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An Interview in Reverse in Japan
by Allie D'Amanda

            I kneel in a classroom with four Japanese students from Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto Japan.  I slowly shift my legs in order to assume a more comfortable position hoping it’s not obvious that I have leg cramps from the kneeling.  I don’t want to offend anyone since I am a guest in another country, another culture.  Unsuccessful at feeling any more comfortable in my new position than the last, I give up and try to ignore the pain, thinking back to what my grandfather always told me, “forget about it and it will go away.”

Moe is the quietest one of the students, and I glance over at her to see if I can get any glimpse of emotion.  Takuya, Chiaki, and Ayano are happily excitedly sharing some of their life history, and I add in that I am 21 years old, live in Rochester New York, and have two younger brothers.  Their eyes widen and some “oooo’s” and “ahhh’s” come from their mouths when I say “New York.”  I remind them that the state of New York is pretty big and that I live in upstate New York, which is much different than New York City.  I sense a slight bit of disappointment in their faces when I tell them this, as I get when I tell most people.  Whenever anyone thinks of NYC, “the American dream” comes to mind.  I think I just shattered their initial insight as to who I am as a person, based on what they know about NYC.  I’m sure they were hoping that they were meeting someone who lives in such a fantastic, glamorous place. 

We move on to a “discussion time” where the Japanese students had some questions prepared to ask us.  When I hear this, I get an unexpected wave of nervousness.  I thought that being in their country I would be the one wanting to ask all the questions.  Yet, these students seemed just as excited to have Americans in their own country as we were to be in theirs. 

The first question they ask catches me off guard: “what images of Japan, and the Japanese do we have?”  They all have pens and paper in front of them ready to jot down our answers, but no one is quite sure how to begin.  Finally, I try to break the silence by saying: “smart and hard working, especially in school.”  The reaction I got was so intriguing.  Moe shook her head, Takuya and Chiaki laughed out loud, and Ayano’s eyes widened and she blurted out, “reeeaaaallllyyy? No, no, no!”  She then laughs with the others. 

I am taken aback; I truly thought this was an accurate description of Japanese people, and that they would actually find it flattering to have a foreigner have this perception of them.  I have to remind myself that what I believe to be true, even if someone in a leadership position has told me it is true (ie: a teacher), that nothing outweighs first-hand experience. We all have our own sense of personalized relativity, and as anthropologist Michael Angrosino reminds us in his essay on conducting life history interviews: “when I work with those who share the stories of their lives, I get a sense of how they understand their own identities and place in the world.” 

I am eager for the students’ next question, as wanting to know how they as people understand themselves in a world unknown to me.  I shift my legs, this time a little more comfortable in my surroundings; we are more alike than I originally thought.  How much do I have to think relatively in order to gain a better understanding of the people I’m about to travel around the world with?

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