Reverse Culture Shock!

After a comfortable vacay abroad Mark Guthrie muses on the shock of going home…

“Beeru onegaishimasu. What? Yeah, sorry mate, pint please.”

As Nagoya’s temperature began to soar many of you will have decided that summer was a perfect time to head for cooler climes, and for most of you that meant a trip home, to the old country, the motherland. It’s been so long since you were there, and you missed your family and friends. Home has the food and drink that you jonesed for and there’s the old creature comforts that, for all of its positives, Japanese life doesn’t quite do. No, there’s no place like home.

But it’s weird going home isn’t it? For a start, you have to go outside for a smoke. General produce is sold in shops, not vending machines. And, if you give the ‘gaijin nod’ to a fellow westerner they either look at you funny, think you’re cracking onto them or are starting some shit. Reverse culture shock is a strange thing all right. You’ve just got the hang of people shouting ‘irashaimase!’ as you walk into a shop and trains running on time, then all of a sudden you find yourself in silent supermarkets and panicking impatiently at the bus stop.

Reverse culture shock can take many forms. It takes things that were once commonplace and turns them into mysterious, otherworldly anomalies, making you wonder how you ever managed to cope in the first place. It may start on your flight home, as you pick up your transfer flight in somewhere like Helsinki, Atlanta or Amsterdam. You step from the plane, stretch your DVT’d limbs and look around, aghast, recoiling with horror. Everyone’s so tall. They’re fat, flabby, big. The women have bare arms, cleavage and curly hair. The men have tattoos, exposed for all to see. And they’re white! In terror you find the nearest Japanese family and huddle close, safely ensconced in their Nipponese safety until you are called for your connecting flight.

Once you get home, it’s time to head out for something to eat. On the way to a restaurant you wait obediently at a crossing with no traffic for a green man that doesn’t exist and, when you finally arrive, scuttle inside in terror as the high school students hanging around outside call you a “fucking pedo!”, simply because you smiled and said hello. Once inside, things are no less strange. You quickly learn that although the menus don’t have pictures, you can somehow understand what they say. Understand, yet not fully comprehend. These foods have funny names like ‘cheese’, ‘pie’ and ‘comes with a choice of chips or jacket’. Your burger arrives and it’s as big as your head. Your sandwich comes and it’s not accompanied by half a dozen sharing bowls. You order a beer and it has flavour. You order red wine and it’s warm. You pay the exact price on the bill and an angry waitress chases you down the street threatening to chop delicate parts from your body for the simple lack of a tip. Yeah, things are strange all right.

The hardest thing though, is the disappointment. Not your disappointment but that of others. The looks on the faces of family and friends when you tell them that, actually no, you don’t really care for sushi, that no, nobody blames you for the atomic bombs and, as Japan isn’t really the land of technological marvel they had imagined, you don’t travel to work by jet pack.

“What’s Japan like, what’s Japan like, what’s Japan like?” they chant like a mantra. They expect you to regale them with tales of outlandish craziness, of fugu related near-death experiences, of intimate though unconsummated relationships with Bill Murray. They prod and pry into your private life, hoping to uncover nuggets of weirdness with which they can entertain their friends, embroidering their conversations with an air of vicarious exoticness, “well, my friend lives in Japan, and over there…” When you tell them that in fact, your life is much like it was before, just a lot sweatier, they tend to shy away from you with disheartened looks of annoyance. You have let them down.

It’s not like they really care either. Sooner or later, over dinner, down the pub, your anecdotes slip out. The karaoke, the izakaya, the time you were groped on the subway, but soon those excited, expectant looks of a mere hour previous are glazed, weary stares of reluctant indulgence. It’s soon apparent that, though your life has evolved dramatically and, despite them doing the same old shit, they really couldn’t give a toss. “There was this time I was in a karaoke bar drinking shochu with three hostess girls, the shortstop of the Chunichi Dragons and Charmander and…” “That’s nothing,” they will interject, cutting you dead mid-flow, “you should have seen the this fat bird Tom shagged in the bogs last week. Now that was a great night.”

Finally, exhausted by jetlag and the strangeness of your once familiar surroundings you go home to your loving family. However, despite their slight resemblance to what you see in the mirror and their obvious joy at your return, the sight of these uncouth, ungainly people turns your stomach. They walk into the house with their shoes on. One of them has a cold, yet wears no mask. They put their feet up on the coffee table. They put milk in their tea, sit on high sofas and watch dark, dreary television programs without bright graphics or in-set heads. How can you relate to these people? They’re just, well, odd.

Eventually you make your excuses and retire. You brush your teeth and gargle loudly (for which your mother scolds you), put on your jinbei (for which your father mocks you) and you crawl into bed. Then you crawl out of bed. Too soft, too high. You pull your mattress to the floor like a futon, pull your covers up to your chin and dream of normality, dream of familiarity, dream of the place where everything makes sense and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens.

You dream of Japan.

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