Tea Time: Westernization of Japanese Culture

Tea time is one of my favorite parts of our daily schedule at the temple. We all gather around a fireplace usually after cleaning the temple or eating to relax and enjoy some tea and food. It is also one of the least strict activities at the temple, the only rule is that we sit in seiza at the beginning when we greet everybody, then we can change to whatever comfortable sitting position. At Fumonken (the temple I’m staying at), it is very relaxed and everybody is telling jokes and laughing. I’ve also learned many interesting things about how Japanese culture has shifted after Japan’s push to westernization.

In Japan, many words are starting to be adopted from English. Especially among younger people, it can be seen as cooler to use the adopted English words rather than the original Japanese words. Osho-san gave us an example: “architecture” in Japanese is 建築 (kenchiku), but more people are starting to say it in Japanglish, pronouncing the English syllables in Japanese (something like arkitekchoru). Representing the words like this is called katakana, and we were talking about how this was bad because while Japanese people can read it (like letters in an alphabet), the etymology and meaning behind the original kanji characters is lost. Like in Chinese, every character has a history behind it, so in a sense, Japanese history is being lost as more and more people replace original characters with empty syllables.

Another interesting thing we talked about was how the philosophy of Japanese education has changed. From Tao, Zen, and even Japanese marital arts, 守破離 (shu ha ri, each character roughly meaning follow/obey, detach/break, leave/separate) describes the stages of learning to mastery. How it goes is that a student strictly follows the rules of their master, eventually getting to the point of mastery where they can break those rules and surpass their master. Nowadays, most people think about 破離 (ha ri), the 守 is dropped – there is no more obeying. Osho-san said that Japanese people started to focus more and more on talent (very Western) and forgo the discipline of following the rules. “If there is no more following, what are they supposed to break from?” But staying at a traditional zen temple, the important dedication to obeying rules is very clear.

fireplace-tea-time

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Cultural Relevance

I remember when I was in elementary/middle school, I wanted to identify as a Chinese-American. In fact, the term ABC (American born Chinese) sounded so cool that I wanted to be one as well. But both my parents are from Burma, and when I tell other people that I’m Burmese, I usually get remarks like “so you’re basically Chinese.” The weird thing was that I was actually fine with that, it was so much easier to identify as a Chinese person. Posting pictures of myself celebrating Chinese new year, talking about Chinese legends, they were my ticket to belonging in a culture.

I never had the opportunity to fully embrace my Burmese culture until I attended the South East Asian (SEA) admit weekend at UCLA. This program was exclusively for South East Asian admitted students, and my initial thought was why is this exclusive to only South East Asians? Isn’t that a bit racist? During my flight to LAX, I was thinking oh this is just gonna be one of those programs with a bunch of Asians. Albeit this was true (lol), the experience I had there is something that I’ll definitely cherish for the rest of my life. I guess I’ve never felt so warm and valued in such a group, like a family. It was kind of like those summer programs I had attended, John’s Hopkins CTY, Red Cross’s LDC, where you with completely random people. But what was different, was that we were all connected by our South East Asian culture. I never knew about the experiences of Vietnamese, Laos, Hmong, Cambodian students.

Something that really touched me was a story a Vietnamese student shared about his dad. Many people look down on those who perform the “low-level” jobs, and he was surrounded by that type of environment growing up. But his dad was that person you see cutting boxes at the supermarket. His father was always seen as one of those, those people who picked up our trash, who cleaned our buildings. I could see, how it was hard to be proud of a person who was marginalized, seen as inferior. But even more so than feeling proud, how he would feel just thinking or talking about his dad. When my dad came to America, he had to bus boy at restaurants to get by, and I remember when I was younger, I would feel even ashamed to bring that up. But the program wasn’t about being a sob story, I feel it was about the experience of sharing —talking about something that as minorities, not many people give a second glance to. Hearing South East Asians share stories about separated families, hiding their sexual orientations, and growing up in refugee camps gave me a fuller perspective of the South East Asian identity. Relevancy, I thought that it wasn’t so special. It’s a term that refers to a group of people, and after all, aren’t we taught to embrace (or even impose) our individuality? Of course, people will agree that relevancy is important, feeling relevant will boost your self-esteem, etc. But I think cultural relevancy is more than that, it means finding comfort in between familial generations.

I think that Eddie Huang describes this kind of cultural relevancy pretty well in his TV show Fresh Off the Boat (episode 13 can click that link to watch). Jessica expresses a conflict how people will never view her as “simply American,” yet she also cannot be “fully Chinese” since she has lost contact with some of her old traditions. As a child, Eddie Huang tried to identify with the African-American culture, kind of like MC Jin and other Asians who looked up to cultures other than their own: American, African-American, Spanish, etc. So yes, while I feel that a part of cultural relevancy is about preserving our culture, self-discovery of cultural relevancy is finding sort of a compromise between past generations and the present.

That’s how culture truly evolves with time.