Reverse culture shock

Happy belated Christmas, everyone–I hope it was a good day for you all. It was an all right day on the home front–I got some good gifts (Avatar: The Last Airbender – book (season) 1 on DVD, and money from my grandmother…and a purse and jewelry from my parents, which were obviously last-ditch attempts to make me more girly so boys will like me and I can get married soon), and spent some good time with the family, including getting slaughtered by my brother and grandmother in Scrabble. My ability to converse in English, and my English vocabulary, have been eroded as my ability to converse in Japanese has improved.

Being here has been…interesting. I’ve gone driving–the first day, when I went to a few stores with my mom, was a little scary, and I’m glad I had her with me to tell me to bear to the right side of the road, because there was a strong chance I would have followed Japanese driving conventions instead. I still have to hesitate when figuring out which side the steering wheel is on, and where the windshield wiper/turn signal and headlight controls are, and I keep reaching for the gear shift with my left hand, and I’ve had to make myself remember American driving rules, but I’ve adjusted pretty well to American driving again.

I’ve also actually struggled a little bit in stores with making small talk with employees and clerks and stuff. Japan’s very hands-off–past the irasshaimase, they leave you to your own devices, and in restaurants, you have to call the wait staff over if you need anything. I’ve gotten so used to that that I find myself a little startled and flustered when they come by multiple times at restaurants here and kind of catch me off-guard. I’ve also almost forgotten how to even order in English–I’m so used to pointing at the menu and saying the name slowly, in case my Anglo-Japanese accent confuses them, and ending with a polite “onegaishimasu,” while here it’s just “I’d like ___,” or “I’ll have ___.”

I do miss the politeness that’s just ingrained into day-to-day Japanese life, and the fact that both sides exercise it–I forgot that my local Target doesn’t require people to take numbered tags into the dressing room, so I stopped by the counter and told the woman how many garments I had, and she gave me a strange look and just sort of quickly gestured for me to go in and stop bothering her. I’ve gotten used to using “please” and “thank you” in place of all the times when I’d use “onegaishimasu” and “arigatou” and “sumimasen,” and I’ve even begun to take keigo for granted (even if I don’t understand it word-for-word, I do definitely get the gist of it once it’s used in a specific context)–and it surprises me that I don’t hear people use the English equivalents in American restaurants/stores more often. I don’t mean that I expect American employees to bend over backwards to be polite to me, and I don’t mean that I expect going shopping to be a big overblown extravaganza (having people bow at me on every single floor of the Tokushima City Sogo as I descended via the escalator at closing time was a very strange and surreal experience)…it just feels strange that it’s so casual by comparison. (That, or I’ve just had mediocre service so far.)

At least things have been cheaper here. But something else I forgot about was tipping–it felt weird not to tip in Japan, but I got so used to it that I nearly forgot to tip several times here until I saw that extra blank on the receipt.

There’s also been more good TV to watch and catch up on. When I return to Japan I won’t have cable TV (my BOE has paid for it thus far, and wants to stop paying for it starting January, and I don’t really want to pay for it either), and my 11 channels will be reduced to something like 4…not that I watched TV a lot, but I really hope I still get what little good programming there was (movies, classical music, some J-dramas (I really want to start keeping up with Nodame Cantabile) and anime) and not just the silly talk shows and all the cooking shows that demonstrate them slicing and dicing and devouring meat and fish in minute detail. I certainly don’t need 70+ channels, but I’ll miss the educational networks (Discovery, TLC, The Travel Channel, The Science Channel, G4TV), Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, TV Land (I love Three’s Company and The Cosby Show), reruns of shows like ER (the early seasons) and The West Wing and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the general good programming all around. At least NHK has some good features about world cultures and politics and occasionally pop culture icons, and it’s good Japanese practice to watch it and try to translate it.

There’s also been the crazy insomnia I’ve been gripped with over the last few days–I slept in till 3 PM the day I got back, then slept normally for a couple of days, but…wow, I actually don’t know how many days ago this was, since time gets funky in the middle of the night. One night I couldn’t sleep till about 2 AM. The next night–Christmas Eve, that’s right–I went to bed at 8 PM with a monster headache, woke up at 2 AM, and fell back asleep after 5 AM. Last night, I just couldn’t sleep, period, until 4 or 5 AM, and I nearly overslept to meet Jenn for lunch today (who got me the soundtrack to The Shawshank Redemption, which I truly feel is one of Thomas Newman’s finest compositions and one of the best film scores in existence, and some really cute ladybug toe socks). I’ll definitely be taking some sleep medication to regulate my sleep schedule tonight.

Generally…I feel older. I feel like living abroad and being forced to be completely on my own–something that I definitely have come to embrace–makes me evaluate situations differently, act and decide differently than I used to, and just view things differently. My decisions are less childlike and more detached and adultlike–it’s all changed noticeably even compared to when I was here 6 months ago. I notice and drool over more home decor and furniture and light fixtures in stores now, I complimented my mom on a set of cute and stylish glass bottles she bought to use for oil, I expressed my envy at how many spices and vegetables and different types of food she has (and how freaking huge her fridge is compared to mine)…I don’t feel more domestic, but I feel more like I live on my own and want to take responsibility for my own living situation. I definitely am looking forward to buying property wherever I end up post-Japan–probably a condo–and decorating it, painting walls and finding nice wall hangings and furniture, experimenting more with cooking, and just establishing my own “space.” This interior decoration thing is finally starting to make more sense.

I also can’t wait to get back and have so many more shops to choose from–I felt like I was in heaven when I went to Target and realized that they had clothes that finally fit me. I’m off to a couple of local music stores either today or in a couple of days (after I consult with my orchestra friends at dinner tomorrow night) to buy some new violin strings (only $35 for a full set of 4/4 Thomastik Dominant strings, as compared to ¥7000 at Kurosaki Gakki in Tokushima City!) and scope out inexpensive metronome/tuners (hi, Julie!).

In general…I feel a lot more aware of the dichotomy of Japanese versus American life this time around. This summer, I needed to be back to save my sanity, but now, I can view things more clearly–and a lot more of my friends are in town (I’ll be seeing no fewer than 10 friends from university orchestra tomorrow night, and some of my closest friends on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, as well as other very cool people, hopefully including former teachers/professors, the following week). I think I’ve really come into my own in Japan over the last 6 months–I’ve dropped roots and started looking it as less of a momentary stop and more as a real part and step of my life. I’m also definitely coming to terms with the fact that I most likely won’t be in Atlanta for very long once I return, since I’m looking mainly at grad schools and jobs in other parts of the country (or out of the country), so this is one of my last opportunities to spend a lot of time in and around the city and view it as my home.

There’s been a lot of reflection and renewed understanding this time around. I’m sure there’ll be much more to come. I’ve definitely enjoyed it so far.

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