Monday, February 20, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock: Acute Symptoms

Hey, baby pies! Hey from New York! How are you ? Where are you? What have you been up to? I miss you! How have I been? Oof. Let's talk about reverse culture shock -- short-term now, long-term next. I've made the trip between Japan and the U.S. six times, I think, so I know all about the acute signs of being stuck in Tokyo-mode.

OMG everyone's so LOUD
This hits you first, even if you haven't been away for long. At the airport, families shout to each other across, like, an acre of space. "JEFF! HEY JEFF! I GOT -- I GOT YOUR -- WHAT? I GOT YOUR BAGS! I SAID I GOT YOUR BAGS! NO I GOT IT!" I still remember waiting for my bags at SFO after one long summer in the Hyogo countryside and feeling tears prick my eyes because all the noise close to my head was stressing me out and I couldn't understand why everyone thought it was okay to scream around me.

Plus, you can understand all the petty bitching and mundane prattle going on in conversations around you, which makes people seem a lot louder and more annoying than in Japan, where it's easy to tune people out if Japanese isn't your first language. This sometimes hit me when I was still at Narita, waiting for my flight with groups of American military members talking loudly about gossip on the base or their plants back home or whatever.

Well this is a docile bunch, but...

And then, whoa, all the noise on public transportation! The airport shuttles are startling enough, but even after three months back in America I was still totally unprepared for the NYC subways. The first time I took the N train into Manhattan I was way overwhelmed. I sat all tense and skittish, my eyes darting around the screeching carriage at all the unpredictable animals packed in with me, singing songs and dancing and yelling at each other and smelling like hair gel and sweat and trash and perfume. Of course, I got used to this fast -- before long I was grinning and skipping from platform to platform like "America's a circus, this is so fucking cool!"

Not actually a stranger but the lovely Melissa

WTF why is this person looking at me and talking to me
I got a lot of attention in Japan. Foreigners who look different get stared at, and young white ladies who speak Japanese can cause a stir in lots of places. But Japan lacks the American tendency to interact with strangers in proximity, and you really feel this difference when you come home. A lot.

You'll be like, trying to pick out an onion at the grocery store and suddenly some random guy's asking you a question. And you're like WHAT WHAT WHAT'S WRONG WHAT'S HAPPENING WHAT -- conveyed, of course, with a look of total alarm and a stammered, confused mumble -- and it takes you several seconds to realize he's just a guy at the grocery store also trying to pick out an onion, and since you both happened to be picking out onions in the same bin at the same time, he cracked a polite little joke about how many choices there were. By the time you start to remember that this is a normal thing that happens here, the poor guy has hurried away because you made him feel real awkward.

Hey stranger 'sup how you doin' OK bye man

While this is something you notice and can get used to quickly, last year it took me months -- months! -- to remember how to banter with strangers again after living in Japan. And it is absolutely one of my favorite things about my culture. People here are so open with their personalities, moods, and senses of humor. Granted, there are plenty of times when I'm not in the mood for that, and I have many fond memories of being left alone in Japan; but basically, American sociability really warms my heart and makes me feel like everyone's in it together.

I had a hard time with this one when I visited after I'd been living in Tokyo for a full year and some months. I felt like everyone was standing so close to me. When someone touched my shoulder in a casual conversation, it was startling and weird. I can't even really explain this because, as we all know, it's not like I never touched people in Tokyo. But when I got back here I felt like everyone was jabbing my bubble all the time.

It'll be OK. It'll be OK. It'll be OK. It'll be OK.
I was deep in Tokyo for a long time, but I got over all of this stuff within about four months. Fortunately, I actually like my country and culture -- always have! So as much as I dig Japan, I was totally willing to be embraced by the United States again. This isn't the case with everyone, from what I've heard. I've met a lot of Americans who went to Japan and came back a few months later just moaning and sighing about how much better everything is in Japan and how they haaaate being back here because America is sooo this and soooo that. Maybe that's part of the process for them,  I don't know. Even when I considered staying in Japan for ever, I never felt ill toward my own country and never doubted I could be happy there. Of course, I'm from Oregon, the greatest land of all, but the point is! If you weren't born and raised in Japan, then chill out about it, okay? You can survive your own country. All this stuff fades away as quickly as you let it. Give it a few months.

What I didn't expect was the long-term version of reverse culture shock, the slow struggle to readjust as I start over in a new city in my own country. It's a sneakier feeling of disorientation, a sense of discomfort that comes and goes, a bleak confusion between your bones that you can't put into words -- and it drags on, and on, and on. That's another post. 


Rachelle B. said...

I really liked your post. I'll be leaving for a year long study abroad in Osaka, Japan in Sept. and I never really thought about the culture shock I'd receive coming back home.
How was your acclimation into the quiet and private world of Japan?

Dave Reiling said...

I returned to the states after living in Japan for almost five years this August. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, especially the "seen" but not "heard" thing. It's been tough job searching and at the same time trying to readjust to a country that isn't quite my home anymore. It's good to know there are other people who have survived the same thing. Thank you!