My last two blogs have been about stereotypes without me even realizing it. When I returned to Japan ten days ago, the customs guy stereotyped me as a drug smuggler since I had been travelling 38 hours, and obviously, to him, looked like a stoned punk rocker. In his mind, a drug smuggler must look something like me. But the more I thought about it, if I were really a drug smuggler, I would dress like a soccer mom. In my next blog, I wrote about my shock and dismay upon discovering that many Japanese don’t wash their bodies and hair before entering the bath or hot springs, which was as shocking to me as discovering the Japanese people don’t eat raw carrots.
But here is my point. My friend told me that most Japanese people don’t wash with soap before entering the bath; while that is true for many Japanese, upon further questioning, I discovered that some do, and some don’t. Some wash their bodies with soap; some wash their hair; some wash both; and some, probably the majority, just rinse off with hot water. Discovering that at least a small portion of the population maintains my standard of bathing cleanliness was comforting. While it is easy to say “all Japanese” do this or that, the fact is, there are few things that all people in a culture will do. There are even some Japanese who hate sushi. While stereotypes may help you to get a basic understanding of a culture, taking it to the extreme and putting someone in a box because of their culture, ethnicity, gender, race, or appearance will lead to profiling, like stopping a university professor at customs on suspicion of drug smuggling.
I remember one time I was watching a Japanese friend in amazement as she deftly ate potato chips with chopsticks. She looked at me and said, “Japanese people eat chips like this.” At which point, her Japanese friends piped in, “No we don’t! Just you do!”
Most of my students think that Americans own guns (in reality 33%), are friendly (hit or miss), and are fat (ok, well…). While many of these images are from TV and movies, and can give them a general view of the culture, they will be in for a shock when they actually go to McDonalds in America and get ketchup thrown at them like one of my Korean friends did. I have been here so long, I cannot even say with confidence what Americans do or don’t do anymore, and I am not really sure if I am more American or Japanese. For sure, we are very individualistic to the point of selfishness, but we are also the most charitable people in the world, while the group-oriented Japanese have a tendency to be stingy with the charitable giving. And many Americans probably think that those teppanyaki chefs at the Japanese steakhouse serving up teriyaki chicken with yum yum sauce are making authentic Japanese food; others probably think that when the Japanese aren’t eating that, they are eating sushi, which in reality is a splurge for the ordinary Japanese. In fact, most stereotypes about the Japanese are probably not even true. Well, except for the fact that they work too much. But even that is deceiving, as much of the work is actually done after hours at drinking parties, while the hours at the office are spent in inefficiency.
So what is my point? Beware of stereotypes. For while they are not always bad, they can cause you to label a person, judging them not on who they are but on who you think they are. And trust me, that doesn’t feel good at all. So be careful the next time you find yourself saying something like, “All Americans are….” or “Black people….” or “Gays are….” People are individuals and not to be defined by an image, but to be respected as humans. My experience as a suspected drug smuggler, while infuriating, taught me a lot about the danger of assumption. So for that, I am grateful.