Friday, 9 June 2017


In the last post I discussed some of the differences between high and low context cultures and suggested that knowing these differences can help us to communicate better with foreigners.Taking another look at one of the photos that I added in the last post we can see that North America and Japan are on opposite sides of the spectrum with America falling in the middle of the Left hand side of the Low Context Culture countries and Japan falling on the far Right hand side of the High Context Culture countries.
( on January 26, 2015)

The Trip
I travelled to New York City the day after posting the last blog entry. It had been 4 years since I had been to North America and I was really looking forward to immersing myself in the Low Context Culture and enjoying the subtle and not so subtle differences of the experience. And I did. I enjoyed every minute of my time there immersed in so many different cultures. People of many different colours speaking many different languages and so many different kinds of beautiful! I realised on the streets of New York City that I had been starved of cultural diversity in Japan where there is more conformity than difference and, although the architecture and nature is amazingly beautiful the people who fill the spaces are, for the most part, not very diverse. In my experience in Japan when you pass people on the streets you can predict with a high level of accuracy what language they will be speaking and if there is any spontaneous interaction with the passer by (Which is a VERY RARE occurrence usually initiated by a foreigner) you can guess what they will say. I hadn't realised this with such clarity before. One of the things that really stood out for me on this trip is how often complete strangers have conversations with each other in North America, while waiting in the check out line at the local bagel shop, in the elevator, on the street, for example and how rare these kinds of interactions are in Japan.

Jet-leg, Culture Shock, and Culture-leg
Two things that people often talk about when travelling to such far off places are jet leg and culture shock. The jet leg is caused by the time differences and the fatigue of long travel times. One can cope using various strategies of which there are numerous sites for on the Internet. I have never really had much of a problem with jet leg. I try to stay up as long as I can and wake up early the day after arriving. But, in all fairness I survive on a regular night's sleep of only about 4 hours on average. Culture shock can only happen if you are not prepared for the differences in the cultures. Having been born in Canada and living in Japan for almost half of my life I was prepared for the differences, but what I found was a bit of a 'Culture leg' as I transitioned between the two cultures. This is what I would like to talk about in this post.
 If I could liken the cultural exposure that I have experienced while living in Japan to food and use this comparison to illustrate how I felt during my recent trip to the States regarding the amount of culturally diverse exposure I have experienced in both countries, I would say that I felt like I have been eaten nothing but white rice for four years with the occasional side dish of something else. But, in America every meal was something different, not new, but different from what I had eaten previously and certainly different than the white rice that I had been eating for so long. Now I had the choice to eat steak, tacos, fish n chips, pizza, BBQ, veal, they were all there waiting to be consumed. I am using this illustration to describe the fact that even though I hadn't known it, I had been starved of cultural diversity while living in Japan. Walking down the streets of NYC made it clear to me that Japan, especially rural Japan; cities such as Kumamoto, are still very mono cultural. When you walk down the streets you are surrounded by Japanese people speaking Japanese. But, when you walk down the streets of New York you are surrounded by people of all different ethnicity and they are all speaking different languages. I couldn't help but smile and feel the joy of being surrounded with so much diversity after being away from it for so long.

(Photo retreived at, on June, 10th, 2017)

I have experienced culture shock, well reverse culture shock after returning to Canada after my one year university study exchange in Hakodate, Hokkaido. I noticed all of the 'in your face' differences between the two cultures but I couldn't understand how I hadn't noticed these differences before. And I had no way to justify the validity of these differences. I was just in shock by the way people interacted differently and how food that once tasted so good to me was now way too sweet. Looking back now, I can see that the differences in the way people interact is a direct result of the differences between the high and low context culture. I understand these differences and can switch back and forth to fit either one, but there is usually a leg, especially if I am tired, and switching programs takes a lot of energy. It used to drain me just switching back and forth between languages. Now I know that the reason it takes so much energy is because you are not just switching back and forth between languages, translating in your head as you go. You are actually switching back and forth between cultures and making compensations for each of the other cultural differences, i.e. the differences between the high context culture and the low context culture as you go, dealing with the differences in what Gee calls the "big D" Discourses. These differences among groups of people are more deeply rooted and harder to deal with than "little d" discourse because in "big D" Discourse we are really dealing with behavioural differences and trying to change our behaviours to conform with a set of behaviours defined by a different group.

In his work in social linguistics, Gee explored the concept of Discourse ("big D" Discourse), discourse ("little d") refers to language-in-use. When discussing the combination of language with other social practises (behaviour, values, ways of thinking, clothes, food, customs, perspectives) within a specific group, Gee refers to that as Discourse. Individuals may be part of many different Discourse communities, for example “when you ‘pull-off’ being a culturally specific sort of ‘everyday’ person, a ‘regular’ at the local bar…a teacher or a student of a certain sort, or any of a great many other ‘ways of being in the world’” (p. 7). (Gee, J. P. (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. London and New York: Routledge.)

Perhaps the example of switching back and forth between two completely different computer programs that run on completely different codes is appropriate here. It is impossible to boot and or re-boot two different programs simultaneously on the same computer. But, that is exactly what we are doing when we interpret between languages and cultures. When we switch back and forth between cultures we need to reboot and when we are engaged and interacting within different cultures simultaneously we are running two different programs in our minds at the same time. It is understandable that this process would be draining. This is why there are strict time limits for professional translators and interpreters working for such organisations at the United Nations or at the highest levels of politics and business.

The Demands of Interpreting
"It's an intense experience that can drain even the most accomplished interpreters. To avoid a Qaddafi-like marathon, in fact, the UN abides by a strict timetable in which interpreters work in teams of two, with one typically working no more than 20 minutes at a time before switching to his or her partner. (General Assembly speeches, moreover, are usually kept to 15 minutes or less.)" The "Qaddafi-like marathon" referred to here is as follows:
UNITED NATIONS -- When Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi delivered his notorious 96-minute speech before the UN General Assembly last autumn, no one may have been more aware of each passing minute than his personal translator, Fouad Zlitni, whom he had brought along for the occasion.
Nearly three-quarters of the way into Qaddafi's address, Zlitni collapsed, undone by the effort of translating the Libyan leader's rambling, at times angry, speech from Arabic into English for nearly 75 minutes straight.
Hossam Fahr, the Egyptian-born head of the UN's interpretation service, says Qaddafi's translator went far beyond the normal limits of what an interpreter can reasonably be expected to do.

This exhaustion felt when translating and or interpreting between high context and low context cultures which have very different rules of Discourse is what I like to call "Culture leg". It is not culture shock because you know what to expect, but it is possible one of the most physically draining experiences even though you are not always that physically active during the procedure.

Final Thoughts
After this trip to NYC in May I do have to say that I felt it was a little harder to re-adjust to the lifestyle in Japan. But, I think the bottom line is if you are sincere and honest with those most close to you, you will never be left standing alone when you are in need of guidance. We are all caught between one culture or another and confused on our journey to find ourselves that is why the martial arts are so important to us on an emotional level. And as martial artists we continue to push forward both physically and emotionally in the pursuit of knowledge and development of character. The road we are on is not a smooth one, but personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. So I'll leave you with this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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