Letters From Japan ~ Vol XII ~ Reverse Culture Shock


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

In my last letter, I mentioned I'd talk about reverse culture shock but my trip home is already three months past so I'm sure some of my impressions have faded. I'll write down the ones I remember though. The first thing I thought when I arrived in Michigan was how nice it was to be immersed once again in my native language. All conversations were in English, all signs and ads, too -- so comfortable, like slipping back into a familiar armchair.

One thing that really sticks out in my mind is the trip to the local shopping mall just before Christmas. We stopped by on one of the busiest shopping days of the year but the mall literally seemed empty compared to a Tokyo department store on the weekend. We walked around easily without constantly having to thread around hoards of meandering people. "Where the heck is everybody?" I thought, yet I knew the shopping crowds hadn't changed much since the previous year, only my perceptions had changed.

As I expected, I was reminded almost on a daily basis of how fat the American people are. If you go to a large grocery store, it's almost guaranteed you'll see more than one large 250+ lb woman pushing a cart full of groceries. Even though I really haven't been doing anything specific in the way of exercise here in Japan, each day I have to ride my bike at least 15 minutes, climb about 6 flights of stairs and walk a fair distance just in order to live my daily life. Back home with the "car culture," it's quite easy to go the entire day without doing much of anything except a little bit of walking here and there. The lack of exercise and the typically large portions of fat-laden food served make for a rather bad combination. As Japanese who have been to the U.S. invariably mention, the size of the portions there are huge in comparison to those here in Japan. Portions are unnecessarily large, it seems, but being able to take leftovers home in a doggie bag is always an option. Actually, I've never seen anybody try that at a restaurant here. I wonder what the reaction would be if one were to try such an "outrageous" thing. Typically, there's really no need, however, because the small portions usually mean there are no substantial leftovers to take home anyway.

Also, the endaka (high yen rate) made everything seem not only affordable but laughingly cheap. My whole value system has become skewed. I know paying $6.25 for a movie should seem expensive but it seems cheap to me now. And older movies (which still haven't even made it to Japan) cost only $1.50, talk about a deal! I saw at least 10 movies at the theater or on video while I was home, all for under $40. Heck, that's less than 75% off what I'd pay here. What, only $2.99 for a Grand Slam meal at Denny's or a McDonald's Extra Value Meal? No problemo. What a great time to be earning one's salary in yen...

Well, this week is officially my one year anniversary for this stint in Japan. I guess the honeymoon is over. Now, a coworker who's been here seven years said, is when you stop counting in months and start counting in years. My contract has been renewed so I expect to be here a while yet. Besides the threat of earthquakes and nerve gas attacks, I have no immediate reason to leave. The job's good, the exchange rate is great, social life is satisfying, and the opportunities to travel and experience new things are excellent. That's not to say there aren't things that I miss not the least of which are family and friends. There's trade offs in everything, it seems.

One year already, just like that. I know already I'll probably be saying roughly the same thing one year from now. I remember back to the night of my arrival, March 20, 1994. I was in the Royal Park Hotel in the bathroom feeling sick and throwing up (from eating undercooked chicken, I think), thinking "Oh God, what am I doing here?" Being sick anytime isn't fun, let alone one's first night in a foreign land, all alone. Fortunately, things have looked up since that first night.

Now that it's the same time of year, I'm reminded of one of my first impressions from last year. I noticed when riding the subways that quite a large number of people were wearing hygenic face masks and I remember thinking how terrible air pollution must be that people can't even breathe the air! Later, I was told that people wear such masks either when they're sick or when they're suffering from allergies. This time of year many people wear masks because it's hay-fever season (some allergy related to Japanese cypress trees). Lucky for me I don't seem to be affected.

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: January 31, 1995
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005