Reverse Culture Shock: It’s the little things that get ya

Now here’s one sight you won’t see in Japan.

JETs heading back to their home countries this summer have no doubt been warned about reverse culture shock by now. What’s in store? Greg Beck shares his experiences going home over Golden Week this year. His account was originally printed in this month’s Hiroshima International Center newsletter. For more on reverse culture shock, also check out Kathleen Bomers’s post this past spring.

Story and Photos By Greg Beck

This May I took a long overdue vacation home to America. Having lived in Japan for five of the last six years, I expected some level of reverse culture shock. I knew this meant feeling like a foreigner in your own country, but I had no idea just what that meant or how it would feel.

Before moving to Japan, I had studied Japanese language and culture. I knew about the major differences in customs and most things that would surprise a first-time visitor had already been explained to me by others who had been there before. It was like reading a book that I had already seen the movie version of, because there is much more detail and content, but the main characters and twists were the same. Thanks to my studies, and my host family, the Ogawas, I never experienced normal culture shock, or for that matter, homesickness. I have always felt comfortable in Japan.

Going home to America I had several cultural expectations. The clothes people wear, the way people speak to each other, and – of course – Mexican food, were major and valid reasons I looked forward to going home. I was not disappointed either. I had a great time and enjoyed every day. I love America, and for the most part, I felt relaxed and at home.

But something was wrong. I was not relaxed, and I did not feel quite at home. I could go hours without noticing it sometimes, but I always felt slightly unsettled. I spent two weeks in my hometown, Tucson, Arizona, and during that time I studied my country and my own reactions. My feelings and reactions always came first, but afterward I reflected on them like an observing scientist. I have broken down reverse culture shock into these categories:

The first and most obvious category is “geography.” When I say geography, I quite literally mean mountains. My friend Elijah picked me up from the Tucson Airport. He had a big new truck, but other than that, hadn’t changed a bit. He drove me to the other side of town to see his new house in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. We stopped at a red light and I looked out the window at a crystal clear, blue sky and orange-brown mountains that seemed to cut the sky like a razor. These are the same mountains I had always driven by without a thought, but now they stuck out like a 3D movie. I kept telling my friends “It’s just so… stark!” but they couldn’t relate. They’d say, “Yeah, I know, its very beautiful,” and go back to whatever they were doing. Later my mom took me hiking through Romero Canyon, and I spent so much time trying to take a good picture of a quail. Later we walked back to the parking lot and a whole family of quail ran by and then I remembered: in Tucson, quail are everywhere.

The streets and buildings are another example. Most everything was exactly the same, but still some things that I felt were permanent parts of my image of Tucson, had changed or disappeared completely! Circuit City, the electronic store, was gone. The transition from 4th Avenue to downtown was completely remodeled — and actually much nicer — but after walking through the underpass and coming to Club Congress, where I used to watch live bands play when I was a student, I completely lost my sense of direction and felt like someone had picked up an entire section of the city and dropped it somewhere else. This felt very disconcerting.

The next category is “people.” Most of my friends and family had not changed in appearance or attitude, and after five minutes talking to them, it was like I had never left. But another thing that hit me, just as suddenly as when I noticed the mountains, was seeing my little brother. The last time I went home, almost two years ago, he had grown a lot and suddenly he was taller than me! But I was only there a week, and he was still my kid bother. This time, he looked like an adult (a very young adult, but still, adult-ish). Just like the mountains, he seemed to stand out visually. I sensed him like only he had a different filter over the lens of my eye. The closest way I can describe the sensation when looking at him, would be to compare looking at all the words on this page and this. For the first whole day my younger brother looked like he was bold and italicized.

Then there was the matter of strangers – specifically, people working. Unlike the geography and my little brother, this is something I didn’t notice at first, but slowly noticed more and more throughout my trip. Everyone seemed like child versions of the people who were supposed to be doing their jobs. They would not concentrate on their work, and laugh when they made mistakes, or say rude or bizarre things to customers. I tried pointing this out to my friends and family but there reaction was similarly uninterested. I would say “Doesn’t that seem unprofessional?” or “Can you believe she called me by saying ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Excuse me’?” But now when I think back to before I moved to Japan, I can’t remember if it used to be different, or if people had always behaved that way at work. Everyone – fast food worker, police men, and airport security, spent as much time talking to each other as possible and looked at me as an interruption. I did not like that.

The last category is “internal.” Ultimately, all forms of reverse culture shock come from within. The mountains didn’t change, but my appreciation of them did. My younger brother did change, but I thought I was prepared for that, and clearly I was not. The unprofessional workers were probably not as bad as I make them sound, but they seemed that way in comparison to what I am used to in Japan. I feel the need for this third category to describe reverse culture shock that comes because I have changed. The Greg that graduated from the University of Arizona four years ago has grown and (hopefully) matured into the Greg typing this article now. My political opinions and values are different. So one example of internal reverse culture shock was when I saw a new tower of police cameras recording everything that happened at an intersection. I was truly disturbed both on moral principal and how out of place it seemed. Before I moved to Japan, America had started putting displays on the highway that showed you the speed limit, and how fast you were driving, and they would photograph your license plate and mail you a speeding ticket, but this was not a display, it was just a tall metal pole with tons of cameras hanging off like metal fruit, and it was not on the highway, but in the middle of the city! I decided the feeling I had seeing this thing came from internal reverse culture shock. I would not have liked the cameras being there even if I never moved away, but I think I wouldn’t have felt as irked by them if I had been there while it was discussed, decided, built, and turned on. (By the way, the city has decided to take them down.)

Nothing stays the same, and that is perfectly natural. By researching a place you have never been before, I believe you can go there without feeling culture shock, like I did when I moved to Japan. But stay away for too long from somewhere you have lived before, and there will be no escaping reverse culture shock. Of course, my real home is not Japan or America. My home is my bond to my family and friends, and that will always be worth a little shock.

9 comments

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  • Keltin

    Great write up! Very interesting to read about the things that you find here in the states. Might want to check though, when talking about your kid brother — you said he’s talker (instead of taller?) than you.
    🙂

  • Keen eye Keltin. Thanks for catching the typo.

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  • As someone who has been “dealing” with reverse culture shock I have these words of advice.

    If you were not ready to leave Japan when you left, you’ll feel reverse culture shock. That and you’ll spend the next year complaining on facebook about how much you miss Japan, even though you probably spent your entire year (or two) in Japan complaining about Japan on facebook.

    If you feel ready to leave Japan, then you’ll probably not feel a lot of reverse culture shock. You’ll probably just get some sushi every now and then, get to know the owner of your local Asian food store really well, and annoy your friends by starting every sentence with “this one time in Japan…”. But overall you’ll be fine.

    It really depends on your personality and if you are ready to leave or not. In my experiences (which may not be everyone’s experiences) it’s the JETs who only stayed one or two years who make the most noise about reverse culture shock (with overtones of regret). The ones that stay longer and decide to leave when they’re ready readjust well (as they left with no regrets).

  • Greg

    @Josh: “This May I took a long overdue vacation home to America. Having lived in Japan for five of the last six years, I expected some level of reverse culture shock.” I’m still here, this is just something I wrote that i thought might be helpful to those going home. Year 5 of JET, here I come.

  • @Greg: Oh I read that you were only visiting. This was just something I wrote that I thought might be helpful to those going home.

    Something we all have to do eventually.

  • I recently visited home for almost two weeks. Besides not having a cellphone, the biggest difference I experienced was not having job. It was a little unsettling “vacationing” in my home town and in the city of Philadelphia. I showed my Japanese girlfriend around and at the same time (for the first time) did some hometown sightseeing of my own. It was definitely a change of roles. I guess not having a job made me feel a little aimless…as if I was unfettered to any task but wasting time if I wasn’t active. Of course, this was only being away for one year.

    Also, due to a lawsuit (i think) McDonalds has done away with the supersize. A small drink is now a Japanese “large”. That was very absurd to me.

  • Hey Greg, I am just finding out that I have not settled into some parts of Japan yet. Especially in relation to your “Strangers” category, I feel my wife is always burdening store sales persons, shop clerks and general employees with her slow questions and complicated requests. In reality, it’s starting to appear very normal in Japan. In America, I always felt like a bit of an interruption to employees and so I felt it was polite to be quick and direct, and to throw in a few jokes to make my “interruption” more pleasing.