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Culture Shock: How I’m Not Dealing With It

Culture shock. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot that conveniently bundles any reaction to another culture in one neat little term. I often find though that many people don’t understand the complexity of culture shock or the indeterminate length of time one can experience it.

On vacation, for example, it’s possible that one may only experience positive aspects of culture shock or only certain stages, or an accelerated experience of it. For expats, however, the journey is often more drawn out as we try to navigate a whole new way of life.

Culture shock is often described in four stages.

Culture Shock

Stage 1

The first is the “wonderment” or the “honeymoon” phase, where everything is new and exciting, and the differences you are experiencing just make the country seem even more magical. It’s what I like to call TLKCSS or “The Little Kid in a Candy Store Syndrome”.

Stage 2

The second is the frustration phase. This is when you’ve gotten over everything being new and shiny, and the reality of your new life really starts to kick in. Cultural quirks now begin to frustrate you and you start comparing things to your own culture. “Why isn’t this more like back home?”

Stage 3

The third stage is when things generally start to look up for most expats. It’s when we realise that this depressing frustration rut we find ourselves in isn’t going to get any better if we don’t make some changes. It’s when many start to feel the motivation to learn more of the language, to branch out of comfort zones, and start making more local friends and connections. This is the adjustment phase.

Stage 4

The final stage of the culture shock journey is the so-called “acceptance” phase. This is when we no longer frustratingly compare the new culture to our own and accept things as “just the way they are”.

Being re-culture shocked

Throughout the four years we lived in Japan the first time round, I went through all four stages of culture shock in various forms. What I was not expecting was to be re-culture shocked on a second stint living in Japan. It’s not that we thought we already “knew everything” about the culture. Far from it. In fact, one of the reasons we felt so conflicted about leaving Japan the first time was because we felt like we were just starting to peel back some of the layers of this complex culture.

Our time in Japan has made me think about culture like a video game. You start out at the most basic of levels where you fumble with even the smallest of tasks. Slowly but surely though you start to perfect your maneuvers, until you have the competence to move on to the next level.

With enough practice and experience, you start to unlock secret levels and features that you never knew existed even one level ago. There aren’t any shortcuts to this really. If you somehow enter a door to a world you’re not at the level to understand yet, you’ll make some observations to be sure, but you’re unlikely to piece things together until you have the toolkit to do so. That’s when you get those “ah ha” moments, when you add some new information to your cultural toolkit and you start to recall those experiences that didn’t make sense at the time, but now do, and give you a whole new perspective on the culture.

It’s a process of re-education too. When you have limited knowledge and understanding, you have to use what’s in your toolkit to get things done. That often means using the most basic means to get a message across or trying to make sense of a situation by drawing conclusions filled in with a lot of our own cultural assumptions, which, as you can guess, are often incorrect. But you have to go through these stages. You have to start speaking Japanese at the most basic level to begin your language learning process. You have to start making basic observations about culture to start beginning to understand its nuances. At some point you’ll realise the mistakes you’ve been making and keep re-educating yourself to a higher level of understanding.

In fact, one of the reasons we love Japan so much is its complexity. Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn and even Japanese people struggle to understand all the cultural complexities in any given situation. It’s challenging, it’s a place like no other and we’ll never stop learning about it.

Culture Shock Japan

Arriving back in Japan

When we decided to return to live in Japan, we couldn’t wait to get back. Naturally, as with any place you feel some sense of nostalgia about, we had a long list of the things we wanted to do when we got back, lots of them being food related. We revelled in the fact that we could again frequent our favourite places and buy some of our favourite snacks. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. As I said, I think it’s a completely natural way to feel about going back to a place you love, so it masked the true reality of my re-entry into Japan: I was actually back in stage one, the wonderment phase of culture shock.

Of course, I didn’t realise that I was experiencing “culture shock” until I once again moved on to the frustration phase. It turned out this excitement about being back in Japan wasn’t just a temporary sense of euphoria after which I could make some readjustments and just happily skip ahead to the acceptance phase. I was following the symptoms of culture shock to the letter.

Of course, it was different this time. Even after some time away, you don’t simply “forget” everything that you knew before, you simply start at a higher level, reacquaint yourself with some old skills and keep going from there. In fact, many of the frustrations I had the first time around are not the same frustrations I have now. Perhaps some of them simply stayed locked in the acceptance phase after fully evolving through all the stages and there are some things I have just completely changed my mind about after exposure to Japanese culture. In fact, that’s what I love about experiencing a new culture; how it challenges your own cultural values and pre-conceptions, and makes you view things in a different light. I have changed my thinking in many ways since coming to Japan and I think I am a better person because if it.

Becoming stuck in stage 2

I try very hard to try to separate my own cultural bias from my observations about Japanese culture. I’ve always prided myself on being culturally sensitive and being open to different ways of doing things, and I still do. But I’ve been finding myself stuck in this horrible feeling of wanting to scream, “Japan, why don’t you change!” Not in all ways, of course, but as someone who believes in making changes for the better, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t frustrate the hell out of me when the answer to every out-of-date or broken system is that this is simply the way it has always been done, so that’s the way it will continue. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it’s incredibly inefficient, even when it’s downright discriminatory.

As an example, you wouldn’t believe how difficult it can be for foreigners to get a bank account with a Japanese bank. The Internet is filled with posts from foreigners who have trudged to countless bank branches across major Japanese cities simply trying to open a savings account – not get a loan, not a credit card, a freaking savings account(!) – and who are desperately seeking advice from anyone who has been lucky enough to get one.

One reason for them not accepting foreigners? Japanese banks state that the name on your bank account and that of your official ID, i.e. your passport/residence card, must be the same. Sounds fair enough. But in many countries there is the culture of having a middle name, a culture not shared by the Japanese. Therefore their bank forms only ask for first and family name, so according to the banks they have no place to write your middle name, which would mean violating their policy of matching names. My thoughts? Um, just add an extra field to the form for a middle name? Or enter the middle name in the given name field along with first name? I mean, it really just doesn’t seem that hard. If you want foreigners to fill roles in Japan’s alarmingly diminishing workforce, then you have to make considerations in your policies for foreign customers; they must have the right to open a Japanese bank account (as is a requirement of many Japanese companies) to get access to the salary they earn and manage their day-to-day lives here.

I once made the mistake of suggesting an alternative way of doing something at a school I worked at that would eliminate hours of work and the horrendous amounts of paper wastage. Later, one of my colleagues pulled me aside and told me that it’s never a good idea to question anything in Japan. Even though the way I had suggested would have been far more efficient, both in terms of time and money, they had always done things this way, it was “tradition” and therefore not to be messed with. Meetings are not about brainstorming or discussion, they are about being lectured to and you should simply do what you are told.

I’m finding myself getting frustrated with so many things and not knowing how to reconcile them. While I’m happy to adjust to the “Japanese way” when it comes to lots of Japanese customs (I mean, I’m in Japan so of course I do my best to integrate and learn as much as possible), there are some things that I choose not to “accept” – these include things like the incredible overworking of the Japanese workforce, the low status of women in the workplace and society in general, and discrimination towards anyone not fully Japanese. These are things that I don’t think are acceptable anywhere. I can change some things about myself, but my core values are important to me and I don’t think that sticking to those values should be seen as reluctance to respect a new culture.

I guess I’m just wondering how long this frustration phase is going to last this time and when I’m going to be able to claw my way out of this rut. Will I ever?

Have you experienced culture shock? Have you ever felt stuck in a rut of frustration? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

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Heather Hall

Monday 25th of January 2016

I got into a rut in Shanghai and never progressed to the acceptance stage. A few days before we left, I vividly recall standing in an intersection and screaming at a taxi driver who slammed on his brakes and stopped inches from me as I was crossing the street. No one should have to fear for their life when they are in a cross walk with a green walk signal! The rudeness in that city was utterly appalling. I nearly hugged the US customs agent who welcomed me home!

In Riga, on the otherhand, I've been here for a year and a half and am still in the honeymoon phase :-)

Susann A / the Biveros Effect

Tuesday 12th of January 2016

It's so interesting to read about your experiences in Japan. I've lived in some European countries, including Russia, and I never really suffered from a culture shock. I always try to keep my expectations low☺ However, when I go back to my home country , it doesn't take long to realise why I moved away in the first place...

Jessica - Notes of Nomads

Wednesday 13th of January 2016

Hi Susann, thanks for chiming in! It's different for everyone, isn't it? And how we feel about a place I think can depend on a whole range of factors, including whatever stage we are at with our own lives. There have been places that I haven't liked but then come to love when I've returned at a different time.

Interestingly, although I feel stuck in many of the "disagreement" feelings of Stage 2, I don't really feel "homesickness". I've had similar feelings when I've gone back to my home country too, where I've felt really ready to leave after a couple of weeks. At those times I felt so alienated within my own country that I felt I didn't really belong there anymore. I guess I'm not sure where I "belong" anymore. That's probably a topic for a whole other blog post! Haha

No place is perfect and I guess we just have to work out for ourselves whether a place's positives outweigh the negatives for us on a personal level. Whatever happens, I know that we are growing through this experience. Let's see where this adventure takes us next!

Britt Skrabanek

Sunday 10th of January 2016

Hey, hon. I think everything you're feeling is totally natural. The discrimination stuff wouldn't fly for me, I'm afraid. Not sure what I would do in that situation. :(

I'll have to go back some years to my time studying abroad in Germany for college one summer. Mind you, Germany isn't all that different from the U.S. so it was less of a shock than it would have been if I had chosen a different part of the world.

Still, I went through all of these phases and I remember it like it was yesterday. The most difficult part for me was not being able to truly socialize with people—telling a joke was preposterous, and most of the time I sounded like an 8-year-old to native speakers. Even though I had taken German since my freshmen year in high school and all through college, I still couldn't hang in conversation. I was by myself as well, so I went into hermit mode for a bit. That wasn't a bad thing either, because I did a lot of self-exploration that I needed to do. The best times for me was when I let go of judgment of myself.

Jessica - Notes of Nomads

Wednesday 13th of January 2016

Thank you for the supportive words, Britt. Living abroad can be isolating and the language barrier can make it difficult to fit in and make friends. We have been fortunate to make a lot of Japanese friends through the activities we organise here and I think that's one major thing that helps me keep a balanced perspective on things when I am completely outraged by some of the situations we have experienced here, that I know many people who aren't like that. Plus I think it's absolutely imperative not to paint everyone in a place with the same broad brush strokes. Too much of that shit is going on in the world already.

Fortunately travel has taught us to become quite shameless in putting ourselves out there and have mostly let go of "feeling like an idiot" when we try to negotiate language/cultural situations we don't understand, knowing that we aren't going to make progress if we don't try. That said, maybe I should just let myself have this period of internalization and self-exploration in a more removed way. I feel like reading more than I have in a long time. Maybe if I just let myself "be" I'll work out what is the next natural step and I'll find that renewed motivation I've been looking for.

Thanks for always being here. x

J. C. Greenway

Friday 8th of January 2016

Hi Jess,

I think when I came back to Japan after being away for a little while I almost had the culture shock worse! The first time I suppose I was more primed for it? Or perhaps you skip through the first stage a little faster when you are familiar with some of the basics. Getting on the train didn't seem like such a big adventure, just a pain...

It's also fair to say that the stages don't go in order, you can be at number 4 and then something flips you right back down to the doldrums of 2 again. That can also be a big surprise.

And as others have mentioned, there is the reverse version when you go back home for a visit and realise it's not as perfect as you have been imagining it!

How to stop it? Well, I think my best answer fits very well with the ethos of this site :) PLAN A TRIP. Go abroad or hop on a train or night bus to somewhere else in Japan, or even just a day trip if that's all you can manage. But get out of your usual haunts and go somewhere you can feel that newness again.

And if you're trapped in the 'it's not as good as home' whirlpool then just start thinking about your next trip home. Saving, planning, whatever. Even if it's not until next Christmas, it'll give you something to look forward to. Plus you know you'll spend the whole time you're back telling everyone how great Japan is. Then you're cured!

(My other tip is to have one item of your favourite 'food from home' stashed somewhere. Mine's a bar of Dairy Milk and when the pangs for home get too bad, I'm allowed one square. Oh, alright then, maybe two.)

Jessica - Notes of Nomads

Wednesday 13th of January 2016

Hi Jo,

Thanks for chiming in! I absolutely agree with your observation that these stages don't necessarily go in order and I also think that we can be in multiple stages simultaneously. Some things we may have completely come to accept, while others may still be in any of the other transitional phases. The culture shock stages give some "structure" and labels to the feelings we are processing, yet they don't necessarily fit in neat little boxes that get all wrapped up before we move onto the next stage.

Even though Stage 2 comes with the classic "I wish things were more like back home" idea, interestingly, I don't think I feel homesick for Australia or any "place", more of certain ideals, some of which I find present in Australia and others I don't. I know that every place has its issues, it's just that there have been some things I have been finding hard to process as an expat in Japan. I think it's true of any place, that things are different when you live there as opposed to just travelling.

Before I felt like I was "cured" in a way, that's why I was kind of surprised at my own reaction to returning to Japan a second time. Shouldn't things be easier rather than harder?

We came back to Japan to try to strike a good balance between a home base and travelling, and I'm not sure I'm quite ready to take a lot of trips just as yet. But, as you say, even a day trip can give you a new perspective on things and we are big fans of taking mini-adventures, even if it's just discovering a new part of Tokyo.

Thanks for the tips and support. I'm wondering who can stop at one square of Dairy Milk though? I always talk in rows, not squares. ;)


Wednesday 6th of January 2016

Thanks so much for sharing, Jessica! I was surprised I didn't really suffer culture shock in 2 years in Beijing. I put it down to working at an international school so still being surrounded by a lot of other Brits. I definitely did suffer a bit when I lived in Korea and worked at a Korean language school! I actually really appreciate this post right now as, looking through the stages I think I'm struggling with 2 a little bit at the moment. I know that sounds weird as I'm British in the USA, but actually there are a lot if significant differences in things like healthcare, vacation days, maternity rights (not that I need maternity leave right now but still..), banking, guns and even renting apartments. Actually, even the way we eat is different (though I don't really care about that so much ha!). I've found myself frustrated more than once lately saying I prefer things in the UK! Thanks for reminding me of these stages, I think we can get through this. :)

Jessica Korteman

Thursday 7th of January 2016

Hi Joella,

Thank you for your lovely comment. I think being aware of the stages of culture shock helps a lot with dealing with it, because at least you know what is happening.

You bring up a really good point that is often overlooked: that just because you speak the same language doesn't mean that the culture is the same and you can equally experience culture shock in other nations that are often deemed "similar" culturally. The reality is that lots of things are likely to be different locally and you have to go through a process of adjustment in any new place to try to fit in there.

Even though we don't have kids yet, I too worry about things like maternity care and the education system. Will I be able to deal with these systems and do we want our kids raised in it?

There's so much to think about in a foreign environment but it's awesome to know that there are so many of us out there dealing with similar issues to talk to about it. We will get through this. x

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