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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