Vive la Difference!
Dear Family and Friends,
Wakako San is a friend who works in a skin care company. Her responsibilities include caring for her clients’ skin, of course, but also their general health. The company runs frequent seminars and has a lounge where members can enjoy spending time together.
Since it is such a relaxing place, very often people tend to open up and talk about their problems. Wakako San found that she was unable to help her clients as she would like. She also had problems of her own: an alcoholic father. Wakako San lived with her parents, so she and her mother experienced his abuse firsthand.
With these issues, Wakako San enrolled in an online Master’s program in psychology from an American university. Much of her studies and papers were in English. So, I often helped her. That allowed me to follow the course and also for Wakako San and me to become better friends.
One time when I stopped by the lounge, Wakako San seemed rather upset. With her head bowed low, she whispered to me that her mother had embarrassed her tremendously. Her father had been hospitalized for several months (not uncommon in Japan) and was scheduled to be discharged.
In the doctor’s office, Wakako San’s mother pleaded, “Please don’t send him home. He gets drunk every night and becomes very violent. I can’t stand it any longer. Please find another place for him to go!”
Wakako San then said, “I was totally astonished that my mother could be so selfish! And in front of the doctor, no less. Everyone will hear about this. It is shocking. I feel very ashamed. How can I hold my head up in the town where we live?”
I let Wakako San finish telling me her story. Then very calmly I said, “You know, Wakako San, as an American, I see things a bit differently. From my perspective, you should be very proud. Your mother has shown that she has gained enough self-respect that she does not have to put up with abuse anymore, even from her husband. She had enough courage to show her true feelings, no matter what the doctor or the neighbors would think. I see this as a huge psychological step forward. If she were my mother, I would be immensely proud of her.”
As I was talking, Wakako Sans slowly turned her head in my direction. The expression on her face was one of disbelief. I had felt the same when I was listening to her, but tried not to show it.
I also do not know what Wakako San was thinking. Maybe she was horrified that even after I had lived in Japan so long, my attitudes remained so “selfish” (from a Japanese perspective). Or maybe it started to dawn on her that what she had studied as a student of psychology could actually be applied in her own life.
I do not know what arranges were made for her father after he was discharged from the hospital. I do know he died a few months later. I also know her mother, despite being crippled with arthritis, goes to a senior center every day. She enjoys laughing and joking with the folks there, and says she has never been happier in her life.
I do not see Wakako San very much. We are both busy. But I hope our exchange helped her as much as it did me. It was such a beautiful reminder that even when cultures and ways of thinking are entirely different, there is still room for wonder, for appreciation, and of course, deep respect.