The dangers of bogarts (or culture shock)

1 Nov

Trigger Warning: the topic of this entry is culture shock.  If this is upsetting to you, please proceed with caution. 

When you move (short term or long term) to a new country, the first thing everyone tells you is that you will get culture shock.  Or at least, this is my experience– both when I first came to Japan a little more than two years ago for study abroad and this time, it was beaten into my head time and time again that I would get culture shock and that it would be incredibly unpleasant.

The first time, I never experienced it.  My four months in Japan while studying abroad went by in the blink of an eye, and since the academic program in which I was enrolled was far less rigorous than that of my home college, I spent much of my time on fun things like seeing friends, exploring Tokyo, and going to plays.  Because I was under a lot less stress than normal, I never felt depressed or alone while I was in Japan, and actually experienced reverse culture shock a lot harder than I ever felt culture shock.  Going back to America was rough for me, but I only ever had positive experiences in Japan.

So, with that experience under my belt, I was confident that this time in Japan would be much the same.  My job, while sometimes time consuming, isn’t particularly stressful (not when compared to taking 5 or 6 classes at an academically rigorous college), and I’m used to Japanese lifestyle.  I speak enough Japanese that I don’t have to worry about not being able to catch trains or buy groceries, and there are a bunch of other factors in my life besides that lend themselves to adaptability (being half-Chinese and having experienced Chinese culture alongside American culture growing up, attending public school for all of my pre-college schooling and therefore experiencing a wide variety of cultures, socio-economic classes, and other types in the families of my grade school friends, taking enough dance classes that I had to be responsible for getting my work done in high school, balancing two majors in college, to name a few).  I just wasn’t concerned that the pressures of a new setting were going to be enough to push me over the emotional edge when they weren’t as new as the first time, and I hadn’t had a problem then.

But what I’ve learned now is that culture shock isn’t really necessarily at all like what they describe at study abroad or new job orientations.  You hear countless stories of people not being able to read kanji in grocery stores and breaking down in tears, but I have to imagine that those people didn’t know much kanji and had never shopped in a country where they didn’t read the language before.  That was culture shock to them.  But culture shock seems to be a lot like a bogart in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books– it changes into whatever a person is most susceptible to; it finds one’s vulnerable points and sneaks in between the cracks.  It’s not something you notice at first, because it’s already what makes you uncomfortable or worried.  Or at least, that’s my experience.

As I mentioned, I was going about my life being completely unconcerned about culture shock when, little by little, I started having bad days.  I felt as if I’d messed up in a class, I got a lot of criticism from my JTE.  I arrived late one day, I accidentally did something that I didn’t know was against the rules another.  All of these things that were making my days “bad” are little things, but it’s the little things that always get to me, and soon, I was beginning to worry that everyone at my schools hated me.

I don’t think my worries weren’t 100% unfounded; at JET orientation, they make a decent point of trying to illustrate all the ways you might accidentally offend a Japanese person or break tons of rules without realizing.  People tell stories of being scolded after a full year for wearing a wristwatch when they didn’t know it was against the rules, of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time that just so happened to be completely against Japanese etiquette.  I assume these foreboding anecdotes were meant to warn reckless JETs to be careful, but they left me with a lingering concern that played into a personal fear of mine: that despite how hard I was trying, I was doomed to, for some reason or another, make everyone hate me.

I realize, of course, that this is a silly concern.  I tell myself that it’s highly unlikely that everyone hates me when, by and large, I think I’m a tolerable person who works hard and is considerate whenever possible, but it’s not exactly the sort of thing of which I can easily dissuade myself.  And being in another country with another culture with which I’m not completely familiar and a different set of etiquette that I might accidentally break and where everyone talks around me in a language I only understand maybe 40% of the time depending on how fast and at what level it’s being spoken, there are a lot of grey areas, areas of uncertainty where my mind can easily fill in the blank and make a mountain out of a molehill.

Over two weeks or so, I became more and more concerned about how others at my work were feeling about me that when I arrived at my elementary school on Friday, I was nervous and upset.  The atmosphere was tense when I arrived for reasons completely unrelated to me, but in the end, it was too much.  I broke down in tears after lunch, much to my dismay, thinking this was just another thing to make my coworkers think I was crazy…

…But much to my surprise, exactly the opposite happened.  Many of the teachers with whom I often speak or eat lunch came to see what was wrong, brought me tissues, and assured me that no one hated me.  I tearily and in grammatically awful Japanese explained that I was just worried about offending people and didn’t want everyone to hate me, and they informed me that I hadn’t done one rude thing since I came and that everyone loved me.  Then, as I was wiping my eyes and most of the teachers began to scatter, getting back to work when it was clear that I wasn’t dying, the two teachers with whom I’m closest hung around, telling jokes and asking about my life to make me smile.  It was a really great feeling, and I think I’ve been doing a lot better since.

So… I guess I learned two things out of this whole experience.  One is that it’s highly unlikely that everyone around me hates me, and that I should continue to work on having a more optimistic view of the people around me’s opinions of me.

Two is that culture shock is like a bogart.


One Response to “The dangers of bogarts (or culture shock)”


  1. What doesn’t kill you… | JET-set Joshu - March 4, 2014

    […] the world.  While experiencing culture shock and crying in front of my coworkers (as mentioned in this post) wasn’t really fun, it was enlightening in terms of knowing myself, and every time I’ve […]

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