By Yumi Phillips
“Ugh, you’re so Americanized.”
My grandfather said this to me with a sneer that conveyed a bit of frustration and annoyance. It happened when I seemed to challenge his view on what we were discussing.
This was an “aha” moment for me.
Why? Well, in my mind, I was sharing a valid point to add to the conversation in a respectful manner. But to my grandfather, I’ve done the opposite of what traditional Japanese culture expects: obedience and respect to elders, especially to men who are the head of the household. I thought that I contributed maturely as a young adult to the discussion, but my grandfather was shocked that his youngest granddaughter not only disagreed with his opinion so openly but also that I even had my own opinion on the matter in the first place.
I doubt what happened is unique to me. Most people have probably have experienced some sort of generation gap, if you will. But I also think that it has something to do with my bicultural background, being raised in a Japanese household while growing up in the States. I am sometimes seen as too Americanized in Japan and too Japanese in the States. I’ve had more of these “aha” moments since that conversation with my grandfather, mainly in my professional life.
Let me give you an example.
I was raised to use the honorific title san (which means “Mr.” or “Ms.”) with anyone who is older and outside of my family. Therefore, in any professional settings, I assumed everyone would be addressed using a similar type of formality. So, I was a bit shocked when I learned that almost everyone at my work— including the president of the organization— is on a first-name basis.
I know that this is not the case in every workplace in the States. It depends on the office culture, the type of professional relationship you have with the person, etc. And I don’t call just anyone at work by his/her first name. I certainly use formality when it’s appropriate, especially for the first correspondence or meeting and with certain respected individuals. I was just shocked at first because it’s almost unthinkable in the Japanese society to address your co-worker let alone your boss by his/her first name.
At any rate, it definitely took a while for me to address people with doctorate degrees—particularly college deans, university presidents, and former congresspersons, among others— by their first names, even when they requested it. I’m used to it by now; but along the way, there have been other “aha” moments. And every time it happens, I think about what happened with my grandfather many years ago. Then, I remind myself to consider how my reactions are perceived and what’s culturally appropriate in the situation.
I now feel that I’m more conscious of my surroundings and more able to place myself in other people’s shoes. And it’s a great asset to be able to understand cultural differences and know how to be adaptable—or so I’m told. What are your thoughts?
Yumi Phillips is the associate program officer of Health Policy Educational Programs and Fellowships at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. She is also the deputy director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellows program. Before joining the IOM, Yumi was an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Yumi received her BS in biology from the University of Maryland, College Park, and her MA in communication from the Johns Hopkins University.