When I went through the JET Program orientation in Tokyo, I got a serious lecture about the stages of living abroad. Firstly, a foreigner will experience euphoria. Everything is new and awesome! I went through this phase for a while, but I hit the next phase around Halloween. Secondly, a very tired of all this new stuff foreigner will experience things such as culture shock, which should actually be called cultural fatigue. I hit this stage for only a few weeks, getting back into euphoria for December because it was Christmas time. Thirdly, there’s assimilation. This phase basically means you’ve moved onto the “same stuff, different day” mentality, which is actually a good thing. Getting into a sense of normalcy with the environment and people around you makes for a much better living abroad experience than being constantly amazed by it. Being amazed all the time gets exhausting.
I’m on my second year in Japan and I plan to stay at least another year (but I’m aiming for about 6-ish years). I love living here in Japan, even though Japan and I can have issues with each other on either a cultural or language level. I think it’s safe to say I’ve assimilated in the sense that I’ve developed a sense of normalcy with all the aspects of my new life. I surprise more than a few Japanese people around town with my Japanese or in other cultural ways.
For example, bowing is one of those little cultural things I picked up easily as most people generally do. Bowing is a simple way of showing respect, humility, and apology all at the same time. I use it around strangers the most. If I don’t know someone, I’ll be moving like one of those toy bird water dipping things over and over again. I also tend to use “Gomen (ne)! ごめん (ね)!” all the freaking time. Saying “sorry” over and over does the same cultural functions as bowing. I use bowing and sorry together a lot over here.
I’ve used it so much it’s become an automatic reflex. When I hit the atrocity that is the Chicago O’Hare airport around Christmas time, I bumped into people. Now, a normal American might say, “Oops, sorry!” or “My bad!” and proceed onwards. My reaction was to come to a full stop bow and say “Gomen! ごめん!” I believe the man I said that to thought I must’ve been insane. I tried to recover (as in run away and never look back), while mumbling “Sorry…” with a huge embarrassed blush on my face.
What I did falls under the reverse culture shock part of living abroad. Reverse culture shock basically means when a foreigner becomes so accustomed to a foreign culture that he or she has to readjust to the home culture. Some people can go through this after the cultural fatigue part of living abroad, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until I went back home that it really hit me. When I got back, I did little things here and there that showed I was going through reverse culture shock.
Once, I made friends uncomfortable with some accidental “silent treatment” as we were hanging out. I realized that I’d fallen into a nice comfortable relationship with silence. In Japan, people don’t talk over one another, and if there’s nothing to talk about then nobody talks. They just sit there and listen or enjoy the company. In America, people have this avid fear of silence, so people tend to talk over each other, interrupt, and talk for the sake of talking more than Japanese people do. Since I had been away for so long, I had honestly forgotten about some of these things I did in America.
However, parts of me are still intensely American, and those parts will most likely never die. For example, Japan tends to deal with people not well liked in a passive aggressive manner. I once watched a cashier smile the entire time a woman harassed her over some grocery prices, never once breaking her genki mask. I was very impressed, because I can’t do that very well. As I’ve mentioned before, “genki” isn’t just a word that means “happy” but also a kind of cultural aspect of Japan wherein people put on this kind of exterior image and hold it no matter what the circumstances. It’s all about not being impolite and shoving your unwanted positive or negative emotions onto people.
I don’t deal with people I don’t like in a genki manner. I get mean. I’ve had a couple incidents wherein I’ve utterly lost my temper, and both incidents taught my two things. 1) I sound far more intimidating than I ever did in Japan and 2) Japanese people have no idea what to do when you get really angry with them. My first big incident happened in a club in Tokyo. A Japanese guy got way too aggressive and demanding while I was dancing with him. When I refused to give him my email, he called me “a bitch gaijin” and I lost it. Security watched in amusement as the guy backpedaled his way off the dance floor while I yelled at him in a mix of English and Japanese I’m not entirely sure made sense.
My aggressive behavior, which I don’t even think is actually all that aggressive, scares Japanese people. For most of them, people only yell when they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, I’ve had screaming matches with my Sigma Tau Delta crew (a haughty English Majors society in University) about fictional characters and the problematic ending of Wuthering Heights. For me, aggressive sometimes equals fun and interesting.
For Japan, aggressiveness is generally viewed as a sign that someone is an “angry person” or “bad person” that should be avoided. I can’t tell you how many times during orientation people told us not to get angry at work. It causes all kinds of problems for an ALT to be viewed as an “angry foreigner.” If an ALT gets that label, then they’re often considered also as “hard to work with” and “unprofessional” and “creates problems in the workplace.” Even if there’s only one incident, it can make an ALT’s life very hard while he or she lives in Japan.
Thankfully, I’m not expected to “act Japanese” since I’m American. This lack of expectation makes it easier to find a balance between who I am as an American and what I wish to accept into my own identity while living abroad. Little by little, though, I’m starting to realize that some of these little changes might be a bit more permanent than I thought. Sometimes I get scared when I think about the bits and pieces changing without my full awareness. I don’t want to lose my original identity, but I’m not about to become a shut in to keep it. I’ve heard of people that can’t assimilate. They hole up inside their homes, never learning Japanese, just counting down the days until they go home. I don’t want to be like them. I also don’t want to go to the other extreme end of the spectrum and become that person who acts, thinks, and talks only Japanese.
Finding the balance is tricky, and there’s a lot of compromise involved. I wish someone had forewarned me about that part. Some things can’t exist in the same space, so I’ve had to deal with accepting some parts of Japan on an academic level but not taking them in with my own identity. Now, for me, that can be done easier than the other way around wherein I take in something Japanese culturally and in a sense replace something from my American identity. I’ve done it a couple of times. For example, I made the conscious effort to start walking over driving everywhere I go. When I had a car, I used it at first like an American would use it. I drove pretty much anywhere and everywhere that was outside of my house. I began steadily using it less and less until I walked more than I drove. It was an interesting change, but one I felt made me healthier and changed me for the better.
I think that living abroad and/or studying abroad provides a very unique experience for people. It can mold them into someone they never knew they could be. Learning about cultural differences can teach a person much about his or her own cultural biases. Cultural identity can be tricky to maintain, and putting yourself in a position that forces you to change isn’t for everybody. Still, I recommend that to someone if he or she is thinking about it to try it out. It doesn’t have to be Japan, either. Heading out to Germany, China, Brazil, or wherever can grant a different perspective as well. Assimilating, learning to change, can be one of the most rewarding experiences. Missing out on that experience would be a downright shame.
On that note, if you live in Kentucky and want to study abroad, you should check out the KIIS (Kentucky Institute for International Studies) Program! I studied abroad in Japan for one month using the KIIS Summer Program. Apply online by Jan. 20, 2013 to save $100 off of any KIIS summer program fee. It’s like a $100 scholarship for every student. Plus those with complete applications on Jan. 20th are eligible for early acceptance. The regular application deadline is Feb. 15, 2013. You can also sign up for other programs that let you stay for a whole semester in a foreign country.
You can apply online at www.kiis.org.