Friday, April 13, 2012

Random Thoughts: Reverse Culture Shock

I once read an article written by a woman who spent three years in Germany and talked about how horrible it was for her to come home and face reverse culture shock. Though I don't want to engage in a reverse culture shock pissing contest, I have to say that it is hard not to snort derisively at the notion that three years in a Western culture is going to compare to the shock of returning after 23 years (the last 20 of which included no trips home for visits) in an Eastern culture.

Reverse culture shock comes in both big and small ways, and the truth is that I endeavored to prepare myself for it for quite some time. My husband and I have been talking about going home for the last 7 or so years and we knew we would not remain in Japan for the rest of our lives. When immigration officials offered us the chance to apply for permanent residency, we said "no", because we knew that wasn't in the cards for us. Though it may seem odd that we stayed so long, it was always intentionally on the "renewal plan". As an aside, upon returning to America, my husband's aunt sent us a copy of a letter that we included with our wedding invitations in which we said we were going to stay in Japan for "3-5 years". Nothing ever goes as planned, it seems.

In order to prepare for the inevitable departure, even when we were uncertain of when exactly it might happen, I attempted to divest my identity from that of being a foreigner in Japan. Part of that was carried out via this blog. It may seem strange that I would write about Japan to extricate myself from it, but fully digesting my feelings about it has been a form of catharsis. Talking about it has helped and continues to help me let it go. Continuing to talk about it may assist in fully internalizing and divesting from the experience through time. You don't "get over" reverse culture shock after more than 2 decades in the same place in a few weeks. I'm not even sure it'll be over in a few years. I can say that it certainly has not abated after a few weeks.

The initial stages of reverse culture shock can be recognized in the little things which you notice yourself thinking or doing which you've been doing on auto-pilot after years in a different place. For instance, my first trip into a public restroom at Seatac airport yielded several incongruous thoughts. I walked into the ladies room and first wondered if there would be a line (as there so often is in Tokyo) and whether there would be any Western-style toilets free. I even had the impulse to check the doors for the little illustrations telling me which were Japanese and which were Western.

Many little things also occurred to me before I left the airport. When my husband got coffee, I asked if he wanted an artificial sweetener packet as I carried them in my wallet all of the time in Japan. He smiled and told me he already got one, as they carry them in the coffee shop. American restaurants and shops usually have sweetener. Japanese ones do not. We bought a muffin and were surprised that it was so good and moist. Of course, most muffins are full of sugar in America and that gives them a better crumb.

Another small habit which is hard to break is the compulsion to make sure I have my wallet and identification with me at all times. Since I had to carry my gaijin card with me at all times in Japan by law, it was something I had to remember every time I put one toe outside of my front door. In America, I don't have to carry I.D. all of the time, but I still feel weird without it.

These incidental things are rather quaint and interesting as they show that thinking something again and again and again over many years conditions you to keep thinking them even when circumstances have changed, but these are not really the earth shattering things nor the essential essence of reverse culture shock. The true essence is psychological. You walk around and everyone understands every word you say and you understand every word they say. People overhear your conversation and make comments, offer advice or intrude on what you're saying. You feel exposed and uncomfortable after years of public "privacy" via linguistic differences.

We've also found ourselves uncomfortable asking questions about certain daily living situations because we don't know if our ignorance is reasonable or if we're asking about something which everyone who has living in the U.S. for a long time knows how to do already. For instance, in Japan, we knew how to charge and use Suica cards, but we don't know about the system for debit cards in the U.S. since people were still writing personal checks when we lived here. We also don't know the procedures for various activities which once included the presence of a human, like self-service gas stations that take credit cards and have no personnel at all or self-check-out at markets. These are not highly complex things, but until you've got experience, you can stand there investigating what the machine tells you in a way which is not natural for people who have been doing it for years.

My husband and I also are uncertain about how to interact with service people in America after years of dealing the style of service in Japan.  American service is often portrayed as being inferior to Japan's, but that's not true. It's different and the shock of it is not that people are not helpful (they are), but that they are seemingly too friendly and casual while they're helping you. After decades of dealing with formally polite people who kept a professional distance and had an almost robotic manner in which they handled customers, dealing with people who treat you as an equal, ask how you are, and infuse their customer interactions with individuality is discomfiting. Dealing with people who lack spontaneity over many years has the effect of removing some of your ability to be spontaneous as well. As part of my reverse culture shock, I have learned that years of acting as expected in order to better fit in with Japanese society has made it harder to act naturally in a society which is freer and more flexible. I've forgotten what "natural" is for me after so many years of acting in an artificial manner to make the Japanese more comfortable.

The biggest part of what has constituted our reverse culture shock so far can be summed up in an astute comment my husband made shortly before we left Japan. He said that being in America would mean we would be "heard", but not "seen" while we had spent our years in Japan being "seen" but not "heard" (even when we were speaking the language). We learned to operate in the environment based on the pattern of being noticed, but not listened to or understood. Now, we need to learn to operate based on being listened to and understood, but not noticed.

I think internalizing this difference in particular is crucial in readjusting to life back home. In Japan, I could get jobs more easily based on my hair and eye color as well as my gender. Here, I've got to earn a job with what I say and how I interact as well as my skills. I knew this well before I came home though I imagine living it will feel rather different than simply having an awareness of it at the forefront of my consciousness. There are advantages I had in Japan which I don't have here, not the least of which is that I am no longer part of a minority that is prized for superficial reasons. I've written before about how, for white folks, being in Japan is like being the prettiest girl at the party for the first time and getting a lot of unearned attention. Being home is like being part of the crowd that people don't pay particular attention to. Though I knew that this was coming, I'm not quite sure how to respond to the situation, but I'm figuring it out pretty fast. The long-term question isn't how to interact in my home culture once again, but how I feel about interacting in it. Only time will tell.


  1. I wonder if the woman you read was me! - Germany for three years was my last stop before home, preceded by a year in Slovakia and two years in Japan. In any case, definitely reverse culture shock is worse when the cultures are more different, although I think the key part is that you can't fit back into "normal" society - that might be even more a function of the length of time you've been gone (so 23 years should make for some pretty shocking experiences!) than where you've been. For me, the fact that I'd basically ignored all news, current events, pop culture, etc from my home country meant that I had no common experiences to discuss with people I met (because very few people want to hear about your experiences abroad) and this lack of common ground was the hardest part of fitting back in. It still is - I can't bring myself to follow pop culture or even watch much TV here - it's all so trite. Anyway, great piece and I'm now off to explore the rest of your blog!

  2. I've been living in Germany for the last 22 years, working in the economy and with few english-speaking friends here.

    As Amanda has said, you develop a lack of common perspective and experiences. I don't know the TV shows folks back home are talking about; I don't recognize 75% of the cars on the road; I don't know why people are rolling their eyes at a song I've never heard before; the things that seem to rile people up are things I don't understand.

    It's normal. You can't hide the fact that you've been abroad a huge chunk of your life so far and have simply missed the little things that really add up over time. And boy, do they add up...

  3. I can only imagine what it's like to come back after 23 years! To think that I was in Japan for only 2 weeks and when I came back home I was automatically walking on the left side of the street rather than the right!

    Great writing, it's really interesting to read about re-ajusting back into your home country.

  4. Have you been bowing to people yet? When I returned to the US after two years in Japan in the early 90s, I found that I had picked up a habit of bowing (actually more of a nod) which got me a lot of strange looks.

    I can't imagine how tough it might be after 23 years. I went through a couple of reverse culture shock experiences, when returning from Korea in the USAF, and the above mentioned return from Japan. Both were difficult at first. I've been in Japan for over 12 years this time and I actually dread the shock when I return home someday. It will be extremely interesting to me to see how it affects you and your husband. (Sorry if that makes you sort of a guinea pig)

  5. Suteisi, I had the same experience after being in the UK for only a week... the first few times I pulled out of my driveway in a car, I actually COULDN'T REMEMBER which side I was supposed to be on! After seven days! I also caught myself bowing to people after two weeks in Japan.

    So after 23 years, I can only imagine how difficult it must be. Good luck.

  6. I'm moving back to North America after a decade in Japan and I realized I don't know how to be an adult there. I'm quite worried about re-immersing myself in the "friendliness" after being cocooned in silence for so long. I feel some comfort in knowing I'm not the only one out there who feels this way.

  7. I returned to my native country after a decade in Japan, Took a great deal of willpower. Constantly reminded myself that there was something as "the point of no return", so I was always on the lookout.

  8. I returned to the states after living in Japan for almost five years this August. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, especially the "seen" but not "heard" thing. It's been tough job searching and at the same time trying to readjust to a country that isn't quite my home anymore. It's good to know there are other people who have survived the same thing. Thank you!

    1. I have found that some people never adjust to living back home after living in Japan. They may return, try it out for awhile, but ultimately end up going back to Japan because they prefer it there. I really can understand that sort of thinking and feeling.

      Job searching is worse than I expected because of the global market and modern searching techniques. The pool of applicants is enormous and you have to be fished out of a huge pond by looking good enough on paper to get an interview. In fact, what I've found, much to my chagrin, is that getting an interview is incredibly hard. I interview well and I'm a hard and skilled worker, but getting your foot in the door when people see hundreds of feet that look alike (or better than yours) on a document or online application, is very, very hard.

      Good luck to you, Dave!

    2. Regarding your job search: If all of your posts are as good as this one, you should definitely include your blog address on your resume!

    3. What a kind thing to say, arbiter! Thank you! I do incude links, but, so far, no fish have gone for the bait on my hook. However, I truly appreciate what you said. It gives me confidence for some future pay-off. :-)


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