Culture Shock and Awe

by industriousants

All you need to know.


I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the life that Matt and I have made here in Japan and how much our lives have changed in such a short time. We have gone from arriving to a virtually empty apartment with a few suitcases full of clothing, to owning a car, adopting a cat and making way for a baby. Indeed, just having an apartment with running hot water is amazing if you consider that our first year of marriage was spent wandering around the mountains and beaches of Asia with a tent and living out of our backpacks on 20$ a day. It feels like all of a sudden we have reached a point where 20$ can barely buy the both of us lunch at a local café.

The language is becoming less and less of a barrier as well. I’m very far from being fluent, but I felt a small sense of accomplishment the other day when I was out with a British friend enjoying a local festival and I heard a passerby exclaim in Japanese “Wow! Foreigners!” I’m still working on my reaction time, so I didn’t have any quick comeback at that moment, but for now I am more than happy just being able to understand the sentiments of those around me, no matter what they may be. As an aside, it’s come to my attention that half of all conversations at my workplace are about school related matters, the other half revolve around food.

In the beginning, the most deceptive thing about being in Japan was that I was in Japan. Having traveled quite a bit in Asia before moving here, my initial impression of the country was somewhat dull. Stepping off the plane, I felt like I had just spent 15 hours flying in one big circle, only to disembark back in Canada, in a Toronto full of Japanese people. Sure, it was cleaner and more organized, and my hotel’s electric toilet seat kept me sitting there for a few extra minutes playing with all the various cleaning functions, but Tokyo was just another big city. I didn’t feel the expected excitement of being purposefully lost in a strange new land. The roads were paved, the buildings were really no different from back home and my friendly North American corporations, McDonald’s and Coke, were there with open arms to greet me. It was all too familiar and I felt a little disappointed that I had come back to an Asia that didn’t feel like Asia at all. Rather, I should say, it didn’t feel like the Asia that I knew.

What I didn’t realize then, but understand now, is that Japanese culture-shock is a subtle yet potent experience, and the feeling of it sets in much slower than other places I’ve traveled. Japan is not India, where the moment you arrive you are instantly bombarded with people in your face, smells you wish you’d never smelled and the constant honking of no less than a hundred rickshaws all at once, all the time. Definitely missing is the feeling that your money and passport are in imminent danger of being ripped off your person, even if they are shoved deep down in your underwear, and gone is that stray dog ambiance and traffic-stopping cow Je ne sais quois. My mistake coming back to the Far East was in thinking that Asia as a whole could be solely defined by only its sensual elements and the speed in which it could raise ones blood pressure. I failed to recognize how the psychology of a nation, especially one as deep as Japan’s, could affect me, and that it was only a matter of time and experience before it hit.

Almost two years later, I’m just now starting to feel like I am getting a handle on the people and the culture, and there are definitely days when the complexities of the Japanese way can be a little frustrating. Just talking to people can be challenging, regardless of what language you are using. Positive communication here has a lot to do with how you say things and your choice of words. In my opinion, you can be perfectly fluent and have a 3000 word vocabulary, but if you can’t read between the cultural lines and respond in an appropriate manner, then really, you can’t speak Japanese.

A good example is the word no. No, or any verbal sentiment that resembles disagreement or rejection, does not often find its way into the vocabulary of my Japanese friends and colleagues. I find it wise to use caution when asking people for favors, because people will rarely turn down a request, even if it is inconvenient for them. I take this as far as holding back from making restaurant or movie suggestions. I find that people here feel obligated to do what others want instead of what they would prefer to do. At least over time, the better I get to know someone, the less this happens and my Japanese friends now understand that it won’t offend me if they speak up and say they don’t want to go out for sushi again. If you don’t clue into this cultural nuance at some point, you will develop an outstanding and generous opinion of Japanese people, as they will bend over backwards to make you happy, but perhaps their view of you won’t be the same if you fail to reciprocate.

Depending on how no is used can make a person seem too forward or even rude. A good example is if I asked my supervisor for the day off tomorrow. He might pull out his day planner and start flipping through it for a minute or two, then maybe he would offhandedly mention another teacher that also has the day off, and finally he would lean back in his chair and let out a deep-in-thought ‘Hmmmmmm’ all while rubbing chin pensively. This obviously means ‘No, no you can’t have the day off’. He’s not going to actually say it, possibly because he thinks it may offend me that my request is being turned down, and that would just be cruel, right? Instead, the moment I clue into the underlying message of this small but complex dance, I should step in at the right moment and magically remember some other more convenient day that I would prefer instead, or actually, that I didn’t really want the day off at all and what was I thinking?! Of course, I could just stand there silently insisting, and I might just get what I asked for, but not without having made my supervisor highly uncomfortable and making myself look like a complete asshole.

I am lucky to have a handful of colleagues who have experience working with foreigners, so they know they can be a little bit more direct with me. Sometimes it really balances out my day when I can get a straight, quick and honest answer to my questions. Still, I don’t necessarily think that western style directness is always the way to go. There is something very beautiful and considerate about the way people commune with each other here. Some critics might say it’s fake and showy, but there are times I prefer it to the alternative. On a recent trip home to North America I felt really uncomfortable dealing with anyone in customer service. The tone of peoples’ voices seemed harsher than I remembered, and their quick answers came off as brash and made me feel like I wasn’t worth their time. On the flight there, I couldn’t help but cringe at the over-casual way the airline attendants addressed the Japanese passengers. They wouldn’t look people in the face or smile, they would roll their eyes if someone didn’t understand English and sometimes they would even frown disapprovingly at requests. Obviously, the staff had only been taught to serve drinks, but had learned nothing about setting a good cultural impression on international guests visiting our country. They might as well have just come out and said “Welcome to America, and f*ck you”. On that note, I will never fly Delta Airlines again.

I don’t know, maybe I’ve been in Japan too long or maybe I’m just getting soft. It makes me wonder how much can I have changed in less than two years, or in even just one? Well, thinking back, I spent three weeks in Canada that summer and the reverse culture shock was surprisingly strong. Everything seemed incredibly dirty and everyone seemed unbearably rude and fat. At the time, coming home from Japan after only one year away made Canada feel like a third world country in comparison. Thankfully, readjusting didn’t take too long and I really enjoyed my time home with family and friends. Upon returning to Japan, on my first day back at work, I sat down with a colleague and started telling her about my trip. She listened intently and when I was finished she said, “It’s amazing! When you left three weeks ago, you were practically Japanese, and now you’re back and you’re Canadian again!” Basically speaking, a whole year’s worth of cultural adaptation was all but reversed in a matter of weeks, and all it took was one conversation for my colleague to notice the difference. It goes to show how deep cultural roots go. I asked her jokingly “So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” She sat there for a moment, thought about it, and then replied quite seriously “Both.”

April 22, 2011