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!