Saturday, October 09, 2004

Terrible secrets

Today, in all of my classes (which were for the same course), I had students writing a little story. It was simplistic and rather boring, because it was aimed at getting them to practice using some very simplistic grammar constructions they'd studied in the textbook. They had to tell the story of a guy in a picture, making up the details because none were provided. They were supposed to write something like:

This is _(name)_. He is _(age)_ years old. He is a _(job)_.

And so on. It wasn't very interesting, although they seemed to be enjoying it.

I decided to make it a bit more interesting, and told them to add some details of their own. "Tell me something unusual about him," I told them. "Use your imaginations!"

They didn't do very well with this. It was too open-ended an instruction, I realised as I was wandering around listening to them discuss the problem with their partners and chewing their pencils. It was very hard for them, and I understood why. It was like telling someone to 'write a story' without giving them any guidelines about what kind of story it was to be. Where do you begin?

I thought about it, then went to the board. "Write this," I told them, "and finish the sentence." I wrote:

But _(name)_ has a terrible secret. He...."

The students were galvanised by this, and there was a lot of dictionary work as they tried to find the words for the terrible secrets they were assigning to their heroes.

But I think I was the one who learned the most today. (This is what students are for, in case you'd wondered. You students are there to teach the teachers. We became teachers because we like learning stuff.)

The first couple of stories I read as I was perambulating around the room were more or less expected. Well, maybe not expected, but at least not surprising:

He killed his brother, said one pair, and He spent five years in prison, said another. At the next one I paused. He loves a man, the students had written.

"Is that such a terrible secret, these days?" I asked.

"It is in Japan," they told me.

I got two more of those.

Then the next one stopped me in my tracks.

He is congenitally gloomy, they'd written. (Funny how you can always tell when the dictionary has had some heavy usage.)

I frowned, puzzled. "Why is that a terrible secret?" I asked, and the students looked at each other hopelessly. They clearly couldn't understand why I didn't understand. I asked them if the translation perhaps might be the wrong one, and asked them the Japanese word they'd used. It was nekura. And yes, my dictionary also translated it as 'congenitally gloomy'.

I asked if that was what they meant - that their hero was having dark thoughts and being depressed all the time. They said yes, and looked hopeful. I then asked them why feeling like that was something they would consider a terrible secret, and they got that puzzled look again. Clearly this was obvious to them, and they couldn't understand why I didn't get it.

I suggested that perhaps this was a cultural difference, but they found this hard to accept. No, no, they told me, it was obviously something to be ashamed of, because he pretended to be cheerful when he really wasn't.

It was very, very hard to explain that in most western cultures, at least those I'm familiar with, chronic depression is not something so shaming you'd keep it secret from everybody. They simply could not understand this. They said his life was good, and he shouldn't be nekura. There was no reason for it.

"Oh, you mean nekura is a mental illness?" I asked, and their faces lit up.


Mental illness is very much stigmatised here. I knew that.

When I got home I asked The Man about this. "What does nekura mean?" I asked. "And why would it be considered a 'terrible secret'?" I explained what had happened in class. We had a very long discussion about it, and now I think I understand what my students meant. I think they understood the problem a lot better than I did, and they were right about the 'terrible secret' bit.

The Man told me that you would not call somebody nekura to their face. You might say it about someone, but not face to face. It would be too much of an insult. And it is not classified as a mental illness. It is classified as a borderline mental illness. He explained it in terms of a friend we have, who was treated very badly by her parents, and who thought, for many years, that it was her fault. She thought she must be a bad person, but if she acted bright and cheerful perhaps she would be loved. She didn't talk about her fears about being 'bad' to anybody, but continued to suppress them. She thought she was the only one, and that if people knew how bad she was they would hate her. She would lose her friends and her parents would hurt her even more. She was a bad person. She was born bad and she had to hide it or her life would be even more miserable.

This went on for years. These fears, this conviction that you are 'bad,' and the self-imposed isolation and shame that goes with it, are nekura. Eventually it shows. You can't suppress it forever. Something's got to give. You can't please everybody, and sometimes in the end you give up. And then you give up trying to communicate at all. (Perhaps this is my problem student.) Our friend did not do this. She remained bright and cheerful and 'good' on the outside, always striving to please by using all her strength and willpower, all the while believing she was irretrievably bad. Eventually she became very ill, physically. And then she got help, and gradually came to understand that she was not unique. Other people have been abused, other people have been treated unfairly, she was not alone and it was not her. She was not worse than anybody else. She had not deserved what her parents did to her.

It took years, though. It was a long, slow process, and her health is still shaky.

The Man says this sort of 'borderline' mental problem is often harder to treat than 'real' mental problems, because the conviction of badness goes so deep by the time visible problems surface. The person thinks they are the only person in the world who is so awful inside, they are ashamed of their badness and ashamed that they have been deceiving others, and even if they agree that other people also have badness inside them (as all of us do), they are secretly convinced that nobody else is as bad as they are. They are incapable of communicating properly because they don't feel that anybody else is like them, and are afraid that if they reveal too much they will be hated.

Sometimes this suppression and feeling that they have been deceiving others leads them to despise other people, too. They hate them because they are stupid for not noticing how bad they are and for being so easily deceived, and for having it so easy, not having to struggle to appear good. In Japan in recent years there has been a spate of child murders - murders committed by children. These children are nekura. Someone points out something 'bad' about them, and they overreact. They think they've been found out. They go over the edge. They have nothing to lose anymore.

My students understand this as a shameful and 'terrible secret' because this is what they were thinking of when they wrote nekura. It has received a lot of press in recent years. It is not always linked to childhood abuse, but is generally linked to the need to please. Nekura children are those who feel responsible for the happiness of those around them, and desperately try to please by being a 'good child', doing all the 'right' things even though inside they don't really want to. This 'not wanting to' is why they feel they are deep-down bad. Good children behave like this, they learn. They don't want to behave like this, and therefore they are 'bad.' They are nekura. It is a character fault they were born with, and they are unlike everybody else for whom being 'good' is apparently easy. But if people know they are bad then they will be ostracised and hated, and so they have to pretend to be good. Everybody believes their pretence, and everything seems fine on the outside, and so their nekura is suppressed. They are cheerful and 'good' on the outside, and their nekura - their gloom and bad thoughts - become a 'terrible secret' they cannot reveal.

(I don't know if this makes sense. It is 1 am and I have been up since 5.30 am.)

The other thing that puzzled me was the pair who wrote that their hero had cancer. I got the same result when I asked why that was a terrible secret - the puzzled looks, the non-comprehension about why I couldn't understand. They tried to explain by telling me that even doctors don't tell their patients that they have cancer. I thought that was because here doctors believe that telling the patient will cause them lose their will to fight and/or upset them too much, but some discussion with the students revealed that the students, at least, seemed to believe that the doctors hide the facts from the patients because cancer is shaming. I couldn't quite figure that one out. I hadn't heard it before, and thought perhaps they had the wrong end of the stick. So I asked The Man (my dear and useful cultural interpreter) to explain that one, too.

He said that people don't want it known that they have cancer (if they know themselves) because they don't want to upset their families and friends. They will become a burden to everybody, and be responsible for making everybody sad. They are also afraid of the consequences: that their boss or their company (if they own a company) will be caused trouble. The bank won't give them a loan, or customers will not come because they'll be worried that jobs won't be completed. So cancer, too, can be a 'terrible secret'.

The Man thinks that one is possibly more culturally bound than the nekura 'terrible secret'. He said the term 'Adult Children' is used in Japan for children with nekura, and I found the term here. Although it is generally used as 'Adult Children of Alcoholics', it appears to be not confined to only that category. And it is not confined to Japan, although it seems to be a recent problem, worldwide. Or a recently identified one. A problem of this age.

The funniest result I got from this activity was the pair who decided that the man's terrible secret was that he had two lovers, a woman and a man. They wanted to add something to their story after explaining this, and were consulting their electronic dictionary as I approached them. They were shaking their heads and saying no, no, that wasn't what they meant, surely, it must be wrong, that didn't sound right. And what I saw on the screen was:

He wants to have it both ways.

I didn't hang around to find out what the Japanese was for that or what they were trying to say. I should have done, but didn't. I was laughing too much, and was afraid they would ask me why.


tinyhands said...

EXCELLENT post today.

I've been thinking about the stereotypes- whether it's obvious or not, I don't think many Americans (of non-Asian descent, obviously) can tell the difference between the facial features of Chinese, Koreans, or Japanese. Many Americans also can't tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, or Japanese names or language. (I've been to all 3 countries, and although I can usually tell by name/language, I can't tell by sight either.) Consequently all Asians are referred to as Chinese. Thus, any stereotype of one is usually applied to all 3. But here's a few I've seen or heard:
-All Asians have a strong work-ethic, to the exclusion of their personal life.
-All Asians are good at math.
-All Asians know karate.
-Your Asian neighbors (usually more specific to Koreans) will eat your dog if it gets out of the yard. [You probably can't/shouldn't use that one.]

Pkchukiss said...

Psychologists have been studying the links between a person's beliefs, and his overall health. It has been proven that if a person believes himself to be sick, he would be, most of the time, and positive thoughts reduce the sick rates.

I agree that we need professional help sometimes - there is nothing like a major event to kick oneself off course and down the road of despair. We need somebody to guide us back onto our course, like a counseller for instance.

Badaunt said...

Tinyhands: thanks for the stereotypes - I'll use them on Wednesday and let you know how it goes!

I must say I think it's almost impossible to tell Japanese/Chinese/Koreans from their facial features only. It's a lot easier to tell from body language/clothing and so on. The cultures are pretty different, and that's where the differences show.

One thing I'm always amazed by here is the sheer variety of 'types' there are, especially since the Japanese consider themselves to be homogenous. They're not. When I sit on the train and look at people there are distinctly different 'looks' - from something almost Polynesian to the very Mongolian features, and everything in between.

Another giveaway is the long torso/short legs thing. That's usually Japanese, not Chinese or Korean.

You can see from this test:

- that we're not alone in not being able to tell the difference. I only scored eight, and I was guessing like mad. I don't think anybody gets them all right.

Badaunt said...

It doesn't need to be one major event. It can be a series of minor events that cause despair. Or an ongoing situation (as in the case of our friend, who was abused).

Or it can also be chemical imbalance in the brain, treatable with drugs.

One of the problems for our friend was that she was the middle child, and her older and younger sisters were not abused. As any intelligent child would, she naturally concluded that the problem was her - that she had some deepdown fault in her character that caused her parents to treat her like that. (I suspect the real reason is that she looks like her father, and her sisters take after her mother. I don't know enough about the family dynamics to know why that caused both parents to attack her, but it's hard to see another reason, since she's a perfectly lovely person.)

I can't even imagine how this must have felt - it went on for more than 20 years! - but it's to her credit that she didn't end up totally screwed up mentally. Although she's still fragile physically, and probably always will be, she has become very strong mentally.