Interview with Jeff Hill

DigiLetter: What inspired you to pursue writing about Asian culture?

Jeff Hill: I ended up living in Japan for 30 years and subsequently continuing to explore and write about various Asian countries for the past 12 years as a result of a conversation I had with a couple of other guys in a U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst van on DaNang Air Base in 1970. One midnight shift we were discussing what we wanted to do after we got out of the air force. That we wanted to be released from our indentured servitude was a given. We also agreed that we wanted to go back to college. As enlisted members in signal intelligence, we were all iconoclastic college drop outs. When our conversation turned to wanting to experience more of Asia, it occurred to me, “Yeah, I’d like to go to college in Asia.” Fellow Radio Intercept Analyst Jim Matsen said, “Go to Sophia.”

I asked Jim, “What’s that?”

Jim told me, “It is a university in Tokyo. You can go there on the GI Bill.”

Because of the wartime conditions, we were restricted to base. The only exception was that on the rare occasions when he had the time, we went to China Beach on a Navy bus. Seeing the rice paddies and small villages of Vietnamese shacks through the metal grates that had been put on the bus windows to prevent hand grenades from being tossed through them made me have a yearning to be free to explore and interact with the locals within their environment.

While in Vietnam, I found the Vietnamese girls who worked at the various base exchange shops to be quite cute and, unlike the similarly aged feminists of America, approachable. Soon after I arrived in Vietnam I asked someone how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. It is “cao” (pronounced “chao,” coincidentally just like Italian.) When I received cheerful responses from the Vietnamese girls for this small effort to honor their culture, I little by little expanded my Vietnamese vocabulary. Towards the end of my year in Vietnam, a Vietnamese girl working in our chow line saw the short timer ribbon (taken from a whiskey bottle) I had tied to my top button hole and commented, “You go home soon.” I responded in Vietnamese, “Yes. And when I do, I will miss you very much.” The guy who had been standing behind me in line sat at my table and asked me, “What did you say to that girl? She looked like she was going to wet her pants.”

I said “I told her I would miss her when I go back to America.”

He asked me “Do you have something going with that girl?”

“Never saw her before in my life. But I meant it. I am really going to miss this place.”

The other guys serving with me in DaNang told me that if I could learn to speak Vietnamese, “Why don’t you learn something else that is easy, like Japanese?”

So in 1971 I entered Sophia University on the GI Bill. Upon finishing up the required credits to earn a BA in Sociology, in 1973 I entered Sophia University graduate school to focus on Japanese psychological anthropology.

DL: How do you define and achieve success?

JH: My concept of success is that of self-realization through adventure and validation through proving to myself that I am worth my keep.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family that was a Bizzaro version of the American dream as portrayed in “The Donna Reed Show.” As a child and adolescent, I was part of a suburban family of four supported by a father with the professional status of civil engineer who worked in an office in Manhattan. My mother was constantly proclaiming to my brother and me that we were “upper middle class!” But that status didn’t bring us any satisfaction or sense of security. Every episode of “The Donna Reed Show” began with the character of Donna Stone seeing off to work and school her husband and two children while radiating a fulfilled aura. However, the “upper middle class” family and neighborhood life I experienced as a child and adolescent had none of that serenity. Instead, living in what felt like Beyond Your Means Estates had the kind of feeling of impending doom that now pulsates with the overture of the current series “Mad Men” that portrays life during that same era as my childhood and adolescence.

After returning from driving my harried father to grab the 6:30 AM bus to Manhattan, my mother disgustedly grunted, “Every day is the same thing! Get up! Make the beds! Clean the house! Look after two kids!” One dreary Saturday when I was eleven years old, my mother started in on me with “What are you doing just hanging around the house? Don’t you have any friends?” Then, shoving my winter coat in my arms, she shoved me out of the house, yelling “Get out!” The last thing I heard before she shut the door behind me was, “You aren’t worth your keep!”

I have been striving to escape from banal materialism and to prove to myself that I am worth my keep ever since. Enlisting in the air force and volunteering for Vietnam was part of that escape. Although nobody knew anything about it at the time, it is clear to me now that my father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences in the US Army during World War II, especially the Battle of the Bulge, which he would never talk about. He died a stressed-out, defeated man at the age of 44, when I was 17. As it turned out, however, Vietnam was the best thing that ever happened to me. I not only survived, but came back full of appreciation for having discovered who I am, for discovering the camaraderie of the other guys over there, for the discovery of another culture, and for being alive and walking free on the face of the earth.

DL: How do you envision your typical readers?

JH: I want my readers to enjoy exploring other cultures, but to ultimately discover themselves through my writing. When I analyze the psychology of the Japanese (as well as the Koreans and the Cambodians), I want my readers to think, even shrug at first, “What’s the big deal? We Americans are like that too in some ways.” But I want my readers to then realize “but I never thought about it before. Come to think of it, I have some of those same ‘Japanese’ feelings.”

DL: What is your motto?

JH: My motto for myself is “Be worth your keep as a colleague, a friend, a neighbor, a husband, and a father.” The most joyful and most successful thing I ever did was to raise my son within an emotionally stable family environment. He was a happy bi-cultural kid who became a successful inter-cultural entrepreneur.

DL: What are your strong points and how do they play into both your personality and your career?

JH: I have total recall for the events of my life and I like to tell them.

DL: What are your weak points?

JH: There is a line in the song “The Way We Were” that goes, “Whatever is too painful, we simply choose to forget.” Well, that doesn’t apply to me. I remember everything. In a small but pervasive way, I am tormented by memories of stupid things I did or said when a child and teenager that must have made me come across as a jerk at the time. I have been trying to escape from that self-image for the past 50 years. I have never attended a high school reunion because I find the concept of attending a high school reunion to be a horror.

I have no problem when assigned the role of public speaking. However, I am not skillful at party mingling. I enjoy impromptu, yet substantial dialogue. But I cannot engage in charming party banter. Writing became therapy for me as a result of the frustration of being interrupted with what I perceived to be sarcastic, judgmental remarks from my parents and, often, by my school teachers. I feel comfortable writing when I cannot feel comfortable at a social gathering.

DL: Is there any particular aspect of any Asian culture that you find endlessly fascinating (or even irritating)?

JH: In general, Asians are polite and approachable. However, because of your Western appearance, even if you live there for 30 years, you will never be fully regarded as one of them within their own society. When teaching a course in Japan-American Comparative Cultures at Hokusei University, I showed my class the episode of “Seinfeld” when the character of Watley cheerfully said that he had just converted to Judiasm. “I’m a Jew,” Watley announced. He then proceeded to make Jewish jokes and to explain, “My people have been suffering for three thousand years.” Jerry Seinfeld corrects him: “Five thousand.” Watley responds, “Even better. It is our humor that has sustained us.” I told my class of Japanese studying English and American exchange students studying Japanese, “Similarly, it is possible for a Westerner to obtain Japanese citizenship. But he will never be accepted as a Japanese.”

I heard this observation when I arrived in Japan in 1971. But I lived in Japan for 30 years anyway.

DL: Is there any part of any Asian culture that you would like to export to the West?

JH: Asians in general are non-confrontational. The Japanese culture in particular has certain ways that I think could easily be adapted into the West to facilitate smoother relationships between individuals as well as between nations. Although I had some problems with reverse culture shock when returning to work and live in the United States after 30 years in Japan, I have discovered that certain fundamental Japanese ways of thinking and behaving have greatly facilitated my ability to both professionally and personally function in the United States. For instance, whenever approaching anyone, whether in person or over the phone, I always have the attitude of “I have a problem. Perhaps you can help me” instead of, “What kind of outfit do you people think you are running?” Contrary to what is currently being reported over the various forms of media in America about telephone service personnel, I always find Americans in such service roles to be pleasant and helpful.

DL: What’s your most memorable festival experience?

JH: I studied about Japanese festival (matsuri) as a graduate student in Professor Sawaii’s class. Professor Sawaii asserted that matsuri is a composite of Japanese life with its emphasis on participation rather than on expertise and a background knowledge of history and other specifics. However, I didn’t really “get” matsuri until quite a few years after getting my MA in Far East Asian Studies with a focus on Japanese psychological anthropology when I saw my three-year old son naturally start to chant “washoi, washoi, washoi,” and strut along with others at a street matsuri in Obihiro, Hokkaido. “How did he learn how to do that?” I wondered, “I never learned how to do that.”

DL: If you had to recommend three places for someone to visit in Asia, where would they be?

JH: Angkor Wat, Cambodia. In my opinion, in terms of sheer size and range Angkor Wat surpasses the pyramids of ancient Egypt as one of the wonders of the world. In terms of artistic intricacy and mystery, Angkor Wat surpasses anything on the planet. The various temples of Angkor Wat spread out over an area that I estimate to be about the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. My colleague and I had a car and driver who transported us from temple to temple over the course of three days while staying at the Angkor Village in nearby Siem Reap, where we felt like visiting Western characters in a W. Summerset Maugham novel.

The Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe area of Japan. These three cities provide a cornucopia of traditional Japan: the Osaka Castle, the temples and shrines of Kyoto, and the port city of Kobe with its all-female Takarazuka review that is portrayed in the 1957 Hollywood movie “Sayonara” as “Matsubayashi.”

Hokkaido, Japan. Hokkaido is Japan’s “last frontier.” Hokkaido is home of Japan’s last remaining Ainu. They live in tourist villages like Akan Kohan (“kohan” means “village” in the Ainu language) at Lake Akan in eastern Hokkaido. Most of Hokkaido, including the capital city of Sapporo was settled by what we now consider to be “the Japanese” (similar to what were considered to be “the Americans” and “the Indians” of the 19th century) during the Meiji times of the late 1800s. In contrast to the other congested Japanese islands characterized by narrow streets or concrete lined highways, Hokkaido still has plenty of open roads that wind their way over open plains and through mountain passes.

DL: Are there any other interesting bits of Asian culture that have crept into the West without most being aware of it?

JH: I don’t think it came to America from Asia, but the American youth philosophy of “Live fast. Die young. Leave a beautiful corpse” is a quite accurate summation of the Japanese Samurai orientation to life. The cherry blossom (which has beautiful white petals that bloom and then fall without withering) therefore symbolizes the Samurai.

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