One JET’s experience with reverse culture shock


Saying sayonara to Japan this summer? Wondering what lies ahead upon your return to your home country? For a lot of JETs, reverse culture shock awaits — but it’s not all bad. Read on for one ALT’s account of life after JET. Kathleen Bomers returned to Canada in the summer of 2009 after spending two years on JET in Fukuyama.

By Kathleen Bomers

It’s been more difficult than I expected to write about my experience returning home after JET. When people ask me how the transition has been, and whether I miss Japan or not, on a superficial level I can truthfully say it’s gone really smoothly and I’m still very thankful to be home. Reverse culture shock, however, doesn’t just operate at a superficial level; it can go a little deeper than the trauma of switching from Pocari Sweat back to Sprite. Once you’ve decided not to renew your JET contract, I’d encourage you to go to the Returners’ Conference and make use of any advice and connections you’re given to help find a job or start grad school. It will definitely help. That said, just don’t expect anything to fully prepare you for the year ahead.

If your experience is anything like mine (and ESID definitely applies, as with anything JET-related), your life really won’t ever be the same after living in Japan. I returned to Canada in August 2009 after two years on JET, and although I was grateful for my experiences and I knew I’d miss many people I was leaving behind, by that time I was more than ready to come home. After three weeks in my hometown of Toronto, I moved to Victoria, British Columbia, to start a Master’s program at the University of Victoria. Being thrown almost straight away into something as intense as grad school helped a lot with the transition between cultures, since I barely had time to sleep at night, let alone reminisce about okonomiyaki and anime.

The one major problem I did face, though (which has only recently begun to fade), was a difficulty I had in talking to people, most of whom had never been to Japan. I came home knowing not to expect others to be hugely excited about Japanese experiences they couldn’t relate to, and was determined not to bore my listeners by starting every sentence with “In Japan…” The truth is, though, that when you’ve lived in another culture for two years you have no recent references that aren’t tied up with that culture, and you’re pretty much forced to bring it up in most conversations whether you want to or not. Essentially, I had become something of a foreigner in my own country, or at least the annoying “Japan girl” to my friends (despite being the farthest thing from a Japanophile you’ll ever meet). I just had to wait until I’d put in some time in Canada before I could talk to others again from a similar frame of reference.

Those two years on JET still sit there in my memory, though, and that leads me to the second big challenge I’ve faced since coming home: a feeling that my life and sense of identity have become somewhat fragmented as a result of living abroad. When I first went to Japan, I mainly thought about what an amazing adventure it was, and how great it was to meet so many new people and to be given a chance to start life from scratch, set free from the people, places, language, culture, and worldviews that had helped shape who I was up to that point. When I came home, I realized how this period of separation from the familiar had expanded my horizons and made me more truly open-minded and humble about my beliefs than I could ever have hoped to be otherwise. However, I also realized very vividly that nobody from my old life had any connection at all to my years on JET, while the more time that passed in my resumed life in Canada, the more estranged I also felt from my Japanese connections. Switching between such completely separate worlds, the only point of continuity between my Japanese life and my Canadian life was my own self, and having had a foot in both made it feel like I didn’t fully belong to either. I felt almost like I’d lost two years to an alternate reality, and was no longer sure which was the real one – actually, come to think of it, if you’ve never seen the original “Life on Mars” TV series, watch it now. Bet you 10 bucks the guy who wrote Sam Tyler’s experiences meant them as a metaphor for JET.

Coming home hasn’t just been about challenges, however. For me, the feelings of displacement, isolation and instability may have been tough to deal with at times. But they’ve also given me an amazing amount of perspective and empowerment in defining my values and priorities in life, and in leading my life according to these values and priorities. Before Japan, it was a lot easier just to float along in the direction society seemed to be encouraging me to take. After Japan, as a kind of foreigner in my own culture, such influences were a lot easier to ignore now that I could see them objectively. Although it may be sad that no other person can share in all the memories and knowledge that I accumulate from the different places I go in life, that fact also makes me more aware than ever that how I live and the decisions I make are my responsibility, and under my control. In the end, JET helped me become much better at sorting out the things that change and the things that stay constant in life, and to recognize how only the latter are truly important. So although it’s been a strange and difficult struggle – all the more so because, caught up in all the concerns of daily life, I didn’t fully realize a lot of what I just wrote was happening until I wrote it – it’s also been an important and immensely rewarding one, in a way that I think will last a lot longer than my hanami photos and my (already fading) Japanese vocabulary. I hope the rest of the ALTs going home soon have just as great an experience.

10 thoughts on “One JET’s experience with reverse culture shock

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  2. Twenty years after living in Yokosuka and I still say “In Japan….” and Ifind myself on the look out to go back there again. Japan will always be apart of you.

  3. The solution is to befriend and live with other people with a similar lifestyle history. I share an apartment with two people who also have histories of living in other countries and to me it just feels natural to compare and contrast experiences, and nobody feels out of place. Frankly I couldn’t imagine hanging out only with people who’ve never lived abroad, it seems horribly close-minded.

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  5. “I had become something of a foreigner in my own country” after barely 2 years of living in Japan? Surely, you jest, my dear. If you had lived in Japan for 20 years – then maybe yes. But such comments after merely 2 years in a foreign country, even as different from Canada as Japan is, that is nothing but being “the annoying “Japan girl”’…

  6. I can see where she is coming from. I’ve only been here three years but I have missed a lot of common cultural events back in my home country of th e US. There’s a lot of things that I have missed since I have been living in Japan. A few things off the top of my head are: The presidential election, tea partiers, Lady Gaga, Glenn Beck, the health care debate, the financial crisis, and Snuggies. I mean I’ve read about this stuff but not until they had already gotten to be critical mass in fame. I tend to think that our mindset of what our country is like lags behind reality since we aren’t there to experience it progressing along.

  7. I have been to Japan twice. The first time was only 2 weeks when I was in high school. Then 5 years later I went in college for the entire summer… It’s been a year since I’ve been back in America, but I still think about Japan everyday. My friends and I TALK about it EVERYDAY. Once you’ve been there it’s hard to get off your mind. Japan has made me who I am. I have friends and friends that are like family in Japan.

    And I can’t wait to get back there… ^_^

  8. I’ve read this entry twice now. A month part. The first time, I was still living in Japan, the second time was a month after having moved back to my home in California, in order to find some comfort, the kind you spoke of.

    I too lived in Japan for two years. And I completely agree with your feelings on what it’s like to come back. That fragmented self, not feeling like you belong.

    When you live in Japan (even a mere two years as some would say), your whole life is consumed by observing, recording, absorbing, adapting, understanding…the difference between that country and where you are from. At least that was the case for me, a relatively open-minded and culturally diverse Westerner. I prided myself on adapting to the language and mannerisms. Also, I happen to look Japanese, which greatly decreased the number of emotionless stares I had to face.

    I can only assume that living there longer, let’s say decades, consolidates another type of perspective than the one Kathleen is talking about. At that point it is no longer a matter of you absorbing and adapting every day, it’s just the way life is for you. Taking off your shoes and setting them neatly at the door becomes as second nature as catching a baseball coming at you with the hand you write with.

    Concerning my own situation, I came home without a job or school to look forward to. I’m currently working on that, but I certainly do have loads of free time to think about my life in Nippon, and I try not to because I want to move on. For everything I loved in that country, there was something I hated. Either way, I grew immensely in my understanding of people, the world, and myself. I know Japan will be a part of me always, and I am truly grateful for that. What troubles me now is accepting my old American way of life: The way of living I should be most familiar with… is not. These days my mind is consumed with the flip side of those observations I made for two years. Oh, how is that child talking to his mother? Why isn’t pocket change as useful? How come I can’t find a postcard at the dollar store? Why does my family order so much food, we never finish it. So different from Japan.

    Coming back didn’t feel like slipping on an old comfortable t-shirt. It felt and still feels different. And I’m afraid that transitioning back into my old life will wash away the life lessons I gained. Like it really all was just a dream. Unreal.

    It doesn’t help that my friends here in California did not keep in touch with me while I was abroad, so two years of our lives went by. At the age of about 26, many things can happen to your friends of the same age. They’ve moved on, new jobs, new relationships, break ups, drama, marriage, children… It’s not a situation you can just jump back into. Friends come and go. They drift. I’ve grown to understand and accept that, but I could use some friends who get what I’ve experienced. To remedy this, I plan to make new friends.

    Well, writing this all out was a kind of therapy for me. I wanna say thank you to Kathleen for putting in words what I’m going through right now.

  9. “When you live in Japan (even a mere two years as some would say), your whole life is consumed by observing, recording, absorbing, adapting, understanding…the difference between that country and where you are from. At least that was the case for me, a relatively open-minded and culturally diverse Westerner. I prided myself on adapting to the language and mannerisms. Also, I happen to look Japanese, which greatly decreased the number of emotionless stares I had to face.”

    I do not think it is just a Japan thing. I have traveled all over Asia and most Asian countries are similar in that way.

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