The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Dear Mary-Sue: Tempted to make invidious cross-cultural comparisons

Mary-Sue Wallace, The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt is back. Her thoughtful advice eases and soothes any cross-cultural quandary or travel-related confusion you may have. Submit your questions and comments here, or else by emailing her at

Dear Wallace-sensei,
As a Japanese expat living in New York, I’m finding myself becoming increasingly unsympathetic to my adopted city. Don’t get me wrong, Wallace-sama, I love it here. It’s just that I’ve found the hysteria surrounding first the earthquake and then Hurricane Irene a little hard to take considering the natural disasters Japan has had to deal with this year. Any advice for how I could stop these uncharitable thoughts that I am having?
— SY, New York City (originally Tokyo)

Dear SY-san,

Let me tell you a little story. There was once an attractive, physically fit young girl. She wasn’t from anywhere exciting, just a small town girl from West Virginia. Her father was a police officer in the town. When this young girl was 10, her father was shot and killed when apprehending a robbery. The girl was sent to Montana to live with her uncle. She didn’t like it in Montana, certainly not on the sheep farm her uncle owned. She tried to run away, to where she didn’t know, she just knew she wanted to be anywhere but Montana. But as she ran she witnessed something awful, the lambs from her uncle’s farm being slaughtered for market. She heard their cries, she still does, SY. She still does — when she dreams. It didn’t stop her running, though — she kept running this small girl.

The girl spent the rest of her childhood in a Lutheran orphanage. It was okay, though she still dreamt of the lambs. The girl was smart, though: she had gumption, she had tenacity and she was able to enroll into the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. When she left college, she applied to the FBI’s training academy. It was the late 70s, it wasn’t easy being one of the only women in the academy. But this girl got on with it. She was uncomplaining, and she was the best, she knew that. None of that sexist bull sticks when you know that.

On completing the training, this girl, now a young woman, joined the Behavioral Science Unit. She was part of a team that traced down serial killers — tried to get in their heads, think like they think. She was sent to a Baltimore asylum for her first interview, to meet with a serial killer who just might be able to help her with the case she had been assigned…

…Sorry, I digress, but the point, SY-san, is that that young girl was, in fact, little ol’ me. Yes, hard to believe, I know. I wasn’t always an agony aunt. Anyhoo, the point is some serious s**t went down. Some really creepy, really heavy stuff. So when I get invited round to Valerie Johnson’s for our book club meeting (second Tuesday of the month — we’re reading The Help at the moment; FABULOUS, you MUST read it), and Valerie starts recounting how she thought there was a robber in her garden the other day and she feared she was going to die — even though it just turned out to be Miguel, her 60-year-old Hispanic gardener — I just bite my tongue. Of course, I want to tell Valerie that she doesn’t know fear until she’s been trapped in a house with a serial killer knowing only one of you is going to get out of there alive. No, that would be rude. So I just sip my raspberry lemonade and nod politely as Valerie talks. New York, dear SY, is your Valerie Johnson. Tolerate her, SY, no matter how much you’d like to wring her neck.
— Mary-Sue

Anyhoo, that’s all from me readers. I’m so keen to hear about your cultural issues and all your juicy problems. Do drop me a line with any problems you have, or if you want to share your fave meatloaf recipe with me (yum! yum!). As they say in Italy, “ciao!” — or, as my (still!) unmarried youngest son (he’s nearly thirty, I despair of him, I really do) might say: “See you on the flip.”

Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She has taken a credited course in therapy from Tulsa Community College and is the best-selling author of Traveling Made Easy, Low-Fat Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul The Art of War: The Authorized Biography of Samantha Brown, and William Shatner’s TekWar: An Unofficial Guide. If you have any questions that you would like Mary-Sue to answer, you can contact her at, or by adding to the comments below.

img: Close, by Corina Sanchez.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, on the wide variety of vehicles that have been used for road trips.

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4 responses to “Dear Mary-Sue: Tempted to make invidious cross-cultural comparisons

  1. ML Awanohara September 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    As one of TDN’s founders, I can’t thank you enough for the role you are playing in providing the virtual equivalent of tea and sympathy to the culturally confused. I also appreciate your advice for SY-san — and have just one observation to add that comes from my own experience of living in Japan for several years. During those years, I came to admire the Japanese for their quality of gaman — the closest Western translation of which is the Brits’ “stiff upper lip.” Even that isn’t all that close since unlike Japan, the British Isles do not lie within the Ring of Fire.

    Anyhoo (your expressions are contagious!), I wonder if one idea for SY-san would be to buy KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON tee shirts or signs for all his panicky American friends. Japanese are known for their gift-giving, so he could probably get away with making gifts of these items without arousing their suspicions that he thinks of them as wimps. Also — and this comes from my other expat experience, in Britain — Americans appear to love quaint British sayings. What do you think?

  2. marysuewallace1 September 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I’m just happy to lend a sympathetic ear to the confused. We’ve all been there!

    I’ve not heard of gaman, but yes that does sound somewhat like the British sense of reserve. There must be something about living on an island that leaves everyone so wound-up and quiet. I met a couple from Nantucket when antique hunting in Vermont last fall and they were very reserved too – further evidence of that island theory of mine.

    I have to confess I don’t know much about the Japanese. They need to be even more like the British and do some lovely costume dramas for PBS. They really need to make a Japanese version of Cranford. My son has shown me some Japanese films. Hmmm, not sure I approved. They were rather disturbing cartoons with squids and lots of nudity. Ewww! Not the sort of thing Judi Dench would do.

  3. libbypatrick1 September 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Mary-Sue, as a newcomer to your country, I would just like to say Thank You for your no-nonsense advice. I can usually learn something from your column, however unrelated to my own life it may be. Although my husband hasn’t been looking at any Ukrainian brides websites, I have a little problem of my own at the moment concerning our landlady. Maybe I’ll write to you about it one day.

    I’m afraid I have to correct you on one thing, though. Judi Dench, when she was young and reckless, did a nude scene with Jeremy Irons in a film called ‘Langrishe, Go Down’. PBS probably haven’t shown it, although it shouldn’t be ruled out. A friend told me they once screened a hilarious episode of Jonathan Creek, evidently without checking it first, because it featured a nude coffee morning scene. (True story.)

  4. marysuewallace1 September 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Who WOULDN’T want to do a nude scene with the doleful-eyed Mr Irons?!! Hubba, hubba!

    I’m sure if Judi did it, it was a very tasteful scene that didn’t in anyway involve the disturbing use of squids. Judi wouldn’t do anything like that – though having seen ‘The Thief, The Cook, His Wife & Her Lover’ Helen Mirren might.

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