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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Tokyo, Japan

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Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

I read some books on Japanese culture and had a couple of friends to answer some questions, but nothing formal.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

I learned Japanese on my own and via a couple classes before I went over. It helped a little to learn kana just to be able to recognize some things on signs and menus, but I was FAR from fluent in the language.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

I wasn't worried at the time because I thought I knew about all the "weird stuff" I could expect. And I also expected more weird stuff to pop up from time to time. This attitude helped lessen the shock at times. In retrospect I feel like I should have been a lot more worried :).

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

It wasn't that crazy honestly. Japan is more akin to another planet than another country in my opinion, and the sooner you resigned yourself to the fact that a lot of things won't make any sense to you, it made things a lot easier to accept. I feel like if I tried to rationalize and compare my new experiences to my homeland experiences it would have made things so much harder.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I feel like my phases were all jumbled together from the start. I'm an independent person who likes to stick up for himself, so things like being made fun of and constantly being cut in front of in lines and things like that tended to really bother me a lot. The absolutely ridiculous level of racism bothered me a lot as well. I'd never been denied admission to a shop or restaurant based on my ethnicity before I came to Japan. Having said that, there were many many things I loved about Tokyo and Japan that were constant from start to finish. That city is a living breathing thing with powerful energy flowing throughout. It's an incredibly inspiring place to live. I don't think I ever adjusted entirely to the culture, I just accepted to some degree.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I didn't experience homesickness, but I did experience depression the likes of which I was not accustomed to. I had friends, and I met plenty of new people, but Tokyo in the winter time (and end of fall even) was the loneliest place ever. It could have something to do with the fact that I'm an emotional, empathic person in general. I'm a people watcher, and I did a lot of that in Tokyo. I felt a lot of sadness and feelings of being lost emanating from people all around me, and it's like I absorbed it like a sponge or something. I've never felt so dark as I did when I lived there.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

I really enjoyed the little things like the design of different packaging of different snacks I'd never seen before. I liked watching the way people interacted with each other. I liked the new sounds I heard on the new trains I rode. I liked how it was more socially acceptable to binge drink. It might not be a good thing, but it's pretty hilarious sometimes. I appreciated how quiet the streets could be late at night in such a huge city.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The language for sure. That was always a point of stress. I hate being misunderstood, and well..that happened a lot! Also just the grind of being part of the "herd", waiting in long lines for packed trains etc.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

One time on the weekend of thanksgiving I was on a train with some friends. They handed me a beer, and I thought yeah sure I'm on vacation I'll have a beer on the train. It felt kind of wrong or something but I don't think it was illegal, just maybe culturally wrong. So I went to take a sip of my Kirin tallboy and watched in terror as it spilled and rolled across the floor of the moving train. 30 people instantly turned and stared at me, and I sheepishly tried to sop up the beer with some napkins. Really embarrassing.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

I'm not sure. I don't think this place is for everyone. You need to have a thick skin, and be a person that's very open to new ways.

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