What’s Your Yardstick?

From the summer of 1978, I spent the whole high school senior year in the US as an exchange student.  My host family welcomed me as one of their own members.  I’m evermore grateful for their generosity. Especially my host mother – for what ignited in me.

My host mother said, “Barbara (one of my classmates) is very smart although she is not good at math.” How can she be smart if she is not good at math? I had never heard my teachers or anybody in Japan say that.  At my school in Japan, we had been stacked in numbers according to our test scores. I had only one yardstick to evaluate myself there.   

Her comment struck me like a lightning. Unlike in Japan, in the US there was more than one yardstick to measure a person.  “That means ultimately I can define my own yardstick to evaluate myself. How wonderful!  This is the true freedom!” so I thought.

After the year was over, I went back to Japan, following the rule of this exchange program. But my desire to return to the US someday, not to visit but to live, had sprouted.

Japan is a homogeneous country where any outlier has difficulty living there. Especially so when I was young. I graduated a prestigious four-year college and started a career path – not as an office lady – which was still uncommon for women in Japan those days.  I pursued a career but also was longing to get married and enjoy a private life. No men seemed to be interested in me as his future wife.  I must have been too aggressive, too “smart”, or too career-oriented for them.

Fourteen years after my desire was ignited, I fulfilled it. My new American employer transferred me to work at the headquarters in Seattle.  Soon after, I met a man who embraced me the way I am, and we got married a year later.  My hunch was partially right. I didn’t have to sacrifice my career because of marriage.  Now I was ready to enjoy the true freedom; to define my own yardstick to measure myself.

Having lived in the US for a while, however, I began to doubt my original admiration.  The longer I lived here, the larger my doubt became. 

This country has only one yardstick; money. 

You don’t have to be good at math. You don’t have to graduate from college. You don’t have to treat others with respect. You can be rude to elders. You can be a drug addict or drunkard. You don’t have to care about how you present yourself with appropriate attire. As long as you have and/or made a lot of money, people accept you or even admire you regardless of your behavior or attitude; nothing else seems to matter. 

In the US, everything is converted to $ plus numbers. How much $ this river or that mountain is worth. How much $ is lost because of this hurricane or that wildfire, as if anything and everything including the lives of animals and trees and landscape can be valued in $ sign. 

Why not respect teachers, police officers, or fire fighters simply because of their dedication? Why not respect old people simply because of their longevity? Why not admire your boss or peers simply because of their kindness? Why not appreciate flowers, trees, birds, rivers, and mountains simply because of their beauty?

The financial crisis of 2007 – 2008, however, seems to have changed this money worship culture of this country somehow.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t become quite a lasting movement (look at the amazing rally of the stock market in 2021.)  But the time when all the MBAs rushed to get jobs in Wall Street now seems to be over.  You don’t necessarily obtain people’s admiration if you tell you work for a Wall Street firm.

Social entrepreneurship now sounds better. I am sensing people have realized that there is some space in life that money can never fulfill; that instant gratification money can bring is not enough in life.

Maybe many yardsticks other than money have existed in the US, and after being dormant for quite some time they are now rejuvenated. Then it’s great! 

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