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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Tomobe, Japan

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?


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

Yes, Before and after.

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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 only knew a few words of Japanese before I left, but I learned the language as I went along. The Japanese tend to use the same language patterns quite frequently so it was easy to learn how to do a self introduction. Beyond that, things became more difficult and I was only able to advance as my vocabulary increased.

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

Yes and no. I was worried about some of Japan's culture beforehand, but I had a steady job waiting for me upon arrival.

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

At first not very. It was summertime and I was healthy, but as time went along it got worse. There are a number of stages of culture shock (as the next question asks) that the foreigner goes through, but two things help initially to fend that off:

1) Ignorance of the culture in general. If you are being polite and doing your best at the beginning then you may do well, but this attitude becomes more difficult as time passes by and you experience frustrations.

2) You have a supply of internal nutrition that will last a couple of weeks. If you are used to eating certain things then initially your body won't really miss them much. Unfortunately, the longer the time that passes by the more deficient you become and you have to begin processing new food that your body may not be used to. In Japan specifically, this may mean making a transition from Romaine or Iceberg lettuce to seaweed for example as a source of vegetables and the body won't initially know what to do with it.

It also happens that quite a few foreigners only buy their food from the local 7-11 (a fast food shop) and as a result don't get enough nutrition to really help themselves out. This means that they gain weight, are spending more on food they don't need and ultimately are harming their own bodies. Normal supermarkets and stores exist and although some of what they sell is strange or Japanocentric, they also offer a few things that most people will find to be "normal".

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?

The honeymoon phase for me consisted mostly of sitting in an office and reading a book or studying Japanese. Because it was summer and I was both well-fed and largely ignorant of Japanese culture, I was excited to learn as much as possible. Since I was an English teacher I wanted to be well-prepared to meet the students and teach and learn from them.

This lasted for about a month, which kind of drags down the morale, but for the most part isn't a difficult place to be (just kind of boring).

Stage two was entry into the school. For most English teachers this is the big deal and happiness levels begin to soar again. We met the students, the teachers and were honored for being a teacher there.

The euphoria of stage two lasts about 2-3 months as Japan slowly gets darker, poor nutritional habits set in, difficulties with the language begin to truly hit home and some of the less than pleasant aspects of Japanese culture start taking effect.

One of my personal examples happened when I was yelled at by a movie rental store clerk for not being able to speak Japanese right in the store - even though I had a pass and was agreeing with everything he said. He called me a stupid foreigner and yelled, "who the hell brought you here" as well as a few other things I can neither remember nor care to translate (partially because I couldn't understand them at the time). I stood my ground and didn't say much and eventually a girl came over and said that I was already a customer, checked out my movies and I went home.

Stage three happens pretty much throughout the winter. As Japan is not on daylight savings time, the country is cold, dark, lonely and indoor heating is pretty much either a)non-existent or b) so expensive that it isn't worth it (or c: fueled by an indoor kerosene heater which spews out dangerous kerosene fumes and requires you to open your windows or potentially suffocate by morning). Those foreigners who leave the country may find themselves in a warm, sunny place such as Thailand or Indonesia, but upon coming back the culture shock is sometimes even worse.

Stage four happens with the coming of spring. The Japanese calendar is based upon the Chinese calendar and so the new school year happens in April rather than in September as most westerners would expect. Also with Spring comes warmth, sunshine (Vitamin D), a change in classes, graduation of old students and new, fresh students (they are called ichinensei in Japanese). With all of these new things, English teachers tend to perk up again and those who have been eating also tend to be able to digest their food better. For those who stay longer periods of time, this is a time of rejuvenation and regeneration.

As far as the actual stages of "culture shock" go, the actual psychological stages tend to follow the patterns of the weather. As it gets cold and unbearable, relationships tend to also be strained and the Japanese also become grumpy with their "guests".

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.

Depression for a certainty, addiction to computers. I have also seen examples of foreigners who become drunks and those who do stupid things like marrying out of the country and bringing their "illegal" wives with them back to Japan for company. Loneliness can be a powerful influence. There are others who become addicted to smoking, some who try to become more like the Japanese only to be rebuffed, many who cut off their ties with their own relations due to the superiority complex the Japanese instill them with, some who develop eating disorders and quite a few who become ... rather weird to say the least.

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

Japanese beer, Sumo wrestling, Kanji and good relationships with my friends.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Being constantly told that I am not allowed to do something or not allowed to go somewhere because I am a foreigner. Racism is rampant in Japan and there are some people who take it to an extreme. Dealing with the police for anything is a part of that as well since the police are the ultimate defenders of Japanese culture and unless you have a Japanese person with you there they will not give you any service whatsoever. Additionally, if a crime is committed against you, it isn't because you are the victim, it's because you invited the criminal to commit the act - in other words a foreigner cannot get a conviction against a native Japanese person based solely upon their race.

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

A few grammatical errors come to mind. Woman is "onna no hito" rather than just "onna" and if you say just onna it is referring to their vaginas. Also, I said "Watashi wa sensei wo tabemashita" instead of "Watachi wa sensei to tabemashita." The difference: "I ate a teacher" instead of "I ate with a teacher".

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

The Japanese are quite friendly for about three months, then they want you to get out. The longer you are there the more they push for you to leave and even if you learn the language there is still the "uchi" and "soto" (inside and outside) that will always be omnipresent. No matter how hard you try, unless you look Japanese and are fluent in the language, you will never be treated as an equal. And not only does that not go away - it gets worse with time, especially as you learn the language and the Japanese think that you are "stealing" their language/culture.

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