Globe_light TerreDeFeu2

A collection of articles and stories about home and migration

By Terre de Feu, Mar 16 2017 10:14AM

Culture is […] not about groups of people – the Japanese, the Americans, the whites, the Latinos; thus it is not the groups themselves that should be studied. (Handbook of Cultural Psychology, 2007)

When discussing cross-cultural issues or diversity, the temptation is to see people as homogeneously belonging to groups: “Japanese people”, “dyslexic people”, “people from ethnic minorities”. This simplistic approach is not supported by the latest thinking in cultural psychology, but it is commonly used in HR, training, policy making and in the media. It is also used by some of my Jungian colleagues who speak of “cultural complexes based on repetitive, historical group experiences” (Singer, 2004, p.22).

It is indeed very tempting to identify people with the groups they belong to. It makes our life easier to think, “Mr. Watanabe is Japanese, so I can approach him the way I approach other Japanese people”. Identifying people with groups – stereotyping – can also be used as an excuse or a power play: “He is Japanese, he won’t understand”.

Seeing people as members of well-defined groups helps us deal with the complexity of culture and cross-cultural relations. It is indeed demanding to think, “I have absolutely no idea what it will be like to meet this person”, every time we meet someone new; and so we unconsciously use our past experience as reference. As we identify people with groups, we try to establish something familiar in unfamiliar situations.

At this point, one ought to ask: do we also define ourselves according to the cultural groups we belong to? For example, does Mr. Watanabe, as a Japanese person, think of himself “I am Japanese” or “I am from Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku”? It personally took me more than 10 years living away from France to start having an understanding of how French I was. Even now, other people may think, “she is French”, but I don’t define myself in this way. I have a sense of how my experience in France has shaped my identity, but that doesn’t mean that I feel I belong to the group of “French people”. In my experience in working with people from many countries, people don’t particularly define themselves based on their nationality or ethnic background. When asked, they may say, “I am French” or “I am Asian”, but subjectively, this is not what gives them a sense of their identity.

As I refer to cultural identity, it will be useful to go back to the psychological definition of identity. The psychologist Erik Erikson writes that our sense of identity is “experienced preconsciously as a sense of psychosocial well-being” and that it is “constantly lost and regained” (Erikson, 1994, p. 128). According to Erikson, our sense of identity constantly evolves as the people and the environment around us change. Group belonging, especially to groups as wide as “French people” or “black people” can therefore not give us an adequate, healthily fluid sense of identity. It is both too vague and too restrictive to reflect the subtlety of who we are and how we relate to our environment.

I can’t help noticing that group belonging is often used when dealing with political and social issues, sometimes for good reasons. Barack Obama, born to a white mother and a black father, says that he identifies with both sides of his family. When campaigning against racism and discrimination, he may purposefully identify with “black people”, but at other times, he doesn’t. Like him, when we temporarily and only partially identify with one group or another, our sense of identity is lost and regained and our unique sense of identity is formed. The danger lies in identifying too much and too exclusively with one particular group, leaving no space for self-reflection and developing our own sense of identity. This may have been appropriate in isolated, traditional communities, but in a multi-cultural environment, this leads to one-sidedness and potentially extremism.

Culture is not about belonging to groups, it is about being transformed by various people, places and shared experience. My French identity is not formed based on belonging to the group of “French people”; it is formed in the constantly evolving, emotionally-charged relationship that I have with France, the French people I know, and the many experiences and memories that I have of France. In Jungian terms, there may be a complex that structures and gives a particular feeling tone to my relationship with France, but this complex is not, as suggested by Singer, based on “group experiences”; it is based on a very wide range of experiences directly and indirectly linked with a place called France.

We may at times identify ourselves and other people with groups; but what matters is the constantly evolving relationship that we have with people around us, with places where we live and with our wider environment. When we approach culture as if it was about groups of people, we don’t only make a gross simplification – we entirely miss the point, because culture can only be found in the richness of emotions, experiences and memories which, stored in the depths of Psyche, form our personal story.

Erikson E. (1994) Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company

Kitayama S. & Cohen D. (eds) (2007) Handbook of Cultural Psychology, New York: Guilford Press

Singer, T. and S. L. Kimbles (eds) (2004) The Cultural Complex – Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society. London: Routledge

By Terre de Feu, Nov 1 2016 10:58AM

The interview

On a September morning, in suburban Manchester, I meet Yoko and her two-year old son. We sit in a conservatory furnished with plain, Ikea-style table and chairs; I accept her offer of a glass of water. I came to interview Yoko about her experience of moving to the UK. She arrived four months ago. “My husband was sent to the UK for two or three years”, she says. When I ask her what helps her cope with this transition, she explains that food is very important for her and that, as long as the food is OK, she feels that she can live here: “If I can eat, I feel OK”.

A month later, at our second interview, we discuss what helps Yoko feel comfortable in the UK. She replies that she switches the Japanese TV on in the morning and listens to the news: “I don’t fall behind; I keep up with the Japanese news.” She also uses Facebook, which gives her a sense that she is in touch with friends. She does these things mindlessly, knowing that “they don’t serve any purpose for her life in the UK”.

When, two months later, I go for a third and last interview, Yoko is more confident speaking English and asking questions. She has been able to have short conversations with her daughter’s teacher. As we say goodbye, Yoko tells me that she has appreciated my visits: “I don’t have contact with people from outside the house. So, one week is long. I find myself waiting for Saturday when I can be with my children and husband. It was good to have a bit of change in my daily life. ”

Gaman vs resilience

Yoko’s story reflects interviews that I conducted with six Japanese women who recently moved to the UK ; it describes the experience of many spouses of Japanese expatriates. I was amazed by the level of gaman that these women show. Gaman is a typically Japanese attitude which combines patience, endurance, tolerance and self-denial. When a child feels cold waiting at a bus stop, his mother might say “gaman shinasai” - be patient, the bus will soon arrive. Equally, when a young employee is doing well but is not rewarded or promoted, their boss might say “gaman shinasai” - be patient, you will get a promotion in a few years time. When a Japanese trainee comes back to exactly the same domestic job after one year in Europe, they may also be told “gaman shinasai” - you had a nice time abroad, what are you complaining about?

Yoko is not told “gaman shinasai” by anyone. Her husband is very supportive and would listen to any concern she has, but like many people in Japan, “gaman shinasai” has become part of her personality. She has a strong capacity to be patient – to wait until the next Saturday or until she goes back to Japan. She is able to convince herself that as long as her very basic needs are fulfilled – as long as she can eat – she feels OK.

Expatriates and their families need to be tolerant when in a foreign country. Often, they just need to “get on with it” (another good translation for gaman): an expat in Japan needs to swallow the odd sea slugs; a Japanese expat in Europe needs to bear the occasional sight of people blowing their nose in handkerchiefs… They need to have reasonable expectations – there are always difficult moments and disappointments.

But it can be counter-productive to have too much gaman, especially if it stops people wanting to improve their situation. In addition to the stoical tolerance of gaman, expatriates need (and can never have too much) personal resilience. I define resilience as ‘what you still have when you feel that you have lost everything’. It is made of self-esteem, self-confidence and a capacity for self-care and self-development (Al Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage). Whilst people with gaman readily sacrifice today for the sake of (a hopefully better) tomorrow, resilient people are able to make today as tolerable and as enjoyable as possible, despite difficult circumstances.

Gaman helps people survive, which is sometimes all they can do: eat, drink, find shelter. But too much gaman can mean, like for Yoko, locking oneself away from “people from outside the house”, holding on to old habits that “don’t serve any purpose” and living a shallow, unfulfilling life. Developing resilience involves recognising a broader range of needs and recognising one’s own skills, strengths and many other resources that can help people make the transition from gaman to enjoyment.









でも、あまりにも我慢をしすぎるのは、建設的ではありません。特に、状況を改善したいと思わなくなってしまう場合に、それが当てはまります。我慢というストイックな寛容に加えて、駐在員には、しなやかな強さが必要です(これはいくらあっても「過剰」ということはありません)。英語で言うとレジリエンス。私はこれを、「何もかも失ったと思える時に、まだ自分に残されているもの」と定義しています。この折れない強さを形成するのは、自尊心と自信、それに自分をいたわる包容力と自己開発の能力です(Al Siebert著『The Resiliency Advantage』より引用)。我慢のできる人は、明日のために(願わくばより良い明日のために)今日を犠牲にすることができます。一方、しなやかな強さのある人は、難しい状況にありながらも今日をできるだけ楽しみ、それほど悪くない一日にする力を持っています。


By Terre de Feu, Jun 8 2016 11:47AM

After 20 years as a cross-cultural advisor, I still wondered what ‘culture’ meant. A well accepted definition is “a pattern of thinking, feeling and potential acting” (Hofstede, 2005, p. 2), but this didn’t mean much to me personally; it didn’t describe my subjective and psychological experience of culture. In 2013, I decided to write my Diploma thesis using my personal and professional experiences on the subject of culture. I interviewed six Japanese women who had moved to the UK in the last year about their experience of cultural adaptation. This process entirely changed my perspective on culture, but also on the meaning of home. In this article, I will briefly introduce some of my findings.

The Japanese women I interviewed did not relate to the idea of a “Japanese culture.” Rather, they recalled specific experiences that were emotionally charged and created a meaningful bond between them and Japan – or more precisely, between them and the particular place in Japan where they came from. These experiences included “a pattern of thinking, feeling and potential acting” (e.g. “in Japan, it’s the Japanese way. Without talking, we know what others are thinking”), but also many sensual experiences: the “smell of burning grass,” the “colour of the sky,” the “taste of home food,” etc. I started to think that subjectively culture was a range of experiences that occur in a particular place.

I then reflected on my own relationship to places and culture: as a French national who has lived five years in Japan and the last sixteen years in the UK, what actually makes me feel connected with these cultures? When I am in France, I appreciate drinking a typically English cup of tea; it allows me to maintain a sense of connection with the English culture that I now (at least partly) identify with. When I am in the UK at Christmas, I like to make the typically Alsatian biscuits that my mother used to make. It isn’t typically French, but it is how my family used to celebrate Christmas. In both cases, I re-create experiences associated with particular places, which give continuity to my sense of identity. Through these cultural elements, I assert that wherever I am, I am the same person.

One tends to think that culture is about tangible elements such as tea and biscuits, as well as a group’s accompanying values, norms, rituals, but psychologically, it is perhaps more about places and the continuity in one’s relationship with places. My hypothesis is that culture is a range of experiences that symbolise our relationship with particular places: the typically English cup of tea and the Alsatian biscuits are symbols of my relationship with places in England and France that are meaningful to me. They help me create continuity and maintain a sense of identity. I am aware that this definition emphasises “place,” but I feel that it is necessary in order to compensate a prevalent perception in our modern world that culture exists regardless of place. Some expatriates and migrants can for example delude themselves that wherever they relocate, their culture comes with them; but often their children find it difficult to form a cultural identity. As we become increasingly mobile, I think we need to recognise that culture is rooted in places and that relocating inevitably changes our cultural identity.

Japan taught me a lot about place – about focusing on “this place” and “this moment.” There is for example an expression in the Zen tradition which literary means “one time, one meeting (一期一会).” It emphasises the unique quality of each place and each moment. Shinto shrines also encourage a focus on place; they invite visitors to become aware of Kami (神unknown, hidden spirit-souls) that dwell in particular places of interest.

Kami are both many (“8 millions”) and one; they are both individual entities and parts of a whole. They dwell in the sacred areas around shrines, in objects of worship, but also in trees, stones, mountains, rivers, and occasionally people. Some shrines are dedicated to popular Kami, such as Inari, the Kami of fertility, rice, agriculture and industry; but in each shrine, people worship a particular form of this Kami, which can only be encountered in one particular place. One could say that they don’t worship “Inari”, but “this Inari.” The presence and the benevolence of Kami should not be taken for granted: it is by walking through a large wooden torii gate at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, by climbing steps, by walking through the forest, by being open to the beauty and energy of the place that surrounds the shrine and having a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe” (Yamakage, 2006, p.75) that one may experience the presence of Kami.

When we pay our respect to “this Kami”, we engage with the spirit of the place and form a bond with it. We form an internal representation of the place and, as with transitional objects, something of our psyche is experienced in the place itself. This process involves a reduction in psychic resistance and a lowering of consciousness. It can happen willingly, but it is often triggered by illness, accidents or synchronistic events. Jung in Africa was for example never as close to the spirit of Africa, as when he suffered from a form of dengue and dreamed that a black man was making his hair “kinky” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1995, p.302). The thought of “going black” frightened him, and he was determined to return to Europe; but during his illness – when his psychic resistance was weakened – he experienced the beginning of a participation mystique with Africa which could have started the process of making it his home.

As we have a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe” towards place, we willingly reduce our psychic resistance and encounter its spirit. We may become infected by collective, unconscious elements – we may “go black” and our hair may become “kinky” – but this is necessary to make a home: a place becomes a home when we allow ourselves to be transformed by its spirit.

When I first visited Shinto shrines in my early twenties, I had an inflated idea of being a citizen of the world; writing my thesis helped me realise that home can only be in one place at a time. As I continue to drink English tea in France and eat Alsatian biscuits in England – my psyche looks for ways of creating continuity, but I have become more aware of the potency of the place where I happen to be. I know that I need to greet the local gods and to ask myself: do I have enough of a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe”?

Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. 2nd Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY

Jung, C.G., Jaffé A. (ed), (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press, London

Yamakage M. (2006). The Essence of Shinto, Kodansha International, Tokyo, Japan

Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto

By Terre de Feu, Nov 5 2015 09:45AM

The history of the Koh-i-Noor can help us reflect on what happens when we move to another culture. The Koh-i-Noor invites us to think about “what is seen?”, “what is not seen?”, “what is kept?” and “what is lost?”.

Following the conquest of Punjab by the British Forces in 1849, Queen Victoria was given a large diamond by Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. The diamond, called the Koh-i-Noor (“the Mountain of Light”), was once known as the largest diamond in the world. The Queen received it as a gift, but it was also a spoil of war. The following year, the diamond was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London to a huge crowd, but it didn’t “satisfy”. The Times reported:

For some hours yesterday there were never less than a couple of hundred persons waiting their turn of admission, and yet, after all, the diamond does not satisfy. Either from the imperfect cutting or the difficulty of placing the lights advantageously, or the immovability of the stone itself, which should be made to revolve on its axis, few catch any of the brilliant rays it reflects when viewed at a particular angle.

The diamond was the valued possession of Rajas and Sultans over of period of at least 600 years (5000 years according to the tradition), but it “didn’t satisfy” the British crowd. Under Prince Albert’s supervision, it was decided that the diamond should be polished. During 38 days, using a steam powered mill, the diamond was cut from 186 1/16 carats (37.21 g) to its current 105.602 carats (21.61 g) to increase its brilliance. At the end of the process, Prince Albert was said to be still dissatisfied with the results. The diamond was mounted on a brooch worn by Queen Victoria and it was later set in a crown worn by Queen Alexandra and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The Koh-i-Noor, in its new, polished form, has only been worn by women, following the Hindi tradition according to which

He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.

Not surprisingly, this forced gift, which went through rejection and an unacceptable level of “polishing”, still tears India and the UK apart. As recently as February 2013, it made the headlines as the British government ruled out handing it back to India.

What is seen and not seen

The diamond didn’t “satisfy”; its beauty was not seen by the British crowd or Prince Albert. The people visiting Crystal Palace didn’t have any personal associations with the Raja and Sultan of India. They were probably unaware of the diamond’s history, and even if they were, this history was not subjectively meaningful to them. They saw the diamond as an unpolished rock whilst for India, and especially within the Sikh community, it had a very wide range of meanings.

When moving to a new cultural place, we often don’t immediately see its beauty, but equally, people may not see ours. We have to go through a process of “polishing”, to attune ourselves to each other. To truly see the beauty of the people, places, situations that don’t belong to our Umwelt, our Umwelt needs to expand.

What is lost

42% of the Koh-i-Noor’s weight was lost in the process of so-called polishing. This transformation rendered the Koh-i-Noor very precious to the British people, but it has not given them an opportunity to expand their world view. They only saw its beauty when it was cut according to their tradition. I think that moving to a new cultural place and adapting to it, can also be the cause of a great loss. The cost of “making oneself seen by the other” can be high.

To take a very simple example, learning foreign languages is one of the many ways to be “polished”, to make oneself seen and acceptable. It generally allows the expansion of Umwelt through the understanding of new concepts, typical of a particular place, but this skill has a cost: we may be comfortable speaking several languages, but we will probably never be as comfortable speaking our native language as we used to be. Over the years, our native language becomes only one of the languages that we can speak fluently.

There are many other ways through which we adapt to a new cultural place, but it seems that something always gets lost. At times, the new place and its people force their “polishing” onto us, at other times, a survival instinct seems to lead us to “polish” ourselves. The question is: can we still be ourselves once we have been “polished”?

What is kept?

The only element of continuity in the history of the Koh-i-Noor is its “curse” against men who would want to wear it. The “curse”, something of the essence of this diamond, has been seen and respected by both nations. Despite all the polishing and changes in external appearances, this aspect of the Koh-i-Noor is kept – it is preserved, over time and across cultures.

Koh-i-Noor before 1852
Koh-i-Noor before 1852
Koh-i-Noor after 1852
Koh-i-Noor after 1852