Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Night in the American Village

I just finished reading Akemi Johnson's Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa, which I bought in Kindle format after reading John Grant Ross's review of it.

Ross does a good job summarizing the book (without giving away too much!), so I recommend you read his review (and then buy the book!). I just want to mention a few points that I found interesting (which probably will say more about my own particular--or peculiar--interests than about the book itself). A lot of what the book centered around had to do with language, culture, and intercultural relations of various kinds--not surprising, I suppose. One extended example:

Johnson describes a 34-year-old Okinawan woman named Naomi who worked at the U.S. Navy Hospital as an Master Labor Contractor (MLC), a full-time position for "permanent residents of Japan who are unconnected to the U.S. military"; Johnson describes MLCs as forming "the lowest rung of the chain of command, below American active duty and civilian personnel." And not surprisingly, these workers as the lowest rung turn out to be "the continuity that [keep] the place running." One of things that make Naomi essential to the functioning of the base is her language ability and cultural knowledge. Johnson describes how this knowledge works on a typical day:
Over the first four to five years on the job, Naomi had learned a sophisticated system of code-switching to thrive in her multicultural workplace. "Once I go through the fence [between the U.S. base and its surroundings], I become chotto, a little bit, American," she said. On base, she shifted her mindset, ready to say "no" if she meant "no" instead of the "Hmm, let me think about it" she'd use off base. She had to be ready to adjust, depending on whom she was talking to, something she excelled at because of her experience living in both the United States an Okinawa. "I can imagine how they tend to think," she said of Americans and Okinawans. She knew with a local, middle-aged man who worked on base, she had to joke with him, talking to him casually, with an Okinawan accent. When she spoke to her contractor from mainland Japan, she switched to a Tokyo accent, which she'd learned from having Japanese roommates in the States. With her American supervisor, she had to use clear and professional English. If she messed up, the stakes could be high. "If I talk to an Okinawan ojichan [grandpa] with a mainland accent, he'll block me right away. Boom! 'I don't talk to you anymore.'" If she talked to him the correct way, he treated her like family. "That's how I figured out how to survive in that environment. I like it, actually."
Shuttling among languages and cultures (as Suresh Canagarajah might put it), Naomi demonstrates a sophisticated rhetorical awareness of what it takes to get done with different people in different contexts. She is almost a different person depending on who she is talking to. To Johnson, Naomi points out the implications of this in terms of her self-identity:
Looking back on her experience, Naomi thought it was easy to label the different roles she had played: Okinawan, international student, adult professional. But those labels didn't adequately describe her. "The inside is more difficult," she said. "I'm a blend of so many factor: Okinawa, United States, California, and on the base. ... It's hard to categorize me right now." ... She valued this flexible self she had cultivated. "My perspective changes almost every day," she said. "I'm creating my own style."
I'm not sure if Naomi is her real name because Johnson notes that she changed some interviewees' names (but on the other hand, she mentions a "Naomi Noiri" in her acknowledgments). I've been discussing with some colleagues the issue of international students' names, in particular the international students who choose to be called by "English" names. Naomi's experience and her awareness of moving in and out of identities adds an interesting twist to the question of what it might mean to take on a name that is not the one you were born with (or rather, that your parents gave you) in intercultural contexts.

Anyway, read the whole book! It's a great read.