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The Reverse Culture Shock of Leaving Japan
Caption: It’s tough to leave Japan when there’s so much to like and miss. But there’s also things to like and miss elsewhere, so it’s a matter of being self-aware about what you like.
By Debito Arudou. Shingetsu News Agency, July 25, 2023.
SNA Editor Michael Penn is now doing SNA from the United States. Inspired by his big move, my previous column was about my leaving Japan in middle age, where I suggested readers decide whether or not to be a lifer in Japan by age 40. Accordingly, this column will talk about establishing a new life outside Japan.
I’ll open with a big caveat: These are my thoughts as a White guy born in America who spent a quarter century in Japan, half of it as a naturalized Japanese citizen, who eventually moved back. Readers returning to a different country of birth, or moving to a different third country altogether, may of course have different experiences. In my personal and anecdotal observations below, I’ll try to generalize enough for everyone but ground them in culturally specific examples. Keep the appropriate pinches of salt handy.
The biggest culture shock I felt after Japan was right after I arrived overseas. In the United States, for example, many big airport hubs are dirty, run-down, and relatively unpredictable compared to their Japanese counterparts. The waiting areas in particular feel like bus stations. Facilities are sometimes ill-maintained, instructions to your connecting flights or ground transit often monolingual and poorly signposted, ground staff often inattentive and inaccessible, and the food… well, it’s “airport food,” enough said. I quickly missed Japan’s clean, efficient, and plentiful public transportation that follows a schedule, and the restaurant fare that actually looks like the picture on the menu.
My theory is that Japan does travel hubs better because its international reputation is at stake. You can’t let the Gaijin tourists go home with a sour image of us! So signs are multilingual, maps are clear, and ground staff at least take pains to wave you in the right direction. In contrast, the US government seems relatively indifferent to tourists: “You’re obviously here because we are #1 and do things better than anybody—so no need to try harder to impress you.”
This initial culture shock starts fading once you’ve had a good night sleep and enjoy a few familiar things: Larger hotel rooms. Comfort foods like a thick steak with A1 Sauce or a spiral-cut ham hock. An apple pie that actually has more than one apple in it. Supermarkets full of cereals, dozens of flavors of canned soups, bulk goods, and cheap rice and vegetables. News media that is an absorbing read not just because it’s in your native language, but because the topics are interesting! Procuring a car so you can merge into society like everyone else.
But things will still grate for awhile: Being forced to tip. Dirty public restrooms that seem to be the norm, not the exception. Bureaucrats who seem to have little personal dedication to a job well done. Political discourse more concerned with riling you up than with solving problems. The din of people on cellphones or kids having public meltdowns that you can’t shut out because they’re speaking in your native tongue. And the biggest worry: Getting sick or injured and having to deal with American healthcare! It’s worse with family in tow, listening to their grumbles about future uncertainties and cultural differences and feeling helpless to offer quick fixes. During this purgatory period of constant irritability, the grass will always seem greener elsewhere.
THINGS SETTLE DOWN AS YOU SETTLE DOWN
It takes months, but resettlement will happen. Things that you miss about Japan eventually get overwritten by routines you establish as things feel more like home…
Rest at SNA at
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