Novelist | Singer
I walked into a California convenience store in 1993 and was taken aback by the ambivalence of the check-out girl to my presence. Not only did she fail to acknowledge my arrival in the store, but she never looked up or spoke to me as she totaled my purchase. There was no personal exchange at all—no greeting, no thank you, no hello or goodbye. In fact, no mention of my purchase total. She just pointed at the digital readout on the screen. Clearly, I was less important than her current phone call with a friend. The whole episode lasted only a few minutes but has remained vivid in my memory bank for over 30 years. A full dose of reverse culture shock.
I had just returned from six years in Japan. The Japanese have cornered the market on customer service. Walk into any business–restaurant, office, hotel, supermarket, department store, or convenience store in Japan, and you will be immediately greeted with a loud and friendly “Irasshaimase!” This is translated literally as “you are here.” They have acknowledged your entrance and recognized you as a valued customer. I could call the neighborhood liquor store which sold liquor, beer, wine, and of course, rice and kerosene. It makes perfect sense when you realize that all these items are heavy when ordered in quantity—20-pound bags of rice, even heavier jugs of kerosene, and cases of liter bottles of beer, and that most people shop on a bicycle. “Barbara san!” the voice on the other end of the line would say. They would recognize my voice with its foreign tone and accent. I could ask them to deliver multiple items between noon and 1:00 pm on the following Tuesday, and there he would be—sporting a big smile as he jumped out of a truck designed to fit down the narrowest of Japan’s narrow roads, cheerfully lugging everything right to where I asked. It was brilliant. After-purchase customer service was also five star. If you purchased something that didn’t work, a service person would come within a short time and either repair or replace that item. That ambivalent store clerk in the States was my reentry to our culture and my first episode of reverse culture shock.
Reverse culture shock is a well-known term. It is real. It happens to everyone who returns home after an extended absence abroad. It lasts quite a while. For some, it lasts for years and for others, it never really goes away. Culture shock, encountered when you travel abroad, also exists but carries a certain exotic charm. The oddities and differences of another culture are part of the foreign experience and continue to occur almost every day regardless of your length of stay. There is always something new to learn. This can be strenuous, but at least it’s always novel; it feeds your brain and your foreign experience.
Returning to your own culture, while familiar, is oddly more shocking than stepping into a foreign one. You know what is here. You can understand everyone around you. You can read all the signs and anticipate all the exchanges. With the lifelong experiences cemented in your brain from childhood, you fit in. I was dying to fit in after six years of living under a microscope as a blond woman in an all-black-haired nation of Asian people with very different faces. Oh yeah, I fit in back in America. Not only did I fit in, I was suddenly invisible.
Foreigners are like celebrities in Japan. Complete strangers wanted to talk to me, if only to say “hallo, hallo” in a somewhat appealing, somewhat annoying manner. Honestly, it was weird. The same event would have seemed strange–even threatening–in the States. My students would tell me they had seen me downtown, when I had no idea they were there. When I settled into a seat on a streetcar and looked up, several people would be staring at me. It felt like surveillance. But it was simply the experience of being “the other—the outsider,” and after a while, I adjusted to it and accepted it as a factor of daily life. It became familiar, something I learned to ignore.
This was over 30 years ago. It may be different now, but at the time, foreigners were somewhat scarce. In fact, whenever I saw a Caucasian face, it was often one I knew. Escape hatches existed. Many foreigners or gaigin who taught English in Hiroshima in the 80s and 90s gathered at a cramped hole-in-the-wall called Mac. Some Japanese people also went there, but they were unique in their culture. It was known as a foreigners’ bar, and it was a haven. I could relax. I could speak without thinking about it. I didn’t feel like anyone was examining me, my hair or face or what I was wearing. No matter what happened during any given day, my bicycle steered itself toward Mac in the evening for my escape from existence under a microscope.
A fear that I was losing my own culture crept in after several years. Other foreigners who had lived there a very long time told unsettling stories. They said people would come to expect certain things of long-time foreign residents; for example, to know the complicated structure and phrases of Keigo (honorific Japanese) and when to use it. My Keigo was never very good, as almost all my conversation was with people of my own age group and status, people I knew well. This seemed to start happening at around eight to ten years of life there. Foreigners who stayed that long often were reluctant to leave, more at home in this foreign culture than in their own. I knew in my heart I wasn’t there for life. I knew I had to go home.
Coming home was a shock. So many people were overweight. Everyone seemed to occupy more space, both physically and in their gestures and language. Conversations were a constant series of overlapping interruptions, as people were determined to state their own opinion and overpower others’. This speech pattern still bothers me. It is impossible to talk and listen at the same time. How can we not know this? Although the free spirit and individuality were refreshing, people were boorish and loud. They looked unkempt. While I was excited to be back in my own country, I suddenly felt as if I didn’t belong here and wanted to fly back over the Pacific to a place I now found civilized and familiar. But I had quit my job, given up my house and parted with my possessions. There was no going back.
I stayed with friends in Oregon until I found and bought a car to drive across the country to my parents’ house in Indiana, where I experienced months of repatriation and readjustment. I spent a lot of time alone and preferred it that way. I missed my friends in Japan. I wondered if coming home was a mistake. The once familiar city was too conservative, too straight-laced. I often cried myself to sleep. I wished I had never gone to Japan, that I had stayed here in the bosom of my upbringing where I could fit in, engage in conversation, and do what everyone else was doing. I was miserable.
People found it fascinating that I had lived in Japan, but most weren’t particularly interested in hearing details beyond, “I just moved back from Japan!” This is one of the biggest let downs experienced by expats. Nobody really wants to hear particulars about your life abroad. The people I felt most comfortable with were those with a similar lived experience, but in Indiana, they were few and far between. Even after all these years, I tend to share very little of my Japanese experience due to general disinterest beyond the first two of three sentences.
I have not returned to Japan since I left. My time there now seems like a distant memory, like I may have been reincarnated from a former life. But the concept of other over self has stuck. I make every effort to avoid interrupting in conversation. The relatively new development of virtual meetings with a slight delay of transmission magnifies the tendency of Americans to talk rather than listen.
The word “communication” shares etymology with the word community. Community is a necessity of the human condition, which is one of the reasons for the increase in mental health issues connected with the isolation caused by Covid. We don’t do well on our own. We need other people.
America reveres individual expression. We are still a relatively young country and have a lot to learn about communicating in an inclusive meaningful manner. Try a simple experiment: next time you are part of a group discussion, make the intention to avoid interrupting. It’s challenging. You may not have the opportunity to say anything at all as you wait patiently for a break in the discussion. Or wait for someone to ask your opinion. Or try raising your virtual hand in a virtual meeting. You may be waiting a long, long time for anyone to acknowledge your little yellow palm, even though it’s in full view of everyone in the meeting.
Others over self. Community before the individual. America’s focus on individuality results in community neglect. Our current political environment, with its in-fighting, fraud, lies and deceit under the guise of Public Service terrifies me. Make a mistake? Lie about it. Encounter disagreement? Dig in your heels and refuse to budge. Commit a crime? Plead not guilty and appeal as many times as you can. Insist on being right all the time. Get away with whatever you can. Confusion reigns. Who can our kids growing up in today’s America believe? Who will they imitate? Emulate?
I know there are lots of others out there who agree with me, because I see them every day. We talk about these things, and they are concerned as well. My opinion is not that unusual. It has to start somewhere. What if we agree to take the Challenge of Respect? A challenge: Choose a day and do two things for that entire day. 1. Avoid interrupting and 2. don’t lie. Then reflect. Then do it again. And again. Then challenge someone else to do the same, again and again. Imagine.