What does it mean to integrate?
In Japanese, I often encounter the word tokekomu — to melt into something, to become a part of it as it becomes you. The metaphor seems to imply a mutual concession, and yet as I grow in my knowledge of culture and custom, I sometimes find myself frustrated with the dearth of reciprocal adjustment toward me.
But then I ask myself, Is that really what I came here for?
John Dewey once said, “We only think when confronted with a problem.” If it was comfort I sought, I already know where to find it: comfort is home; it resides in the answers we know, a close fellow of certainty and familiarity.
No, my drive is a grown one’s hunger for childish wonder, borne of the void of the foreign unknown, where answers spawn questions whose vacuum inhales me. Though Japan and I are undeniably separate, I press my face against the glass, but in no effort to pass through it — only to get a closer look. From here, I am so close, yet so far, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yet I have not always thought that way. Admittedly, I was initially irked to hear that the Japanese considered it uncouth for foreigners to desire or attempt to homogenize with Japanese culture. There was a short interstice where I wanted nothing more than to integrate in spite of the rule, for I viewed it as the highest accomplishment of the foreigner. In truth, it was simply the principle of prohibition that offended me, evoking my inner rebel.
There is wisdom, though, in their logic. To actually become a Japanese, or a Spaniard or an Englishman, would first require years of scrubbing oneself clean of original cultural identity, not to mention the dilemma of physical conformity, which is what ultimately bars me.
Regardless, I no longer feel that urge, because today I find it more of a challenge to allow for duality in my cultural understanding, rather than simply choosing one as paramount to the other. Best of all, seeing from both angles at once gives me parallax, adding a new dimension to just about everything. For those who have spent their lives without depth perception, it is a curious and useful new way to see.
I do not care much for endings, nor for answers. It is like the feeling that arises when I finish a book, where I sometimes wish I could unlearn its plot, just to experience the unravelling again. Yet with Japanese, I am a perpetual student, enthralled by a fractal whose patterns may become familiar but whose nuance has no end.
Beyond merely challenging my societal preconceptions, which confounds me already, it digs deeper into my very understanding of self-expression. I may find words for which there are no words — or even worse, the opposite — and combined, they render any attempt of direct translation far too cumbersome. If I am to communicate, I must renovate my thinking from its very foundations.
This is why I study Japanese, why I regard learning a second language as invaluable. It reaches beyond vocabulary lists or repetitive recitation. As for me, there is no stopping, as I have already grown too fond of this great puzzle. Generous in contradiction, clouded in mystique, I have finally found the story that needs no end to make a point.