Essay by Dr. Beth Morling (University of Delaware) "The memories of Kokoro Research Center"
Beth Morling, Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Delaware stayed in Kyoto as a Fulbright scholar 2010-2011. In her essay “The memories of Kokoro Research Center”, she wrote about her days of researching, teaching, and family life in Kyoto.
As I am writing this essay, we are experiencing typical midsummer days of Kyoto: hot and humid weather and cicadas singing all around. It was the same weather when my family and I arrived last August, 2010 to spend 11 months in Kyoto. I am a social cultural psychologist, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Delaware in the United States. For my sabbatical year, I was fortunate to receive the financial support of Fulbright Japan and the U.S. Center for the International Exchange of Scholars. My stay in Kyoto was also made possible by the sponsorship and collaboration of Kokoro Research Center.
This past year has been rich with experiences, in research, teaching, and family life. My Fulbright position has been a “lecturing/research” award, in which I conducted a research project and also taught two courses. In both activities, I worked with Dr. Yukiko Uchida, associate professor at Kokoro Research Center.
(photo: Workshop on Culture, Self, and Social Relationships Jun. 28, 2011)
Our target research project was a continuing study of how people perceive social support from others. Previous research, conducted by Asian-American researcher Heejung Kim and her colleagues, has suggested to psychologists that North Americans tend to cope with stressful events by asking close others for support. Relatively speaking, Asians and Asian-Americans are more reluctant to request social support. In addition, even when Asian students do ask for support (for example, if they are required to ask for social support in a research study), they benefit less from it. Why? One answer is that Asian cultural contexts are guided by feelings of duty and obligation, so asking for help from others puts a burden on others. In contrast, in North American cultural contexts, people are expected to act from free will, not obligation. So a request for support may be considered a suggestion, not an obligation.
Inspired by this past research, Dr. Uchida and I began working on a study of social support about two years ago. First we asked people in Japan and the U.S. (both students and working adults) to describe examples of support they received from others. People told us about times when friends helped them to extract their bike from a tangled pile. They told us about times when their parents gave them advice about their jobs or academic options. They told us about times when friends helped them cope with a romantic breakup or some other loss. We collected several hundred situations.
Last year, we asked a new sample of American students to read and respond to a randomly drawn sample of these situations. And this past fall, soon after I arrived at Kokoro research center, we asked a sample of Japanese students to do the same thing. We spent the spring entering, organizing and analyzing the data. Throughout this process, I have been grateful for the support of Kokoro Research Center. They allowed me to use the time of their paid research assistants and helped pay for statistical software we needed. Most importantly, I benefitted tremendously from daily conversations with my Kokoro colleagues. The psychologists at Kokoro helped me think clearly about our data and our research questions.
The data from our study tell two interesting stories. One of the stories is about Japanese social support. We found that Japanese social support is more positive if it is emotional–that is, if it reinforces the relationships between people and makes a person feel cared for. Emotional support is experienced much more positively than problem-based support, in which someone offers tangible help or advice. Although problem based support is more common than emotional support in our Japanese samples, emotional support made people feel more competent, positive, and connected. Even Americans who read about Japanese situations agreed: Even they rated Japanese examples of emotional support quite positively.
The other interesting story is about North American social support. In American support situations, the type of support (emotional vs. problem-based) mattered much less than whether the situations were requested or not. In our data, we found that when Americans described support that they did not request, they felt more competent, and positive about it. It may be that for Americans, getting unasked-for support goes along with American cultural ideals for choice. It may mean more to Americans when their friends or family support them out of choice, not obligation.
In addition to working on this research project together, Dr. Uchida and I also collaborated in teaching two courses. We taught an undergraduate lecture course, Cultural Psychology, both in the fall and spring semesters. And we taught a graduate course called Academic English to graduate students in the School of Education.
(photo: with students of Academic English to graduate students in the School of Education. Third from the right in front row is Morling and next left to her is Yukiko Uchida, Associate Professor Kokoro Research Center)
Teaching in Japan felt both familiar and new. The content of our Cultural Psychology course was familiar, as I have taught it before, but Dr. Uchida and I merged our lecture notes and developed new lesson plans. Teaching in a Japanese university was unfamiliar, too. Classes met less frequently than I am used to (once, rather than 2 or 3 times per week). Students in the classes have many other courses to keep up with (up to 10 or 12 other courses, rather than only 3 or 4). And students in my Japanese Cultural Psychology classroom rarely spoke in class. I could tell they were thinking and learning, but the evidence came in the form of their written comments, not their raised hands.
The graduate course in Academic English was completely new, as I have not been an English teacher before. However, even in this class I found a surprising degree of familiarity. For the course was not about teaching English–it was about teaching graduate students the speaking, writing, and discussion skills they will need to be successful international academics. These students should be proud of their progress–most of them went from being reserved and careful to being confident and assertive English speakers and writers. In contrast to the quiet undergraduate class, this graduate classroom often rang with laughter as we found common ground.
My description of this year would not be complete without mentioning the fascinating experiences my family and I shared while we lived in Kyoto. The Fulbright program is a program with the U.S. State Department, and we took our duties as cultural ambassadors quite seriously, doing what we could to experience Japanese customs and life.
Our three sons, Max (age 10), Alek (age 7) and Hugo (age 7), attended international school. Their classes were in English, but most of their schoolmates are Japanese, so they learned bits and pieces of the language while they were here (imagine the kinds of words boys like to exchange!). Our boys learned to take off their shoes and place them neatly, pointed outward. They learned to love manga, sumo, and Japanese TV. They developed new favorite foods, including ramen, taiyaki, yakisoba, yakiniku, sushi, and the wonderful Kyoto tofu. They have learned to tolerate doting Japanese obaachans who pat their blond heads and compliment their management of chopsticks. And they have learned that Kyoto is a large, busy city, but one where boys their age can ride subways alone quite safely, and where they can safely run errands to the store. I recall many small kindnesses that have been bestowed on us this year. For example, the time Alek came home from buying milk, where the cashier had carefully tied up his change (and the receipt, of course) in a small bag. Or the time Hugo’s bike chain fell off on the way home from school, and a man passing by calmly kneeled down and retrained the chain in a few seconds, while we stood by helplessly. Or the times our neighborhood uncle would remind the boys to slow down on their bikes and look for cars. It goes on and on.
We travelled around Honshu doing almost every family friendly activity, many of which were recommended by our Kokoro friends. We enjoyed Arashiyama, Hikone Castle, Fukui, Shiagaraki, Amanohashidate, playing in the Kamo River, and the Omiya Kotsu Koen. We visited dozens of temples and tried out matsuri large and small. In between we experienced almost everything about modern life in Kyoto, from public transportation to sorting our trash. It has been a wonderful year.
One hope of the Fulbright program is that its scholars will form friendships and collaborations that enhance the personal and professional lives of the people it connects. In that sense, I think the program has succeeded: We are heartbroken to say farewell to the wonderful friends we have met this year, but we have developed several new ties between your country and ours. The success of our year is, in large part, thanks to Kokoro Research Center for its personal and professional support.
Associate Professor, University of Delaware / Cultural and social psychology
Lectured and conducted research as member of Kokoro Research Center 2010-2011
Website: Beth Morling Department of Psychology University of Delaware