Thursday, August 4, 2011

Trying Too Hard?

How Japanese do you have to be to study tea ceremony? It’s a question that pops up from time to time – at least for me, and I suspect for other tea ceremony practitioners as well.

On the face of it, it’s a simple question. There’s nothing about the mechanics of tea ceremony that limit it to any one nationality or ethnicity. Anyone can learn the movements, and I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds relate to the philosophy. It’s something that touches all types of people, and that’s a beautiful thing to watch.

But there’s another aspect to it, which is that tea ceremony comes wrapped in Japanese culture like a ball of sweet bean paste wrapped in mochi. The two of them look like two distinct things, but try to separate them and things get sticky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made some horrible social faux pas because of some aspect of Japanese culture I just wasn’t familiar with. The discussion from my last post about teachers made me think of it – one time, as a tea student, I ran into another student who went to Urasenke New York, and innocently suggested that she should come and take lessons with us, too, which (I now know) is a horrible breach of tea etiquette.

I think that people who tend to be attracted to tea ceremony are very aware of this gap, and for the most part work hard to be respectful and to follow the rules, written and unwritten. I’ve been thinking about that recently, too. At the intensive a few weeks ago, I observed one of the students, an American who had been studying tea for a long time. She was very deferential to the teachers, and very respectful, but as I watched her interact with them, it occurred to me that she was almost too deferential – to the point where she was making the teachers a little uncomfortable. It forms a social barrier that can become a barrier to learning.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that being respectful to one’s teachers is very important, and I’ve also seen situations where a student was being so informal with a teacher that is was bordering on outright disrespect. Courtesy is important, and sometimes being paranoid that you’re breaking some rule that you never knew existed is appropriate, because you are.

I think this instance really struck me because I saw myself in that student – times when I’ve tried too hard to compensate for the fact that I’m not Japanese, like I don’t want to be one of “those” Americans who comes in and acts in a completely offensive and insensitive way. Looking back, I can think of times I’ve probably made my teachers and others uncomfortable because I was overdoing the courtesy to the point that it was a distraction.

The reality is, I’m not Japanese, and I will probably never know all of the rules that are second nature to Japanese people. To a large extent, I don’t think they expect me to, just as most Americans don’t expect foreigners to understand every nuance of American language and culture. But that doesn’t stop me from psyching myself out sometimes, and I think that it’s a problem for many Americans who pursue Japanese cultural activities.

Having thought all of this, the conclusion I came to is that the real lesson is one that tea practice teaches us – don’t spend so much time and energy worrying about yourself that you forget about other people. Relax, focus on what’s right in front of you, be open to your surroundings, and act from your heart.


Sark said...

The post is really interesting, but I was wondering what sort of actions were too deferential? It was suprising to me read that part. I have been studying tea in Japan for 3 years (so not that long). My tea teacher does a lot for me and in return I feel it is only right to help her with things like running errands and such. This is the impression I have gained from the tea people around me. I feel it is because I am foreigner I should be as correct as possible. A phrase I hear a lot is "more Japanese than Japanese people," and I generally take it as a compliment, but should I?

Morgan said...


"Too deferential," is kind of hard to define, but I'll do my best. To me, it means obsessing over rules and formality. For example, in the tearoom, if your teacher corrects you, you should say "hai," fix whatever you've done wrong, and continue on with tea. But some people never relax that attitude and are always saying "hai" to their teacher, even when it's just a casual conversation. Imagine if you were talking to someone and all they ever said was, "yes, of course, you're right." It'd get a little awkward after a while, right? That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

For what it's worth, I think doing things like running errands for your teacher is completely appropriate; I do the same for mine. I feel the same way that you do, that I want to give something back to her for everything she's done for me.

I hear the phrase "more Japanese than Japanese people" a lot, too. I think it's a complicated subject. On the one hand, it is a compliment, but on the other, there are all these questions of Japanese identity mixed up in it. Right or wrong, I think a lot of Japanese people feel that these manners and these arts should be second nature to them simply because they are Japanese, and many Japanese find it jarring to encounter a foreigner who knows more about their culture than they do. I've heard Japanese people express (though never to my face, of course) that it's silly for a foreigner to even do tea ceremony, because they can never really understand it. To me, statements like that are just an extension of that discomfort, that question of, "if a foreigner appreciates this Japanese art and I don't, then what does that make me?" Questions of identity like this are never simple, and everyone (Japanese, American, or other) comes to their own conclusion. Taking it as a compliment is probably the healthiest response. :-)