Two-Part Invention

By Elizabeth O'Brien '96 / March / April 1998
December 28th, 2007
You're so Japanese." During the nearly two years I've been in Japan, I've heard this sentence more times than I can count, in spite of my Caucasian features. Colleagues repeat the observation whenever we go out drinking after work. Store clerks and casual acquaintances remark that I don't fit their image of an American.

At first, I was flattered. As the only foreigner in a small Japanese office, I found many linguistic and cultural challenges awaiting me when I arrived here after graduating from Brown. The Japanese language involves multiple levels of deference and politeness, and most businesses use formal speech forms that I had been aware of but had never spoken in my Japanese classes at Brown. I practiced diligently, adjusting both my words and my voice, pitching it at previously unimaginable heights in imitation of female Japanese office workers. When telephone callers began to mistake me for my Japanese coworker, I was secretly pleased.

My behavior changed, too. For one thing, I began serving tea. Previously, that duty fell to my female colleague, a capable worker who dropped whatever she was doing many times a day to serve tea to office guests, enacting a ritual performed all over the country. Even though I believe this custom reflects women's inferior status in the Japanese workplace, I took up the practice to ease my coworker's burden and to show that I wanted to be a member of the team.

My efforts to blend in paid off. I learned exactly how many scoops make a perfect pot of tea. The phone didn't scare me anymore. I could exchange business cards with the best of them, holding out my cupped hands and bowing to acknowledge receipt of a superior's card before proffering my own. I enjoyed my newfound competence, and my coworkers lauded my transformation: "You're so Japanese."

But after about six months, their praise began to make me uneasy. I found myself wondering what people really saw when they looked at me, an American of Irish, Italian, and Croatian descent. The irony of my position struck me: I am employed here as an "international exchange person" (the literal translation of my Japanese title), but what do I have to "exchange" if I have become so much like my hosts? When people told me how Japanese I was, a little voice inside me began to rebel: "No, I'm not. Can't you see me?"

The realization hit me like a sumo wrestler: of course my colleagues couldn't see me - I had never fully introduced myself. Yes, they knew Erizabesu (their pronunciation of my name), but they had not met Elizabeth. Erizabesu isn't always confident in her language, while Elizabeth enjoys complete fluency. Erizabesu lowers her eyes deferentially when she is challenged, but Elizabeth speaks her mind.

I realize that to operate effectively in Japan, I need Erizabesu. She acknowledges that I am a guest in this country and that it is my responsibility to absorb cultural nuances. Indeed, she arose from my desire to respect Japanese customs. But I have come to realize that I need Elizabeth, too.

Before working in Japan, I hadn't understood that cultural adaptation can have a downside - a loss of self. I thought back to my time at Brown and the first-year outreach sessions I attended and later helped organize as a resident counselor. Workshops on diversity and pluralism encouraged us to respect differences in people's race, culture, and ethnicity; that's the message I implemented when I arrived in Japan. My serving tea to male colleagues, though, ran counter to the spirit of other workshops given by the women peer counselors in our residence halls.

Brown's outreach programs didn't yield any easy answers. After some thought, I realized that my goal of furthering in-ternational communication wouldn't be served if I neglected to let my Japanese friends know how Japan and the United States differ. An example of my new approach looks something like this: Erizabesu dutifully serves tea. After she's done, Elizabeth respectfully mentions that women in America do not serve tea, and that many would refuse if they were asked to do so. I am willing to compromise my principles and serve tea because Erizabesu judges that doing so will increase my acceptance in the office and ease my colleague's burden.

I know that most people mean it as a compliment when they tell me how Japanese I am. But I want to be respected for who I really am, not what I represent. After all, only I can choreograph the complex dance of Erizabesu's and Elizabeth's coexistence.


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March / April 1998