Balancing a Japanese and Irish Heritage
Learning to live with complexity and ambiguity
Posted May 22, 2015
When I was growing up I thought I was American until someone would remind me I wasn’t. With kids it was a simple, “Jap” or “Chink” but with Mom it was more complicated. She would usually tell me I was American but sometimes would suddenly use funny expressions like ishin denshin, which she said means “to communicate the heart by means of the heart.” It implies that words are not necessary and Mom claimed that a Japanese child (me) should know ishin denshin. She would say this when I failed to understand something she had not said. My mother's frustration was even greater with my American father.
A typical day in our home:
We're sitting around the table at breakfast and Mom says, "The windows are dirty."
Dad glances up from his newspaper and coffee and says, "Yeah."
The kids go to school, mom goes to work and dad stays home.
At dinner that night mom is in a bad mood, banging the pots and pans as she cooks dinner for three hungry kids. Finally dad asks, “What’s wrong?”
Dad: No, something's wrong
Dad: No, tell me
Dad: No, tell me
Mom: You know what's wrong
Dad: No, come on, tell me
Mom: You didn’t wash the windows
Dad: No, you didn’t ask me to
Mom: Yes I did
Dad: No you didn’t
Mom: Yes I did
Mom: This morning
Dad: What did you say?
Mom: I said, “The windows are dirty"
Dad: Oh, okay, but that's not the same as asking me to wash the windows. If you want me to wash the windows you have to say it clearly.
Mom: Why are you so stupid! I said the windows are dirty. Why do I have to say, “Wash the windows”? Anyone knows that's what you do when the windows are dirty!
My sisters and I excuse ourselves from the argument at the table and scatter. My parents are left with their misunderstanding. We wonder if perhaps they are crazy.
Now I know that they were just being themselves.
Mom was raised in Japan, in a culture in which children are disciplined in the fine arts of subtlety, indirectness, and allusions. She learned to read cues and understand gestures. She internalized a worldview in which words are considered inadequate to express the finest and deepest human emotions. Silence truly is golden and the word “Ma” describes the richness in spaces, that are not empty, but full of sacred meaning.
Dad, raised in the U.S. by Irish immigrant parents, was taught that words had great power and that if you could just find the right words, you could express the deepest and most profound truths and beauties. He lived with a dictionary by his side, constantly looking up words as he read and teaching them to his children. In his Judeo-Christian culture words were sacred. The Bible begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
Their values, beliefs, and behaviors about words were different. Mom believed that you should use them judiciously. Dad thought that you could use them magnificently. Their views came from their respective cultures. Of course, they each had their own personalities, and sometimes I wondered if Dad just didn’t want to wash the windows.
As a child I was struck by how my Japanese mother communicated in her way without words and expected her children to do the same. She never said, “I love you,” and convinced me that she never needed to. She taught me that our way of shared understanding was subtle, sincere and beautiful. I learned to be sensitive to others’ nonverbal messages and to understand implicit forms of communication.
I also came to appreciate the beauty of words and the power in expressing feelings and thoughts in words. My father expressed his affections and passions freely and dramatically, savoring the words he used with great delight. I learned that words were often necessary to communicate and useful in connecting with others.
Having a mother and father with such strikingly different cultural backgrounds has not made me schizophrenic. While it may not have been a smooth process and I was confused at times, I have learned to balance my parents’ lessons in living. I tolerate inconsistency and dissonance rather than trying to resolve differences and needing to decide which way is right and which is wrong. I embrace complexity and ambiguity, balancing these diverse and even seemingly conflicting culturally learned perspectives, allowing each to make valuable contributions to my understanding of the art of living.