Cultural dimensions in Buddhaland Brooklyn

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I finished reading this really great and entertaining novel on Sunday, but before letting it go completely, I wanted to go back and take another look at how the author, Richard C. Morais, depicts culture and especially the cultural differences between Japan (Reverend Oda) and America (the American Believers).

Culture and cultural misunderstandings can be quite frustrating but also quite hilarious, and there are plenty of funny scenes in Buddhaland Brooklyn that spring from such cultural differences.

If we consider Geert Hoofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, it’s clear how cultural differences are portrayed throughout the novel. I don’t know if the author has ever read Hofstede or if he just has a really good and natural understanding of Japanese and American culture, but he’s hit the nail right on its head (so to speak) several times.

In describing and comparing cultures, Hofstede talks about terms like power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, pragmatism and indulgence. A culture (country) scores between 1 and 100 (low to high) on the scale of cultural dimensions.

Japan scores higher than America on the power distance, i.e there are greater distances between people in the culture and thus a greater existence of hierarchies. Not all are created equal, and there must be a great level of respect between e.g young and old, children and parents, students and teachers, employees and employers. Hierarchy and respect must be shown in the correct and proper way of e.g dressing (as I mentioned in my previous post) and addressing one another:

You must stop this.
Huh? Stop what?
This…calling me boss. This is inappropriate. I am Reverend Oda.

Some did not address me respectfully as Reverend Oda, but slapped me on the back and called me “Seido” or “Rev” or “Reverend O,” and I had no idea how I should respond to this inappropriate informality, for I had never experienced anything quite like this before.

America is, on the other hand, a much more informal culture, which (apart from in the examples above) may be seen in the following scenes where the Americans don’t put too much emphasis on proper dress or behavior in order to distinguish the power distance between student and teacher:

I began the lecture, formally dressed in coal-gray priest robes over the kesa, the white robes, but the (American) Believers before me mostly wore shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. They slouched during prayers, absentmindedly picked at their feet.

…and then

The Believers rustled in their bags, hauled out tinfoil packets with all manner of foods, even opened up Coca-Cola cans with a pop and hiss like they were at a picnic, not a religious ceremony. I was almost rendered speechless by this behavior.

When it comes to individualism, Hofstede points out that compared to America, Japan is a collectivistic culture, i.e. the opposite of being individualistic. The group matters more the the individual, which is perfectly summed up when Reverend Oda says:

Who I am, personally, is of Head Temple imperiousness. I am unimportant. Of no significance whatsoever.

Whereas in America…

…while in the West, you have to express yourself clearly. Tell us what you are thinking and feeling. That’s how it works here.

Next on Hofstede’s list of cultural dimensions we find the theme of masculinity, which shows to what extent a culture strives for excellence, achievement and success. Both Japan and America have high scores when it comes to masculinity, but Japan is well above America here. Again, we see this in the characters’ approach to practicing Buddhism:

That day I led the American Believers in prayer, for one hour, as I tried without success to teach them the proper rhythm and pronunciation of the Sutra recitation, even banging a drum during the chanting to help them keep the right tempo. They all wanted to be generals (individualistic), however, not foot soldiers (collectivistic), and they rushed ahead of my attempts to lead them in prayer, or slowed down, as if drugged (individualistic). There was no unity. No discipline.

Uncertainty avoidance speaks to the notion of trying to control the future in order to avoid uncertainty (obviously). It also comes across in how well a culture deals with change and how highly e.g. tradition is valued. This “theme” runs throughout the novel and we see this, for instance, in Reverend Oda’s reluctance to join the Head Temple when he is just a child, in his concerns for moving to America, and in his struggle to leave tradition behind when it comes to the rituals of prayer in order to please the American Believers…

“What are you doing?” I asked.
Miss Jennifer looked up, wiped her brow. “Setting up”.
“No chairs. The Believers must kneel. It is part of our formal practice.” (…)
“But kneeling is a Japanese custom. Americans sit in chairs. Some of the Believers are a little overweight and elderly and really have trouble kneeling. Particularly for such a long time.”
“We do not modify the formal practice of the Eternal Teachings simply because Americans are fat.”

The dimension of pragmatism is a bit harder to find in this novel. Pragmatism is about keeping the ties to the past in order to handle the present and the future. Perhaps this is represented in the Japanese Sake that Reverend Oda drinks occasionally at home when he’s feeling homesick, in the Japanese newspaper he buys every day and in the paintings he creates out of memory of various Japanese landscapes. These are elements rooted in his past, in his culture, that help make his new life in America a little more tolerable.

The final dimension, indulgence, shows how people of a certain culture control their desires and impulses. Here, Japan scores low, i.e. this is a culture of some restraint, compared to America, which scores higher on the scale. There are two perfect quotes to support this cultural dimension in the novel. First, Japanese restraint:

A glass of white wine was pressed into my hand. In Japan, I would, of course, never publicly drink in front of Believers I had just met, but perhaps because I was in a foreign land and rather nervous, I gratefully accepted the drink.

Indulgence, on the other hand, comes more freely in America:

I was in the middle of explaining the importance of the lit candles – how the light is symbolic of the Buddha’s wisdom illuminating the darkness of this world – when someone near the front silently released gas. I had never smelled anything quite like this, like very old and dead cow, possibly the result of too much American fast food.

It does, however, become easier for the novel’s main character to manage living in America and to handle the American Believers. Time changes many things, and in the end Reverend Oda discovers that he has found home in Brooklyn, New York, and perhaps even enlightenment as he realises that…

I now believe enlightenment is a simple state: it is the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy. To understand that, truly, is enlightenment. And this is the way it should be, for the Buddha visits us only randomly and in the hours of our greatest need, often when we least expect it, teaching us, in this way, to stand alone and firm in this world.

*****

On a final note, Buddhaland Brooklyn is a remarkable novel. It starts out a bit slow with a main character that seems a little rigid and cold, but as the story develops, I think he grows on you. In the end, he, and perhaps also you (the reader), is a changed person, much more full of depth, wisdom and warmth.

Source: You can learn more about Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions from the website http://geert-hofstede.com/index.php

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