I always thought culture shock was something invented by anthropologists with too much time on their hands until I moved to Japan. Then, I discovered quickly that it is definitely real, and it will mess with your mind completely. Even though I was so gung-ho about moving to Japan and I had a solid support network of friends and family, it still freaked me out.
There are 4 or 5 identified stages of culture shock, but I suspect it differs quite bit from person to person. The entire experience is marked by elation, frustration, withdrawal, enthusiasm, anger, alienation – a whole roller coaster of emotions. At the end of it, you finally come to terms with yourself, and the weird culture you find yourself in is not so weird anymore.
My culture shock stages went like this…
The ‘Lost In Translation’ Stage
When I first landed in Japan, it was a futuristic neon-lit Disneyland of speeding commuter trains, signs full of strange English, beautiful women, and unidentifiable food, all racing past at 3,000 miles per hour. It was like living inside a pinball machine in the year 2057 and I didn’t even want to sleep for fear I’d miss out on something. I wandered around finding everything strange, quirky and delightful. I didn’t have a clue what was going on around me, but I was having a great time.
The ‘Planet Of The Apes’ Stage
Then, reality began to set in. The worst thing possible happened – I started learning about the culture and realizing that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Japanese people were strange and impossible to talk to. They lacked all manner of social skills (I hadn’t realized yet that they just have their own way of socializing that’s different from mine – it’s called ‘a culture’). Everything was difficult, from separating your garbage to using everyday household appliances. And then there’s the language.
My natural defense to this was to analyze what little I understood about Japan and see it as inferior to my own culture. I took it apart point by point and firmly established in my mind that it was a primitive island country out of touch with the rest of the earth. All of its cultural traditions were ridiculous and you couldn’t even be bothered with trying to communicate with anyone. I began to spend more time at foreign bars and at home watching American movies.
The ‘Born In The USA’ Stage
Now that I’d established my culture’s superiority, I became suddenly nostalgic about everything I’d always hated about America. I became more all-American than I’d ever been and turned into a ridiculous stereotype of myself. ‘You know, people back home may be a little odd with their guns, tractor pulls, chicken fingers and megachurches, but they’ve got it more together than these people!’
Stupid, I know. But actually, this was an important stage. All silliness aside, this is where I reached a kind of balance between me and Japan. Instead of mindlessly accepting or rejecting the culture as so many people do, I began to know myself and how I felt about the land I’d chosen to live in. I also had a grasp on the language.
The ‘Best Me I Can Be’ Stage
Then one day, the fog cleared. I’d settled into a routine and a way to live in Japan where I enjoyed all the good things, didn’t worry about the bad things, and basically felt no cultural discomfort. Although the whole years-long experience of culture shock must’ve changed me in some way, I couldn’t tell you how.
But now I suffer from hellacious culture shock when I go back home for a visit…