Tag Archives: culture shock

Gravy Rage

When we were fresh off the boat, happy in our little JET bubble and prancing around a posh hotel in Tokyo, we attended many lectures. A lot of the topics revolved around how hard our hands would be smacked if we took drugs or drove while under the influence, what the various degrees of bowing are and others which I forget. I forget because I was jet-lagged into oblivion; a near-death experience where my eyes were lolling around so much that I had seen the back of my head from the inside; where I would fall asleep in my seat so often that I had bruises on my cheeks from where they had repeatedly plunged into my shoulders. This is just like that Dermot O’Leary “S.A.S: Are You Tough Enough” programme, I thought to myself. White noise!? Pah! They should make them get on a plane for 10 hours and sit in a lecture theatre for an entire morning.

“—if you get caught, the police will arrest—”

Can’t arrest me, I’m S.A.S. foo! Ain’t gettin’ on no other plane either. I ain’t never getting on no plane again—

“You were just snoring and talking like Mr. T—”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Dude, I swear you just said—”
“Nah man, you’re imagining things. Crazy foo’.”

The Japanese are legendary for their ability to fall asleep anywhere they want to; on a bench, on a train, at their desks, on top of a wardrobe— It doesn’t matter where. If there’s a will there’s a way, and there’s always a will. This is a skill that I have learnt very early-on and it will probably stick with me forever much to the dismay of my future employer, whoever it may be.

One lecture I didn’t forget was the one about culture shock. It was delivered by a very flamboyant chap from California who had appeared on the JET Programme DVD and, on said DVD, delivered a performance lacking any iota of personality and as cheezy like a packet of Dairylea in a hair-dryer. As he walked on stage, whispers of familiarity rose through the crowd and he strolled to the podium and acknowledged them, spending a good 5 minutes taking us through his horror when he saw the finished DVD, and how he would attempt to rectify the “personality damage” he had inflicted on himself. What followed was one of the most hilarious personal accounts of life in a new country I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and for an entire hour he had the whole room in stitches while he recounted his initial experiences in Japan.

This talk centred around the various different stages of culture shock, of which there are precisely four (although this precise figure differs depending on which expert you talk to); Initial Euphoria, Irritation and Hostility, Gradual Adjustment and Accommodation. Initial Euphoria is fairly obvious; you love everything and everyone in your new country and you are ridiculously excited to the point of pulling faces that make you look like you’ve won the lottery, a Nobel Prize and a book containing the secrets of the opposite sex all in one wondrous moment. And you were only looking at a neon shop sign. You run around everywhere, bulldozing your way into every ramen shop you can see, commenting wildly on how CRAZY, MAD and AWESOME everything is. You can’t believe you’re even there, you pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming and you pinch Japanese people to make sure they feel pain and are not actually robots created by the most technologically advanced nation in the world. They do, and they’re not, by the way.

Irritation and Hostility is where you start to miss everyone and everything back home. After the loneliness, desperation and extreme lack of confidence (see Shiz up my Uoka) things begin to annoy you, and you wonder what you were thinking when you decided to leave the safety and security of pie and mash, real ale and McCoys crisps for a world where they eat rice and fish for breakfast. We’ll get onto that in a mo.

During the Gradual Adjustment phase— Well, why do you buy Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain again (non-UK readers can enlighten themselves here)?

Eventually, you ‘get’ it. The culture feels familiar, you can read people much better, you can handle day-to-day situations with as much or nearly as much ease as you can back home, and you start to feel as confident as you once did in that land now so far away. You’re now in the Accommodation phase. Everything’s fine and dandy, and you start to feel a little protective over your new town/prefecture/country.

Of course, it’s not as cut-and-dry as all that. Though I never find myself back in stage one, I regularly flitter about between the other stages.

My latest little excursion into the Irritation and Hostility phase was one brought about by a sudden, insatiable desire for comfort food. It was the end of a long day at school, it was dark outside and I was going back to my empty apartment in that dull, emotionless state you get in when you’ve drank too much coffee and your brain feels like it’s been dunked in glycerol, wrapped in cotton wool then shoved back inside your skull. I picked up some potatoes, broccoli and pork chops on the way home and set about on my attempt to make some mashed potatoes, broccoli and pork chops with onion gravy. Easy enough, right? Wrong. My gas stove is roughly 70 years old and, though the stoves themselves are actually pretty good, there are only two, and the grill cooks whatever is on top of it a great deal more thoroughly than whatever is underneath. After I had cooked the broccoli (in the same pan as the potatoes) and extracted them with a pair of tongs I put them onto my draining board for lack of any other surfaces, along with a cooked pork chop, and realised I had no way to keep them warm. Normally I would stick them under the grill but, considering the circumstances, I left them on the side to grow cold while I mashed the potatoes with a fork and attempted to make some onion gravy.

It was all going so well until I opened the cornflour. I bought it in the supermarket the a few days before accompanied by an emotional mix of elation and scepticism. The former for even being able to read the label in the first place and the latter for spotting a) the colour, which was a lot like custard powder and b) the last bit on the label in brackets: ロースト, which means “roast”. What the hell does roast mean, I thought to myself. They’ve roasted the flour; you’re supposed to roast it; you use it in a roast, what? Elation overthrew scepticism however and I bought it in the hope that it was just the colour that was messed up.

Now, I don’t know why they call it cornflour, because it’s NOT cornflour. It’s nothing like cornflour. In fact, if it tried to enter the Cornflour Olympics then it would not only be turned away, mocked and banned forever, but the other packets of cornflour would stick a sign on it’s back saying “kick me” and do so until it bruised on its way out. Maybe it would bruise white and become more cornfloury in the process. Who knows.

Anyway, when you mix this stuff with water it turns into a sticky yellow paste and if you’ve thickened gravy before you will know that it should just look like very white water. There was no way I was going to subject the otherwise, quite nice gravy to this kind of torture and so I filled the paste cup with water and threw away the cornflour in disgust. The end result was lumpy mashed potato with cold broccoli and a sad-looking pork chop, all covered in brown water. The comfort that I so craved and, back home could always rely upon, was far from my grasp, and I pined for a meat pie more than I pine for the destruction of the Black Eyed Peas and the ritual burning of every song they ever made. Which is a lot by the way.

The next day I went to two different supermarkets trying to pull together something resembling Western comfort food. This is difficult for many reasons: I don’t have an oven, the sausages here taste like a pint of oil in an intestine, there are no such things as pies, there is no such thing as gravy. So that only wipes out about 90% of comfort food in the UK then. After filling and emptying my basket with only a few of the required ingredients for various different dishes each time, I put everything back, again, grabbed a packet of BBQ flavoured corn snacks and some instant noodles and stalked home in disgust.

The next day after work I had it all planned out. Chicken, mushroom and tarragon pasta in a cream & cheese sauce. The supermarket had everything I needed; ok so the only pasta you can buy here is spaghetti and they don’t do cheddar, but in the end I had made a very respectable Italian dish that both comforted me and satisfied my desire for Western food.

For now at least—

Culture Shock in Japan

On Saturday 31st July at around 2pm, for reasons already expressed, I took my first steps towards the biggest change in my life I have ever undertaken. Not content with changing one thing in my life like most normal people, I opted to change my country, house, job, career, language and culture. I left behind every semblance of familiarity I know and 10 hours later I was spat out in Tokyo severely jet-lagged, and faced with the prospect of 3 days of lectures and 2 nights of inevitable heavy drinking and karaoke. It’s a hard life.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then and there have been no updates for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have no Internet in my house; it’s on order, but it might take a couple more weeks. Secondly, I simply have not stopped since I got here; the past two weeks have been two of the most confusing, exciting, upsetting, fun and surreal weeks of my life. If there was a pictorial representation of my emotional state since I got here, it would probably look something like a seismograph attached to a pneumatic drill during a scale-9 earthquake.

The first four days were easy (apart from the chronic jet-lag). We touched down in the plane, jumped on a bus and drove to the Kao Plaza Hotel in downtown Tokyo; a bubble of relative familiarity in a sea of surreal and bizarre. Just over 1000 people from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere had made exactly the same choices as me, and were being ferried from halfway across the world so they could teach English to Japanese school kids. During the day we dressed up in our suits and attended lectures and workshops, then at night we were entertained by Taiko drummers at the British embassy, meeting Japanese MPs, singing at karaoke bars and drinking whiskey-on-the-rocks in a bar on the 45th floor of the hotel while we listened to soft jazz and watched the bright lights of Tokyo twinkle through the darkness. We were all finding it extremely difficult to believe that we were there at all.

Eventually on Wednesday, the wining and dining came to an end and we jumped on the bus to Shizuoka. Three hours later we were at a welcoming ceremony and taking it in turns to introduce ourselves to 30 Japanese supervisors, in a short couple of sentences we had learnt in Japanese, before we were split up and running around Shizuoka with our respective supervisors, getting passport photos taken and setting up alien registration cards. My supervisor, an English teacher from my school, took me to my apartment so I could freshen up and change (the heat/humidity here is insane), before she took me to the school to meet a couple of the teachers. After that she took me back to the apartment and drove off, and for the first time since Saturday, I was alone. I walked around the corner to the local ramen shop and was about to walk in before I realised there were no pictures of the food anywhere. I live on pictures. With pictures you can simply point and say “kore o kudasai” (“that one please”) and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a chicken curry. No? Tofu curry? Or is that egg? Who knows?

Too frightened to go in and make a fool of myself, I walked to the local corner shop and bought a packet of instant noodles instead. I walked back home, sat down, alone, and attempted to hold back the tears. I failed. The bubble had burst.

I won’t lie to you; this is tough. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The feeling of extreme loneliness on that first night was compounded by the fact that neither I, nor anyone else on the JET programme had a mobile phone or the Internet, nor did we know our physical addresses. There was simply no way of contacting anyone, and although I was surrounded by hundreds of people none of them could speak English, and the only things I could say in Japanese were “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “thank you very much”. Daily tasks that are as normal and easy to me as breathing back in England became a chore which required careful planning and thought. I was panicking; the two sides of my conscience – having signed a peace treaty for the last 4 or 5 years – were at war, pitting reason and sense against an onslaught of doubt, despair and homesickness.

Fortunately it only lasted a couple of days. On the Friday of that week I walked through the front door of my apartment and smiled, excited and amused at the prospect of trying to find an internet cafe using sign language and gestures. I’d found a phrasebook which Brian, my predecessor, left in the apartment, and which was swiftly added to my checklist of necessary equipment for whenever I set foot outside. I skipped along the street until I got to the local shop where I’d bought a pack of instant noodles on the first night. “Internet o cafe wa doku des ka?” I asked the nice, smiley old lady behind the counter. She thought about it for a minute, confessed she didn’t know but then walked out of the shop and across the road to ask her friend. After much deliberation they both decided that they had no idea, but there was nothing that could stop me now. I was on a mission, driven by determination and the intense, animalistic desire for Gmail and Facebook. A few more regurgitations of my new phrase and I was there; a twenty minute walk from my house, and it only took me two hours.

The next day I went to Kanaya, about 40 minutes south on the Tokkaido JR train, to meet up with my partners in crime, Maria and Sophie, who I met at the orientation in Uxbridge, and a few other JETs from the area. We had a meal at an “Italian” restaurant (seriously, if you come here, stick to the Japanese food) before heading on to a get-together for some fireworks in a nearby town. It was a great night, and a wonderful opportunity to meet a few new JETs who have been here for a year, or who had arrived earlier this year. A couple of vodka jellies and a few beers later it was time to decide whether to get the last train home, or pull an all-nighter. With a head full of alcohol and a bunch of fun and interesting people persuading me to stay out, I decided to get the last train home and have an early night.

Yeah right… Off to Hamamatsu we skipped, ending up in a club dancing to trance music before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the train station and waiting for the first train to arrive on Sunday morning. After a very painful hour on the train and 20 minutes on a bus, I got into bed, woke up at 17:30, ate some food, and went back to bed. Week 1; done.