Toyota, Women’s Figure Skating and Cultural Lessons

When the Toyota recalls made headline news my husband asked me one question: “You don’t think someone will commit suicide over this, do you?”

Absurd or plausible? How many of you understand where this question comes from or can’t believe Peter would ask such a thing?

When Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, criticized Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s apology for not showing enough remorse did you nod in agreement or get defensive? If you nodded in agreement, what would have demonstrated an appropriate show of remorse? If you got defensive what did you see or hear that might not have been as obvious or direct?

Last night’s women’s figure skating finals was beautiful and stressful to watch: Mao Asada v. Kim Yu-Na = Japan v. South Korea = two women carrying the weight of their respective countries. The entire country.

Overly dramatic sports commentators telling a story? Or did you feel the weight too? Did you feel relief for Kim Yu-Na and simultaneously feel the weight of a second place finish or did you wonder when America would once again be on the podium?

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that getting a ‘B’ or not getting into a top university or quitting every instrument I ever picked up brought shame and disgrace to my country, but I certainly understood that my family (and by family I mean those alive and dead) would forever be a part of each success and failure.

My father asked me to play the piano at the inaugural Sunday service of the church plant he was pastoring. I told him I really wasn’t sure because I’m not that strong of an accompanist. Practice may make perfect, but I really didn’t think I could practice close enough to perfect. My parents insisted in direct and indirect ways about how important this was and what it would mean for me to play the piano. I gave in. Big mistake. I was horrible. I was so embarrassed, but more for my parents than anyone else. We carried each other’s disappointment and embarrassment. We never talked about it. (Dad, if you’re reading this we still don’t have to talk about it.)

Multiply that by, um, infinity, and that might be what Kim Yu-Na and Koreans and Mao Asada and Japanese everywhere were experiencing – the weight of a nation carried by two women and their nations. (And I can’t even get into the historic animosity between these two nations…)

You could almost see that weight come off of Kim Yu-Na as she finished her long program and hit that final pose. We all saw it – it was obvious and indirect at the same time. Kim Yu-Na couldn’t explain in post-performance interviews why she uncharacteristically started crying, but the sports commentators filled in the blanks. They may not have felt a nation’s pressure on them, but they saw it and understood it enough to translate the indirect and subtle.

That’s what Rep. Kaptur missed during the congressional hearings. Perhaps she and the other politicians were expecting tears but what they missed was the indirect weight of a nation losing face and issuing apologies and testimony in both English and Japanese. Maybe they need a lesson in cross-cultural awareness, and watch some tape of last night’s figure skating performances. Maybe our politicians need cultural interpreters as well as language interpreters?

So what did you catch or miss or learn or find yourself explaining as an automotive giant was held accountable and an ice queen held court?

What is Proper Attire For Becoming An American

This one is just for fun. Really. Fun.

At the bottom of my Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony is the following statement:

Proper attire should be worn

So, what do you think is proper attire? What would you wear if you were becoming an American citizen? Blue jeans – nice ones that look tailored? Jeggings, yay or nay? My hanbok might be over-the-top, right?

And yes, I will post a photo after the ceremony.

What is an American Handshake?

A colleague posted this on FB, and I must admit I had to laugh at the underwear reference.

I also chuckled at the various “American handshakes” and thought of the awkward, funny cross-cultural breaches of etiquette that can happen on a daily basis.

Growing up my younger sister never called me by my first name. To this day, the only time I hear her call me “Kathy” is when she is introducing me to someone. She calls me “Uhn-nee” – the Korean word for older sister.

We were taught that calling someone who is older by their first name was disrespectful, so we never called a grown-up by their first name. Family friends were simply known as “So-and-so’s mom/dad”. Even in college I had moments of panic when a TA would introduce themselves by their first name. So when I took my first job I was horrified at the thought of calling my editors Roger, Joanne & Diane. I have this little issue with doing the right thing the right way, but clearly living and growing up in the midst of two cultures has a way of blurring the lines.

As a parent I still feel the tension. Our kids are another generation out, but we’ve taught the boys to refer to their older sister as “Noo-nah” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to and call his older sister, and Elias will often call his older brother “Hyung” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to his older brother. Elias once asked why no one calls him anything special. I guess “Hey, Elias” doesn’t count.

But what those B-school international students were learning and laughing about the American Handshake feels different if you take the point of view of an American. My kids are Americans. They may choose to identify themselves as hyphenated Americans (Korean- or Asian-), and they most certainly hear us refer to our family that way. But, by virtue of birth (and I have the birth certificates to prove it) they are Americans so do the family traditions they have grown up with and possibly choose to pass down to another generation continue to change what is “American”? 

I know. Deep thoughts for a gloomy Tuesday morning. Maybe I’ve been reading and hearing too many comments about “preserving the American way of life”. Can someone tell me what that means?