Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sea of Duh

It might be safe to say that even cows occasionally pass through periods of what could be called curiosity. Who knows? Maybe they get twitches of wondering about the grass and dandelions on the other side of the fence. Probably a good bet that all animals possess degrees of inquisitiveness about things around them. And we humans—if we are to believe the poets—created only a little lower than the angels, are born with a supreme sense of curiosity, a desire that follows us through our days to know or learn something. At least that is supposed to be the case.

I have my doubts. Though I’d like to think otherwise, genuine interest or curiosity about anything outside the boundaries of pop culture, Facebook, celebrity worship and Twitter has been on the wane for some years. One of the results of this ‘trend’ is an ever-widening sea of cultural illiteracy.

Yesterday I answered a knock on the door to find a young Japanese man, a face I had never seen before. He is visiting with an American family from Grand Rapids, Michigan, an exchange student from Tokyo. Someone around here told this fella that a man across the way lived in Tokyo for a long time, and curious I suppose, he knocked on my door. A very personable eighteen year-old, he was a blizzard of English impressive for one in this country only five months. Not long into our conversation—all in English—he explained carefully that the goal of an exchange student is a little more than many people seem to understand. No trouble on my side with where his thoughts were going, but I wanted to hear him spell it out. From impressions he has gathered over his months in the US, many people imagine that ‘exchange’ implies a simple trade-off of two students switching locations for a set period of time.

What this young man—call him Shintarô—is discovering is that few of his American classmates are interested in what life is like for high school seniors in Japan, and similarly uninterested in explaining the customs and culture of their own country. They have no curiosity or interest in either side of the question. Descriptions of his interaction with Americans his age hints at boredom, with shallow and trivial chatter best characterized as Twitter-talk. Am I surprised? Mmm… No.

The surprise comes with hearing these words from a Japanese high school student. From my own personal experience, he might have been describing Japanese young people and their their lack of substantive thought or interest in something other than their cell phones, Cream Stew (TV comedians) and fashion. The interesting thing about Shintarô’s experience is that he is describing something strongly identifiable with his fellow Japanese teenagers. Seems it’s a phenomenon among people on both sides, and likely elsewhere as well.

There are always exceptions and the young man who knocked on my door yesterday is certainly one of them. In thirty minutes of conversation he proved to be bright, well-informed and curious about many things. Chances are good there are a few students at his American school who can challenge him with an exchange of ideas and experiences. Hopefully he will link up with those students.


  1. Interesting post about the thoughts of young people....both Japanese and Americans. Seems it the "sign of the times" as young people go about life interested in nothing else but self. What a shame. What a delight to hear about this young Japanese student.

  2. Thanks for this post! We had a Japaneses exchange student in 2009. All she seemed to care about were boys. I was shocked at her choice of clothing as well - way too sexy for her age in my opinion. When my daughter returned the visit in Japan, she reported that it was the same with other girls there and quickly lost interest in Japan, I'm afraid.

  3. Make that only one "Japaneses" - **grin**

  4. I think folks of every generation bemoan the lack of cultural literacy in the young and true to a large extent in every generation. But now--even with the ability to surf directly into libraries and the like--there seems to be an even bigger wasteland of the non-curious. Indeed, some students are hard-pressed to point out their state on a map. Always reminds of me of the 1961 bestseller A NATION OF SHEEP. And then there's the 1955 bestseller WHY JOHNNY CAN'T READ.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America