Archive for the 'Culture Shock' Category

Back in the USSA

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Steph

If you’re going to move from the Middle of Nowhere, Japan back to your home country of America, there’s probably no better place than Los Angeles to fully embrace all that culture shock has to offer. Amidst the hubbub of the big city, reeling under the influence of jet lag, I had difficulty creating a coherent thought. Numb and overstimulated, I could only think: big. loud. bright. backwards.

Have I been changed in any permanent, meaningful way by my 3 years abroad? Probably, but whatever. It’s the little things I’m confronted with on a day-to-day basis that fascinate me now. Firstly, you’ll have to forgive me: I am slightly disoriented because the air doesn’t smell like fish. I am embarrassed by the degree to which I am in awe of raspberries. Portion sizes seemed to have quintupled overnight (look, a salad twice as big as your head! Good luck, friend!) Also? Flushing a public toilet by hand seems unspeakably vulgar, now that I’ve become accustomed to flushing squatters by foot.

We’re only here in the US for 3 days before we leave the country again, so I feel little need to acclimate to my homeland. Instead, I spend my time obsessing over every odd little detail. Everyone gets a menu when eating in restaurants, revolutionary! Soap and paper towels in public restrooms, brilliant! I can explain nuances clearly and competently to my doctor, fantastic!

But a more sinister side of America has started to manifest. Isn’t it unsanitary to wear one’s shoes into the bathroom? Why are you prescribing me medicine I can totally do without for $400 that I clearly can’t afford? Why, in a country fighting an epic battle with obesity, does it cost $15 to go to the gym for the day? And when I arrived in LA, I witnessed a street so clogged with traffic that a fire engine literally could not get through to its destination. How is that a workable plan? Why has this city not yet burnt down to the ground in a puff of smoke? And why does the main topic of conversation seem to be about all the stuff people have bought and how they can buy more?

It’s a novelty to be able to buy nearly anything I need with a credit card, but living in a country with tips means I can’t get rid of the spare change which increasingly weighs down my wallet. The frenzied rush of the LA freeway system, which functions on a totally different level from the equally crazy landscape of Japanese driving, also takes some getting used to.

The California public schools, I am surprised to note, are gorgeous! No prison block educational facilities here to insult the eye. Small community parks are green and luscious instead of bare patches of dirt. The backwardness of this confuses me though: it is a desert here in LA. Shouldn’t we have the parks made of dirt, and Japan have the lush green grassy expanses for kids to play on…?

And then there’s that weird SoCal phenomenon: the perfect 72-degree day with cloudless skies that stretch blue and flawless to the horizon. The first day of this weather was glorious, but after 3 days I began to get twitchy; it seemed unnatural after coming from Japan where I felt I’d been living under a little grey raincloud for 3 years. It only adds insult to injury to Noshiro, which was still probably drying out from the flood less than a week before (the second flood to hit that tiny town in two years).

Where, may I ask, are the cats on leashes? The onsens to soothe the aches and pains from lugging 80kg of luggage by hand across the Pacific? Where are the grannies bent over nearly in half with their pushcarts, elbowing people in the ribs as they plow through a crowd or brazenly stopping traffic as they meander out into the road? Where are the ubiquitous vending machines (they seem to have been replaced with an ample sprinkling of trash cans, a fair trade in my mind). And then of course, there is the soul-crushing smog, which brings us to the Californian existential question: Is it possible to fully enjoy perfect weather if you can’t see the horizon?

And not to belabor the point, but where’s my cashmoney, America? My bank seems to have vaporized sometime in the last year when I wasn’t looking. Washington Mutual, where are you? I thought you were going to meet me with flowers at the airport? I can only hope that the remnants of my life savings are floating around in the aether somewhere waiting for me to reclaim them when I return home this winter, ready to exchange cash for goods and services for my loved ones this holiday season.

A few more words on:

When I arrived in Japan, I grudgingly got the cheapest cell phone and payment plan possible. I’d never had a cell phone before, but I quickly grew to love it (you most of all, emoji!). Sadly, J-phones aren’t really designed to outlast the attention span of the average consumer (which is like 3 days), and at the end of my 3-year tenure, my phone was rebelling. The battery refused to remain charged. It also developed a rather suspicious-looking bulge which was getting bigger by the day, leaving me to nervously wonder when it was going to burst in a shower of battery acid.

Now that I’ve canceled my phone service abroad and gone through this exact process again in the states and I have to say, my new American cell phone… it sucks beans. Like an old friend I just can’t say goodbye to, my old J-phone is tucked away safely in storage. In the ruckus of repatriation however, I forgot to remove and dispose of the suspect battery. The worrisome bulge is probably still growing in my absence like some kind of space alien baby.

In Japan, there were some hoops to jump through regarding food, for sure. Everyone deals with the scarcity of non-processed cheese, for one. And zucchini can only be procured during an obscenely short interval at the end of summer (pumpkin and daikon are, of course, available at any time). Some foreign foods, like Thai and Mexican are pretty much non-existent. So when I stepped into a Trader Joe’s a few days ago, I nearly wept with joy at the diversity I saw on the shelves. However, trolling the supermarket aisles later I was overwhelmed by the mind-numbing variety: do we really need Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limon and Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos? Would America be any less complete if we did away with the whole aisle in the grocery store dedicated to Oreos and perhaps replaced it with only a pack or two? The variety of edible products really seems to have proliferated to an absurd degree in our absence.

When I first moved to Japan, I found the new language overwhelming. My brain overloaded as it tried to sift through all the text seen and sentences heard and come out with something sensical. And it would grind to a screeching halt every time. After 3 years in northern Tohoku, I’ve learned to filter efficiently: focus on the pertinent, and ignore the rest. But upon arriving in LA, I find that I’m experiencing the same phenomenon all over again, only in reverse. I’m compelled to read everything, listen to everything just because I can. Advertisements for real estate. Strangers’ conversations. Sensationalist TV shows on FOX. And this effortless and immediate ability to comprehend everything is, frankly, wearing me out.

I felt the old puritanical attitudes toward alcohol come flooding back as I sat in my favorite brewery, void of ID. Imagine my embarrassment when at 32, I had to ask my dad to order beer for me. I then covertly sipped said beer from a straw because I know how fierce California establishments are about monitoring underage drinking. I’d grown complacent after all those izakaya visits and forgotten to bring either my passport or my drivers’ license. At 32, why can I not just order beer in this country? You’d think the grey hairs on my head would be proof enough (although now that I think about it, some of my 12-year-old students in Japan sport more grey than I).

For the first time in my life, I felt average-sized in Japan, as I’m only slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions there. In America, I feel categorically small again. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I can easily find clothes that fit me again (yay!) but I am no longer the bustiest girl in the room by default (boo). I’m no longer comparing myself to the stick-thin girls I was surrounded by in Japan (yay!) but I have zero visibility now when in a crowd (boo).

You may be tempted at this point to ask: Where next? All of this culture-comparing is nice and all, but where are you going to live, girl? To which my response is: Run away! Yes, I’m avoiding such weighty questions by going on the gap year adventure that I was too serious and focused to take when I was actually 22. We’ll be gone for 4-5 months (I promised the fam I’d be home this Christmas) while we visit our friends living far and wide. Hopefully, whatever comes next in life will sort itself out in the meantime.

Wish us luck, stay in touch, and see you on the other side!

While I’m slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions in Japan, in America I feel categorically small again.

Things I won’t miss about Japan

Monday, July 6th, 2009 by Chris

It’s now less than three weeks before we leave Noshiro, our home of the last three years. In that time we have come to feel at home in Japanese culture. Like any culture, Japan’s is a combination of splendid and infuriating traits, and I’ve been tossing this idea around in the back of my head for almost our whole time here. So now that we’re approaching the end of this adventure, I wanted to commit to writing my take on the better and worse parts of living in Japan.

In the spirit of leaving the best for last, I’m going to start with the negative stuff. Some of this may come across as a snarky self-superior bitchfest; if so, that’s certainly not my intent! Indeed, my aim is to attain an Obama-like state, wherein I float serenely above mere human opinion and see all sides of an issue. Only funnier.

And so, these are the things I won’t miss about Japan, in no particular order.



Thursday, July 24th, 2008 by Chris

I literally just returned from my two-week trip to Boston and Buffalo, and moments after sitting down at the computer… another earthquake! The epicenter was in the same prefecture, Iwate, as the previous big one about a month ago. Poor Iwate.

This one was a little scary because this time, Stephanie wasn’t here in Akita. She and our friend Andy took a road trip to Aomori, and were located much closer to the epicenter than Noshiro. (They are in the armpit of the large axe-shaped peninsula at the top of the island.) Not to worry though; Steph called and assured me everything is all right.

I should also mention that there was a big one in the same region, but a ways off shore, just last week! That makes three in just over a month, all about the same 7-ish magnitude. Definitely some major correction going on in the earth’s crust around eastern Tohoku.

Iwate Earthquake

Saturday, June 14th, 2008 by Chris

About 20 minutes ago there was a large earthquake in our neighboring prefecture of Iwate. The epicenter was right around the “tri-state area” where Akita, Iwate, and Miyagi meet.

Amazingly, I was watching the news when the earthquake happened, and an earthquake alert popped up on the television about 10 seconds before the earthquake actually arrived. The shaking was not heavy all the way over here in Noshiro, but it went on for over a minute. It felt like being on a boat, with a kind of constant vibration accompanied by big, slow swaying back and forth. I went outside and noticed all the powerlines swinging all over the place. Our landlord’s gardener was out there and didn’t seem to be noticing anything though!

More info

Her name in lichts

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 by Chris

Last spring, we travelled to the nearest Big City, Sendai, for a Beck concert. During that trip we skipped over to the famous sightseeing destination Matsushima. While there, Steph snapped this moving shot of a Shinto procession carrying a shrine down the street:

Heavy Shrine

Imagine our surprise when a few weeks ago, out of the blue, a gentleman named Maarten Reith from the Netherlands contacted us through our Flickr account. The Dutch city of Arnhem is playing host to an international sculpture exhibition called Sonsbeek 2008 in June, and the opening ceremonies for this exhibition will involve the sculptures being hand-carried throughout the city to their final destination in a public park. Sonsbeek’s procession was inspired by religious ceremonies such as this Shinto custom, and Mr. Reith was writing a newspaper article about the exhibition.

Now, not two weeks later, the article is published and Steph is famous! The photo is almost a full page and spans the center spread of De Gelderlander newspaper of January 24, 2008. Contratulations to Stephanie!

Netherlands Newspaper Article thumbnail

Read the Air

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007 by Steph

We’re told over and over as foreigners living in Japan that this is a high-context culture. On an abstract level, this means that many things are left unsaid, and it is the listener’s job to tease meaning out of innuendo and implication. Practically speaking, this may manifest itself as imperatives in the form of polite suggestion, or outright refusal disguised as the slightest hesitation.

This quality of Japanese communication can be described by a delicious little phrase: 空気を読む(Kuuki o yomu). The literal translation is “read the air”, and it describes how you have to feel out not just what’s being said, but also what’s left unsaid. Just like “reading between the lines”, 空気を読む describes in a nutshell the necessity of ascertaining intent from the barest framework of spoken words.


The curse of the middle name

Saturday, September 29th, 2007 by Chris

A pitch-perfect article in the Japan Times about the curse that is a foreigner’s relation with any Japanese government office:

The curse of the middle name


As I have done many times for the past several years ever since my older son decided to become a professional student I walked to my local post office to wire him finances. As a veteran, I came prepared: I had my personal stamp. I had copies of the last many times I had wired money. I had my postal savings passbook. I had my alien registration, my passport, and my driver’s license. All this because I always feared something would go wrong.

But I had had no difficulties whatsoever in numerous tries. Which meant the post office was due.

My Parallel UNIQLO

Monday, September 10th, 2007 by Chris

Clothes shopping can be a hit-and-miss affair in Japan, a country where most people are the size and shape of popsicle sticks. And, of course, Japanese fashion is famously strange at the best of times. Enter UNIQLO. UNIQLO is Japan’s version of The Gap, and Steph and I have had pretty good luck finding clothes there.

Japan is a madly seasonal country, and clothing stores are no exception. If you see a shirt or a flavor of ice cream you like, you’d better buy it now because they might not have it next week. The upside of this is that it’s always fun just to drop in and see what fun novelty T-shirts they’ve got today. American baseball team shirts are popular, and there are always a lot of random campy print T-shirts in styles from old-west to 1970s.

Type shirtsThe funny thing about random events is that they inevitably make occasional uncanny patterns and you never expect it. Thus I was surprised when, while waiting for Steph to try on some clothes, I stumbled upon a whole series of shirts about… fonts. The first one that caught my said (backwards) “Character Set Calligraphy Bitmap”. I looked below it and saw another: “METAFONT”. I kept looking and the typographical joy kept flowing: “OPENTYPE” “sans-serif” “ASCENDER”. These shirts are all produced by T-26, a font foundry whose fonts we sell at MyFonts and, in fact, whose shirts Steph has bought for me before.

Steph prevented my from buying the whole set, but I did walk out with two.

Pink ElephantBut the story does not end there. No more than a couple weeks later, we walked into another UNIQLO store, and there in the window was a Seattle landmark from my youth. Unable to believe the coincidences with my own life that UNIQLO was throwing at me, I walked out the proud owner of a new Pink Elephant Car Wash shirt.

For those of you who are curious, here is a picture of the whole rack of T-26 shirts:

T-26 shirts at UNIQLO

Heaven help me, I miss the DMV

Monday, July 9th, 2007 by Chris

Normally I would start with some kind of clever lead-in, but frankly I’m not in the mood today. I’ll just say it: today Steph and I both failed the driver’s license test. For the third time.

This is an unholy tradition for Americans spending more than one year in Japan. International driver’s permits are only good for one year, after which you’re required to convert your home driver’s license into a Japanese license. Most civilized countries have agreements in place with the Japanese government so that all they have to do is fill out some forms, take the easy eye test, and go on their way. Apparently this isn’t sufficient for Americans until all 50 states fill out some questionnaire and submit a bunch of statistics so that the Japanese govt can verify that they meet all the guidelines, etc, etc. At the end of the day, these governmental relationship “irreconcilable differences” mean that normal people like us have to go through this extremely annoying ritual at least once.

The first annoyance of the whole thing is that foreigners can only conduct this process at the prefectural capital’s licensing office, which is more than an hour’s drive from Noshiro. At least we don’t have it as bad as some other places in the ken that have to drive 2-3 hours for the privilege.

Once you get there, the Japanese bureaucracy is a wonder to behold. First of all, the licensing process stretches over two days. The first day you have to show up and be interviewed to determine if your driving history is good enough to even be considered for a license. Our wonderful and long-suffering friend Yumeko accompanied us on this trip as a translator. Of course, before you can start your interview you need to fill out all the forms. And they need to photocopy your home driver’s license. And the blank back of it. And again at a larger size. And all the stamps in your passport. Somehow this photocopying process always takes more than an hour. (We had been warned by friends to bring something to read.) Finally it came time for the interview, which wasn’t all that bad. The only particularly absurd question was “Do you have confidence in your driving?” I suppose an incredibly honest and timid person might say no, but I can’t imagine why they think it’s necessary to ask that.

So that’s the first day. But then the fun really begins. Your next visit gets to the meat of things. You show up at 8:30 in the morning, fill out some more forms, then wait around for an hour until the written test. That test consists of ten of the easiest true-false questions I have ever seen. Of course it takes them over an hour to tell you whether you passed, even though we were the only people taking the English test that day and we finished it in three minutes. Then it’s time for the eye test, which is done in a minute and a half and takes some more time for them to think about. Then you get some time for lunch, but you spend that memorizing the course.

Oh, the course. No real-world driving test here. Instead you have a maze of loopy streets on a course behind the license office, complete with stop lights, railroad crossings, and unworldly S and L curves that are a bit wider than the chunky taxi-like car that they provide you. Each day they post a different route through the course, which you have an hour to memorize before driving it at your appointed time.

The course really isn’t that bad. Yes, the S and L curves are annoying and arbitrary (and certainly unlike anything you’ll actually encounter on the road) and caused us both to fail once. But the real pisser is the arbitrary nature of the final judgment. Unlike American DMVs, there is no point system for keeping track of what you passed and failed; the ultimate decision is based on the whims of the instructor. Each instructor has his own (sometimes contradictory) hangups and obsessions, and you never know which instructor you’re going to get. Fortunately the instructor at least tells you what you did wrong so that you can fix it next time. But sometimes even this won’t help you. Last week there was another American guy taking the test with us, and he told us that he had failed his first time because he went too fast through an intersection, and then failed the second time (with a different instructor) for going too slow through the same intersection.

So that brings us to today. We were both feeling good coming out, agreeing that we couldn’t have done any better. Our previous screwups were nowhere to be seen. The instructor had criticized each of us for a rather silly lane-change technicality that we had never heard of in our studying of the drivers’ handbook. But we weren’t particularly worried about that, because we had heard from friends that even if you do it perfectly, they will find something to nag you about just for good measure. We had also studied many former JETs’ experiences on their reasons for failing and we had never heard of this one.

Well, too bad. To our amazement and humiliation, we failed once again. To add insult to injury, we watched another guy walk away with a license after not even looking at the course and making a couple of wrong turns along the way. Just to be sure and properly righteous, I looked at the handbook when we got home, and lo and behold, the “rule” that we we had been failed on was nowhere to be seen.

The absurdity of the whole system is that thanks to the international permit, each time we fail the test, we climb into our car and drive, legally but obviously unsafely, the hour and a half back to Noshiro.

Bell Metro

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007 by Chris

I just stumbled upon this wonderful article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Magazine of April 8, 2007. In January, the paper organized a “stunt” with Joshua Bell, the world-famous violinist, to play for an hour at a D.C. subway station during morning rush hour. The results are heartbreaking (in a good way) and I think you will enjoy this article, especially if you are a musician of any sort.

“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”

The word doesn’t come easily.

“. . . ignoring me.”

Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Read more…