. Which is why I proudly talk about the Canadian mosaic, the idea that just like the beauty of a mosaic coming from its myriad of coloured stones, the beauty and strength of Canada comes from all the different cultures/religions/languages/beliefs of its peoples.

Trying to actually make some of the other students (who come from a society that prides itself on its homogeneity, where individualism is NOT encouraged) in my sociology classes actually understand what this means in reality, however, can be more than a little frustrating. Recently its left me wanting to pack up and go back to Canada where I wouldn't have to explain things that seem so basic to me...


  1. I feel the pain of your homesickness. I felt those feelings pretty strongly too when I was there, and I was only there for 2 years.

  2. Boo hoo! I'm so touched by your message - it really means a lot to me that you liked my mapo tofu so much! And thanks for not mentioning my less palatable creations, such as that tofu quiche.(Have no fear - I've never made that recipe again!)
    I'm sorry you're missing Canada. It must be hard for your students to appreciate a pattern of social relations that they've never experienced. I suppose it's also an illusion that Japanese society is homogeneous - why do you think people cling to that self-image so much? Probably in your own way, you are contributing to opening/challenging the minds and values of people around you. After all, to interact and engage with you, your Japanese friends and students have to confront their stereotypes about 'the other'. You can trust that even if your students don't seem to 'get it', you have probably disturbed their equilibrium, and in time, they may get it.
    I do miss your smile and your (very Canadian) hug - I can't wait to see you in Berlin. After that, maybe you should start planning a visit back in Canada - and make a stop in Montreal!
    love and hugs, C

  3. LK - Its tough, isn't it? I miss Canada (and Vancouver weather, and BC's natural beauty!!) like crazy sometimes. I miss feeling "normal" too. These feelings don't go away the longer I live elsewhere... But on the whole I do feel "at home" here most of the time...

    C - tofu quiche... shudder! That really was foul! I realize I'm making my classmates rethink things and challenge their preconceptions. For some that is easier than others... As for the Japanese belief in their homogeneity - entire tomes can and have been written about this. I'm not comfortable attempting to get at philosophical reasoninings, but I really do think that it is largely due to education and being taught that safety comes in conformity and same-ness.

  4. I think you're right that the fear of difference and the preoccupation with conformity are mainly taught and not inevitable or unalterable features of Japanese society. It's so interesting how one effect of a conformist society is it sets up something called 'normal', which makes people like you miss feeling normal (or worse, make you feel bad for being abnormal)! I think in Canada, increasingly, there is no 'normal', which is why everyone can feel like they belong (or at least that they belong as much as others belong). So in some ways, it's not that you miss feeling 'normal,' it's that you miss being in a place where you will not be judged normal or not normal. At least that's how I think about it. Okay, I'll go back to writing my book... love, C

  5. C - The funny thing is that I normally don't feel as much pressure to "fit in" in Japan as I do in Canada. In many ways there is just no way that I will ever fit in here so I normally find it liberating. Recently, however, I guess I've just been feeling frustrated with the limited mind sets of people that I wouldn't expect to be that way. Particularly annoying me right now is professors and graduate students who, despite their research topics, experiences, and supposed critical thinking, seem to be unable to look past basic stereotypes and set concepts to realize that things are different in other countries...