Cultural differences are a given. As much as we emphasize all we have in common across national and ethnic lines, we also know that people in other countries and cultures think, eat, dress, and act differently. There’s the old joke about heaven being a place organized by the Swiss with British police, French chefs, German mechanics, Italian lovers, while hell is a place organized by the Italians with British chefs, French mechanics, German police, and Swiss lovers.
Every now and then, though, you find out something you considered universal is, in fact, culturally specific. When I was a kid, it was Santa Claus. It was sort of heartbreaking to learn that not only did billions of children around the world not get visits from Santa, neither did my Jewish classmates. This seemed like a great tragedy, or perhaps an indication that Santa was a white supremacist.
Holidays are a great way to realize how silly your own culture is. Try explaining Groundhog Day to a foreigner and not sound like an idiot (“so, if this giant rat creature in Pennsylvania sees his shadow on February 2nd, we have six more weeks of winter. It’s national news”). Not to mention the insane magical world we Americans grew up in, one populated by tooth-collecting pixies, obese elves who leave candy in your socks, and a giant rabbit who breaks into your house and hides eggs behind your couch.
Still, we know holidays and their assorted magical beings are cultural, even if they’re so deeply routed in your culture and nostalgic childhood memories that it’s hard to appreciate how strange they must seem to outsiders.
The differences that are most shocking are those we unconsciously assume are universal. Experiences and emotions so primal that it seems absurd that they’re not global: coming-of-age anxieties, romantic love, fear of mortality. It’s nearly impossible to imagine encountering a culture whose people don’t experience those things.
Recently, though, I had such a shock. I discovered that a human experience I had considered part of every human being’s life was, well, not.
That experience? That middle school is hell.
Ask any American and they’ll tell you that junior high school/middle school was hell. I’ve never met an American who didn’t. They don’t call them “the ugly years” for nothing. Your body is mutating, you smell, your mind is consumed by uncontrollable urges you don’t even understand, hair is growing in disturbing places, and you are deeply, deeply insecure. You desperately want to fit in and be an individual at the same time. So does everyone else. And so you lash out at each other, your insecurity frothing and boiling over into viciousness and violence.
Middle school is when human beings are at their worst–petty, ignorant, jealous, ready to tear down everyone around them. People fantasize about reliving college or high school. Nostalgia-tugging movies and TV shows are frequently set in both settings. Nobody ever wants to go back to junior high. Nobody wants to even think about it. Like prison, you get out, you run, and you never look back.
(You can click on the Kumiko tab above to see how I’ve channeled my traumatic middle school memories: writing a book about a seventh grade girl who is turning into a giant spider).
Yet when talking with my girlfriend Ayako, it came out that in Japan, at least, middle school is not considered hell. She didn’t even believe me at first that all Americans shudder at the very words “junior high.” She pointed out that I was, and still am, a huge nerd, so clearly middle school would suck for me.
But while having dinner with our friends Lara and Doug, we three Americans had a long and lively discussion about the awfulness of middle school and Ayako said she was surprised to find that I was right “for once.”
Surprised as she was, I was more shocked to find out that Japanese people generally don’t consider junior high school to be the nadir of existence. I taught in Japanese junior high schools for two years and I just assumed my students were going through hell. I certainly saw enough bullying and backstabbing for it to be true, but then bullying and backstabbing truly are human universals.
So, why do we Americans have such a hard time in junior high while the Japanese don’t? I have a lot of theories, all of them pretty shallow. One is that American middle schoolers feel adrift. They are beginning to have a sense of the wider world and know they have to find a place in it, but are so monstrous, ignorant, and insecure that they don’t know where to start. Japanese junior high gives you a place: it’s this desk here. Please sit quietly and repeat after Tanaka-sensei.
Maybe it’s that many Japanese people make some of their close and life-long friends in junior high. Ayako is still close with her circle of friends from her junior high days. In America, I think groups of friends shift a lot up through high school and are often obliterated by the move to college.
Whatever the reason, it’s strange to think that somewhere out there in the world, there are seventh graders who aren’t stinky little balls of insecure rage and borderline sociopathy. There are people out there who look back on that time in their lives and don’t feel nauseous.
I suppose that’s a good thing, but somehow, it just feels wrong.