Monday, September 12, 2016
Going "Home": 10 Things that Surprised Us in America
There's a fancy-pants word for expats (we're never mere immigrants are we?) who go home after a while abroad and experience uncomfortable things: "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock". I haven't experienced either since coming back from study abroad years ago, because I've only had short trips back and haven't yet tried rebuilding daily life in my home country.
At least, the word shock is a bit much. My home country doesn't shock me as much as make me realize "wow, I've gotten used to doing things differently, and living in a society with very different values."
Here are ten things Yuya and I noticed about my little corner of America on our trip:
Everything is big. From towels and cups to cars and streets, space is used extravagantly. People have big bodies. Perhaps humans are bit like goldfish, and we grow to fit the size of our tank? Americans also have larger personal-space bubbles. In a tight crowded spot my mom bumped into a lady who seemed offended by the encounter. I thought her reaction was over-the-top, but then I remembered a lot of Americans probably aren't used to tight crowded spots. Hah, I thought, that lady couldn't live in Asia; she'd go nuts.
Relaxation is a thing. Yuya exclaimed more than once, "Americans really know how to relax!" The organic, informal, off-time gathering around a campfire in (large) comfy lawn chairs, or on cushions at the lakeside with an alcoholic drink in hand, where some of the most refreshing and restorative moments of our trip. There is no pressure to do or be anything special. There is no need to check one's watch. There is no need to stand up, bow, make polite nothings every time someone older than you shifts their weight. We can all talk about whatever, or say nothing and doze to the sound of the gentle lake waves lapping.
People don't take many pains to look nice in public. I like fashion and sometimes read blogs that mourn the decline of good dressing and polished looks in American culture. I finally noticed what they are all talking about. There just seems to be a lot of skin and stray hairs hanging out of half-hearted clothes, and no pantyhose to be seen. We went to a baseball game and took selfies while sitting in the stands, and were a bit surprised by all the bare human limbs that also made it into the photo. Oh well!
People don't use cash as much. I'd gotten used to Japan's cash-based society. I was very confused when I tried to deposit cash in an ATM and found no place to put in my bills to be automatically scanned and counted by the machine, but instead had to put the cash in an envelope and manually type in the amount myself. We ended up not using the ATM for that because of the insecurity. A completely different system!
People don't care who's around. In America you will overhear loud conversations in public places. Loud phone conversations in public places. Just put your life on air or talk about private things in an outside voice; who cares if someone overhears that Dennis failed his drug test again or that you have an appointment tomorrow to get a weird spot on your butt checked.
Somewhat related, even adults say exactly what they think or feel about things. People complain like children about things that can't be helped and air personal views readily. A young employee at a store we visited sighed heavily and informed us he was "finally off work in 13 more minutes." Yuya and I chuckled about it later, at how unthinkable such a comment to a customer would be in Japan. I realized I'd gotten used to the Japanese way of tailoring conversation depending on who you're speaking to. If you communicate the same way in Japan, it will remind listeners of children or of a mental disability.
Phones in business places don't ring very often. This is something Yuya noticed and still talks about. People in the office don't run around either but walk slowly. It looked quite different from both of our work environments. Customer service is also of course not up to the Japanese standard. Employees chat amongst themselves in front of customers, don't hesitate to show displeasure on their faces, or like when I had trouble with the ferry ticket machine in Seattle, shrug and say "that's not my job, sorry can't help you." In the end it made us laugh. The environment is definitely more comfortable for the workers, we thought.
Our 10-day trip was "short" by American standards, "long" by Japanese.
We went during Golden Week, a string of 5 or so national holidays in Japan, and tacked on an extra week of paid leave days we'd saved up. "Wow, nice, a whole 2 weeks off!" were what Japanese friends and co-workers said. Most people make do with one week. This is a population used to taking overseas trips to Korea, Bali, Guam, even Paris in only 3-5 days. We were very happy we finagled the longer vacation from both our jobs until we got to my hometown and everyone said, "Aww that's so short!" about our trip. It was a bit deflating. Tourism is one thing, but we weren't leaving Japan just for fun--time for meeting family and old friends is always too short.
Recreational marijuana has been legalized, and I spotted a gender-neutral bathroom. Times they be a-changin'. In Japan, getting caught with any kind of drug effectively ruins your chances of a career and a normal social life. Even popular musicians who get caught have their CDs pulled from the shelves of music stores. Drugs are very taboo. Gender questions are just starting to become public discussion here, but it's usually more questions about gender roles in society rather than trans issues.
Most people I saw around town were white like me, for a change. I'd forgotten what it was like to not look obviously different from the majority around me. I saw Yuya get the foreigner treatment more than once. There will always be at least one of us at the receiving end of that.
In the end, since our standard of living in both countries is not so different, there is not so much to really shock, at least not from what we ran into on a short trip. Some things are more comfortable than in Japan, some things are much less convenient. Personally I find it thought-provoking to be able to see my own culture from "outside," and realize just how much I've been influenced by my new country. Perhaps that is the most shocking thing of all about living abroad...