Friday, 27 July 2012

Diary of a JET #9: What's the difference?

Coworker: Sarah-san. I wonder if you can help me?
Me: Oh, sure. What is it?
Coworker: I'm doing a lesson on culture shock for my social studies class and I want to show the students some examples. Have you ever experienced culture shock?
Me: Oh, well, I guess I felt a bit lonely and sad a few months after I arrived because I was away from my friends and family but I started to feel better eventually.
*It was about this point that I realized a look of confusion had fallen over my coworker's face.*

Me: I mean... well... What did you have in mind for your lesson?
Coworker: I'm talking about when you came to Japan and you saw, for example, people sleeping on the trains and everyone wearing allergy masks... didn't that give you culture shock?
*I was feeling a bit uncomfortable by this point because those cultural differences had not given me culture shock, but I felt there was an expectation that it should have.*
Me: Oh, um, not really...
Coworker (interrupting): I was wondering if you could make a list of all the things that gave you culture shock and I could share it with the class?
Me: Um. Like what kind of list?
Coworker: Well, for example, your predecessor told me that when she came to Japan, she expected everyone to be wearing kimono (traditional dress) all the time. 
Me: Oh, that's kind of funny.
Coworker: Can you make a list like that?
Me: I can try. I didn't really have anything like that happen to me. I already new a lot about Japan before I came here. I've been exposed to Japanese culture since primary school when I had Japanese lessons.
Coworker: But I really need a list of things that surprised you. That are different between Australia and Japan. 
*And that was exactly what I was afraid he was going to say.*
Me (smiling): Okay. I'll get back to you.

Here's a tip: you can usually smile your way through any awkward situation in Japan. Did that person just praise you for being able to use chopsticks? Sigh. Just smile and nod. As you can see, this post is going to be a very paranoid, over-reactive response to some (perhaps perceived) micro-aggressions I have experienced lately; a 'rant' if you will.  

To be clear, culture is defined as a "personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life" (from Wikipedia). Culture shock (at least to me) can be triggered by an experience of cultural difference but it is a sensation all of its own. It is a state of (at times) depression, an experience of isolation, and longing for one's originating culture. To me, it is important to differentiate between the state of culture shock and its triggers. Cultural differences are points of difference between two cultures. For example; it snows a lot in Japan in winter, and not so much in Australia. But cultural differences do not always equate or lead to culture shock. Everyone's experience of culture shock is different.

What surprises me is that this particular co-worker who I had this conversation with (the one at the beginning of this post) was actually a really cool guy and a friend. Every Friday, we get together and he teaches me Japanese for an hour and I teach him English for an hour. He is a Social Studies teacher, not a part of the English faculty and so I was always impressed by his English ability and his desire to learn more. His hobby is travelling and he regularly travels overseas for holidays, usually only spending a week or two in each destination but never actually living overseas long term. So while he probably has a healthy understanding of different cultures and customs, the likelihood that he has ever experienced culture shock is slim. When he mentioned my predecessor's preconception of Japanese people always wearing kimono, I was staring at him like, 'The majority of foreigners are not that--to put it delicately--ignorant.' It appeared to me that my co-worker had a robust understanding of cultural differences and fostered many preconceived ideas himself about Westerners and what they thought. 

Adelaide has a large population of Asian immigrants, many from Japan. We have many Japanese restaurants and karaoke places and even Japanese-style bakeries and ramen joints. Many of the things that are popular in Japan, such as the food and singing karaoke, have become popular past-times in Adelaide. Every year, the Adelaide-based comic book and anime festival (Avcon) is a big hit. In the past few years, the event has been moved from its home on the University of Adelaide North Terrace campus to the much, much larger Adelaide Convention Centre, and last year Internet celebrity LittleKuriboh was in attendance. My point being, I already had a decent idea about Japanese culture and what Japan was going to be like. Yes, there were some preconceptions that proved unfounded, but most of what I anticipated turned out to be correct. I didn't necessary become "shocked" (as my co-worker put it) by what I saw post-arrival in Japan. As such, I really struggled to write a list of "shocking" cultural differences that I had discovered. I did, however, experience legitimate culture shock at being separated from my family, friends and the country I had grown up in.

When I came to Japan for the first time--yes, I had (educated) ideas about what to expect--but I also came with an open mind. Generally when I travel, I actively try to not have preconceptions or stereotypes to be contradicted. So nothing really "shocked" me. When I do see something different and unusual in a foreign country, my brain usually admires the novelty of it at first and then tries to find a comparable counterpart in my own homeland. Its a way for me to see how we are all similar. This is a character attribute that I am proud of and its very difficult for me to  switch it off or pretend to be otherwise. So making a list of shocking Japanese things, or even pretending that there were things that shocked me, leaves me a little lost for where to begin.

After having your Japanese colleagues and friends point cultural differences out to you constantly over a long period of time, you start to wonder why on earth they do it. Baye McNeil (webmaster of Loco in Yokohama)'s recent book Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist (great book by the way) discussed this very issue. Allow me to briefly quote a conversation he recorded in his book:

"Me (Loco): I have an idea: Let's try something different for today's lesson.
Student: What do you want to try?
Me: Let's talk about similarities for this lesson. (...) For example, the McDonald's menu is basically the same here in Yokohama as it is in NY.
Student: American hamburger is bigger than Japanese hamburger.
Me: Ok. How about rice? Back in the U.S. my family ate rice all the time. And Japanese people eat a lot of rice too, right? That is one clear cut-
Student: American rice is dry, and a little hard, I remember. Japanese rice is moist and delicious-
Me: Ok, Starbucks! Starbucks is essentially the same in both cities; I think we can agree on that. Coffee is coffee. So that would be an example-
Student: The cup size is different. Japanese large size is a small size in America, I think. 
Me: Since I've been living here, most Japanese people I know will make a point of noting the differences between things here and things in America, but no one ever mentions the similarities.
Student: I see.
Me: When people constantly point out differences, it feels almost like you're isolated, like you're being pushed away. You know?" (p264-67)

The conversation at the beginning of this post happened a few days ago and since then I have been mulling the conversation over. Even today, when I was busy and right in the middle of important work, the same teacher approached me to ask another question about how different we are. "In Japan, when we mark student essays we use maru (O) and batsu (X). In Australia, you use ticks and crosses right?" I nodded yes, thinking about how my work had been interrupted for this. He smiled happily. He said, "So it is different. It's interesting isn't it? It's a point of cultural difference!" and returned to his seat, still smiling, looking relieved. 

It seems to me that seeking out cultural differences and appreciating them serves no purpose other than to create a comforting distance between the two cultures being compared. It also seems to be something that Japanese people like to do frequently. It's reassuring. It defines the person who is differentiating as being on one side of a divide, while I (the other) reside on the other side. Separate. Isolated. Different. Its a frustrating situation to experience and after constance bombardment, it begins to wear down on your defences. Just as McNeil sad: "When people constantly point out differences, it feels almost like you're isolated, like you're being pushed away." 

Its a little disconcerting when you make a huge gesture like moving across the globe to live in another country so you can work at a school, and your co-workers fail to understand the stress this can take on an individual, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I could experience periods of high stress, even distress, known as "culture shock," but rather that this "culture shock" is the experience of petty and sometimes offensive cultural differences which can also take the form of cultural stereotypes. 

The point of this post is not to spread hate. I'm trying to get whoever reads to this to think a little more carefully about the way they talk to people from other cultures. When you hear: Western people can't use chopsticks. Western people have preconceived ideas about other cultures (such as Japan), but Japanese people do not. Westerners are different. We are not a united people of Earth (you get the idea)... it can be a little frustrating after a while.

A lot of the Japanese people I have met are quite happy to acknowledge the existence of these cultural differences because they make them feel safer; they put distance between me and them. There is an "us" or a "we" and "you" are not a part of "us" because "you" are different. Well, you know what, whether you like it or not guys, there is actually a lot of similarities between us that do unite us. My freaky character trait of comparing and finding similarities between cultures demands that this be true. If nothing else, these similarities are these: we all want to be happy, we all need to be loved and we are all working to survive. We all eat food (my students who see me at the supermarket will be shocked!), we all need to sleep (my neighbours might disagree on this one), and we all (well most of us) wish nothing but good things for each other. I arrived in this country with an open mind and open arms, ready to embrace our differences and similarities. It seems I am outnumbered by many who would appreciate a little more distance. Well, you know what? Look out! Here I come! I am creepy Aunt Mavis at your birthday party who wont stop pinching your cheeks and I'm a very hug-gy person. Take heed, 'cause I ain't stopping.

P.S.: When I wrote my list, it had two columns; differences and similarities. 

McNeil, Baye. (2011). Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist. Published by Hunterfly Road Publishing. Kindle edition. 


  1. Nice post, and thanks for the shout out! I feel an odd feeling when my work is used to illustrate the challenges here! Part gratifying part despairing. But at least it's useful.

    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed reading your book!


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