In a future post I plan on talking about common culture shock experienced in Japan by foreigners. However, before I do that, I would like to introduce readers to my own personal experience with culture shock when I was there. Culture shock, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”. However, as anyone who has traveled abroad for any substantial time before to a country with a culture far removed from his/her own will tell you, no amount of preparation will free you from this demon known as culture shock. Sometimes it will smack you right dab in the face up, front, and center; other times, it will quietly sneak up on you when you are least expecting it, and take you for a spin in ways you never thought possible before. The interesting thing about culture shock is that it is never 100% the same for everybody — each person experiences their own culture shock moments — there may be commonalities due to basic differences between certain cultures of different countries, but culture delves so much deeper than many of us realize. It is because of this that culture shock can and will vary vastly from person to person, even if two people are from the same culture and visiting the same new culture for the first time.
It’s the little things:
The little things really got to me the most while in Japan. There are so many times where I look back, now, after I have returned to my home country, and thought, “What the heck was wrong with me?”. For example, I visited Japan with a Japanese friend of mine who also allowed me to stay with their parents at their house — a makeshift “homestay” if you will. As a kid, growing up with my family, I was always taught not to leave food on my plate when I was a guest at someone else’s house, and not leave drinks half-drank, etc. When you are a guest at someone’s place, you follow certain behavior.
Well, when I was a guest at someone’s home in Japan, I instinctively followed that same behavior, without even thinking about it. After all, I was a guest at someone’s home — a guest at a home in a completely different country, even! — surely, I thought, I should be a kind and gracious guest towards these friendly people. Lo’ and behold, though, during meals when I was full and did not wish to eat any more, they would constantly refill my drink for me. In fact, my drink would be refilled so many times after I was already quite finished with my meal, and no longer wishing to consume anything else at all, that I ended up stupidly causing a scene over it with my friend. You see, in my mind, I needed to leave my plate and my drinking glass empty, or at least as empty as possible. How could I do this when my drink was constantly being refilled several times at every single mealtime?
It turns out drinking tea, presumably green tea but others are often enjoyed as well, such as oolong tea, is a constant aspect of Japanese culture which is experienced daily. When they finish their meal, they do not necessarily finish their tea; often times, they will continue drinking that tea well after having cleaned up the kitchen. When someone rings the doorbell and is welcomed into the home, they are immediately offered slippers (more on that in a future post) and served tea. Usually, even if they claim they are only stopping by for a minute and do not require tea, the host still quickly serves them a hot cup of tea to converse over. In vending machines all over Japan (again, more on that later), both cold AND hot tea are vended at anyone’s pleasure. The Japanese, along with some other cultures, drink tea daily, but not only that, several times daily, throughout the entire day and into the night. There are of course exceptions to this, as there are with any culture, but in general, my “guest behavior” I was so accustomed to could no longer work in Japan, and I was not expecting it in the least. It was a minor tweak to make, but it was a minor tweak in addition to several other minor tweaks of behavior while visiting Japan, and it was unexpected, no matter how much I prepared myself mentally for the differences I had read about or heard about before my actual visit.
Looking back, it’s embarrassing that I had caused a scene over something as minuscule and insignificant as not being allowed to “properly” finish my drink during meals. But that’s the thing about culture shock – in most cases of it, you don’t realize things in a clearer light until the situation has passed. You might laugh now, but just wait until you experience your own little bit of culture shock; it will happen to you, no matter how much you try to prepare yourself and how many stories of culture shock you might read from others who have visited the country. It is an inevitable event that we all must take in and experience while we are abroad, while we learn how to properly deal with each unique experience and grow as individuals.
This was by far not the most embarrassing or significant shock of culture I experienced while in Japan, but it was a simpler one to explain for my first personal post on this matter. In a future post, I hope to explore tips to reduce the common culture shocks you might endure while in Japan, and, perhaps if I’m feeling rather open, I’ll dive into further experiences of my own.
P.S: Yes, there are green tea flavored Kit-Kat bars in Japan, and they are quite delicious!
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bodo.