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The International Writers Magazine
: Exile on Main Street

Torn Between Cultures:"SOME of ALL and ALL of NONE"
Dean H Ruetzler

Questioning the leadership of America is not only our constitutional right it is the cornerstone of a functioning democratic, free, and open society.

It has been said that once you live (for a reasonable amount of time) outside of your own culture, you are never fully of your own culture again. For the better and the worse you have been exposed to a system and beliefs that do not necessarily match those you have been culturally conditioned to believe are correct. It is not so much seeing something as "right" and "wrong" per se, but seeing that other people subscribe to different beliefs, and realizing that the are more "ways of doing things" than what you had previously believed to be true. It is not so much seeing "the other side" as right, as much as it is learning that other potentially correct possibilities do exist. By the same token, you will never be fully absorbed into any other culture, but will spend the rest of you life living somewhere "between" cultures. Or so it is said......

I have spent a good portion of the past nine years outside of my native culture, that of the United States. I was in Finland for two school years, teaching English in a small town about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. I also spent the summer in-between teaching in Slovakia for a month, and spending time with my relatives in Austria and Germany (I am half-Austrian, at least genetically, if not linguistically). I also spent three years in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture on a Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program placement in the Special Education schools. I have also spent most of the past two years working in a small town near Morioka, Nishine, in a similar position to my JET posting. From all this time spent out of my native culture, I would have to conclude, based on this international experience, that I am not fully and totally of my own culture anymore. Do not get me wrong, I am still American, have no intentions of giving up my passport, and am a patriotic American, though perhaps not in the "traditional" sense. The time I have spent overseas has allowed me to see my country from the outside, this, and exposure to other cultures has certainly left its mark on who I am as a person.

In between Japanese jobs, I returned to the United States for eight months, and if working a job where I used another language roughly half the time was not an indication of this influence, the events of September 11, the ensuing "war on terrorism" (including the Iraq conflict), and my reaction to them, in comparison to the majority in my country, certainly is. Again, do not get me wrong, I am a patriotic American, and my reaction to the events of 9/11 are quite similar to most. It is a mixture of shock, grief and sadness at the large numbers of people who were killed, and anger at the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks. It is the ensuing two plus years that have showed me where being overseas has changed me.
Many members of the current administration, most notably President George W. Bush, have cited the "just" and "righteous" cause of military action in response to the attacks. I do not support terrorism, nor do I see any justification in choosing any people or religion as a self-proclaimed "superior" group, and justifying anything in the name of that cause. As in most conflicts, this self-proclaimed "superiority" permeates both sides. Again, I see nothing "just" or "righteous" about the military action, just Geo-Political realities, and the protection of interests.

The "democracy" and "freedom" that my country often cites as a reason to fight, is under assault from the same leaders who cite it as a reason to fight. Shortly after 9/11, a law was passed that increased the amount of time a foreigner in America, can be detained without being charged from 24 hours to nearly a month. At that time, a poll on a large news network showed that more than half of Americans supported registering, identifying, and monitoring a certain group of people based upon ethnicity. In my time overseas, I have experienced this from the other side, and cannot say I support such measures. There is a price to pay for living in an "open" society, and I am not ready to give up my (or anyone else's) civil rights in the name of "homeland security".

The man who is charge of protecting American civil rights, Attorney General John Ashcroft, once testified before the United States Congress that those who question the conduct of this administration are "supporting" the terrorists. Sorry John, I cannot subscribe to that belief at all. The hallmark of liberty and democracy is the right to question your leaders, to hold them responsible for their actions as leaders. Questioning the leadership of America is not only our constitutional right it is the cornerstone of a functioning democratic, free, and open society. Those in power who espouse themselves, and their conduct of being beyond reproach, question, or examination, are suggesting autocratic or totalitarian values, which have no place in a truly functional democracy. If America wants to conduct a war purporting itself as the "flagship" of democracy, it must be very careful to correctly use those values it bases it reason for fighting over, and not hypocritically use them only when t fits the need of the given situation, and discard them when they do not suit those needs. This is especially important, because human rights have been the backbone of the United States post-Cold War Foreign policy. It seems fit that if these issues were the precursor to military action in the Gulf War, Haiti, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, and the largest point of contention with its largest military "rivals", China and Russia, the United States should use them correctly at home.

Sometimes, opinions like this put me in the minority in post-9/11 America. I can almost certainly say that I would never have come to these opinions if I had stayed at home for the past seven years. From Europeans who, eloquently (in English, I may add,) pointed out that the United States was trying to take sides in a Balkan conflict that was twice as old as the United States, to meeting survivors of the Atomic Bombing in Hiroshima, I have always had an alternative viewpoint to the "American" version. Not that I always agree, one will certainly learn their limits of understanding and tolerance this way, sometimes very quickly. The viewpoints of some (including those in my own country), will incite me to questioning and debating "In a New York Minute!". I just hope all this overseas experience has given me a little more "pondering" and a little less "knee-jerk" to my opinion.

I have met veterans of the Soviet-Finnish conflict, and Slovak citizens who remember the spring day in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled in to assure that a democratic uprising was not going to happen (at least until 1989). I have a half of a family that lived in Nazi-occupied Austria. My connections to Japan after nearly five years of living there, are undoubtedly strong, and will continue to grow in my future employment. I have always been a History/Politics/Current Affairs buff, and have always thoroughly enjoyed studying those aspects of the countries I have lived in. From all that, my sense of awareness has changed over time. Where History, Culture, and Politics are so often presented to us in versions of "Black and White" or "Right and Wrong", I only see varying shades of Grey.

That, to me, is the enduring lesson of living outside of my own culture for an extended period of time.
In my return to the United States, all to often, I have found that I have more in common with the person who has been in another culture (be them American or not), than a person who has never left their native surroundings. While in other countries, there has also been a shared understanding, with natives of that country who have been overseas, and other foreigners, as we are undergoing the same experiences.
My department at work, which consisted of four Japanese natives, who all have lived overseas for at least two years, and two Americans with Japanese experience, was a good example of that. We all seemed to float somewhere between Japan and America. Japanese members of the staff interacted with us differently than they would with domestic staff, and myself and the other American reciprocated. In fact the language we used was never exclusively Japanese or American English, a curious hybrid of the two, that expressed where we stood culturally, somewhere between the two countries, tinged of both, but never one exclusive to the other. This same language would be hard to understand, at times, for someone who only spoke Japanese or American English, as the comments of somewhat befuddled domestic department co-workers attested to.

Living between cultures is at times a very intangible concept. It sometimes really escapes description, but it is something that any person who has spent time out of their own culture will understand, and will understand of others who have gone through the same experience. It is having undergone the experience of being on "the other side".

It is of having been in a situation where what you had previously thought, almost intuitively understood to be correct was suddenly the "wrong" thing. It is of a matter of what you were taught to believe was of little importance, suddenly exploding in its significance. It is of being suddenly separated from all those in your surroundings because of national origin, skin color, body characteristics, language, and even behavior patterns.

It is also of what, rightly or wrongly, will sometimes be attributed to you by those in your surroundings based on these discriminating features. It is also the frustration of others refusal to change those beliefs, despite (or sometimes because of) what you may do or show to contradict it. I of course have seen this in my time overseas. I have also seen how it works in my own society, sometimes in frightening ways.

I have seen this from both the majority standpoint, as my home state is the demographically "whitest" state in the United States. I have seen it from the converse, in Japan, where a non-Japanese will be part of a one-percent minority. The most interesting place to experience this was Finland, as subtle changes in my appearance brought about completely different reactions to Finns who saw me. Clean shaven, I can pass for a Finn, though perhaps of slightly different eye color (this applies to those times when I did not speak, as many linguists say Finnish is the most difficult language in the world, despite the fact that I have been a Finnish teacher in the past, opening my mouth amounted to instant "butchering" of the language). Fully bearded, where my beard comes in thick, and with a reddish tinge, in contrast to the patchy dirty-blonde of an average Finnish male, I instantly branded myself as "Ulkomaalainen" ("foreigner"). Those stares, glares, turned heads, extra attention, people whispering and pointing, or even talking loudly about you in the assumption you do no understand the native language, suddenly appear, when a few weeks before, the same location and situation produced little or none.

Another example of this change in reaction was at a swimming pool. I am relatively tall, and have a stocky build, which are distinguishing characteristics of Finns (though they do not often appear in tandem). However my arms, chest, and legs are quite hairy, which is not a common Finnish characteristic. So I could spend a day quietly appearing Finnish, go swim my laps and take a sauna as a "hairy barbarian", suddenly be the unspoken (or whispered) center of attention, and then finish (no pun intended) and leave the pool, and go back to my day of quietly being European again.

Europeans at play
Austria? Germany? Switzerland? Lichtenstien? I have features that closely resemble the first denizens of the Alps, the larger nose and barrel-chest, not to mention a thick crop of fur, of the Neanderthal man. I also have distinguishing characteristics of my Teutonic and Germanic forbearers, I fit in fairly well in those countries. Very rarely, if at all, do I get a gape or a gawk. Lots of people come up to me speaking German, thank god I at least know "Nix sprechen sie Deutsch!" ...."OOOOO veee a veee!"..."Servus"..."Tchuuus!".

In fact the most amusing anecdote I have about my lack of apparent "foreignness" in those countries, is when I was riding on a Vienna subway, with an Austrian friend. A few college students were bad mouthing and mocking my home country. Not really wanting to be understood by their surroundings, they did this in English, of course. My friend, who did his post-doc in Colorado, and worked there for two years (I swear his English is better mine is than), shared a common laugh about that. That laugh probably originating somewhere between Austrian and American culture.

Finland and Japan are the two most ethnically and genetically homogeneous countries in the world. Germanic countries not as much, but still are relatively homogeneous (though, less so everyday, with growing rapidity), and have a strong sense of culture. In Japan I was a visible minority by skin color, in Finland I wasn't. In Germanic countries, I basically "fit in" based on physical appearance. It was a lesson to see where the lines of "difference" are drawn in each country, and the attitudes and reactions (of some, not all, of course) that go with them. In fairness to all countries, I ask that you not make any deep conclusions about the nature of the peoples of any country, and more importantly individuals, based on these anecdotes.

Where has this "bouncing between cultures" taken me? Well, it certainly has not produced a white light "shining the beacon of international understanding", that produces a form of agape directed towards mankind. I suppose, what it has done is produce a subtle paradigm shift in my way of thinking. It has cemented me a little farther into my embracing of the individual human, and a stronger awareness of my own individuality, and the support and great appreciation of individual rights. Likewise, I grow more skeptical about "group-ism". Of course, homo sapiens are a social animal, and groups and affiliation, are necessary to a certain extent. However, living without ones own societal barometer, and seeing it from the outside, not to mention, getting a first-hand look at other societies, has certainly changed the way I look at things along these lines. It is quite possible to literally change the circumstances of your life, often for the better AND worse simultaneously, living in another culture, and I have learned a lot from this change. It is also a place that I cannot turn back from.

In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, fifteen year-old Lieutenant Chakotay, is admonished by his father not to leave his tribe for Star Fleet Academy, for he will never be of one place or the other for the rest of his life. He says something to the effect of; "All the other tribes have embraced the 24th century why haven`t we?", and leaves for the academy.

Lieutenant Chakotay's father was right. You cannot go back, at least fully, once you have left. My father has seen it from the other side. He immigrated to North America in 1958 he has been a naturalized citizen of the United States for almost forty years. His English is probably better than mine at this point, thanks to my forays into Japanese and Finnish. His German, conversely, is so rusty from only being used once or twice a year, he confesses to having "gaps" in his ability. He is even such a local institution in the small Vermont ski town he has called home for forty some odd-years, the local store has a deli sandwich named after him (and may I add they have spelled it wrong for seventeen years now!). So what can he teach us all about living between cultures? The other day he comes up with this gem. "You know...there are some times, when I still don't understand YOU AMERICANS!" Thanks Dad...after forty-four years to get used to the culture, and it is still "YOU AMERICANS!". Fluent English in place of his rusty native tongue, and it still "YOU AMERICANS!". That about sums it up.

An international experience, I guess will influence and effect an individual in many ways. It is an experience that will remove one enough from their own culture, and place them in the eternal flotsam and jetsam "between cultures". It is also something that I have absolutely no qualms or regrets about doing.

© Dean H. Ruetzler March 2004
Nishine, Iwate Prefecture. JAPAN & South Burlington/East Warren, Vermont, USA

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