Cultural Pressures – submit or transcend? by Nicholas Wai

Last weekend I was sick and it gave me the chance to re-watch a Japanese movie called Railways – a moving story about a financially successful “salaryman” who realised his childhood dream at 49 to become an electric train driver. I’m not a train buff particularly (airline is more my thing)  but the transformation story attracted me whilst on a flight a few years ago.

Within the Japanese society, and not unlike its western counterparts, social expectations drive and often determine what jobs one should hold, how much one should earn, where one should live, and what one should wear or drive. These status symbols, observable “badges of honour”, often inform others, and ourselves, of our identity, worth, and status. You may recognise some of these “badges” in your society. Anywaysback to the movie, the main character is a senior executive within a power company, who lives in the city with his wife and daughter, who are all busy leading their separate lives. He didn’t particularly like his job but it paid well. For a long time he hadn’t put any thoughts into what he should be doing, until his mother suddenly fell ill in the country side, and a dear friend who used to always ask if he is “living well” passed away.

These 2 sudden and unexpected ‘surges’ forced him to finally reflect and contemplate on what’s truly important for him. He thus quits his job, moves back to the country side to be closer to his mother, and applies for the job he dreamed about since his childhood. Overcoming the social stigma of what may be seen as a demotion or career suicide, it didn’t matter to him as he was totally dedicated to his new/dream job. It gavehim meaning, an opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his daughter who also followed him to the country side, and time to reallylive his life.

These warm-hearted stories are often dismissed as unrealistic, but if we suspend our judgement for a moment and just spend some time delving into the message - Which self did he respect more of - the senior executive in the city, or the train driver in the country side?

Each of us will have our own opinion based on our values and circumstances. The common measures of success is to focus on status and money rather than happiness and family relationships, and many of us will be persuaded to pick the former (senior executive) than the later (train driver). However, according to a hospital nurse who cares for dying patients, the common regrets of people on their death beds ( is that they wish they have not lived according to the expectations of others, have worked less, and have spent more time on things that made them happier and closer to their families.

Societal norms are powerful and it’s not always easy to act against it. I believe what’s important is that we truly know what’s important to us and what makes us tick. With these as our compass, we will be more able to take responsibilities in making conscious choices of what’s best for us, and no longer blame culture or society for how we live our lives. We may not be able to immediately transcend our cultural or societal norms, but what we can do is to gradually increase the things we enjoy doing whilst reducing the things that go against our values. It’s a fine balance we can all learn to handle. 

It took some drastic events for the main character to change how he thought about his life and take actions to improve it. What would it take for you to take the time to contemplate and reflect on what’s important to you? Are you making conscious choices, or just passively submitting to your cultural and societal norms? Are you ready to live your dreams, and what steps would you need to take, be it baby steps?