Thursday, June 25, 2009

            Time seems to have accelerated over the past few months, as my stay in Tokyo is quickly coming to an end.   As I reflect on the dynamic experiences I have had, I realize just how much Japan’s culture, people, and rich tradition have shaped me. The “Fulbright experience” has truly made a mark on my character and I feel that I have evolved somehow into a person with more perspective and balance.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was incredibly excited about the potential oozing from this place. I was excited to explore a new world, dive into research/work, meet new people from all walks of life, and gain some perspective about the world while doing these things.  It is strange for me to think that these thoughts were initially felt 10 months ago.  It is odd primarily because these thoughts have not been dampened in any way, but only heightened to a degree that I could never possibly anticipate.  Let me explain.

Exploring a new world.  I have tried to capitalize on every spare moment I have in Japan.  While some of these adventures have contributed to my missing the last train back to Kokubunji, many of these experiences have truly opened my eyes and contributed to my new and more cultured perspective on life.  Recently, I have visited museums, art exhibits, music concerts, photoshoots, and even sat in on two incredibly well done independent documentaries (with English subtitles, of course).  I have also explored new “areas” within Japan with friends and even alone, stumbling upon those hidden treasures that can only be discovered by a wrong turn or holding the map upside down.  I have been amazed at many things I have seen and often take a second to step back and take it all in.  This is a rare practice for me, but one I have come to embrace in order to mentally process all the intense stimuli around me.  Tokyo offers a world where everyone can find his or her niche, I believe.  While exploring this new culture, people, and environment, you become uncomfortably close to understanding yourself and what you value or do not value.  You begin to question aspects of life that you have not considered before and find thoughts flashing in your mind that may have never had the chance to surface.  I believe these experiences to be among the most important in life and an important part of evolving as a person.  Indeed, it is through such experiences that we learn what makes us tick and how to be a better and more conscious global citizen. 

Diving into research and work.  While I am a strong advocate that only progress can adequately measure efficiency and commitment, I can also say that time facilitates these things in most cases.  Working 10-12 hour days has been a grueling part of my experience in Japan, but an incredibly worthwhile one.  It has been more challenging than originally anticipated to work on two studies at once, though I do feel that the time spent on these studies has been productive.  As the results of both studies trickle in, I am finding my excitement about the potential impact of such findings to be significant.  There is nothing better in the world (to me) than to truly believe that your research findings will contribute in some way towards the vast knowledge in the world, and maybe not be filed away amongst the many half-hearted attempts at discovery.  The results of my stigma study, in particular, are very exciting.  This is the first cross-cultural comparison study between Japan and the US concerning the stigma associated with schizophrenia and we can safely report that there are significant differences between the two cultures.  Hopefully I will be able to discuss this in further detail soon, as the analysis is still underway.  While the study has been more expensive than originally projected, perhaps the results will impact the world in a way that may lead to decreasing stigma associated with mental illness.  This is my dream.

I have participated in a few conferences and meetings outside of my area of expertise that have been incredibly informative.  Before I came to Japan, I was truly trapped in the A to B mentality that medical/graduate school tends to steer you towards.  Living outside of this environment now, I can look at this type of mentality objectively and see that it does not promote creativity or foster individual development.  It may be too standardized and formulaic to promote new neurons to fire in novel ways.  In my opinion, you need to stimulate such neurons to fire in order to come up with the ideas that will lead to important discoveries.  This inside-out approach was once novel to me, but it is one I truly endorse now after living the “Fulbright experience.”  After all, if the formation of cortical layers in our brain develops with this idea in mind (“inside out” approach), there must be some hidden meaning to subscribing to such a notion.  I am convinced.  I have been particularly impressed with the conferences I have attended concerning soft power, global relations and diplomacy, as well as talks given concerning the environment and climate control.  To be a conscientious global citizen, we must first realize that we cannot completely separate our lives from public policy/politics, the environment, other countries in the world, technology, and science.  I believe these subjects to be imperative if we are to truly grasp the future direction of this world and to harness our individual potential to initiate progressive change.  After all, it is when we open our minds to the GLOBAL consequences of our actions now that we can begin to understand that what we do today will affect future generations to come throughout the world.  It is a very powerful thought that I feel might be novel to many American scientists who are trained to think in the A to B format.

Meeting new people from all walks of life.  During my short stay in Tokyo, I feel so fortunate to have met so many interesting characters who have contributed to my overall impression that Japan is a wonder.  Considering that I work at a psychiatric/neurological hospital, I encounter patients with schizophrenia (“togo shitcho sho”) and mental illness everyday.  Moreover, I see patients with severe cases of epilepsy, brain retardation, and rare genetic diseases as they try desperately to make their way down the hall. Each step for them is careful, calculated, and seems to take just as much courage as it does energy to execute. These people are my heroes, for they are alive and functioning in a world that may not be as considerate as it could be in these modern times.  The stigma, discrimination, and shame that are often associated with such illnesses permeates all cultures and all geographic boundaries, which is why it is a global problem to be solved and not one specific to Japan.  We must understand – as scientists and physicians – that a major part of healing and understanding brain pathophysiology resonates in comprehending the integration of nature with nurture.  We often neglect the nurture aspect of this partnership, which is comparable to looking through a window at the world with the shades only half drawn.  Seeing these people at the hospital and learning their stories reminds me that it is essential to open the shades completely to let the sunshine – or lack thereof- stream in.

Moreover, I have met social scientists, artists, historians, half Asians, designers, professors, pilates instructors etc. who have shaped me in more ways than one during my brief stay in Japan.  The breadth of knowledge gained from my interaction with these individuals delves deeper than any textbook or manuscript could ever take me.  There is something to be said for looking at a person face to face, sipping on coffee together, while listening to their story and learning about life –and all it’s intricacies – through their perspective.  There is no question in my mind that this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my Fulbright experience – genuine immersion in the Japanese culture.  Many of these people I have met are native Japanese, offering a relatively foreign, yet interesting, outlook on things I may have taken for granted.  For example, when an American sees a person with a mask on their face, they think, “Why is that person wearing that mask? Do they think that such a mask can prevent them from getting a cold?” We don’t think about things, necessarily, from the opposite perspective, which is how the Japanese may interpret such an act.  You see, the Japanese may be wearing the mask to protect others from an illness they already have – they are a considerate people who often focus on community and how they fold into society.  This is just a small example of how cultural differences run deeper than just language; in fact, this demonstrates why many foreigners often find themselves truly “lost in translation.”

Perhaps one surprising finding is the plethora of half Asian individuals I have met in Japan.  They call us “hapas” or “halfus,” which can mean many things.  For the sake of simplicity, we will say that “halfu” means ½ Japanese, ½ something else.  While I am only ¼ Japanese – but a ¼ Chinese as well- I am still considered to be part of this “halfu” cohort to some extent.  I have never felt ashamed or conflicted about my ethnicity, but was raised to embrace these drastically different cultures and try my best to integrate them to squeeze out the best of both worlds.  Whether I have been successful in this endeavor or not remains to be established, but I sure have enjoyed the process.  I was raised to be proud of my differences and to embrace the bright genetic forecast that heterogeneity may provide.  It has been fun.  Being in Japan is the first time I have met with a bunch of half people at one time.  Oddly enough, the feeling I got was incredibly positive – I felt like I had immediately found my niche.  Not to say that I don’t feel at home with people of other ethnicities, but there was something inviting about speaking with another person who looked like me, someone who similarly struggles with checking the “right” ethnicity box, and someone who was familiar with the odds and ends of being mixed race.  Our interaction was immediately easy and many things often went unsaid.  What a truly eye-opening experience.

Perspective.  This is the best word to summarize my Fulbright experience.  This is the priceless gift I have received from this cultural immersion experience and I would not trade it for the world.  It has helped me become more centered, helped me realize what I value and what I would like to learn more about, while also helping me understand a culture that is very near and dear to my heart.  My grandmother (Fumie Fujimoto) is one of the most amazing women I have ever known and I am forever indebted to her for planting this seed of curiosity that has now blossomed into something beautiful and sustainable. Japan feels like home to me. I will maintain my relationship with Japan over the years and continue to integrate it into my life at every logical opportunity.  The politeness of the people, the rich tradition, the amazing efficiency, the bright lights of the big city that make the rock gardens and streams seem even more peaceful have enraptured me. I am grateful and humbled at the same time, realizing that there is so much more to learn about the world.  I am excited, more than anything.





1 comment:

BcB said...

Yours in an experience that I wish every one of us, science-y and not, had the opportunity to repeat. Since the likelihood of that is very slim, thank you for providing us with glimpses of another place and culture! Espectially as globalization becomes more and more a reality (thankfully), more perspective is always grand. I'm sorry that this adventure is winding to a close, but I'm also sure it's just one of a multitude to come =) Talk soon!