Worlds in motion

Sometimes, because the scenery changes so slowly, it’s difficult to gauge just how far you’ve come in life.  But every so often you have a kind of flashback to a former existence that brings the contrast between “then” and “now” into stark focus.

Me and Big M’s married life together has not been easy. In fact, persevering through the many cultural, linguistic and personal problems we’ve encountered has been by far the most difficult thing I have ever done. And I’m sure the Mrs would agree from her side too. We’ve had some bleak times. But slowly – almost imperceptibly – the grey clouds have drifted away. Now, despite the odd gloomy afternoon, we spend most of our days basking in the sweet, sun-blessed meadows of married bliss.

Maybe that’s something that a lot of married couples experience. But in our case, the cultural dimension makes it so much more special. Not only have we both had to learn to live together as individual human beings, but we’ve also had to learn how to close the cultural divide to enable us to function as a couple in the face of the problems that the world inevitably throws our way. In our own little way, we are a microcosm of the culture clashes that have shaped human history; a miniature United Nations, arguing over the dinner table.

When I think back to (or when I am reminded of) how I behaved when we were first married, I really cringe at how insensitive I was to my wife’s culture and sensibilities. This wasn’t down to any callousness on my part – merely the result of a big cultural disconnect between what I thought a husband should be like, and what Big M’s expectations were. Likewise, she has had to come to terms with the fact that the man she is married to holds different values to what she was expecting, and often behaves in ways that she finds surprising –to say the least.

Our married life has, essentially, been a the process of these two worlds slowly colliding; like two galaxies crashing into each over over millennia, we have slowly and quietly adjusted our orbits to be able to dance together in the void without smashing each other to bits in the process. The remarkable thing is that in learning to accommodate each other, we have each gained something of the other’s culture and absorbed it into ourselves. Over the years, this has created a kind of cultural Venn diagram – two distinct cultures but with a shared area between the two that grows a little larger with each passing year.

What brought this home to me was a conversation yesterday about Big M’s workplace. She has recently changed jobs and now works in a government office in Nishi Ogikubo. As a civil servant, she’s not exactly under a lot of pressure (as a civil servant myself for many years, I know what I’m talking about). But nevertheless, the peculiarities of Japanese culture can always be relied to introduce high levels of stress into even the most relaxed working environments. And so it is with Big M’s place of work.

It’s now summer here in Japan. High temperatures combined with insane levels of humidity make life unbearable without air conditioning. Big M’s place of work has – like every building in Japan – air conditioning. But, until last week, it hasn’t been switched on. The reason – the boss has the job of pushing the button: If the Boss decides it’s hot enough to warrant air conditioning, he will push the button. As subordinates, none of Big M’s work colleagues are willing to take it upon themselves to be the first to supplant the Boss’s authority by pushing the button themselves, despite the fact that they are all dying in the heat. So – there has been a subtle campaign running over the last few days to get the most junior and lowly member on the team (Big M) to push the button, so that the other members of the office can a) be cool and b) have someone to blame for pushing the button. I know – it sounds crazy to our western ears. But this is Japanese culture.

But what they haven’t reckoned with is my missus; having absorbed by osmosis the innate British aversion to Jobsworths and all forms of unfair authority, Big M has caused a mini-revolution by declaring  – in her own words – “Bollocks – I’m hot…where’s the button?” Pushing the button was one thing: Not feeling bad about it is quite another. I cannot overestimate the impact this has had on Big M’s petty minded colleagues, nor indeed on the esteem in which I hold my dearly beloved wife. In my own small way, I have gradually migrated towards a Japanese outlook on life and the obligations that life places upon us. The net result is that we share a unique, quasi-anarchic, pseudo-conformist attitude of our own creation that can exist happily in both western and Japanese cultures, yet not be absorbed by either. In other words, our own little world that has us as its centre. How great is that?