Going back "home"...part 3.


In theory, the internet should have all of the information you would ever need about leaving Japan and going to another country. Even if you are going to a relatively small country, the data should be out there somewhere. There should be a blog that leads to an official website that leads to credible evidence that leads to another website and a few more sites and maybe a few phone numbers and you should have all the information you need. As long as you are thorough and have enough time and dedication, you can sink your teeth into all those delicious facts and fill your belly from among the billions of web pages available to you.

What is much more difficult to prepare for is how you and your family will react to all of the changes that will surround you in your new residence. I'm referring to "culture shock", a very real emotional and physiological reaction when the cultural cues and comforts that you have grown accustomed to are now removed and replaced with ideas and practices that require some learning and getting used to. Even the most seasoned travelers go through some degree of culture shock that is dependent on so many variables. The only thing that remains consistent is that what we call "culture shock" is really just one of four distinct adjustment stages. I'll try to provide some personal perspective and since I'm no psychologist its really the only kind of perspective I CAN provide. As a former corporate trainer in one of Japan's largest english schools for children I was able to see dozens of new teachers come from all over the world and experience these stages themselves. Without naming any names I hope their perspectives can also be helpful.

The first stage of adjustment is the initial euphoria of arriving in your new home. Its the honeymoon phase of the relationship with your new residence and it typically lasts about a month. There are so many possibilities out there as you dive into learning. You notice lots of differences between your old home and your new digs. When I first moved to Japan from the USA I was overwhelmed by everything; after all it was my first time leaving the USA. The language, the people, all the billboards and tall buildings. Taxis with automatic doors, bullet trains, vending machines with hot beverages. School uniforms, loudspeakers at the supermarket, colorful money, cell phones that played music as a ringtone. I got to Japan at 4pm along with a few other English school recruits and I experienced all of these things in the first few hours after getting off the plane. It was such a whirlwind but it was all exciting. Everything was cool and refreshing and I thought "why don't we have these cool things back home?" In reality I was in that "extended vacation" mode where I didn't give much thought to the negatives in my new country; that I would be actually living there and having to deal with those negatives hadn't even really set in yet. And it wasn't so bad right? I mean, Japan has McDonalds too! Sure I couldn't actually order any food at the McDonalds because of the language barrier (true story) and I accidentally turned on porn in my hotel room on the first night in Japan because I didn't know how to use the TV (also a true story). Everything was going to be fine.

When I left Japan and moved back to the USA I had the same initial euphoria. Most things were new because I was living in a new town. I spent time trying to make new friends, figure out my surroundings and where to go for affordable groceries and other such things. The negatives of living in Las Vegas hadn't really affected me. I was too busy thinking how cool it was that I could go to the club until 4am and then go to the supermarket and grab some frozen pizza right after. I remember my first month in Las Vegas being pretty exciting despite having no source of income or a place of my own to live. The shit started hitting the fan in December when I had to knuckle down to find a job and a place to live and start dealing with the reality that things in this town are a little expensive and travel is a little inconvenient and the Japanese community is pretty small.

The second stage of adjustment is going through irritation or negation. All of those new and exciting differences are now not-so-new and a little less exciting. Now that you are getting out of survival mode you can pay more attention to how these new experiences are different from what you knew in your old home. Why is Pizza Hut so expensive in Japan? I didn't eat pizza everyday but there were times when I could have killed for a slice of meat lover's pan pizza but was not about to pay 3000yen to get my fix.

This is the stage most people think of when referring to "culture shock". Its the stage where you stop fangirl-ing on all of the good things that your new home has to offer and start wondering why you ever came in the first place when things were so much better where you were. There is no set timeline for experiencing this culture shock, and no set way in which it will manifest itself. For me, I went through a few periods of being homesick. The first came at my 3-month anniversary in Japan, then again at my 1-year anniversary. Those were times when I missed my friends and family back in the USA; times before social media when I had to buy phone cards and find the correct color payphone to make a call when they would be awake. I would consider my symptoms to be "mild"; I never turned to drugs or considered self-harm due to depression. I had a roommate who turned to drinking and excessive complaining about how terrible Japan and Japanese people were. I've also heard cases of people withdrawing from society and needing professional intervention.

I had some homesickness to return to Japan after I'd moved to Vegas - which is funny since Vegas is in the USA and should be more my "home" than Japan. People didn't want to hear my stories about "when I lived in Japan" and all the annoyances of living in the USA were adding up. I had the additional pressure of having a wife who was going through her own culture shock while I was going through my own reverse culture shock. Since most of culture shock is just how you deal with your perceptions of cultural differences, traveling with a partner can make that more difficult so be aware. You are both dealing with your own opinions and feelings and the opinions and feelings of your partner. Trying to pinpoint the real issue in this situation is like trying to find a bouncing ball in a dark room.

Once I adopted a realistic perspective of my new host country and realized that no matter how weird the customs seemed to me, they exist for a reason that must make sense to someone so I shouldn't be judgmental and negative. Once you get to this point and realize that things are going to be ok you move into the third stage of actual adjustment. This applies to reverse culture shock too! Imagine moving back to your country of origin and having to relearn cultural cues and getting comfortable with the daily life you'd forgotten since coming to Japan. That was me for my first few months in Las Vegas. It was awkward to do it with my Japanese wife there too, especially when she learned to navigate the streets of Las Vegas before I did!

The final stage is adaptation and mastery. You feel comfortable in your new culture and find that there are some things you will miss if/when you ever leave. I now look back at my time in Japan with a realistic perspective and combine the best of both worlds into a lifestyle that suits me. If I ever had to live in Japan I know I'd be happy with the level of personal safety and security and I'd be frustrated with being stared at by schoolchildren because I look different. Japan has good points and bad points, just like any other place. There is no ideal place in the world except that which you make for yourself.

So how does one deal with the unpredictable but unavoidable specter of culture shock? Just being realistic is one of the best coping mechanisms you can have to fight both culture shock and reverse culture shock. I had a good sense of humor about things I didn't understand and things I couldn't change. Knowing that every place has pluses and minuses keeps you grounded. I have accepted that Las Vegas has some of the world's best restaurants and some of the world's hottest summers, and I'm cool with both of those things. Having a strong social network of friends and family will help keep you in good spirits, and don't be afraid to look up the phone numbers for your new town's mental health professionals BEFORE you find that you need them. Culture shock happens to everyone and is nothing to be ashamed about.

My final piece of advice is that "home" is wherever you make it. And no matter where you go you can always go back to where you once were. If you leave Japan and things don't work out, go back to Japan. Or go somewhere else. Its really that simple. The world is full of good experiences and good people. The smile you wear will be reflected back to you a hundred times over by those you meet, no matter where you go.


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