Meghan's Reviews > Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan

Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler
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's review
Apr 16, 2008

really liked it
Recommended to Meghan by: Josiah
Read in April, 2008

As I made my way through Feiler’s account, I was primarily amused by his humorous initial encounters with Japanese culture: the often awkward questions frequently posited him by his friends, coworkers, and students; the stark dissimilarities between the Japanese and the American-style classroom; the extent to which Feiler’s foreign appearance and personality caused him to stand out amid an otherwise fairly uniform populace. In nearly every chapter, I found myself laughing out loud. As the book progressed, however, I became disturbed by the author’s general exclusion of personal reflections on his experiences. For example, it remains ambiguous whether the author is interested in trying nanpa--a procedure in which strangers “pick up” on women in bars, discos, or similar environments, mostly popular among young Japanese men--out of a genuine desire to procure a Japanese girlfriend, or merely in demonstration of a detached cultural curiosity. He interjects almost no explicit discussions of his feelings or emotional reactions toward the many shocking, challenging, and even tragic events that he encounters throughout the narrative. As someone interested in going to Japan to teach English, and curious about the types of experiences had by Americans who have done so in the past, this particular quality of Feiler’s narrative was a bit disappointing.

By the end of the book, however, I came to the realization that the very inclusion of certain information in Feiler’s memoir speaks volumes on the nature of the clash between Western and Japanese culture. The details that Feiler includes on the overbearingly autocratic leadership style of his school principle, the structure of a seventh-grade fieldtrip to Disneyland Tokyo, and the reaction of Japanese students toward his unorthodoxly American pedagogical style all attest to the impression that Feiler was deeply moved and challenged by his interactions with Eastern culture. And the laughter and tears that several of his anecdotes drew forth compel me to conclude that these passages were not written without emotional affectation.

In my preparation to move overseas to teach and live among an unfamiliar society, I found this book deeply enlightening and encouraging. As previous experiences abroad have taught me, being a foreigner in a new country can be a direly lonely and often stressful experience. Feiler has given us an insightful and meaningful account of what Americans moving to Japan ought to expect from the culture clash, as well as detailed many interesting aspects of Japanese society that outsiders interested in the country might not otherwise consider. I highly recommend it.

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