Since I am about to depart for my third romp in the Land of the Rising Sun in a few days and I know many exchange students and fellow ALTs start their Japan adventures around this time as well, what better way to kick off this blog than with a post on culture shock! I’ll be sharing my two cents on how to prevent and deal with it based on my life experiences thus far.
For a long time I honestly thought I was immune to culture shock (now, reverse culture shock, that’s another story entirely!). I mean, culture shock? That always sounded a bit intense to me. That name gave me this impression that it was something that would hit all at once, leaving me feeling frustrated, confused, and desperate, kind of like a fish out of water.
Thankfully, I never experienced anything quite like that.
Just What Exactly is Culture Shock, Anyway?
I still experienced culture shock to a minor degree, at times, though ultimately my experiences in Japan have been positive and fun. Before I go into why I think I was able to pull that off, let’s define culture shock—just to give some context.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture shock like so:
“a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”
I would like to point to that last part, specifically: “…that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”
I feel like that definition really hits the mark with that one—being “adequately prepared” is more than half the battle, if you ask me!
Preparation is Key!
The first time I went to Japan, in 2008, I was just a naive little seventeen-year-old who had never been to another country before. Not a single other country—not even Canada! And for an Ohioan like myself, that’s just a short boat ride across Lake Erie! How sad is that?
Yet somehow I managed to get along famously in Japan—a country in which they didn’t really even speak my language! Not to mention that Japan and America are worlds apart, culturally speaking. And not to toot my own horn, but when I ended up meeting up with a bunch of the other exchange students about halfway through our program, it seemed as if they had nothing but complaints about the country! As I look back now, it’s clear to me that they were all experiencing some serious culture shock and didn’t know how to deal with it.
So how was it that I was having such a great time while all my other expat comrades were feeling down in the dumps? Well, at the time I thought I had just lucked out and gotten a freaking awesome host family! Now though, I’m thinking it had a lot to do with what took place long before I even set foot on Japanese soil: I had prepared myself.
The definition says it all; culture shock tends to set in when people are not adequately prepared for the new culture they have just been immersed in. So just exactly how does one go about preparing, you may ask. Below I’ll list what I suggest. If anything else comes to your mind that isn’t listed, then definitely do it (and kindly share it in the comments, yes?) ! Make the time for it. It’ll be worth it.
- Read, read, read. Go out and buy or borrow every book you can about the country, it’s culture, history, idiosyncrasies—anything you can find, really.
- Learn the language (as much as you can, anyway). I was busy with high school when I applied for my exchange program and didn’t even find out I was going until a couple weeks prior. I tried to teach myself as much as possible in that time. I was only able to learn the katakana alphabet and a few basic phrases and vocab words before I left, but believe me, it helped tremendously once I was in country.
- Read some more.
- Watch shows and listen to songs in your target language—it’ll help you get familiar with the language even if you can’t exactly understand it yet. It may also give you some cultural insights!
- And more reading…
- If you know where you’ll be living, looking it up on Google Earth and get familiar with the area!
- Yup. More reading. It’s important, I promise.
- If you know anyone in the area already or have the contact details of people you will be meeting (I had my host family), ask them questions! If you don’t have this luxury, get a pen pal and pick their brain!
That pretty much sums up what I can think of right now. And believe me, though I’ve been to Japan before, I’ve been following these steps for this move too! Since I’ll be in a completely different area with a completely different living situation this time around, I’m treating it as if I’ve never been.
But Hannah, you may say, I like the unknown! If I know everything before I arrive, that’ll spoil the fun! Or maybe you’re already in Japan and it’s a bit too late for preparations. Well, this next section’s for you!
So now you’re in Japan (or any foreign country, really) and culture shock strikes! What to do? There are three things I tend to do that seem to get results. If you’ve read much about culture shock they might seem familiar to you—that’s ’cause they work!
Keep an Open Mind / Laugh at Yourself. A lot.
I think it goes without saying that when you’re in a foreign country you’re gonna need to keep an open mind. Inevitably there’re going to be a few things that are different, and probably, there will be a lot of differences. You have to realize that local customs you may not like are not about to magically change because “some foreigner” doesn’t agree with them or offers the locals a new perspective. That being said, keep the mindset that when you’re in a foreign country, “anything goes,” essentially.
Even if you are willing to stay open about this new culture you happen to find yourself in, there will definitely be times when your naiveté about the local culture or the locals’ naiveté about yours will lead to some really embarrassing and uncomfortable situations. As horrible as these situations may seem at the time, just tell yourself that it will be hilarious in retrospect, or at the very least, make for an interesting story. I can’t begin to tell you how many awkward situations I have found myself in in Japan (and other countries), thus the name of this blog! Seriously. The first time I was in Japan, I was almost arrested (a story I may share at a later date). It was terrifying at the time, but I’m still telling the story to this day and laughing at myself. Not to mention, it was a fantastic learning experience! That’s something to keep in mind too—the more mortifying an experience the more likely you are to learn something that you’ll never forget! 🙂
Maintain Some of Your Old Habits / Hobbies
Being an avid gamer, naturally I brought three of my favorite consoles with me for my year abroad from 2011-2012. Out of all the other video game-loving exchange students I knew, I was the only one who did this. Initially, most people told me it was a waste of space and that I wouldn’t even have time to play games if I was going to get the most out of my time in Japan. And for the first month or two, this was true. However, after the so-called “honeymoon period” with the new culture, things just become a part of your daily life. As exciting as everything seemed initially, it’s inevitable that it will all become mundane at some point—this point is when culture shock usually hits people the hardest.
This was the point for me when I turned back to some of my old hobbies, the things I would do on a daily basis back in America. I played video games again and I joined a gym and started working out regularly. Maintaining these two hobbies allowed me to also maintain some sanity; they allowed me to bring some familiarity to Japan, making it a home away from home. They also allowed me to connect with a lot of other people. I would have people over my dorm room all the time to have game nights and being the only foreigner at the gym, I met quite a few Japanese people who were interested in learning about the West.
So my point is, even if you are exploring a lot and trying new things left and right (and I would highly recommend doing so!), make sure to keep some familiar habits to keep your new life from being too jarring of an experience. 😉
Get Involved / Keep Busy
This brings me to my next suggestion—getting involved. You’ll hear this one a lot. For both my study abroad interview and JET interview, I was asked what I would do to deal if I was having trouble making friends or if I was just feeling a bit depressed; my answer was that I would join a club or two and maybe do some volunteer work. Judging by what others have said in response to these questions and the reactions of the interviewers, this is a really good answer.
When you join a new club or volunteer with others, you automatically have something in common with them. This is very important, particularly in Japan where they’re all about the whole “inner circle” thing. It’s a great way to be a part of the community and to also see the good things in these terrifying alien surroundings in which you now find yourself.
It also keeps you busy. If you’re busy enough, you don’t even have the time to register how “sad” you are.
Now that may seem a just a little unhealthy, but if you’re doing something in which you’re constantly bettering yourself, like a sport, or something in which you’re making a difference in the lives of others, like with volunteering, then eventually you aren’t going to be so sad anymore; you’ll just feel great about yourself and your new life!
So that sums up my thoughts on how to prevent and cope with culture shock. There’s a lot I’m sure I didn’t touch on, so you if you have anything you’d like to add, please comment below!
And remember: don’t let culture shock win and spoil your good time! Use it as a means to better yourself and learn more about both your adopted and native culture!