I have been learning English for years, and since when I was young, becoming someone who can communicate, understand, and cooperate with people regardless of their cultural backgrounds has always been one of my dreams. Along the way, I gradually came to believe that there is a key to achieve that goal – it is to become less like Japanese. I honestly thought that was necessary to prove that I am a fluent English speaker, and that I can be friends not just with Japanese but also with anyone.
This might sound crazy, but I have an excuse. I believed that because somehow I thought it was the only way to be accepted, valued, and treated as an equal person by other people from different countries. (I don’t remember what made me feel that way, but that should be another story.)
I know some Japanese people might hate to hear this – but when someone tells me “You’re not like typical Japanese.” I always took it as a compliment. And I had never doubted that it can only be a good thing. For me being told that I am different from their image of Japanese people is simply showing that I am making a progress to become who I want to become. I truly believed that it was only after I could get rid of all the details that reminds them of Japanese stereotypes – appearance, language, behavior, way of thinking, facial expressions and body language and so forth – that I can be a person who I dreamed to be.
What does it mean to become “less like Japanese”? Well, I have some role models of Asian women who are valued and respected globally.
One of them is Jenn Im, a Korean American YouTube star.
Her parents were born in South Korea and moved to the United States, seeking a better life for their children. Jenn herself was born and raised in the United States. Since both she and I have East Asian DNA, I would say I would not realize if she is American, if I only saw her face, without knowing who she is. I might talk to her in Japanese, if I found her in my neighborhood.
However for me, she really looks like an American girl. Everything I respect about her – her bold makeup and fashion, confident posture, way of talking and other non-verbal communication styles – is not really like East Asian. She looks similar, and very different at the same time – from me, and from other Asian people who were born and raised in Asian countries.
Since she is a very intelligent, smart, beautiful person, I was inspired by her so much – so much that I believed that being someone like her – having Asian appearance and Western communication style – is the only right way to become an internationally successful Asian person.
However recently, I have just realized that it might not be true. Jenn is who she is because she is a Korean American. But that is not who I am. Maybe her style is what came natural to her, but for me, even if I tried to behave like her, it will be very hard – it will be almost like acting.
I started to think “Maybe it’s not necessary to act” – I began to think “It must be possible that I can still be like a Japanese and be accepted and respected by people from other countries”.
What made me change my idea? It was these three Asian women working successfully, valued, and even appreciated globally.
The first person is Marie Kondo, also known as “Kon Mari”, a Japanese typing-up consultant.
I know I’m a little late to the party, but the other day I finally watched the Netflix’s original show, “Tidying-Up with Marie Kondo“. Of course I have heard of her before, and I also knew about “Kon Mari Method“, her original organizing techniques. However, I had no idea who she is like. I never had a chance to see how she talks, how she behaves, and how she works with her clients.
Since her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is the best seller in the US, and also because she recently appeared on the red carpet, I imagined she would be someone like a confident, strong, busy, and even slightly workaholic woman, that I would be intimidated and overwhelmed to talk to (only if I get a chance). However, as soon as I saw Marie on the show, I realized she was the opposite to what I expected. Of course she is probably confident, strong and busy too, but if you ask me three words to describe her, that should be: sweet, calm and thoughtful.
She also reminded me of one Japanese word – “Yamato-Nadeshiko”. This word describes Japanese women who are elegant, modest, thoughtful and beautiful. No matter when and no matter what Marie is doing – when she is sitting down, standing, speaking, and even when she is actually decluttering – her posture was always perfect. When she is talking with her clients, she was always talking calmly with a smile. Even when things get intense – for example when the family, couple, roomies started arguing – she was chilled and kind all the time. It looked as if Marie can help everyone to calm down whenever people get emotional. Also when she has to say something contrary or opposite to what her clients said, how she put that into words was amazing – she can talk in a way that does not hurt anyone’s feelings, but helps them to understand what she thinks is important. I could tell why she is a successful consultant.
I felt she is like a today’s version of a role model of Japanese women. She is a proof that Yamato-Nadeshiko is not just about being modest and humble. Marie is smart and successful, while she is still who she is – sweet, calm and thoughtful.
Also It was very surprising and unexpected how much her American clients are enjoying working with her, when she can be very different from them. While being very unique, Marie was accepted and appreciated by her clients very much.
What amazed me the most was her greetings to the houses. Every time she visits her clients for the first time, before she begins tidying up, she greets the house – she sits on the floor, closes her eyes, and says in her mind, “Thank you for always protecting.” and “We are about to begin the process of tidying.”
This reminded me of Shinto. In ancient times, in Shinto, one of the Japanese oldest religions, it was believed that everything in the universe, there is god inside. Now many Japanese people are not really religious, but so many things about Japanese culture are actually based on this idea, even though many of us don’t really know that. Actually, you can still find this belief quite often in today’s daily lives in Japan.
For example you may know we say “Itadakimasu” before we start eating. When Japanese people say this, we say this almost automatically. It is one of the manners, we all be taught as a child it can be rude not to say this. And we do not even consider that it is religious. But when we say this, deep inside, we are actually thanking everything in the universe. Sun, water, soil, mountains, river, the sea, farmers, fishers, and someone who cooked the meal. We are thanking everything in the universe that enables us to eat that meal. The word “itadakimasu” itself is a polite way (keigo) to say “I take it.” or “I receive it.”, and the direct translation will be “We gratefully take the life.”
When Marie greets the clients’ houses, she is thanking the house. Just like when people say “Itadakimasu”. I think it can be something unusual to Western culture to greet or thank material things in a proper way like Marie does. But she is not afraid to be judged. In stead of avoiding the possibility of being judged, she says “I don’t force you, or I don’t even ask you to do this with me. But only if you want to, please join me greeting your home.”
Of course most of the American clients on the show seemed very surprised when she told them that she was going to greet their home. However in the right next moment, they smiled! Rather than judging, they got interested. Marie’s greeting helped them to see how serious and sincere Marie was. Many clients joined her, saying “I love that!” “I’m excited.”
There was another thing many clients said in common about her – who Marie is as a person was also helpful for them to go through the process of tidying.
Of course their home feels new and fresh because it is more organized – but also because of how Marie made them feel about organizing. Since Marie was positive and happy during the process, people could learn how to enjoy cleaning. Since Marie was open and kind, people felt safe to share their feelings and struggles. Since she know how to talk thoughtfully when people are facing problems, people could learn and change.
“Marie brought a whole bunch of joy upon our home.” – This is my favorite review of Marie’s beautiful work.
I was surprised by the fact that Marie did not seem trying too hard to adjust her true self to the different culture in order to be accepted – and it seemed working. Actually, it was more than working. People enjoyed how unique she is. Marie is different from her American clients for sure. She was something unusual and new to them. But how the differences blend together and work together in a positive way – it was very inspiring and moving to see.
Since I always believed I should never be a Yamato-Nadeshiko when I am with people from outside of Asia, I was in shock when I saw the show – it was very eye-opening.
Other two Asian women changed my belief were the contestants of another amazing Netflix’s original show, “Next in Fashion” – Angel Chen from China, and Minju Kim from South Korea.
This program is a contest for fashion designers from all over the world. They are all professionals who already have successful careers so far, but the only thing they are lacking is – house hold name. The winner can win $250,000 to bring their business and brand to the next level. Angel and Minju soon became my favorite team on this show.
Angel was born and raised in Shanghai, and later graduated from Central Saint Martins London, England. Minju was born in Gwangju, a city near Seoul, and graduated from Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium. They both build their own fashion brands soon after graduation, and each of them have been working with big brands, designers, and having shown at fashion weeks in all around the world.
Since they have been living and working in both Asian and other countries since they were young, at the very beginning of the show, I could tell that they are confident and comfortable to be surrounded by non Asian people. They speak fluent English and did not have any problem to communicate with other contestants.
That made me automatically think that they must be similar to Jenn, beautiful Asian people perfectly adjusted to Western culture, who I looked up and aimed to be like.
However the more episodes I watch, the more I learned that Angel and Minju actually still have Asian characteristics.
When they are relaxing, their conversations were just like the ones I would have with my Japanese girl friends. (I wished I could join the cute team.) They were also extremely humble, even when judges who are usually a little harsh, surprisingly gave them the best compliments about their work.
Even when other contestants seemed not hesitant to show their emotions – whether it is positive or negative – Angel and Minju kept acting quite calmly the whole time. They might show it when they are happy, but when they are stressed, they barely showed that. They could even be thoughtful to other designers having hard times. They always shared their positive vibes and that was helping people around them. I could see that people gradually build trust on these Asian girls and even relied on them.
Seeing them dealing with such intense, stressful situations really calmly made me feel that we are neighbors. Of course they have exceptionally amazing personalities. I am not trying to say every Asian is like them. But I thought their personalities are definitely based on Asian culture. I can easily imagine if there was a Japanese designer, they must have behaved like Angel and Minju.
One of the most unforgettable scenes of them on this show was when they were talking about the name of their team – “Dragon Princess”. They even have a pose!
Tan France, one of the hosts of “Next in Fashion” also known as a member of Fab Five from “Queer Eye“, came to their table and asked them about their team name. And the moment Angel and Minju did their “pose”, which reminds me of Asian idol groups, I was so worried – worried if the hosts from Western background being surprised and finding their cute culture somehow weird or awkward. But I couldn’t be more wrong.
The hosts’ reaction was completely positive. Alexa Chung, the other host of the show also known as a British supermodel, said “That’s so cute.” And she and Tan started to create their own team name, which is “English Queens“.
Again, I could hear the sound of my yearslong belief being crushed and falling down.
Angel and Minju are clearly successful in both Asian and Western countries as designers, but they are not necessarily Westernized. Even their Asian side was also accepted and even loved by Western people, even in such a competitive situation. That was something completely mind-blowing to me.
Their unique personalities – cute reactions, comments, and jokes – made everyone around them smile.
Dragon Princess made me realize that being different can also mean you have your own value that nobody else can bring. Being different, something you do might make other people surprised, but also possibly can make them feel safe, happy, and positive. Your uniqueness can be loved and appreciated.
Since Japan is still such a mono cultural country, many Japanese people don’t usually get a chance to realize that Japan is quite unique for people from other countries. It is sadly interesting that Japanese people are very sensitive when other people seem different to them, while they are not aware that they are also different to people from other cultures. (Of course I am not saying all Japanese people are like that.)
When Japanese people talk about how unique they are, people tend to talk only about traditions and habits – saying “Itadakimasu”, using chopsticks, kimonos and sushi. But even though it is hard to realize unless you go abroad or intentionally learn, how we are is also unique. How we talk, how we think, how we behave in each situation, our facial expressions, body language, and so forth.
And I’m sure that I’m not the only one who had the similar urge to get rid of your original culture and background, when you try to grow as a person who works internationally. I feel there are many people not just in Asia but anywhere in the world – prioritize to adjust to the different culture, in order to be accepted, and not to be judged. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. That’s not wrong at all.
You can learn a lot by doing that. For example when you try to copy other culture. If you want to learn other languages, copying will be very practical. Copying helps you to learn, understand, and improve quicker. Also there’re tons of things you can learn only by experiencing – and when it is not easy to actually experience something, copying will be a compromised way to let you experience the different culture you’ve never experienced before.
However for sure – that’s not the only way.
Whatever your goal is, how international or intercultural that is, it does not necessarily require you to get rid of who you originally are. You may not see your background as something exciting, because you are so used to it, but once you go outside, you may realize that what’s so natural to you was actually something unique and special to other people. It could even be an important part of who you are. It can even make you special.
These three amazing Asian women are proving that. Seeing how successful they are and how natural they still are was like a relief to me.
I always wanted to be less like Japanese, but I’m not going to lie – it was hard. No matter how hard I learned English, no matter how many people from different cultures I met, I have always been a Japanese girl. And I was worried if that can affect my potential negatively. However, I finally started to think it is okay – maybe even more than okay – to stay who I am.
If you are like me – trying to hide your background in order to be accepted and appreciated in a different culture – that can be one way, but that is not the only way. Things you cannot lose even if you try – they are not your enemy. That can possibly be your best friend along your journey to your dream.