Before moving to Japan, I honestly thought culture shock in general was imaginary. I’ve traveled to about thirty countries, some several times, some for longer than 30 days. Culture shock? That’s cute. I’m a citizen of the world, culture shock is for provincial types who stay home and watch Duck Dynasty marathons.
Needless to say, I was being a smug moron. Culture shock is real, with symptoms ranging from hyper-hermit creepiness to feral-cat freak outs.
The upshot is that it’s temporary. After a few months, you find your groove. You figure out how to pay your bills. The konbini guy knows you like Suntory Boss lattes. The dry cleaner practices her English with you. You’ve discovered your favorite café, park, and hair salon.
One day, it all suddenly becomes Your Life in Japan. And before you know it, it’s December. It’s time to visit home for the first time. Here we go again, right?
Yes and no. My expat friends told me that going back for the first time was weird, but no one told me why. I was nervous, but not sure why. What I quickly discovered was that the things that were strange were the things most familiar. Reverse culture shock isn’t about a new cultural experience. It’s about remembering the things you’ve forgotten.
I’m from San Francisco, and my sister Wendy lives in Houston, so I was making a multi-leg visit for a family Christmas, then seeing my friends in California. I was also going from Tokyo (land of the teeny) to THE BIGGEST FREAKING PLACE ON THE PLANET. But only about ten months passed between my time in the States, so I half-thought I’d get off easy, but apparently I was still operating under my disproven assumption that cultural differences wouldn’t catch me off guard. (Again… moron.)
My first tip-off was ordering at the airport Starbucks with Wendy after my 11-hour flight.
“CHAIIII LAAAAHHH TAAY please.” I enunciated to the counter staff.
“Cynthia, he speaks English. Talk normal.” My sister reminded me.
Sigh. I knew that. Why did I do that? Am I going to do this for two weeks?
A few things I un-remembered:
America is big, ergo, everything is big.
Food, freeways, free space. A large coffee in Japan is a small in The U.S. American streets and sidewalks are twice as wide as they are in Tokyo. I personally attribute this to our generally larger builds and need for a greater radius of personal space.
We like to talk
Maybe it’s because in Japan, I don’t hear a lot of English in group conversations, but I was continually distracted by people talking over each other. Clerks, friends, family, people on TV… we Americans seem interrupt each other constantly in our daily chats. I kept feeling the need to understand every little thing that was being said in my vicinity. It was frustrating and confusing… and yet familiar.
We have a LOT of stuff.
This was the big one for me. One of my missions in SF was to take a bunch of warm clothes back to Tokyo for the winter. I was aghast by how much crap I still had (have?), even after a massive pre-move sale.
Dozens of dresses, shirts, sweaters, jackets, and shoes to sort through—so much stuff I couldn’t look at it all, and it took me over two hours to pull out a suitcase’s worth of clothes. I took twice as much as I intended to bring back and sold things I really liked, but knew I’d never need.
Lots of stuff, lots of space, and lots to say. More than anything, going home reminded me of how little I really need to be content, not just here, but anywhere I choose to live.
Living in Japan has taught me about minimalism, thoughtful consumption, and patience. Being able to appreciate these lessons on both sides of the planet has been worth the confusion of un-remembering.