Monday, January 10, 2005

Back in Japan
Before I go any further, I want to quickly update the previous post. It does appear that the alumni magazine either fell for my false update, or decided to humor me, because the update has been printed in full on their webpage here.

With that taken care of, I have indeed arrived safely back in Japan. I thought I'd write a few reflections on my trip back to the states. First of all as to the question of...

Reverse Culture Shock
I get asked a lot if I experience any reverse culture shock when I return back home. The answer is not really. In fact most of the time it feels as if I never really left. But from what I've read reverse culture shock, like normal culture shock, often takes a while to set in. So the fact that I was back in America only two weeks probably prevents experiencing it. Also I was never without the knowledge that within two weeks I would be returning to Japan, so many of the classic symptoms of reverse culture shock (yearning for the previous culture, feeling a sense of loss by returning home) obviously did not ably to me.

There were however certain things I noticed. And even though I notice them every time, I had forgotten the intensity with which they strike me. So that on this most recent trip as well I was once again surprised by how strongly I noticed these things.

I had lunch with Monika today and was relating these feelings to her. Before I got to listing what these observations were, Monika stopped me. "Wait, let me see if I can guess what they were," she said. The quickness and accuracy with which she predicted my observations indicate that these are not unique to me, but perhaps universal for people who have lived in Japan. Also, as Monika is Canadian, it indicates that these observations are not confined to the United States only.

1). How fat people are. Not everyone certainly, but there are a lot of fat people in the USA. I never noticed this so much when I lived in the States, but now I notice it immediately from the moment when I get off the plane. And with each trip to the shopping mall or super market, I was amazed at all the fat people around me.

2). Since Japan is a very homogeneous society, a big shock at an international airport is noticing how racially diverse the United States is; something I tend to forget while living abroad. However this observation is coupled with the fact that upon returning to the US I for some reason think I recognize every Caucasian face I see. It makes it very difficult to walk through a crowded airport terminal. It happens every year, but this time in the airport I actually called out to some one I could have sworn was a friend of mine. Imagine my embarrassment when he turned out not to be the person I had thought he was.

Why this happens to me every time I return home I can't really say. I had thought it was because in Japan, especially rural Japan, all the white people are usually people I know, so I get into the habit of thinking I know every Caucasian face. However Monika said that after being in Japan for an extend period of time all white people start to look the same.

According to Monika, when one first arrives in Japan, it is hard to distinguish between Japanese people. However after staying a while, the eye becomes accustomed to the Asian look and becomes good at distinguishing one Asian face from another. However when returning to America (or Canada), the eye is then unaccustomed to differentiating Caucasian features, and the brain starts to group similar facial features into different types of people which, within a given type, become hard to distinguish from each other.

I would never have thought this on my own, but after hearing Monika say it, it did seem to ring very true with my own experiences.

3). The lack of politeness. I say "lack of politeness" here instead of "rudeness" because it is not so much rudeness . It is just that Japanese society is so ultra polite, that after becoming accustomed to this politeness, its absence can be startling.

Again, this is something I notice every year (although, as with the previous two observations, every year I am startled anew by it). I remember last Christmas in the Osaka airport observing an American woman yelling at the Japanese clerks because their English was not good enough. The Japanese clerks just apologized repeatedly. Arriving on the other side of the pacific, the Japanese students I had brought with me were treated very roughly by the customs officials because they could not speak English.

This year the first shock this year was again at the airport, having just exited the plane. I had to go through security again to transfer flights. I put my check in bag through the X-ray machine, then proceeded to empty my pockets into the accompanying tray that was also to go through the machine. The woman working there looked at me with disgust and said, "Uh-uh. Why ain't your jacket on there?" From this I inferred she wished the fleece I was wearing also be placed on the tray, but it was a clear sign I was not in Japan anymore.

Other Ramblings
It's really good for me to get out of Japan every now and then because it helps me enjoy the place that much more. The month before I left I couldn't wait to get out of Japan. Now I feel glad to be back. Of course the two weeks I was back in the States were all two short of a vacation, and, of the three times I've been back so far now, the shortest time yet. Especially with many friends gone for or pre-occupied with holiday celebrations, I felt like I only really got in one good week of meeting people. And then all of a sudden it was time to turn around and head back again. I hope to be able to be back again soon, although I hate to make promises about when that will be.

Now halfway through my fourth year in Japan, I have long ago past the point where life here stopped seeming like an adventure, and started seeming just like ordinary, boring, everyday life (albeit with a few interesting stories every now and then). It was therefore a bit of a surprise to hear some people back home talking of my experience in such exotic terms. This seemed to be especially true of older people, perhaps because older generations have not had all the opportunities for studying and working abroad that has been afforded to my generation.

I remember in particular a gentleman in his forties telling me how great he thought I was because I was able to withstand working in foreign country. "Truth be told," I admitted, "It's a bit of a cushy job. I'm paid just to speak my native language to Junior high School students." He responded with even more praise, saying that my acknowledging it was a cushy job showed even more strength of character, and that most people wouldn't even have the strength to jump over the hurdle of accepting work in a foreign country to begin with.

I suppose it's all a matter of perspective. To me, when I was graduating from college, the easiest thing in the world seemed to be to go abroad. It allowed me to delay the tough choices of choosing a career, and the hard process of applying and interviewing for jobs in that career, and at the same time seemed like a fun adventure. People who are not afraid of entering the real world, who know what they want and immediately pursue a career in that field, seem to me to be the people with the real strength of character.

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