24. Personal Circles

Colleague: [noun] A fellow worker or member of a staff, department, profession, etc

~ Dictionary.com

Back in the mid 90’s, I went to Japan on an exchange, friendship visit. As a part of that visit, to foster cultural understanding and appreciation, the organisers arranged for each delegate to reside with a local family for a night. Just so we understood how precious and exclusive a home-stay was to the Japanese families that were going to receive us, how much it was outside of their comfort zone, we were given lessons on what was normal for Japanese people, traditionally.

At one of those sessions, we were told how the Japanese maintain boundaries within which they place the different groups of people in their life. While other societies do the same, the boundaries tend to be flexible and can even be vague – friends can be closer than family, for instance. For the Japanese, the lines are clear and (fairly strictly) adhered to.

In the inner circle, there is the person and their immediate family – which may include paternal grandparents. They live in the same household and know about all the goings-on of that household. They share the most intimate “secrets” of the family/household, which they maintain as privileged information just among themselves.

The home is sacred ground, where they can shed their outer persona and be entirely themselves. No pretense, no masks.

The next circle out from that innermost one is where they place their friends, family, and family friends, and perhaps a close neighbour. These people may have an insight about the family and may have even been invited to the home.

Further out from that is the more superficial circle of colleagues, business acquaintances, and clientele. This group of people may hang out with the person (karaoke sessions, business dinners) and may meet with the spouses. Often they don’t get invited home and only know what they need to know. They will also know the person based on the personality he chooses to show – a front, polite, and stoic, laughs at the right time. They may never know the person as he or she truly is.

The outermost circle is everyone else.

Considering how we (the exchange visitors) are foreign to our host family, for them to agree to have us stay a couple of nights with them, that was really taking them out of their comfort zone, having to reveal their innermost secrets to perfect strangers, most of whom don’t even speak their language (we were all given a crash course).

In our culture, the lines are faint. I grew up with friends visiting our home and I have visited theirs. My sisters even had friends sleep over at our place and we have accompanied my eldest sister at her friend’s place when that friend’s parents were out of town. When we went for Quran reading lessons, we helped our teacher with her home food sales business – packaging, preparing the ingredients. We hung out in her home.

Sometimes, I think I forget that while I function on that faint boundaries principle with the people around me, there are others who maintain very fixed lines like the Japanese do.