Returning to Japan after 8 years has been an interesting experience. I wouldn’t call it culture shock, more like cultural re-acclamation. There are so many oddities and nuances that I forgot about. I understand them but it’s taken some reacquainting and re-learning. I can see why many people claim Japan has the most distinct and unique culture in the world. After living here for 16 years, there is still so much I learn – the good the bad and the sometimes bizarre.
First of all, getting used to Japanese work culture has been somewhat of a shock. People here work too long. Not too hard, just too long. I love Japan but working for a Japanese company full-time is not an experience I’m willing to attempt. The company owns you, and boss-employee etiquette dictates that you stay at work longer than your superiors, even if you have absolutely nothing to do. People here are great about respecting my time, but the higher up guys literally arrive before I do at 7:00 AM, and continue working after I leave at 9:00 PM until who knows when. And I have a 4 hour break in the middle of the day!
The other aspect of cultural re-acclamation I’ve gone through is in the language. My Japanese is pretty darn good for someone who’s not Japanese, but I’m still learning a ton. I have gained a new understanding and appreciation for people in the US or elsewhere who don’t speak English as their first language. Basic conversational and survival skills in another language are easy, even intellectual conversations can be learned if you know enough big words. But what I’ve realized is that expressing your personality in another language can be so challenging. It’s hard to be witty and quick and fully comfortable when you’re always thinking about the right word to say next or trying to remember that last word another person said. It is possible, but you have to be comfortable making mistakes and be willing to make a fool of yourself. Many times I’ve tried to be culturally proper and not make any mistakes in Japanese, but I’m realizing that it’s more important, and people appreciate you more, if you just have some fun.
At the same time, there are so many aspects of Japanese culture I love. People here are extremely loyal. My friends from elementary school (who I reconnected with on facebook) are currently organizing a reunion for me when I go back to Ueda where I grew up. Another friend whom I’ve known since before preschool came to visit last weekend from Tokyo and slept on the floor of my tiny tatami room. My Japanese big sister was going to drive an hour and a half each way to come see me until her family’s plans changed. I love that once you’re friends with someone, you remain that way and stay involved in each others’ lives.
And people are respectful. I don’t want to imagine cleaning the mess a group of 350 American high schoolers would make in a dining hall. In Japan, all the trays are neatly stacked and the plates organized so it’s easy for the workers to clean up.
By the way, the high students who left a couple of days ago were great. As predicted, there was much giggling and chuckling and everywhere I went I heard my name whispered. But I made friends with some of the students, got my picture taken with many, and had a really good time.
Overall, it’s been a great experience. Unfortunately, living and re-acclamating here brings me no closer to answering the simple, yet extremely complex and unanswerable question, “Where are you from?”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer that and I’m fine with it. Here’s to continuing to learn, grow, experience, question, adventure and love, wherever we are from, wherever we are, and wherever we are going.