Monthly Archives: June 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

I have 32 full days left in Japan. In this time I will have taught 11 days of lessons, gone to a birthday party, attended a sumo tournament, visited the school for the blind for the last time, partied on a rooftop terrace with all the other leavers, celebrated “Marine Day” and had my work leaving party. My Google Calendar for July is a blinding swathe of orange and blue; a boiling ocean of parties and lessons stocked with the finest fish and nuggets of deep fried mashed potatoes. I will ride the waves like a gymnast, skipping past the darkest goblins of death and leaping over waves that bite and thrash at my lowly canoe, threatening to scold and burn my very soul, and then…

August. A sea so blue and so still you cannot see where it meets the sky. The land ahead provides a glimpse of adventure yet to come, but is as tangible as adventure itself.

We recently received a letter from CLAIR (the organisation that runs the JET Programme) warning us of “Reverse Culture Shock.” I have already covered the culture shock I encountered when I got here (see Shiz Up My Uoka and Gravy Rage), but I’m finding it hard to believe that I will have similar problems when I get home. Nevertheless, they provide a number of suggestions which we can use to help us through this period of adjustment:

1) Things to do before leaving Japan

Make a list of the things that you like about Japan. This list may include aspects of Japanese culture, your job or lifestyle here, actual places or possessions, and a variety of other things. Look over this list and think about which things you can take home, which things you can try to recreate back home, and which things you must say goodbye to.

  • Ramen takes the number one spot here. This noodle soup comes in so many forms and variations that it’s simply impossible to try them all. Good, specialist ramen shops spend years perfecting their soup recipe and won’t open their shop if it isn’t perfect on any particular day. The tantalising mix of soup, egg noodles, roast pork and any number of additional toppings is a divine treat you will never understand unless you try it. I’m desperately hoping I can find somewhere good in London or I’ll be forever pining for one more fix for the rest of my days.
  • The language. I have loved learning Japanese, and I think I will miss hearing it all day every day.
  • My students. Especially the genki ones who never fail to liven up the atmosphere in my classes.
  • The good salary and low cost of living (if you don’t count the £10 watermelons and £1 apples – fruit and veg here is prohibitively expensive).
  • The Shinkansen. I still get excited every time I know I’m going to have to use it. Travelling on South West Trains will never be quite the same again.
  • The Japanese people. This one is last because I want to expand upon it, but it’s probably the most important.

Honestly there are a lot of things that annoy me in this country, but the one thing that remains constant wherever you go is the sheer greatness of the people that live here. One thing I’m preparing myself for when I get back home is that people will probably seem incredibly rude, selfish and intimidating. Many of them won’t be of course, it’s just that if you were setting the bar for polite and friendly, you would most likely start with the Japanese and work your way down from there, and after a year I’ve gotten pretty used to seeing that bar way above my reach.

Living in Shizuoka City has been an interesting experience, but this is due only and entirely to the people I have met here. The city itself is just a concrete/prefab housing jungle where people live and work. It has a pretty small city centre and the rest is a sprawling mass of suburbs and roads. There are very few parks, all the rivers, beaches and open spaces are lined and paved with concrete, and rice fields are dotted in random patches throughout the city; it is a painful reminder of the importance of good urban planning. None of that matters of course, because the people who live in it are amazing. Ask someone a question and they will stop and help. If you don’t understand Japanese they will try desperately to remember the English they learnt at school and, if all else fails, engage you in a game of shirades. They will welcome you into every shop with a smile, give you the quickest, most efficient service you have ever had and then thank you a billion times on your way out. They invite you round to their houses for dinner, offer to help whenever you even mention you have difficulty with something and if you leave your hair scrunchy in a restaurant they will chase you half a mile down the road to give it back to you and man, if I’d lost that I don’t know what I’d do.

Make a list of the people you will miss most when you leave. Think of the most meaningful way to say goodbye to each person on that list. Ways to do this may include writing a letter, going to a favorite restaurant, spending a day together doing a shared hobby, or something else.

My Mum will tell you I hate cards. When you get them as a kid, unless there’s a tenner in it you really don’t appreciate that someone took the time to go down Clinton Cards, spent 5-10 minutes picking something up, paid £3 for it and then wrote a little message in it just because it’s your birthday and they remember every year but never get anything from you, you ungrateful sod. These days I appreciate the thought but I would much rather get a phone call, then you can spend your £3 on an interesting, hilarious conversation with me rather than walk down to that bloody card shop for the umpteenth time this year. Great ne?! And by the way, aren’t card shops just the most depressing places in the world? You walk in to be greeted by fluorescent lights, dirty beige stands, an oversubscribed collection of flower & teddy bear cards (vomit) and a bunch of grumpy customers who are all pissed off because they have to spend their lunch hour looking for a pointless card that they will spend all their lunch money on and won’t ever get a thank you for.

No, I won’t make a list, and I won’t be writing any letters or sending any cards. I will however, spend a day sharing a hobby with them all at once – eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Now there’s a familiar sequence of events.

2) Dealing with change
Over the last year or more, you have changed in many ways. List some of the values or behavior patterns that you have learned. Think about which of these things are positive and which you want to maintain. Think also about which parts of the ‘new you’ will not fit in with your home country culture, and how you will deal with this.

When I went travelling the first time around, I changed a hell of a lot. This time, not so much. I’m probably a lot more confident with public speaking and much more willing to make a fool of myself (though I’m not sure this was ever a problem to begin with). The most noticeable things I will take back are mannerisms and speech which I think may take me a little while to get rid of; saying sou des ka? instead of really?, un instead of yes and sou da ne instead of yeah, I know or innit for example. Not that I ever say innit but that’s probably a more direct translation. Showing surprise at some of the most unsurprising things is a very common Japanese trait which has also managed to seep into my bones, and I can’t help but think that people back home will assume I’m just taking the piss.

Understand that your family and friends may have changed while you have been in Japan. They will almost certainly not have spent the entire one to five years sitting around waiting for you to return.

Bollocks they haven’t. Unroll that carpet and get the fanfare playing when I walk off that Jumbo Jet, people; your lives are about to begin once more!

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In Ten Years Time

Just a short one today. I assigned one of my classes the task of writing about where they will be in 10 years time and had a couple of really stand-out replies that I wanted to share with you all…

I am 25 years old. Now, I work in moon because I want to see my girl. My girl had gone to space in 2012 for look up extraterrestrial life. I send some mail. She received, but day and day a mail send by her became slowly. She went to distant places and our hearts live but I didn’t give up on her. Then she battled extraterrestrial life. She shouted “I want to live! I want to see him again!” and she survived.

Tomorrow she will return. I’m waiting for her. She is 20 years old. I am desperately to catch up with her. We will start to work…

It doesn’t matter that this is only a few words; when you have to go over it in detail a couple of times to correct errors, you really do become absorbed enough to connect with this poor couple and their tale of unconditional love. It’s probably a shorter, more futuristic version of “Going The Distance.” It’s probably better too.

There’s the romance, now here’s the tragedy…

I think I will be in Shizuoka. I will be married. I will have children. I will be working for Nippon Ichi Software. I will speak English. I won’t be very very very famous. I will die in 2025. I will be killed by Ogasawara. He will use a katana.

I really love the short, sharp and to-the-point sentences in this one, but mainly, I love the complete lack of probability. He will die and he will use a katana. Alright? I’m not sure who Ogasawara is, mind. I googled it but it came up with a whole bunch of possibilities so I’ll have to ask my student and come back to you on that one.

Brain-rain

Rainy season is rubbish. We’re only about a week in and I can already confirm it. Apparently this year it’s early so I’m hoping that means it’ll be over early too, at which point the rain will give way to bone-melting heat and so much humidity that your saturated body seeps along the cracks in the pavement every time you take a step like a malfunctioning T-1000 terminator.

The Japanese seem constantly surprised by the weather. In the UK we have reason to be surprised; right when the forecasters are predicting that we will have beautiful sunshine for a week we see about 2 seconds of it one day, and none the next. Forecasted snow rarely happens, sunshine comes more often that rain (contrary to what I just said), but many days you’ll take an umbrella to work “just in case.” We talk about the weather constantly. There are various schools of thought as to why we do this; Jeremy Paxman believes that we talk about it precisely because there’s so much of it. Kate Fox on the other hand, author of the rather brilliant “Watching The English: The Hidden Rules Of English Behaviour,” believes that we talk about it because we are so utterly rubbish at talking to strangers, and the weather provides a safe, forever-fluid (pun unintentional) topic with which to while away those awkward moments when you’re stuck in a lift with a complete stranger.

Shizuoka’s weather is divided into day-long timeslots. One day it rains the whole day, the next it’s sunny the whole day and the next, it’s overcast the whole day. Every day is a variation on this theme so it’s very difficult to maintain a conversation about it. You’d think that, under these conditions, the Japanese would substitute another topic as the go-to conversation of choice but no; they simply forgo a conversation altogether and stick to announcing simple facts instead:

“Ohayou gosaimasu.” (Good morning.)

“Ohayou gosaimasu.” (Good morning.)

“Atsui!” (It’s hot!)

“Sou da ne.” (Isn’t it.)

…and that’s about it. Luckily, Shizuoka doesn’t have many buildings that go above two or three floors so you’re pretty safe with that but I do wonder how the Tokyoites fare with their 30+ floor buildings because lifts are even more awkward when you start a conversation and it doesn’t last the length of the ride. It’s better not to say anything at all. When you first get in, while you’re dying in silence and waiting for the ding! to release you, they could be in a world of their own thoughts, oblivious to the fact that you’re even there; you can revel in that possibility. If however, you start a conversation with them and it ends abruptly then they’re definitely thinking about the same thing you are and the situation is infinitely worse. The silence is deafening. You think of something else to say but you know the gap between sentences was too long. If you say it now, it’s obvious you’re only doing so to avoid the silence. You keep your mouth shut instead. If they’re not going to make any bloody effort then you’re not either, especially after you made such an interesting observation on the proximity of the cumulonimbus cloud formations to the stratos ones. Screw them.

Apart from it being rainy season, the 1st of June also marked the 10th month I have been in Japan. There are many things going through my head at the moment but one thing that has just struck me as I write is that this is the first time since January that I have thought of it in terms of time done rather than time left. This could be because my brain is incapable of processing numbers greater than 6 but I think that, more significantly, it says that I made the right decision in deciding not to stay. Not that I needed confirmation of this, mind. I knew the day I handed in the form that I had made the right decision but it’s pretty obvious when you start counting down instead of up.

I spoke to my predecessor, Brian, on Google Talk in January, asking him if he had any regrets about not staying. The answer was an unequivocal “no.” He said that he had enjoyed his time here, but that it was never meant to be a long-term thing; that he had come for an experience rather than a new life-direction. I knew the moment he said it that I shared his views.

I’ve spoken to lots of ALTs about their decisions and most of the ones that are staying will tell you one of two things:

  1. Why wouldn’t I stay? The pay is great, the job is easy, the life is alright, I’ve made some good friends here, etc.
  2. I haven’t done what I came here to do yet.

Some of those No. 2s don’t know what that is yet, but they know they’ve got to stay here until they do. Luckily for me, I knew exactly what I had wanted to get out of this experience because I wrote it down on this ‘ere blog; I simply had to go back and check…

…a desire for massive personal challenge and a desire to make a difference. If I can teach a Japanese boy/girl to speak a language that will empower him/her to travel and communicate through a vast array of other countries and cultures, then I’ve directly made a difference in someone else’s life rather than vicariously through resetting someone’s Windows password.

Well, it’s definitely been a massive personal challenge; new country, new job in a different career sector, new language, new culture, new friends. The only other thing I could’ve changed was my sex, and I’m not quite ready for a challenge on that scale yet. As for teaching a boy or a girl English, there are test scores to show that a few of the kids have learnt absolutely everything I ever taught them. It’s not really about test scores of course, but when you teach 12 different classes once a week, each with 40 students, it’s pretty difficult to get to know any of them beyond what percentage they got. I definitely could have made more effort in this area but I don’t really want to spend all my free time at work – there’s more to being out here than just the teaching.

The other, as it turns out, rather huge goal I set myself was to be fluent in Japanese by the time I left. I have certainly made steps but I’m nowhere near fluency; that would probably take another year. I can hold a conversation, albeit a horrendous mishmash of tenses and bizarre sentence constructions, and I can read simple sentences. I can usually understand the topic of conversation when people are talking but I rarely know what they’re actually saying. I’m frequently disappointed by this, but I have to keep reminding myself of what it was like when everything anybody ever said was just a string of hundreds of syllables and all I could say was arigato. I remember when attempting to say “nice to meet you” (douzo yoroshiku onegaishaimasu) was one of the most difficult things I’d ever had to do, but now it just rolls off the tongue without a second thought. Whether or not I’ll continue to study Japanese when I get back home, I don’t know, but I really, really want to learn other languages. It’d be nice to have Italian, Spanish, French and German under my belt to open up the world to me just that little bit more.

Anyway, I’ve done what I came here to do, and now it’s time to go back. I could’ve stayed a little longer, learnt a bit more Japanese, streamlined my teaching methods and syllabus and saved a bit more money, but to me that just spells “t-r-e-a-d-i-n-g  w-a-t-e-r,” which is precisely what I came here to get away from in the first place. It’s been an incredible experience and I’ve loved every minute of it, but I’m ready to steam back into London and get a great job in the IT-industry once more. England is gently singing it’s siren song (“Vindalooooo, vindalooooo, vindaloo, vindaloo nah nah…”), and I am but a sailor to its charms.

…and I’m gagging for a Dominos pizza.