I’m starting a new series on Hasami & Glue. I’ll be chatting with friends who have close ties to Japan – unpacking their unique experiences as we reminisce about those all too familiar memories of life in Japan. Maybe they studied or worked in Japan as an adult or college student or maybe they spent their childhood growing up on one of the many U.S. military bases scattered throughout the country. But, regardless of age, location, or whatever other factor, they all share a unique identity as someone who used to live in Japan. It’s still scrapbooking – just not my scrapbook.
“Growing up in Japan put me in a bubble.” – William, 26
William spent around 16 years of his life in Japan. The son of a U.S. Navy sailor, he first moved to the country when he was just one year old. Thanks to the military lifestyle, he relocated multiple times during his childhood. Before turning 18, he lived on 4 of the 23 U.S. military installations across the country – including bases located in Okinawa, Atsugi, Sasebo, and Yokosuka. Now he works as an engineer, designing “things” for a private company and assisting in manufacturing.
Most military brats experience frequent moves throughout their childhood – both within the U.S. and internationally. Hence, the military brat subculture in America generally falls into the category of “third culture kids.” Meaning, military brats have much in common with the unique hybrid cultural identity of children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture.
Born to a Filipino mother and an American father, William’s childhood takes being a third culture kid to a whole new level. I talked to William about his feelings on growing up in Japan, the military brat lifestyle, and what it feels like to be a third culture kid.
I’m still figuring out this whole “interview style” blog thing and, unfortunately, I feel like the tone and editing of this first interview is a little shoddy, but as I also grew up as a military brat in Japan, the subject is really close to my heart…so I’m posting the interview anyways. I’ve got to start somewhere, right?
On Living in Japan
“Living in Japan taught me to say ‘thank you’…all the time.”
How do you think living in Japan changed you?
Japan’s culture really helped me [learn] to respect other people – and respect my elders especially. That was a huge shock factor coming to the states…the lack of respect for your elders… or even your peers.
I think Japanese culture also made me more reserved than the average American. I’m not very outspoken in public. I don’t like to make a lot of noise, unless I’m drunk or something. I like to keep my comments to myself when I’m in public.
[And then] there’s of course the little cultural things, but those are easy to let go of…because you don’t practice them when you’re in the States. I mean, I don’t go around bowing all the time now.
So, you said that you didn’t live on base when you were growing up. Were you able to communicate and play with the Japanese kids in your off base neighborhood?
When you’re a kid you don’t really have to talk. [We communicated with] just body language…we’d just nod…and use a lot of hand signals. We just wanted to have fun so it didn’t matter.
The language barrier definitely created a bubble environment where I was so blind to what other kids were doing. I kind of grew up without that peer pressure. So, I’d say growing up in Japan put me in a bubble. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but I guess it kept me from feeling…I don’t know if corrupted is the right word but…
You were pretty innocent?
Yeah, it definitely made me innocent. I was so naive when I moved to the states. I always expected the best of people here. I try to now, but sometimes you see so much here that you lose that sense of innocence.
Do you feel like you have a strong connection to Japan?
Yeah. If anyone says anything negative about Japan, my immediate response is defensive. Even when you told me your stories about Japan, [even though] it’s so recent for you, it’s hard for me to believe. [I’m thinking] like no way, no way did that happen.
(Editor’s note: I have some great stories!)
On his Japanese “Favorites”
“I got natto once and I was really pissed.”
What’s your favorite Japanese food?
Number one would definitely be curry. Number two would be katsudon. And number three is onigiri.
What kind of onigiri?
Salmon or tuna, I think. I couldn’t read Japanese so I always chose based on the color. It didn’t always work – I got natto once and I was really pissed.
What’s your favorite place that you visited in Japan?
My automatic response would be Fuji.
Did you climb it?
Yeah. I remember hating it…so much. I was hating it but once I got to the top, it was like, “Wow, this was worth it.”
What’s your favorite Japanese word?
On being a Third Culture Kid
“I don’t identify with one culture.”
Do you consider yourself to be a cultural nomad?
When I was younger, yeah. I’d probably identify with that more. But now, not so much.
How about a cultural chameleon?
Yeah. I’m really good at trying to blend with society instead of fighting it.
How do you answer when somebody asks you where you’re from?
I usually have to restate the question for them. I ask them if they’re asking me where I grew up or where I have lived the longest. If they’re asking me just what state…I’m from then I answer that question. But, it’s never a straight answer.
Do you hate that question?
Because there isn’t a right or wrong answer for it really. They always want more details once I tell them I’ve spent 17 or 16 years in Japan and then they ask, “Why don’t you speak the language?” or “Do you speak the language?” and I say, “No.” and they give me weird looks.
On the “Military Brat” Subculture
“I don’t have a home, per se. My home is always where my family is. My friends that I grew up with…if I’m with them, I feel at home.”
So, I’m going to tell you about some statistics that I read in a few studies on military children that are out there. Just let me know your reaction – if you agree or think it’s not really true, whatever.
Military brats are particularly resilient.
Military brats have a high level of multicultural or international awareness.
I would say it’s on a case-by-case basis. Kids who grew up overseas or were ever stationed overseas would have that cultural exposure…but there’s plenty of military kids who were born and raised in the same city.
Military brats are proficient in foreign languages.
Military brats graduate from college at a higher rate than American kids from non-military families.
I could see that being somewhat true. I mean, it’s hard to really draw a correlation from that but if they did grow up overseas and if they ever went to a DoD school, [then I could see that holding true.]
Every DoD school was really pushing you to further your education. They never wanted to you just quit at high school. They never tried to convince you to go enlist in the military. In my experience, they always wanted you to go to college.
Military brats struggle to maintain lasting relationships.
Yeah, I can see that. But, my best friends from high school are still my best friends today. I try to make the effort to text them, call them, e-mail them, message them, whatever it is. At least keep an open line of contact with them. You never know when your lives will cross again.
But, yeah, I could see that a lot of people would be like O.K. – break or end a friendship or relationship every two to three years because that’s what you’ve been raised to do.
Military brats tend to feel like outsiders in civilian culture.
Yeah. At least for me, I had a really hard time assimilating back into American culture. Well, [it was] the first time really [for me to try to] assimilate into U.S. culture. It was definitely difficult.
And yes, with that abrupt end you’ve reached the conclusion of my first “Life After Japan” interview on Hasami & Glue. An accomplished journalist, I am not. But, this is the kind of stuff that really interests me at my most basic level so I’m going to keep at it.
If you’ve ever lived in Japan, I would love to chat with you about your experiences. Tweet me at @hasamiandglue or post to my facebook page, Hasami and Glue.
Until next time, take care!