Taking the Narrative Turn
“We are the storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.”
(McAdams, D., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A., 2006, p. 3)
After the last bite of salad, Dana suggested we take a walk to help digest our huge reunion dinner (it had been a year since we had last met; I was living in the States working on my PhD) and I’m so glad she did! Kyoto was a familiar city of serendipitous encounters and this night would prove to be no different.
We had both eaten so much tofu and daikon that we needed to get our bodies moving, otherwise that 20 minute train ride home would be agony as I stood squashed amongst drunk college students and businessmen, my food sitting in my stomach like a boulder. So, we paid our bill, thanked the restaurant owner with gochi so sama deshita and descended the small spiral staircase leading back to the street.
Kyoto was a city I knew fairly well, having both worked and lived just minutes from the famed, one-time capital. I liked to stroll the streets around Kawaramachi admiring the various examples of architecture, browsing modern stores like Benetton and The Body Shop and enjoying ocha or ame in centuries-old, traditional kisaten and confectionaries. My favorite streets in the city, where I often brought visitors to look for geisha and maiko , were just minutes east towards Gion and the Kyoto hills. If lucky, we could catch a glimpse of the lavishly dressed women scurrying between restaurants and bars or being whisked away to parties on the Kamo river in Kyoto’s shiny black taxicabs – powdered, white faces and flowing, embroidered robes a reminder of how traditions live on in Nihon.
The evening was perfect for a stroll and it was great to see Dana again. Having worked with her for the entire 4 years I had lived in Japan, we reminisced, chatted, laughed, and stopped at various stores to buy omiyage for friends and family back at home. About 20 minutes into our stroll we reached a popular area for dining and shopping where there were many outdoor cafes and coffeehouses. At one point, I looked to my right and noticed a Japanese man sitting at a table outside a Seattle’s Best Coffee shop with a gaijin. His face looked so familiar to me, but on this, my second visit to Japan after moving back to the states, many people looked familiar to me; I was constantly searching my memory with each familiar face I spied – “Do I know her?” I wondered. “Could that be what’s his name?”
In those seconds when one passes an individual, desperately searching for recognition, there is a small window of opportunity to make eye contact and wait for response. As Dana and I walked, I turned my head from right to left, from the Japanese guy to Dana and back again. I can see it all playing out again in my mind in slow motion.
“I think I know that guy,” I explained.
“You think you know everyone,” kidded Dana.
“No, I really do think I know him.”
I did a 180, backtracked and walked right up to him and exclaimed, “I think I know you!” He looked at me, turning his head from right to left and almost as a question, uttered in surprise “Ma-chan!? Bikurishita !”
I hadn’t seen Ken in 4 years! It was the strangest story: I had moved from Washington, DC to Osaka at the same time he had moved from Osaka to Washington, DC. A couple of years later upon his return to Japan we had met via, what else, JGuyUsGuy, and became friends. In our first conversations about living in DC, we realized that we had some of the same friends – he had even played tennis with my buddy, Josh Stein!
“Ken! Genki ? Saikin dou ? Honto ni bikuri ne !?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah, good. What are you doing here?” Ken wondered.
“I’m living in Japan for the summer giving academic presentations and gathering information for my dissertation. Ganbarimasu !”
A conversation ensued between Ken and I while Dana introduced herself to his companion, an American named Kevin who had been teaching at Ritsumeikan University. What an amazing coincidence for Ken and I to meet…again. I explained my dissertation topic and both Ken and Kevin found it fascinating. Kevin immediately told us about a student who had come out in his English class just weeks prior in response to a discussion about gay marriage, “Like she could do that in her economics class?” he wondered. From there we all pondered the phenomenon of the English classroom in Japan; we discussed the significance of the identities of the instructors, the material we teach and discuss, and the nature of language studies necessitating students to talk about themselves. “I doubt any of her other professors were discussing gay marriage,” concluded Kevin.
A few nights later, Ken and I met for dinner in Kyoto to catch up. We reminisced, talked about our love lives, and I felt that he was someone with whom I could really explore some of my hypotheses about language and sexuality in Japan. Still unsure at the time what methods I would use to gather data when I officially began to work with participants, I simply had a conversation with my old friend, Ken.
I asked him questions about his English language learning experiences like “After the mandatory English classes in high school, tell me about your decision to continue your language studies,” and “what connections if any exist between your English studies and your sexuality?”
Our conversation was fascinating – there was so much I hadn’t known about this handsome, successful, 40 year old man. We had dated once or twice and then each gone our separate ways; I now pondered the significance of meeting him both initially and now recently and decided that the world indeed works in mysterious ways.
Perhaps what was most significant about our conversation that evening was learning that one of Ken’s motivations to learn English, perhaps his greatest motivation, was to meet foreign men that he could be romantic and sexual with and that there was so much about his own sexuality that he had never really discussed with friends. It occurred to me in that moment that I was both his friend and a researcher, selfishly prodding him with questions hoping to learn more about my topic, but immensely satisfied to be learning about my friend.
We often came back to the larger questions about partnership, happiness, and sex that seemed to be peppering so many of my conversations at that time. I learned that although he was physically attracted to Caucasian men, he hadn’t really had what he considered to be a successful, emotionally-fulfilling relationship with a Caucasian. In fact, he had recently fallen in love with a Japanese man a few years his senior. When I asked him about this relationship, he explained that it had been the first time he had ever had a relationship with a Japanese man, “I think the fact that we are from the same culture makes it easier for me, even though I am still very much attracted to non-Japanese.” A drink or two later and a little more prodding revealed that there had been something missing in his relationships with these gaijin, some kind of connection that only another nihonjin could offer, and yet there was also something missing in his sex life with his new boyfriend, something that he felt he might never experience with a Japanese man. This ultimately led to the larger questions, “What is sexuality?” and “Isn’t it fascinating how language allows us to do things that we might not be able to do if we were monolingual?”
By the end of our dinner of shabu shabu , yet another non-traditional approach to cooking meat, I was excited by Ken’s pensive attitude and eagerness to consider each new question I came up with. However, I did feel guilty at times that our conversation was mostly in English; poor Ken, though completely proficient in English, he had very little time to think, formulate responses, or edit himself. I wondered, “If he had more time to really reminisce about his English language history, what more might he come up with? What other connections could he make?” It also occurred to me that although I was jotting down notes about our conversation, mostly paying attention to his responses, I would never truly be able to capture Ken’s voice unless he composed the entire text himself. It was in that moment that my earlier idea about story telling as method was confirmed; I had decided that participant responses had to be in their own voices. And in that moment, the narrative turn was taken.