Human beings are engineered to be social animals. We are designed to interact and connect with people. As a current graduate student in a clinical psychology doctorate program, my studies have shown interpersonal relationships across the lifespan are vital to our personal development and mental health. However, the process and expression of relationships in the current masculine American culture, particularly male friendships, can be stigmatized as too feminine, hence the “bro” culture, and thus the avoidance and reluctance of many men to facilitate meaningful relationships.
The movie,“I Love You, Man”, is a great example of the awkwardness and difficulties present in many American males whenexpressing and fostering affection in friendships. Yet, in the end, as the movie (and psychological research) demonstrates, male friendships provide a unique chemistry that is mutually powerful for the growth of the self.
Through my travels, I have been fortunate enough to understand relationships across cultures. Such travel experiences, and the opportunities they provide to meet new and interesting people, pushesone’s boundaries beyond your comfort zone. Talking, finding common ground and understanding, and establishingrelationships withthose who have lived perspectives that are different from my own has left profound impacts on my own life.
One such meaningful relationship was created on my first trip to Japan – a culture hallmarked by collectivism and closeness in interpersonal relationships.
After a long-day of exploring the late season cherry blossoms and tulips at Odori Park and the Old Hokkaido Government Building, the seemingly never-ending underground subway ‘walk-way’ and shopping complex, and after satisfying all my cravings at “ramen alley” in the Susukino district of Sapporo, a much-needed relaxing evening was needed over some Sapporo beers. Returning to the Hokkaido Sun Guest Hostel, I found the in-house cooking class had just finished (I wish I came back earlier because the chicken curry smelled delicious, or “oishii” as the Japanese say).
Numerous locals conversed over drinks and snacks; it was here that I met Naoki, a 29-year-old born and raised local who worked at Hokkaido University, and who came to the event because his girlfriend was a friend of the cooking instructor. In his broken English, we communicated as best as we could, as I could not speak any Japanese whatsoever.At one point, I mentioned that I was looking forward to trying an“onsen”, the Japanese hot spring. He said that he and his girlfriend were planning to go the next day, and immediately invited me to join them.
Twenty-four hours laterhe and his girlfriend picked me up in their Nissan Juke – it was the first time I got to ride in a vehicle with a driver on the right side. We drove for an hour to Hōheikyō Hot Springs. Naoki refused to let me purchase my ¥1,000 (slightly less than $10) ticket for the “onsen”. He showed where the lockers were for my shoes and wallet.
I was reminded of how Japanese culture emphasizes the respect and care for one’s objects as he meticulously took off his shoes and delicately placed them in the locker, versus my normal behavior at home wherein I rip off my shoes and toss them to the side of the door.
As he and I walked inside the male-only side, I was filled with a sense of anxiety,self-consciousness andinsecurity, as I scanned a room filled with naked bodies from elementary-aged youth to the elderly. However, there was a sense of calmness, respect, and normalcy to the environment that put my mind immediately at ease.A stark contrast to most of the experiences I have had in gyms or locker rooms inAmericawhere the masculine culture assigns judgment, shame, and stigma for men sharing in this type of experience together.
As I took off my clothes, delicately placing them in a basket, Naoki walked me to the cleaning area where we sat down on small yellow stools – I am not sure if larger American sized men could fit – and turned on the hose faucets to wash ourselves down. He showed me the soap and then role modeled washing his entire body, finishing byrinsing offall the soapsuds from his body. In his broken English he said, “No bubbles! No bubbles!” I did the same and cleaned my entire body, ensuring every nook and cranny of my body was free of soap, per his supervision.
We walked outside to the open air “onsen” which had a beautiful panoramic view of mountains and natural surroundings. The rejuvenating water temperature flowed with positive feelings, helping to energize my conversations with Naoki. Curious about American culture, he asked if we – men – do these types of activities in America with friends. “Never,” I responded. “Surely this type of activity would be frowned upon.”
He told me that he comes almost weekly with his friends, expressing, “Without clothes, I can be free and show heart…the me!” as he motioned and pointed to the left side of his chest. It was a poignant moment given the stereotype associated with Asian culture and gender that men do not demonstrate their feelings – collectivism yet stoicism. Here he was showing me his heart in a very natural, genuine way.
It truly warmed my heart to hear another male share his joy for the value of expressing our authentic genuine self to our male friends without fear of judgment or stigma.
We talked about his life, culture, his dating relationship and his sentiment of not settling down in a marriage anytime soon (also a trend in Japanese culture for men to delay marriage). He expressed content with his simple life. When we learned we share the same birthday, he called me his “brother.”
How fortunate for me to now have a Japanese brother approximately 3,750 miles from my island home of Oahu.
Travelingengenders opportunities to meet other people and create meaningful, memorable and lasting relationships. In everyday life, we can often become bogged down, sucked into our work lives; we easily can neglect the innate social need to connect with people.
Furthermore, the masculine gender norms of American culture often not only encourage avoidance, butalso can make friendships difficult to engage in on an everyday basis. Without such interpersonal relationships, are we growing as individuals?
Travel time and again shows me the power of learning from others and building meaningful experiences trumps the stigma and limitations of many of today’s societal norms.
Picture: Naoki & I at the Sun Guest Hostel in Sapporo!
Picture: Meeting Naoki at the cooking class at Sun Guest Hostel
Picture: Hostel manager (Eri) who cooked me shabushabu on my last night in Sapporo