My Personal Battle With Culture Shock:

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.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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!

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bodo.

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Scholarships to go to Japan.

Believe it or not, attaining a scholarship is not as difficult as you are probably thinking. In fact, some might claim it even to be rather simple. The difficult part is actually doing the work required of the scholarship; searching for the scholarship is the first step, and depending on the scholarship, an essay might need to be written and evaluated, and/or an interview might take place. What’s great about them is that they are practically free money just handed out to you to do whatever you wish with; in this case, getting your butt to Japan!

Although scholarships are pretty easy to attain, there are some things you can do to tip the table in your favor in regards to traveling to Japan on someone else’s dime:

1. Learn some Japanese: It looks good to the judges if you show you are interested in the country, its culture, or its language. Anything that you can grab onto and really roll with will impress them and make you stand out from the other applicants. Learning some of the language shows you are interested in learning something new, which is key.

2. Learn ONLY SOME Japanese: Do not learn too much Japanese. If you are too proficient in the language, the judges may be impressed but they will most likely send someone less capable in the language over you. This is because, as I mentioned in the previous point, the key is to show that you are interested in learning something new over there. It is a common suggestion from people-in-the-know that if you grew up speaking the language or are simply already fluent in it, it’s best to tell a tiny white lie and develop some sort of American accent when speaking it.

3. Learn the country’s history: If you show you are knowledgeable about Japanese History, you are also showing you are interested in aspects of the country that are not even relevant to this day and age. It shows you care about the country as a whole.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Okinawa Soba.

Now for the interview process. Most interviews dealing with international travel have judges that are looking for certain things in the applicants.

Some common suggestions for things to DO during the interview are the following:

1. Intercultural sharing: It’s a good idea to explain the fact that you wish to learn about Japanese culture while also sharing your own with them. This is one of the major reasons judges believe you should be going for. Intercultural sharing is beautiful!

2. Show excitement: No one wants to give away a prize to someone who does not even seem like they care about the prize or the experience they are about to have. However, it is important not to be overly excited and crazy, of course.

3. Include a personal story: Including a personal story that somehow connects you with the country, its culture, or its language will help immensely. Explain yourself to the judges and tell them why you are even doing this in the first place.

Now that you have these tips and tricks to aid your applications, essays, and potential interviews, get cracking and grab yourself those scholarships! Free money to help you get to your destination awaits you!

The cheapest time to buy your airfare.

When thinking about when to actually go to Japan, you need to be aware of any cultural holidays or important natural observations. Holidays to watch out for are Obon, which is usually in mid-August or mid-July, depending on which region of Japan you are in; Golden Week, which begins April 29th and ends May 5th; and the Christmas/New Year holidays.

In addition, in late March and early April, the sakura (cherry blossoms) naturally bloom all across Japan, beginning in one region and quickly spreading to others; during this “season”, as it is lovingly referred to by the Japanese, enormous crowds from all over Japan and even other countries flock to certain areas and enjoy group outings and picnics under the trees. Japanese television news even reports the best days to go view them, right with the weather forecast. You read that right — there is a cherry blossom forecast in Japan.

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Photo courtesy of Dick Thomas Johnson (via CC BY 2.0)
Full-sized version can be found here.

The cheapest times to buy airfare and travel to Japan are when these four major events are not occurring. One of the cheapest times to go is right after New Years, between January and early March. However, it is also important to consider what you could potentially be missing out on by saving your money. For example, the cherry blossom season is one of Japan’s most well-known and popular times to visit for a reason; the beauty is overwhelming. Also, during the Winter, if you are anywhere near Tokyo the sun usually sets by 5pm, making sightseeing much more difficult. Like anything else in life, there are trade-offs by trying to visit Japan on the cheap.

If you are based in Atlanta or live a state over, the best deals during this non-peak times are usually found if you travel from a large airport that generally serves as a hub to others, such as our famously known Hartsfield-Jackson International AIrport. Major discounts can be found traveling from this destination to Narita Airport in Japan beginning mid-January until early March.

As mentioned in a previous post, however, visiting Japan on someone else’s dime is an even better prospect, and studying abroad through your local college can often make this possible. Our own Georgia State University has a program for Japan which can be found here. In a future post I will write about scholarships, how to attain them, what to write about in any required essays, and what to talk about (and what not to talk about) in any required interviews, if applicable.