What They Don’t Tell You About Culture Shock

After not going home for almost a year, I finally went back to visit my family this past August into September. The experience was both exactly what I expected and not at all anything I could have ever seen coming. When you tell people that you are going abroad, whether for a week or, in my case, four years, the first thing people always warn you about is culture shock. Especially in a place as notoriously different as Japan, in the months leading up to my departure I had hordes of people telling me to prepare myself for the mental onslaught that culture shock would bring.

However, in that way, my arrival in Japan was altogether anticlimactic. From the second I got here, I have absolutely loved the country, its people, and my life here. Of course, there are times when I have been frustrated when I do not understand certain customs or times when I wish I could do things “the American way” when dealing with various aspects of Japanese bureaucracy, but I have never once been struck by the burning desire to hop on the next flight home like everyone warned would inevitably happen. I have been, on the whole, quite satisfied with my life here.

But of course, I missed my friends and family dearly and jumped at the prospect of visiting them over summer vacation. We had done an ok job of keeping in touch over the year, and I was looking forward to sharing the experiences that I had had during my first year in Japan. I was aware that we all would have changed over the year, but I was confident that it would have little effect on the grand scheme of things.

The thing is, when you first go off to college, even if it is driving distance from your hometown, you are surrounded by all new people and are given the opportunity to highlight the parts of yourself you like and cut out the parts that you don’t, completely reinventing yourself in front of your new peers. And that is exactly what I did, which was even easier to do being in a completely new country with new people from unbelievably diverse backgrounds. When I went home, I was looking forward to getting to know the people that my friends from high school had become.

Leading up to my departure, I swung dramatically from wanting to leave that very second to wishing I could cancel my trip completely and just never leave Beppu. As much as I love everyone at home, I was not looking forward to spending five weeks away from my apartment, my job, and my friends and boyfriend (as sappy as that sounds). However, after spending A WHOLE WEEK waiting to get on a flight from Tokyo (yes, my bad luck with travel is still as prevalent as ever), I was soon stepping onto the tarmac in New York.

And that is where this ‘reverse culture shock’ comes in: everyone spends so much time telling you how hard it is to be in a new place, but no one tells you how wrong it feels to come back to the place you came from once you have adapted to life somewhere else. For the vast majority of my time in America, it seemed like something was very off in my life, and I found it really hard to enjoy myself no matter what I did.

I’m still not entirely sure what caused such a response in me, and I’m not entirely sure it was just one thing; it was a million little things that I used to love, and still wanted to, but that no longer seemed to fit into the new me that was created as I spent more and more time away from home. It was eating at my favorite restaurants and remembering the feeling of loving the food, but having the taste be too strong or strange now; it was having conversations with old friends about things I used to have so much interest in but haven’t even thought about in a year; it was returning to old problems and drama that I had been able to forget about, or at least pretend didn’t exist while I was 7,000 miles away.

And the new things that had taken the place of my old interests had no place back home. In my post, Otsukaresama Deshita: The Most Commonly Used Phrase in Japan, I discuss how Japanese and English are so different that a lot of the time there is no way to translate them, and that hit hard once I was back in America and still thinking in Japanese, but with no way to accurately get my thoughts across to my friends. It wasn’t that I had lost my English, it was more that my knowledge and understanding had gone past the point that English could cover. And I had a hard time explaining this or any of my other interests from Japan, because it’s so hard to imagine what I experience without having been there yourself, and there is no way to accurately explain an entirely different culture’s way of thinking without launching into a 30 minute explanation, by which point all parties involved would have understandably lost interest in the conversation.

When I was in Japan, I thought I was a completely changed and reinvented person, but I was shocked to discover how easy it would be to fall back into my old life. It felt as though the person I was before I left and the person I am now were fighting for control, and in the moments where I returned to the person I was before, it was as if I didn’t remind myself of all the life I had in Japan, it was like it had never even happened. Driving down the same roads as I had one year ago, singing to the same songs on the radio, it was all too easy to slide back into my old self and forget the person I had become.

The problem is, I like the person I am now much more than the person I was in high school, and in those moments I was repulsed by the fact that I could still return to that person so easily. I feel that I am far more confident, intellectual, and overall happier now than I was in America, but it was startling to learn that this change hadn’t gone as deep as I thought.

This is not to say I did not enjoy my trip back; I still love all of my friends and family as I did when I left, and I had so much fun spending time with everyone and traveling around America. But I was very homesick for my little studio apartment in Beppu, for cooking in the dorms with my friends, and for the life that I had grown to hold very dear. I certainly don’t fit in perfectly here either, but this trip did make me realize that there is no going back. For all it’s challenges, Japan is my home now and I’m here to stay.


One thought on “What They Don’t Tell You About Culture Shock

  1. Love this Grace! I can relate to what you said about being back and feeling like your old self. I’ve been back from England for two months and it feels like I never went.


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