Tokyo Drift: Embracing cultural irrelevance

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Chiang Mai garfield grafitti — An Epic Education This past February, Jamie and I were walking through a department store in Chiang Mai. The evenings in Northern Thailand had turned cooler than expected, so we were out shopping for a few bedtime blankets. As we passed through the kids’ section,  Jamie — who has just turned 11 the month before — noticed an orange cat pattern on some bedsheets. “How about these?” he said. “Oh, the Garfield ones?” I replied, “Sure, I guess, but we need a blanket, not a bedsheet.” I wasn’t expecting his response:

“What’s a Garfield?”

That’s when it hit me: Jamie hadn’t grown up with that stupid cat everywhere. In fact, there were countless things that I thought of as commonplace that would be completely foreign to him and his sister if we moved back to the West. Parents everywhere surely experience something like this, but the cultural chasm between me and my son seemed so stark and so vast at that moment that I just stood there, dumbfounded. Childhood in 21st-century Japan is of course quite different than it was in the cow-town I grew up in outside of Atlanta back in the 1970’s (it’s been consumed by the metropolis now, I hear). My kids relate to universal childhood experiences like candy, cartoons and riding bikes around the neighborhood, and they’re familiar with Michael Jordan, Lady Gaga, Toy Story and other global phenomena, but after that Garfield moment I began to think about all of the people, places and things that they know almost nothing about.

The list is endless: Charlie Brown, Oprah Winfrey, Shel Silverstein, Lewis and Clark, Calvin and Hobbes, Polaroid cameras, D-Day, LeBron James, The Velveteen Rabbit, Memphis Tennessee, Saturday morning cartoons, Street Fighter 2, Plymouth Rock, Robin Williams, Robinson Crusoe, Babe Ruth, Harriet Tubman, The Hobbit, The Simpsons, The Rolling Stones, Popeye, Prince and probably 90% of the United States presidents (Felicia once saw Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill and asked: “Is that Anthony Bourdain?”).

These are just a few things that my kids haven’t been exposed to yet, and it took a dumb cartoon cat to make me ponder that for more than a second. Of course they have a wealth of cultural touchtones from Japan — songs and characters and history that I only know a scant fraction of — but the things that we have in common are much less than I had ever really come to terms with. And for the record: YES, Garfield is dumb. And not funny. In fact, it wasn’t made to be funny.

This wasn’t the first time that I realized the culture gap between me and my children. After all, they grew up in Tokyo, so I knew they wouldn’t be able to quote Indiana Jones or sing David Bowie with me unless I exposed them to it myself (done and done). But it still knocks me off-balance just contemplating how different our childhood memories will be. Mine are of lawn mowers, boomboxes and covered dish dinners. Theirs will be of subways, motorcycles and giant Mekong catfish.

It also reminds me of my own drift from popular culture. In college, I was a music snob and cinephile (or at least posed as one) and pounced on any opportunity to broadcast my opinion on any band or independent film. I dropped out of the cultural circles for a few years when I moved to Taiwan — these were the days before torrents and MP3’s, mind you — but quickly took up a critical perch in Japan, always following (and bloviating over) some new band, artist, movie or trend.

Now I’ve left that world again, and my grasp of popular culture is loosening at an even faster rate than before. Not that cultural products are somehow unattainable — I do have iTunes, Amazon and Spotify like everyone else, and the Pocket app and a few great podcasts keep a signal running for me. I guess the difference is simply that I’m less interested in what’s happening, and embracing my cultural irrelevance in ways that I should have a long time ago. I used to want to know — and have an opinion on — everything happening. Now I’d much rather you just tell me what you like or what you discovered recently. When I download some mashups, I recognize fewer and fewer of the sampled songs, and when I played this youtube clip for my kids last week after their guitar lessons, it was they who schooled me on what the real song was. So be it. Let me happily drift away from the pulse of pop culture. It’s nicer out here. Besides, most trends are as deep and meaningful as those cheap Garfield bedsheets.

Oh Garfield…how I had forgotten you. I actually loved that comic when I was seven or eight years old. I had the books. I looked for it in the Sunday newspaper. I drew his chubby striped face over and over on notebook paper. I’d even say that my first urge to pursue art came from the compliments my drawings received from elementary school teachers. “It looks just like him!” They’d gush, tickling my ego in ways they could have no idea. After such accolades, I filled reams of sketchbooks with that lasagna-eating, Monday-hating cat, and showed them to anyone who would look at them. I hadn’t thought about those sketchbooks in decades, but Jamie’s innocent inquiry made me reconsider all the cultural detritus that washes up in our home today. It’s easy to dismiss so much “entertainment” as dumb fluff, while forgetting the fluff you so heartily lapped up back in the day. You know, boy bands like One Direction aren’t that different from Ragged-Tiger-era Duran Duran, and Nikelodeon shows like iCarly and the Thundermans aren’t any worse than Different Strokes or Duke of Hazard. So let them consume a bit of junk here and there. Perhaps one day their kids will innocently ask them “What’s a blog?”


  1. Every generation has different touchstone memories. While talking to my students, I sometimes felt we were from different planets.
    Anyway, clearly there are more differences because of where they are being brought up. It’s fun to expose our kids to at least some of those cultural references. We’ve shown the kids some of the classic movies we grew up with.

    • Indeed, Larry. Every generation seems foreign to the next in some ways. I look forward to talking to them in, say, 10 or 15 years and see what memories they’ve taken with them from these years.

  2. What the hell is a The Velveteen Rabbit?

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