For a while there I thought that all this commuting between Berkeley, USA and Oiso, Japan had finally worn off the culture shock that used to plague each new leap across the waters. I simply switched wallets, spoke out loud "the passenger seat is on the right/left" the first couple of days, and waited calmly while jetlag ran its course.
Recently, however, culture shock seems to be hitting me once again with a vengeance. Let me tell you three little stories to illustrate what strikes my Japanese eyes as peculiar about my first days and nights in this other hemisphere where you Americans abide.
Yesterday I went to an outdoor concert in Stern Grove. One of those things I used to do decades ago when I lived in San Francisco with no money and had some of the best years of my life. Out among the trees in a picnic environment with three thousand people all in a good mood, a full symphony orchestra on the stage and operatic voices to lift you off your feet. A glorious thing to do of a Sunday afternoon.
When I had settled in on my perch on the hillside, something caught my attention. Among the thousands of folk, it took me several minutes to locate a black face. The audience was virtually entirely white and Asian. In fact, the only conspicuous black faces were on the policemen and women and on Denyce Graves, the leading soprano. I have an American explanation for this, of course, but with my Japanese eyes still in place, I wonder how it is that so many Asians take to opera and so few blacks.
Two days before another racial question had popped into my mind. The names of three local kids – all African–American – are in the headlines. Meleia Willis-Starbuck, routinely described as the kind of kid everybody is proud of, a 19-year-old, back from school at Dartmouth for the summer to work in a shelter for homeless women, was shot dead on College Avenue at 2 in the morning. The misery didn't end there. Apparently the guy who killed her is her best friend, a 20-year old who came to the rescue when she was hassled by some guys on the street. Word has it she phoned him and told him to "bring the heat," according to a witness. And apparently he showed right up and for some unknown reason fired into the crowd. The only person hit was Meleia.
And the horror goes on. The kid driving the car, 20-year-old Christopher Wilson, referred to by his high school teacher Rick Ayers as "a really good kid," turned himself in and is out on bail. "I’m shocked he would even be in the same car as someone with a gun," Ayers said. The parents of Wilson’s best friend decided to get a property-bond on their house for $326,000 to pay the bail and have taken him in till all this blows over.
Now here are my Japanese questions. How is it American kids carry guns? Why would a 19-year old star student call a friend to come help her from being hassled and why would she use the expression, "carry heat?" Is this a black thing? Why would a good kid, even a nervous one, one that would inspire such faith by his best friend’s parents, fire a gun into a crowd? Are there no in-built inhibitions against killing strangers? (Leave aside the risk of killing his friend.) The really big question, I think, aside from whether we have the facts straight so far, is whether we’re dealing with individual foolishness or systematic social decay. Something is obviously wrong, and it’s something quite peculiar, among modern nations, to the United States of America.
I’m getting my information from places like the The Berkeley Daily Planet, a paper that leans so far left it’s probably more horizontal than vertical, and the independent student paper, The Daily Californian, and that means it is probably painting the kids in the best possible light. Which is OK by me. I think the facts of the story, if I have them right, suggest this is almost pure tragedy, the kind of thing that ruins lives for decades, if not forever. But even leftie sympathetic Berkeley is full of the routine arguments for gun control both pro and con, all in the context of the latest victory of gun manufacturers in Bush-ridden America, now home free of any responsibility for damage done by their products. I mourn more for the kids who fucked up bad but I blame the adults who think this is a way to run a society and can’t fix what is so obviously broken.
Hollis, the shooter, is still in hiding. Imagine the agony his parents are going through. College Avenue is three blocks East of here, and the shooting took place a few blocks North. Meanwhile, two blocks West, and three blocks South, right on the path we take to the BART station, they are still cleaning up after a fire and thanking the Goddess for her blessings the whole block didn’t blow up. Turns out the fire took place in a house containing explosives, machine guns, assault rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The assault weapons included a 50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle which can kill at ranges of more than a mile. None of this apparently has any effect on gun control thinking; the NRA still argues we need these weapons against possible rape and other mayhem. And corporate America rallies round behind the business of gun manufacture.
A teenager "packing a pistol" held up a 46-year-old man at Alcatraz and California Streets two weeks ago Wednesday, and slugged him when he refused to turn over his wallet. On Holly Street and Buena Avenue last Thursday a man with a pistol hit up a 43-year-old man. This time the guy complied and didn’t get slugged. The same evening a 25-year-old man with a gun was apprehended after burglarizing the Wet Seal and Gap clothing stores on Telegraph, and last Friday a gunman robbed the till at Extreme Pizza on Shattuck and got away. People called the cops at 3:14 a.m. at Prince and California Streets last Saturday to report gunshots, but the cops couldn’t find any bullet holes.
When I’m not living in Berkeley, I’m working in Fujisawa, a town in Japan about the same size, maybe slightly bigger, where there have been no killings and no armed robberies and no incidents at all involving guns in the past year that I am aware of. You see what I mean by culture shock.
The third American curiosity is linguistic. Actually it’s a highly political struggle over the right to determine what label to put on an initiative in the state legislature. The State Attorney wants to call it, "Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights." Its sponsors want to call it "Voters’ Right to Protect Marriage."
The initiative is the first step, according to the Christian Communication Network, to getting a California anti-gay-marriage amendment into the constitution. "It's high time," they say, "that we the people (sic) override the judges and politicians who've been relentlessly attacking marriage." Time, they say, to rip this issue out of the hands of "anti-family mayors like Gavin Newsom."
Now twirl that language around in your mouth for a while before you spit it out. "We the people?" "Relentlessly attacking marriage?" "Anti-family" mayor?
Culture war is one thing. I don’t resent any Christian who opens the Bible, skips over all the talk about poverty, rich men…eye of the needle…turn the other cheek…and that sort of stuff and goes to the part where it says Jesus likes war and capitalism and the American way. It’s their Bible, too and they can read it any way they want to. But calling gay people who want to marry and straight people who want to help them have their families recognized "anti-family," well, honey, my Japanese eyes and ears are having trouble wondering how such a logical folk squeeze that fat-foot of an argument into the golden slipper of government protections. "Voters’ rights?" ‘Voters?’ ‘We the people?’ Don’t let anybody tell you the power to determine how words are going to be used is a trivial one. It’s at the very heart of politics.
Here’s where Japan and America are on the same track. In Japan the Chinese, Korean and other girls once pressed into sexual slavery are called "Comfort Women," and most decent folk of Japan will tell you "we Japanese love euphemism" because it’s less confrontational. Well, horseshit. It’s a way of controlling how people will think of issues. Textbooks come out approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education in which "invasion" is euphemized into "advance" and in which the Rape of Nanking is twisted into "restoring order." Groupthink and its parent concept, the self-serving euphemism, is at home in all totalitarian environments. Actually, it’s probably fascism’s most effective tool. So it’s not surprising it should spill over into Christian ideological groups who think of themselves not as manipulative but as media-savvy.
Japanese tend to see Christians as well-meaning wackos. A god who walks on water, born to a virgin, whose real daddy in the sky needs a sacrificial lamb to forgive people for wanting to eat of the fruit of knowledge, and who dies and comes back to life again and walks around with holes in his side but no mention of a headache – well, at least those people who believe that stuff build nice schools and hospitals sometimes. But this Japanese fellow (OK – I’ll admit I’m talking about myself. I have a Japanese green card and it’s been my home for most of the past three decades) can’t help thinking of these "Nanking didn’t happen" right wing morons of Japan in the same category as these language-manipulating "protect the family" Christians of the U.S. of A.
Go ahead. Argue with me they’re not the same. You’ll win, probably; there are big differences.
But until the little Japanese homunculus behind my eyes gives up his seat to the little American homunculus who pilots my thinking when I live in this Christianesque territory for an extended period, that’s how it looks to me.
You have one really weird country, you guys.
August 1, 2005