I remember when I was a university student my then professor now friend Dr. Jayson Chun told me that “When you move to Japan one of two things will happen. Either you will adapt to the Japanese way of life or you will hold on to your culture even tighter.” At the time I thought that I would just naturally adapt to my new home in Japan. Only extremely stubborn and closed minded people wouldn’t be willing to change to fit into their new host country.
Well, I’ve always known that I was one of the two. Stubborn. I should never underestimate how damn stubborn I am. I amaze myself sometimes. Since moving to Japan I have indeed held on tighter to my culture. But it isn’t because I’m closed-minded. Its because Japan is no longer just an adventure or a stop, it’s my home. Once that reality hit my mind changed. It’s not all a complete loss. I have changed since living in Japan just not to the extent that I was thinking I would and that in fact, I do have some non-negotiables that I simply will not change.
Here are the things that Japan has actually managed to get me to change.
- I am a lot Quieter than I was Before– On trains, buses, and restaurants. I am a lot more aware of my volume level than I was in the U.S.A. It was just something I never thought about before.
- Covering up More– I never liked showing my arms but showing a little cleavage was never a problem for me before. However, since leaving the U.S. and becoming a teacher I just don’t feel the need to. Not to mention I don’t really need to show them off considering that no matter what I wear it is obvious that I am very blessed. No need to show off now.
- I am eating Less Sugar– This actually a great thing for my health. It’s not that you can’t find sugar when you want it it’s just when you do find it has a lot less of it. Drinks here in Japan aren’t as sweet and they do have a ton of sugarless drinks available besides water or the artificially sweetened drinks. The strange thing is that things that aren’t supposed to be sweet can be, like kimchi and potato chips. Odd…
- I apologize for No Reason– Apologizing in Japan is almost the same as thanking someone. Someone taking the time to do something for you so apologize for taking time out of their day to help you.
- My Socks– So before moving to Japan all of my socks were the same style because in the U.S. we buy socks in bundle packs of 6-10 pairs. They are all exactly the same. Well, I guess that doesn’t fly here in Japan. I had a Japanese friend stay at my home one day and she noticed my socks. She was so shocked that they were all the same. It wasn’t something I ever thought about. But I guess since you often take off your shoes in Japan your socks are kind of like an accessory piece. Of course the next day we went shopping to fix that situation.
- Learned to Read Subtle Hints– Japan has a very indirect culture. It is very rare for something to be requested directly. I have tried to learn how to decode and figure out what is actually needed. For example, a Japanese person will say “It is hot in here, isn’t it?’, and I’ll say “Yes, it is. Let’s open a window.” Ding-Ding Ding 10 points for me. I magically understood what was being requested of me. However, this doesn’t always work. One of the major cultural issues I’ve come across is the American tendency to solve problems. When someone in Japan doesn’t want to do something usually they come up with an excuse or a problem that keeps them from doing said thing. What my silly American self does is try to solve the problem so that the requested action can be done. Nope, minus 10 points! What I had to learn is to read between the lines and what they are actually doing is politely declining my request.
Good for you Japan. I commend your efforts and give you your victories. But now it is time to show how Japan has not managed to change me and in some cases caused me to do exactly what Dr. J said. Hold on tighter to my culture.
- My Clothes– I love American vintage/retro style. My ideal figure is the classic hourglass shape. I love A-line dresses, corsets, and doll baby shoes. Japan has a different idea of fashion. Their classic shape is the rectangle based on the traditional kimono. That’s fine but as a plus-size gal that just isn’t going to work. Also, a lot of their modern clothes are baggy or very lose fitting. I feel like that just makes plus size girls look bigger. So I’m just going to have to say “No, thank you,” to Japanese fashion.
- The Work Culture– I have become more hostile about my private time. There is a clear separation between work hours and private time. Here in Japan, many people work a lot of overtime as I’ve come to experience. This has left me a bit jaded because 9 times out of 10 its for no reason what so ever. or a complete lack of organization. I used to think that it was good that I could work like them. “She’s so Japanese,” was the highest compliment I could get. But now, I’m not sure if its because I’m older and I have less tolerance for it, but I think it’s pretty rude and inconsiderate for Japanese companies to expect overtime from their employees. Luckily for me, I’m a foreigner so I’m not held to the same standards.
- I Stopped Trying to be Indirect like Them– Remember when I said that Japan has a very indirect culture and that they rarely ask something directly? Well, that courtesy is not extended to us foreigners. Sadly, whenever I try their method of trying to decline on doing something it often gets ignored and I end up getting roped into doing something that I don’t want to do. (at work *cough cough*) So I’m reverting back to my good ‘ole fashion American bluntness. “I’m sorry, I cannot work that day.” “No, I don’t like that lesson plan/idea.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing where they think that since I’m not Japanese that I would naturally be more direct so when I answer them in a Japanese style it confuses them and then they become more foreign in their insistence? Now, isn’t that an interesting thought?
- Using the “Gaijin” Smash- So for those of you who don’t know what that is, its when a foreigner purposefully goes against Japanese standards. For example, when it’s hot on the bus I just open a window. I don’t do the “Oh, its hot isn’t?” thing and hope the bus driver hears me. What the NHK man is here? I’m not home. Did this lady cut in front of me in line? Oh, I must inform her of her mistake very loudly and clearly. Before I was so afraid to be the rude foreigner and would never do the Gaijin Smash. But over time I have relaxed a bit on it but I NEVER abuse it.
So not bad Japan, your 6 to my 4. Maybe I’m not as stubborn as I thought. I’ve managed to both adapt to my new home as well as keep important cultural aspects from my homeland in my life. I think the mistake that many young expats make is that they think they will be able to completely adapt to their new environment with ease and feel guilty if it doesn’t go that way. I say don’t feel bad or guilty for not being able to adapt to your life in Japan exactly the way you wanted. Some people make it and some don’t but at least you tried.
Coming to Japan is more than just discovering a new place and culture. You’re also discovering more about yourself, your values, and what you hold dear about your own culture. Remember that and go forth. Until next time. Ja’ne!