Note: This post is an english translation of a post that I wrote in Japanese. If you would like to read the same post in Japanese, it is called 私の日本のシングル・ストーリー
This is actually a term that came up in my scholars seminar, but the idea of a Single Story is one that is relevant in many different contexts. But what is a Single Story? You may understand after I tell you my story, but here is my definition of the term.
“A Single story, to me, is a stereotypical image that you personally hold of a country, ethnic group, or an individual because of the environment that you grew up in.”
The me today understands how great of a country Japan is, but before, I did not necessarily have the same feelings towards Japan.
Because I was born in California, from childhood we learned bits and pieces about Japan at school, but the image that I had of Japan when I was younger to the image that I have now are totally different. In Elementary School, during the time we studied the California Gold Rush, we also studied the immigration into the United States by many Japanese people, explaining the current large population of Japanese people in California (this was not the only reason though). However, during that time, I did not have any friends or acquaintances were were Japanese, so I did not notice at all this idea that “In California, there is a high population of Japanese people.”。
I still did not have any Japanese friends in Middle School (at least that I can remember…), but during this time, we started studying World War Two more in depth. While learning about the Japanese Kamikaze and The Attack on Pearl Harbor, we learned about Japanese internment camps and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I did not really know what I was supposed to think about Japan as a country. Of course, I understood that the Japanese government has done some bad things in the past, but America has done horrible things to other countries, and what happened in Pearl Harbor was not the fault of Japanese-Americans. When I was in middle school, I started watching Anime, and even though I liked anime, I still did not really feel like Japan was a “good country.” However, it turned out that because America tends to avoid discussing their own actions during World War II, my textbook was written in a way that did not completely explain both sides of the story, especially when it came to the Kamikaze, and that is why whenever I thought of the Kamikaze, I had the image of them being truly evil beings. At that time, I was ignorant of the ways of the world (although I still am in many ways).
I only really understood the American perspective of the war, but when I entered high school, I took a class on World History, allowing me to at least understand japan a little better. However, despite taking three years of Japanese, I still did not know much at all about Japanese culture or politics. At this time in my life, I still thought that I would be pursuing a major in Biology someday, so I did not get the chance to really study Japanese culture outside of what I would see in Anime. However, during the Summer of my third year in high school, I went to Japan, totally changing what I wanted to study in college. From my first year in high school, I had always loved Japanese class, but since I changed my mind and decided to study Japanese, I had no idea what kinds of jobs that I could get, which was very troubling.
During the first semester of the my fourth year of high school, I actually lost most of my confidence in speaking Japanese and didn’t know what do do, but after consulting my Japanese teacher, she told me that instead of quitting, “Why don’t you challenge yourself a little bit and see how you do?” Thanks to my teacher’s encouraging words, I entered our high school’s Japan Bowl Team. But what the heck is Japan Bowl anyways? Japan Bowl is an academic competition. In teams of three, high school students are tested on various topics related to Japan. Every year, the topics that we study change, and there are certainly many of these topics to cover, so the year I participated, I focused on learned about Japanese daily rites of life, performing arts, and religion. In April of 2014, I went to Washington D.C. 2014 along with my team to participate in this Japan Bowl competition and we ended up winning Second place in the whole nation.
After competing in Japan Bowl, I felt like ,”Yes, I can actually be good at something!” and as I longed to learn more about Japan, I was really looking forward to college. Even though I am still just a Freshman, in just one year, I have already learned quite a bit about Japan (although there is still much for me to learn). After learning about Japanese history, culture, politics, and art, the feeling of not knowing what to think about Japan has disappeared. Like other countries, Japan has stains on its past, but now, I feel like I’ve begun to understand Japan’s strong points as well.
In the world, there are many countries that I barely know anything about. Even though I am racially Indian, I don’t know much about Indian history or politics at all. In the case that I had never studied Japanese, I would probably still mostly associate Japan with kamikaze, WWII, and Internment Camps. This is why I think that in order for the people of this world to start getting along better, emphasizing the study of languages would be the most important decision we could make. Through studying a country’s language, one can more easily understand that country’s unique culture, etc. In the world, especially in America, discrimination happens very often. Its a shame, but no matter how many times we oppose the ignorance of the people, they will still have single stories (myself included). Before I started studying Japanese, I had a single story about Japan and Japanese people. To learn from my ignorance and prevent myself having any more single stories about anyone, I have decided to try to learn as much as I can about other countries. Because I had this feeling, I ended up leaving California and coming to Ohio State.
In the case that you want to learn more about what a single story is, this Ted Talk would be very interesting to watch.
In this video, Ms. Chamamanda talks about her own single story. Ms. Chamamanda is from Nigeria, and when she came to America for college, her roommate was surprised that she wasn’t poor or uneducated. This is a single story that Ms. Chamamanda’s roommate about people from Africa. In addition, Ms. Chamamanda herself says that she had a single story when it came to Caucasian people from America. So, no matter where you are in the world, there will be people who hold single stories in their hearts.
I also have had a similar experience. When I first met my roommate, she had various single stories about Indian people. I asked her what came to mind when she thought about Indian people, and she said that she thought of someone who was very religious, good at math and science, and someone who cannot speak English very well. However I’m completely the opposite of that description. Although I really enjoy learning about religion, I am not a very religious person, math and science are my worst subjects, and since I was born in America, I am a native speaker of English. Because of this, my roommate was rather surprised when she first met me.
In the end, single stories will never really disappear, but having patience and treating each question someone asks me about my race with sincerity, then maybe I can reduce the single stories people may have about India. That is why, if you have a single story about a person based on their race, ethnicity, etc, then without making any assumptions, genuinely ask them whatever questions you may have about them.