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Upon re-entry back home after expat life, brace yourself for turbulence

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There I was, standing at a baggage carousel in New York’s LaGuardia Airport, thinking the world had gone mad. I’d spent the previous 16 months living in the city of Oita in northern Kyushu.

Compared to what was around me, Oita had been a cocoon of safety. Residents apologized for apologizing, and bowed their way out of giving directions. Once, a Lawson employee ran two blocks simply to hand me the rice ball I’d forgotten on the counter. Elementary school children, eager to practice their English, had walked behind me giggling, saying “Hello!” as I headed to work.

But New York? Well …

As I stood there, I felt as if I was seeing my culture for the first time, as someone disconnected from my very own birthplace. Two children and a father sat on the cold, dirty floor eating a gigantic cup of vanilla ice cream. Police officers stood at the corners, armed with guns, ready to snuff out any disturbances. And, of course, diversity: After almost a year and a half living in a city that was 99 percent Japanese, I’d forgotten how ethnically mixed New York had always been.

Right before New York, I’d been a teacher at an eikaiwa (English conversation school). I’d met the love of my life, married, learned a fair amount of Japanese and suffered through one of the largest bankruptcies in postwar Japanese history (Nova’s 2007 collapse). By the time I re-entered American culture, I felt transformed — some called me brainwashed — and unable to reconnect with the country I’d lived in for 24 years. Not only had I lived abroad, I’d grown used to another culture whose priorities were vastly different to the ones I’d been familiar with.

Since I’m an American still living in America, I hoped to learn more about the feelings of Japanese citizens who had lived in the U.S. for a significant amount of time. What did they experience after returning to Japan? Was it difficult to reacclimatize to Japanese life? What new perspectives had they gained about their own culture?

I sent out a survey to 30 of my Japanese former students, as well as other respondents who had lived in America for three months or longer. Unofficially, I’ve always thought that to say you have lived abroad, you must have stayed in another country for a minimum of three months — a season — in which time the majestic status of being a tourist wears off, offering a deeper understanding of the day-to-day humdrum-ness of the culture.

Cycle A

Honeymoon

Japanese citizens who choose the United States as their first country abroad are exposed to massive portion sizes, greasy food and baked goods that are almost unbearably sweet. So, it should come as no surprise that when Japanese students return home, they enter a state of food-loving euphoria. Rice is consistently on the menu! Food is prepared with care and respect, and customer service is dependable and, importantly, conducted in their own language. Reuniting with family is often another highlight, as is hugging the dog you’ve missed for months. At least for a week or two, life has a brightness around its edges.

Back to normal

A consistent response from the survey revealed a frustration with the unspoken level of conformity that exists in Japan. In the U.S., people are told, time and again, to speak out, to have an opinion, to not push away discontent. Upon returning to Japan, however, students grew frustrated at how many people live according to the “same template.” At the same time, if a student continued to express their feelings in the same way as they had in the States, they often felt cast aside. “I realized the more I claim what I feel,” said one male respondent in his early 20s, “the more people around me label me as ‘Americanized’ and quit listening to me.”

An annoyance with established manners and obligations came up in the survey, too: “Knock exactly three times when entering the interviewing room,” said the same respondent, “don’t drink tea or coffee that an interviewer offers unless they encourage us to do so,” and so on.

Inevitably, a return to some semblance of “normal” occurs. Students returned to school, applied for jobs or went back to work, joining that ever-present progressive thrum of Japanese society — where hours move through your lifeline as you stand on a moving sidewalk or sit on a crammed railcar, or wedge yourself next to a sleepy bus passenger. “I feel it is easier to stop complaining and follow the others,” said another male respondent.

Newfound confidence

After initially resisting certain aspects of Japanese culture (“I couldn’t speak keigo — polite Japanese — for a long time,” said one female student in her early 20s), most of those surveyed hinted at feeling a newfound confidence from having lived overseas. Their perspectives had widened and they could now view their native culture though a wider lens than their peers.

Other respondents gained valuable insights into their own culture and hoped to start businesses integrating approaches from both Western and Asian societies. They were able to more sharply question notions such as what constitutes an appropriate working environment. (Is a 60-hour work week truly necessary?) Their insights were hard-earned, and they were proud to have gained a better understanding of their society. “I really started to like Japan, especially its culture,” said one 20-something male respondent. “I felt I wanted to spread Japanese culture more worldwide.”

Cycle B

Disruption

Unfortunately, not everyone can return to their culture and embrace its values. For many, like myself, that inability was linked to the intensity of the experience abroad. Although my company had gone bankrupt, the suffering I (and thousands of others) endured created an even stronger bond with the friends I’d made. There are moments from that period I can still remember with such clarity that just thinking about them causes my eyes to well up. And, of course, there’s falling in love — a story that could never be adequately told.

Perhaps needless to say, when I returned to America, I did not look at New York City with glittering eyes. I did not drool over large thin slices of pepperoni pizza, or satisfyingly exhale at the sight of Lady Liberty. In truth, whatever relationship the USA and I had before Japan had ended. I could never view the country the same again — my cultural equilibrium had shifted.

A few of the answers from respondents echoed these difficulties. I sensed one young female respondent grappling with her new and confusing perspective: “I feel American people educate children, students and employees by mainly praising and encouraging. On the other hand, Japanese people educate them by scolding and warning.”

Attempt back to normal

Armed with this broader outlook on the world, returnees attempt to adjust back to normalcy. As documented in cycle A, many can simply allow their past experience abroad to fade away, and the patterns of their home country return and swaddle them in familiar comfort. But for others, it is not that smooth.

One respondent in her 30s said, “I feel I am not being the ‘real me’ in Japan.” This woman specifically mentioned complications at her job. “Some workers (including my boss) were bothered by me and said things such as that they are ‘anti- U.S.’ or that I don’t have common sense because I am a returnee.”

Those two words — common sense — stand at the heart of this issue. The fundamental idea of common sense becomes fluid after living abroad. Your mind now must consider numerous ways of dealing with a situation.

Let’s take U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as an extreme example. Here is a man who is speaking to and enthusing millions of Americans with talk about deporting illegal immigrants and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States. What if Trump had lived abroad in a country where English was not the dominant language? What if he had been exposed to another culture for a long period of time and learned how to solve an issue from a different cultural standpoint? Would he still be saying these things?

An even broader question is: How many of his supporters have even left the U.S. for a substantial amount of time? How many even have a passport?

In any event, those stuck in this “attempt back to normal” are forced to deal with people who have not had similar experiences. They create words for people with no passport or no international experience, such as “mono-national.” Returnees struggle daily with the dangerous emotion of being “elite” simply because their global perspective is broader. In cycle A, a quiet confidence is kept aflame. In cycle B, their moods fluctuate: Forget common sense — what about “human sense”?

Torn between countries

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Suddenly, the last line from “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, comes to mind. It is doubtful that Fitzgerald meant the sentence in the context I am presenting it in, but nevertheless, it is the state of many who live torn between the ideals of two countries.

As I wrote last September on these pages (“Tracing the emotional roller-coaster ride of life abroad,” The Foreign Element, Sept. 3), it will never be a small thing to live overseas. In a way, you are attempting cultural suicide — exchanging the ways of your old self for a newer version. Nowadays, when I speak to my family, I often respond with “Japanese sounds,” like the “unh” sound of reassurance that, when properly uttered, says, “Yes, I’m listening — and interested.” I also cannot view any religion as “correct” since I have been personally moved by several.

Perhaps, as I enter old age, my definition of common sense will settle along the divide separating absolutes. In the grand scheme of things, living abroad is, after all, a bit of a cheat. For tens of thousands of years, human beings were unable to “play global hopscotch” and travel the world. Instead they grew comfortable with their local surroundings and did the best they could. Perhaps that, in the end, is the only kind of common sense out there.

Patrick Parr (www.patrickparr.com) is a lecturer for the University of Southern California’s International Academy in Los Angeles. His work has previously appeared in The Humanist, USA Today and The Writer, among others. You can contact Patrick at pdparr14@gmail.com. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • KietaZou

    [snores] Huh? Well, I wish you well, of course. I’ll be moving on. Don’t become a professional writer, please, though.

    • 151E

      Sure, not everyone’s cup of tea. But you’re being a little harsh, じゃないの? I take it you’re not of the school of ‘constructive criticism’.

      • KietaZou

        Please show me an example, since you wish to appear so wonderful and gentle. Please.

  • KietaZou

    [snores] Huh? Well, I wish you well, of course. I’ll be moving on. Don’t become a professional writer, please, though.

  • AJ

    How many stereotypes about US-Japan differences can we pander to?

    And anyone who says “I feel American people educate children, students and employees by mainly praising and encouraging. On the other hand, Japanese people educate them by scolding and warning.” has not been well educated in either America or Japan. Both places clearly have both.

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  • sugartits

    pointless article. just personal reflections on time wasted. like the time I wasted on reading it.

  • Michael Laib

    This author’s reflection is pretty consistent with my experience living abroad. In my case it was a year in Saudi Arabia followed by eight months in Italy, arguably two cultural heavyweights. Upon returning to the good ole U.S. of A. I looked up an old crony. We got to talking, and I told him of how I had lived and breathed 5000 years of culture, that I was a changed man. Without skipping a beat, my old best friend told me that he had discovered line dancing, and would I like to try it out. I think anyone who’s lived abroad has had similar experiences. Thanks, Patrick for an awesome article.

  • Denny Pollard

    Refresh my understanding of this article about expat life. What does Donald Trump a person running for president of the U.S. and is right to say deport all illegal immigrants, they are illegal. Japan deports illegals all the time so is there a double standard in your writings. Since you are from New York Muslims killed
    all those people there and Muslims as well as other have screwed up the U.S.
    immigration process and it needs fixed. Leave your left leaning personal politics out of articles it is demeaning. What does having a passport have to do with
    anything it’s a choice to apply for one or not.

    People make a choices to be expats like myself as others have done and I have returned to the U.S. several times in my career without issues that you seen to be dreaming up. You struggle because you have chosen to be a victim depending on others and government. I like many other expats only rely on ourselves. What I got out of your article is you have no common sense and there is no such thing as
    “human sense”. You must be a Millennial and think the world owes you something, it doesn’t so get a life.

    • Kessek

      Please stay in America. Thank you.

      • Denny Pollard

        I happen to be a permanent resident in Japan and have been in Japan for many years. I own a house in Japan and get tired of the winy people when they try and compare cultures without knowing jack. Japan does not need a bunch of kids who cannot make it on their own then run back to their home country complaining. Japan has language, borders, and culture that make it a great place so keep your left leaning hands off Japan we don’t want or need it. And yes I happen to have a passport and lived in a few foreign countries unlike those who only visit for a few weeks a year and think there are experts.

      • David

        Cute you use the phrase “we don’t want”. Born again uyoku? Lol. Permanent resident, homeowner or not, as a foreigner you will never be more than a tolerated guest with increasingly limited rights. Get over yourself, dufus. (20yr resident)

      • Steve Jackman

        Completely agree with you, David. Even the “tolerated guest” part is gradually giving way to more and more intolerance and hostility towards foreigners in Japan.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I’ve been here as long as you have, also with permanent residency and all the rest….and I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    • Buck

      You misunderstood the article and its main points, please reread it to gain a fuller understanding.

  • Steve Jackman

    Whatever faults the U.S. may have, no one can argue with its willingness to openly address its problems and its ability to change in response to these. This is what makes it strong and also what sets it apart from Japan. Remember, that Trump has never been elected to public office and never will. On the other hand, Barak Obama, Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have all been elected by the American people.

    Comparisons between the U.S. and Japan can only go so far. Like it or not, America is the country of the future, while Japan is proud to hold on to an outdated model from the past. Just like coal is the technology of the past and renewables the technology of the future. Sure, coal is still around, but the question is, will it still be here in fifty years?

    • Sara H

      Sure we can. It’s biggest problem is rising inequality, and an obsession with consumerism and winner take all capitalism that is really toxic and unhealthy.

      Yet for all our willingness to openly discuss such things, do they actually get addressed? Do we actually change it?

      It’s been getting worse. And worse and worse, for decades.

      We have our own form of conformity. Sure we’re all willing to talk and criticize and point things out. But how often does it meet with real change, and real action?

      We have so many corrupt wealthy people influencing our campaigns, that “change” has become a territory battle between different camps of wealthy elites, battling for control, rather than paying much attention to the needs of ordinary people.

    • Sara H

      Sure we can. It’s biggest problem is rising inequality, and an obsession with consumerism and winner take all capitalism that is really toxic and unhealthy.

      Yet for all our willingness to openly discuss such things, do they actually get addressed? Do we actually change it?

      It’s been getting worse. And worse and worse, for decades.

      We have our own form of conformity. Sure we’re all willing to talk and criticize and point things out. But how often does it meet with real change, and real action?

      We have so many corrupt wealthy people influencing our campaigns, that “change” has become a territory battle between different camps of wealthy elites, battling for control, rather than paying much attention to the needs of ordinary people.

    • GBR48

      Wandering around Japan, day or night, urban or rural, backstreets or main streets, I feel safe and relaxed. Crime does happen, but it is like being on a different planet from the US.- a country that has more guns than people, fearsome murder stats, and horrific shootings every week.

      So no, America is not the future. Too many dead people at the hands of your own citizens and no possibility of that changing, Who in their right mind would want their country to be more like that?

      No country is perfect, and as you say, comparisons can only go so far, but the gun thing is a deal breaker for any attempt at declaring the US ‘top nation’. The rest of the world just look on in bemusement that you have brought your nation to the gun crazy point that it has reached, and are grateful that they have proper gun controls..

      • Steve Jackman

        Crime figures in Japan are severely under-reported, so it’s hard to take Japanese stats seriously. Just recently, there was a story here about how autopsies are extremely rare in Japan, even when the cause of death is suspicious. It makes one wonder how many of the 30,000 suicides in Japan are due to homicide but swept under the rug in true Japanese style.

        The U.S. has about 30,000 deaths a year by firearms. Two-thirds of these are actually suicides, so only about 10,000 are actual homicides (this, in a country which is much larger and diverse than Japan). The key difference is that many homicides in the U.S. are by firearms and are accurately counted as such vs. many homicides by knives or poisoning, etc., in Japan which never get included in the crime figures here. Other types of crimes, such as sexual violence and those using coercion/intimidation are off the charts in Japan. I think a little perspective is needed before we start reinforcing all the false myths about how safe Japan is.

      • Steve Jackman

        Crime figures in Japan are severely under-reported, so it’s hard to take Japanese stats seriously. Just recently, there was a story here about how autopsies are extremely rare in Japan, even when the cause of death is suspicious. It makes one wonder how many of the 30,000 suicides in Japan are due to homicide but swept under the rug in true Japanese style.

        The U.S. has about 30,000 deaths a year by firearms. Two-thirds of these are actually suicides, so only about 10,000 are actual homicides (this, in a country which is much larger and diverse than Japan). The key difference is that many homicides in the U.S. are by firearms and are accurately counted as such vs. many homicides by knives or poisoning, etc., in Japan which never get included in the crime figures here. Other types of crimes, such as sexual violence and those using coercion/intimidation are off the charts in Japan. I think a little perspective is needed before we start reinforcing all the false myths about how safe Japan is.

      • GBR48

        I agree that there is a lot of unreported and unpunished crime in Japan, particularly domestic abuse, but if you go to any local US news sites, you will see gun crime after gun crime listed.

        I enjoy being in Japan because of the absence of guns and would not want to live or visit the US given the prevalence of guns. It is just a crazy way to live in a modern society.

        Some aspects of day to day life just matter a lot more, and not fearing a maniac has started shooting people whenever a car backfires is one of them. If Americans feel that guns make them safer then that is their business. The people of very few other 1st world nations share that belief.

        Despite Japan’s many issues, I stand by my assertion that the gun issue drops the US in any ranking for a society anyone would like to emulate, and in any play-off between Japan and the US, for all Japan’s faults, it is a fundamental deal-breaker for the US. I do not wish to live in a society where anyone can legally buy a gun as if it was a hat or a scarf. It is a recipe for disaster.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I have to agree with GBR48. I feel a lot safer in Japan in general. I am hesitant to go back and live in the US precisely because of all the guns and violent crime. Even in small towns these days there is a HUGE meth problem that contributes to all kinds of crime. I’m from a town of 8,000 in the Midwest, and my brother is a cop there. When I last went home, I remarked at how safe the town is and joked that everyone is in bed by 9:00. My bother straightened me out right away. He told me that in the last night he worked, he dealt with a stabbing and a shooting, both meth related. I was honestly shocked at how the town had deteriorated in the years since I lived there. Granted, there aren’t armed robberies, serial killers, or random murders, but there’s lots of domestic violence and you have to keep your house and car locked or else people will steal things to buy meth.
        That said, I’d say that I feel less confident about the police in Japan. I have had more than one experience with the police here, and every time they were unhelpful, victim-blaming, and reluctant to take action. This is particularly true when it comes to sex crimes, stalking, and domestic violence. I have no experience with reporting a sex crime or domestic violence in the US, but from what I understand, they take you very seriously and you can easily get a restraining order. In Japan, I was stalked for two years and the police did nothing. I had to quit my job (twice) and move house, and even now I am extremely paranoid that the stalker may find me and start up again. I know that the police will not help. I have zero trust in them.

      • GBR48

        The JCops do have a bad reputation at dealing with crimes against women, in part because the country is still several knuckle-dragging decades behind the rest of the first world in terms of gender equality. I’m not convinced their training is particularly good, and the legal system they are enforcing has more holes in than a Swiss cheese. Japan has generally relied on tradition rather than laws in many areas of behaviour. Sometimes it works (low street crime), sometimes it doesn’t (chikan – perverts).

        In a sense you might not be much better off in the West, as serious stalkers don’t let restraining orders stop them. If anything, they provoke them to more disturbed behaviour. The only effective legal solution, unfair as it is, is to move.

        Ideally stalkers need to be tagged and automatically geo-monitored 24/7, with their victims being offered the additional benefit of their own tag for the system to monitor, but that is unlikely to happen anywhere, any time soon.

        If being politely asked to leave a person alone doesn’t work, many would consider the ‘quiet little accident’, to be morally and ethically justifiable.

      • Jonathan Fields

        “Fearsome” murder stats? The murder rate is just under 4 people per 100,000 per year. That’s 10 times more than Japan, sure, but it’s no where near “fearsome.” Given that many of those murders are drug-related, you can very easily walk the streets without feeling unsafe. The only people who think America is dangerous are those with zero media literacy.

        More people are killed by construction accidents (1 person per 1,000 per year), diarrhea (3 people per 10,000 per year), car crashes (1 person per 10,000 per year), and the flu (2 people per 10,000 per year). If anything, America should be seen as the car accident capital of the developed world, but guns grab more attention at the newsstand.

      • GBR48

        Construction and driving are parts of everyday life. Private ownership of a gun is entirely unnecessary. It can therefore be banned with the sort of gun control that exists in most first world countries. But not in America, which insists on living in the 18th century, when it was deemed a right. The rest of us are happier living in the 21st century.

      • Jonathan Fields

        You have very, very little chance of being the victim of a violent crime, and the chances are even lower if you’re not involved with drugs. But don’t let real numbers get in the way of a good old-fashioned America bash.

      • GBR48

        Wikipedia actually has a page with a ‘List of school shootings in the United States’. The private ownership of guns changes the nature of law enforcement, as police officers must fear the worst case scenario – a rarity in most other 1st world countries. I’m so glad I don’t have to live in a country where I would never know whether someone around me was carrying a weapon that could kill me from some distance away, just by pointing it and squeezing their finger, subject to whatever was going on in their head.

        It is difficult for those of us outside the US to understand the concept of wanting people to be able to own guns. It gives every argument, every moment of stress, every breaking point a new level of destructive capability. And to be locked into it by a two centuries old document and a lobbying group suggests that US democracy is not the be-all and end-all of civilised society. America has many good points, but the gun thing is just crazy.

      • Jonathan Fields

        Wikipedia has a page about spontaneous human combustion, so what’s your point? Again, you’re blowing it out of proportion. I’ve never owned, seen, or shot a gun before, so I wouldn’t care even if they were outlawed tomorrow. But I think you’re being a little dramatic. If you google the phrase “media literacy,” there are some wonderful articles that can help you learn to think for yourself.

  • Jay

    The experiences of people living abroad follow a very similar pattern, regardless of where they are from or where they have gone: euphoria (honeymoon), revulsion (homesickness); perhaps reverse culture shock upon returning for a visit; gradual acceptance of the good and bad. After 25 years in Japan, I feel I can appreciate both sides, and I find it very refreshing to leave Japan for periods of time, and also nice to get back. I’d like to hear the opinions of people who have returned to their countries after several decades abroad:

    • Charles

      People generally agree about the honeymoon phase and the revulsion phase, and I have seen it in almost all cases of people living abroad. I don’t think the last phase, acceptance, is inevitable (not that you said it was). For (an extreme) example, someone moving to North Korea for five years might end up in the revulsion “phase” and never “accept” it.

      I also hate it when people try to assign periods of time to these phases (not that you did this, but many culture shock model proponents do). My “honeymoon” phase in Taiwan was about one month, and my “honeymoon” phases in Korea and Japan were both about one year–vastly differing periods of time. Basically when the honeymoon phase ended was related to how long it took the sh– to hit the fan more than it did to an arbitrary period of time. In Korea, things were great until I had visas troubles and got randomly assaulted on the street, which happened slightly under one year after moving there. In Taiwan, things were great until I had serious issues with my employer (starting 1~2 months after moving there). In Japan, I absolutely “loved” it until some too-complicated-to-talk-about-here-visa-related things surfaced and my Japanese language ability plateaued after passing JLPT N3 (about one year after moving to Japan).

      When I was living in Hong Kong (where I went through middle school), Hong Kong was just a background and most of the phases I went through revolved around my new school (an American curriculum middle school with mostly American students), and that adjustment shock to *another American school* far outweighed any aspect of culture shock in Hong Kong itself. The main sources of my frustration (and joy) were actually other American students in in an American curriculum school, not Hong Kong itself.

  • blondein_tokyo

    “You must have stayed in another country for a minimum of three months — a
    season — in which time the majestic status of being a tourist wears
    off, offering a deeper understanding of the day-to-day humdrum-ness of
    the culture.”

    Hummmwha…??? Three months is not “living abroad”. Three months is an extended vacation.

    • Buck

      Naw, three months is a decent amount of time to suggest you are no longer really a tourist. The break point needs to start somewhere. You are right though, for some people 3 months is still an extended vacation, but for others, even 2 months is enough to suggest they have lived abroad. Especially if you are working or going to school during that time.

      • blondein_tokyo

        The author said that living in a culture for three months is enough to understand it deeply and start to feel acclimated and normalised.

        Frankly, that’s the kind of thing only a tourist would say.

      • Buck

        In your opinion, how long does a person need? What do we mean “deeply” and “acclimated”, does speaking the local language and working or studying in said country count towards acclimated? I mean, this all just opinion anyways. Although, everyone I asked also agrees 3 months is a reasonable start. In my
        personal experience, I lived in Taiwan for only 3 months over a summer and feel I have a strong understanding of the culture. To be fair, I already lived in China for 18 months before hand, lending me a head start to someone who never lived aboard before. For me, I already spoke Chinese and I wasn`t just traveling in Taiwan, I actually went to school there and taught a little. So, in my opinion I know a fair bit about the culture of Taiwan. If someone spent
        three months traveling in Taiwan, didn`t speak the language and had little interaction with locals, then I yes, I would agree with you. It depends on the situation.

      • Jeffrey

        “. . . I lived in Taiwan for only 3 months over a summer and feel I have a strong understanding of the culture. To be fair, I already lived in China for 18 months before hand, . . .”

        Isn’t that a bit like saying I lived in Austria for a summer before moving to Germany? Or I lived in Canada for a time before moving to the U.S.?

      • Buck

        Yes, your point? It would be like saying I lived in Austria for 2 years and then lived in Germany for 3 months. I assume said person can speak German and worked in both countries during that time. I presume, the person who first lived in Austria for 2 years and then lived in Germany for 3 months would be more familiar with German culture over someone who only
        traveled through Germany for 3 months and doesn`t know a word of German. All my examples are stressing the importance of prior knowledge, language ability, and work or school related activities. I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there? I would argue that indeed they can, some people who study a country`s history, culture, and language for many years will likely know more than someone who has lived in said country but remains isolated, doesn`t speak language, and knows nothing of the culture and history. Therefore, three months is a reasonable starting point, assuming prior
        knowledge, experience, and language ability.

      • Jeffrey

        My point is that moving from one Chinese country to another and being comfortable with that transition is hardly the same as moving from anywhere to Japan, even if you speak a bit of the language.

        “I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there?”

        Of course not. One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference between reading about swimming and swimming.

      • Jeffrey

        My point is that moving from one Chinese country to another and being comfortable with that transition is hardly the same as moving from anywhere to Japan, even if you speak a bit of the language.

        “I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there?”

        Of course not. One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference between reading about swimming and swimming.

      • Buck

        I think I understand your point about Japan; that is no other country is similar enough to Japan to count as experience? However, we
        are not talking exclusively about foreigners living in Japan. Let’s get back to the basics, what counts as “living abroad”, when can a person say they lived abroad as compared to travel abroad. This is the root of the question.
        Please tell me, when in your opinion can a person claim to have lived abroad in a country?

        “One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference
        between reading about swimming and swimming.”

        That is comparing apples and oranges. Swimming is a skill, learning history and culture is knowledge based. Language is a skill,
        but can be learnt outside the country.

        More importantly, you failed to address my example. Are you suggesting to me a foreigner who lives in Japan but speaks zero Japanese,
        has no Japanese friends, and has limited interaction with co-workers knows more
        about Japan than someone who studied it their entire life, speaks the language, and is immersed in the culture (novels, movies, comics)? Of course living in Japan would make a huge difference, and that is truly the only way you understand the micro cultures of day to day experience. However, I would take the views of expert on the political and economic climate (for example) of someone who speaks the language, is well read (reads the news paper and watches news), and knows the history of
        Japan over someone who lived in Japan for 1year teaching English but lived in near isolation from Japanese culture and doesn`t speak the language.

        But again, how long do you need to spend in a country to claim you have lived abroad? I provided an answer and so has the author. If you refute my claim at least provide a counter claim instead of just attacking my points.

      • Charles

        “How long do you need to spend in a country to claim you have lived abroad?”

        For me, the answer is 90.01 days. Japan’s landing permit is 90 days. When I lived in Korea, Korea’s landing permit was 90 days (or 30 days extendable to 90 days by visiting the immigration office). Japanese people going to America get 90 days, I believe. In Ireland, Americans can get a “Working Holiday” visa good for up to four months, so something just under four months seems to be their definition for “living abroad,” and Taiwan draws the line at 60 days (my tourist visa for Taiwan was good for 60 days). I think the average maximum number of days for “just visiting” is about 90 days, though this definition varies from country to country.

        Of course, as has already been mentioned, 90 days for one person is very different from 90 days for another person in terms of actual experiences, but this does not change the definition of “living there” for me, because I take those actual experiences much more seriously than I do the verb “to live [there].”

        For example, I was born in the Netherlands and “lived” there for about 10~11 months, but have absolutely no knowledge about the Netherlands besides what I have learned since living there. Did I live there? Yes. Am I “acclimatized?” Hell no. If I visited the Netherlands again, it would effectively be visiting it for the first time, with all the associated culture shock.

        On the other hand, if I (as an American) go and spend 89 days in Canada, working a job and studying Canadian history and society in a Canadian college, sharing an apartment with several Canadian roommates during my stay there, then I will probably be more or less “acclimatized” to Canada. If I leave after 89 days, will I have “lived there?”

        A baby, someone in a coma, someone who seldom leaves his hotel room, or someone who is in an ethnic enclave to the exclusion of the host culture, could all qualify as “living there,” but would possess (nearly) no knowledge of that country. Conversely, someone who has never lived in that country, but has studied it extensively and interacted with its expats, could know quite a bit about that country.

        In my mind, “lived” is a strictly technical definition. When discussing cultural matters, we should pay less attention to how long person x has lived there, and more attention to what person x actually knows.

      • Jeffrey

        My point is that moving from one Chinese country to another and being comfortable with that transition is hardly the same as moving from anywhere to Japan, even if you speak a bit of the language.

        “I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there?”

        Of course not. One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference between reading about swimming and swimming.

      • Jeffrey

        My point is that moving from one Chinese country to another and being comfortable with that transition is hardly the same as moving from anywhere to Japan, even if you speak a bit of the language.

        “I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there?”

        Of course not. One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference between reading about swimming and swimming.

      • Jeffrey

        My point is that moving from one Chinese country to another and being comfortable with that transition is hardly the same as moving from anywhere to Japan, even if you speak a bit of the language.

        “I ask you, can a person know and understand a culture without actually living there?”

        Of course not. One can understand in an abstract sense, but that’s just like the difference between reading about swimming and swimming.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Those are both good and fair questions. The author has two conditions. One, that 3 months is long enough to not feel like a tourist any longer – this is very subjective, so difficult to measure. And two, that three months is enough to get a deeper understanding of the day-to-day “humdrum-ness” of the culture. By that I assume he means that culture shock has come and gone, and you feel day to day life has normalised.

        I’ll offer these thoughts on those two points based on my experience living in Japan and traveling abroad. You can of course disagree. :)

        First, if you don’t speak the language, you can’t acclimate. You don’t need to be fluent, of course; but at least have the ability to have a basic conversation and fend for yourself when out and about. Is three months enough? It might be if you’ve studied the language ahead of time. However…

        Even understanding the language, you need more than three months to understand the inner workings of a culture and feel comfortable with it. But as I said, this is subjective. It’s going to depend on where you originally are from, and how different the host culture is from your own.

        For example, I can believe you’d feel at home in Taiwan relatively soon, because you spent years in China.

        But a Japanese who’s never been abroad in their life and who has had limited contact with people of other cultures is going to have severe culture shock when they first arrive, and that won’t wear off in just three months.

        Granted, a person who’s well-traveled will have an easier time adjusting as they have experience navigating cultural differences. But this author specified that he’d surveyed his Japanese students. I don’t find it very likely that a student would have the kind of life experience we’re talking about here. :)

        Thirdly, to understand culture well, you have to have day to day interactions with locals on more than just a superficial level, and it takes more than three months to build relationships beyond the superficial.

        Fourth, to really acclimate, you have to be actively invested in making a life for yourself in that culture. If you know you’re leaving in three months, you just aren’t going to feel the same way as you would after realising this is the place you are living in. Not staying in; not temporarily relocating to; but actually making a life in.

        As an example, after March 11 a lot of foreigners left. I don’t blame them at all; but if you’re actively invested in a place, you don’t pull up stakes and leave at the first sign of trouble, even bad trouble. You ride it out. You leave only if you absolutely must. In fact, you may not even have a choice.

        That’s what I’m basing my opinion of this article on. To me, three months or even one year is a superficial understanding of culture at the most, particularly if it’s one vastly different from your own.

        I have to admit to being a bit amused by the author saying he felt culture shock being back in NY after a year and a half in Japan. I’ve been here 24 years, and when I visit home I have NO idea what’s going on. I don’t just feel like a tourist; I AM a tourist! :)

      • Buck

        Thank you for your well thought out response. I generally agree, but where I differ I already stated. I would say a year is a decent amount of time to say you have lived abroad, but, where I already stated exceptions can be made for 3 months. I wouldn`t tell people I traveled in
        Taiwan for 3 months, I would say I lived abroad in Taiwan. I think Japanese who have done a 1 year working holiday visa abroad can claim they have lived a aboard. Spending 3 months in America for a summer is cutting it close, seems more like travel.

        People who have lived decades in another country are not a fair starting point to gauge “living abroad”. However, your experiences
        add greatly to the conversation.

      • Jeffrey

        Agreed. I was completely overwhelmed the first summer I spent in Japan as an undergrad and in spite of that three months and another three week trip a few years later, it took more than a year after moving there to work to suss out whether I was up to it or not.

  • Faction Script

    This article is missing another phase, especially in Japan: culture rejection. The final phase. It takes most more than a few years to reach this phase, but the majority eventually do. They see the unpleasant sides of the culture creep further and further into their daily lives, mind and heart.Foreigners finally realize that they will never be integrated into Japanese circles. Even your partner or close friends see you as an outsider. Unpleasant parts of your own culture weren’t apparent until you come back. Ignorance is bliss, until you live abroad.

    • Jeffrey

      “Culture rejection” is not a bad thing. You accept what you can and reject, typically, those things that tend to make relationships and life in general more complicated. How is this different than life in the country one grew up in? It’s really not like walking through a minefield and because your are a foreigner, you are almost always cut slack.

      “Even your partner or close friends see you as an outsider.”

      If this is the case, one needs to examine his relationships. This has not been my experience nor have I known it to be true for other friends and acquaintances married to Japanese (99% being foreign husbands and Japanese wives) who have been in Japan for a number of years. Perhaps this might be more common if one is living in a small town. But then small towns are closed to one degree or another in almost every culture.

    • Jeffrey

      “Culture rejection” is not a bad thing. You accept what you can and reject, typically, those things that tend to make relationships and life in general more complicated. How is this different than life in the country one grew up in? It’s really not like walking through a minefield and because your are a foreigner, you are almost always cut slack.

      “Even your partner or close friends see you as an outsider.”

      If this is the case, one needs to examine his relationships. This has not been my experience nor have I known it to be true for other friends and acquaintances married to Japanese (99% being foreign husbands and Japanese wives) who have been in Japan for a number of years. Perhaps this might be more common if one is living in a small town. But then small towns are closed to one degree or another in almost every culture.

  • Mark Makino

    To me the “sweets too sweet” thing is a bit of posturing. Sweets are very sweet here too – the only super sweet thing you don’t see in Japan in Cinnabon.

    • Mr. Coleman

      Odaibo has a Cinnabon. At least, it did 15 years ago.

    • Wendy McBride

      Shibuya has a Cinnabon.

    • Wendy McBride

      Shibuya has a Cinnabon.

  • KenjiAd

    At the same time, if a student continued to express their feelings in the same way as they had in the States, they often felt cast aside. “I realized the more I claim what I feel,” said one male respondent in his early 20s, “the more people around me label me as ‘Americanized’ and quit listening to me.”

    I think this student is simply reiterating his own stereotypes of the difference between Americans and Japanese, rather than speaking what really happened when he went back to Japan.

    I don’t know how long he stayed in America and how good his English is. But it usually takes years and high English fluency for a Japanese person to express their feelings and opinions in English in the same way Americans do. I stayed in America for 27 years, and I think it took me over 10 years. It’s not easy to do, because you are culturally hard-wired to think in a certain way. So I’m not convinced that this student managed to do it in America during his relatively short stay.

    If I have to guess what really happened, here’s my guess. After he went back to Japan, he “acted” like Americans. And his friends took it as show off. Again, I’m not saying this is really what happened, but if someone points a gun to my head, I would say that’s my guess.

    • blondein_tokyo

      I’ve dealt with lots of “returnees” – both those who grew up in the US as well as those who spent just a year or two abroad, and I can tell you that they do have trouble fitting in once they come back to Japan even if they were only abroad for a year or two. Living abroad can change you a lot, particularly when you’re young. Even after a year, it can get to the point where you no longer fit in with your peers. And I have to say this: if their friends think they are putting on airs, I’d say that their friends are closed minded, petty, and simply don’t understand.
      I had the same experience when I visited the US after spending several years in Japan. People made snide remarks about how I talked differently, or how I must “think I’m cool’, or they’d ask me if my eyes were starting to slant, as racist as that is. It’s nothing but petty jealousy. And of course, people don’t like change, and they don’t like those who are different or who stand out.

      • Chibaraki

        I have seen Japanese junior high students go through phenomenal changes after one year abroad. One of my 3rd year girls left for Bristol, England with only the foundations of English – greetings, and perhaps 200 words of English. She returned a young woman, fluent in English with a clear regional English accent, independent, mature. Her peers at school were also so-called “returnees”, so she had people around her who understood her experience, and treated her like an old friend.

        I have been in Japan since 1999, and have to admit I have gone through all the phases, and watched others cope or not cope with maturing in a different context. I also feel disconnected from North American culture. I’m Canadian.

      • KenjiAd

        A junior high student who goes abroad may change rather quickly, I agree, because the younger you are, the more adaptable you tend to be (in general that is). I went to American when I was 26, young but not so young.

        I’ve seen many expats over the years, and my observation is that, after a few years of stay, expats diverge into two distinct groups.

        On the one hand, you have a group of expats who seem to have found a way to decrease the mental gap between “us” and “them,” even though it will not completely disappear in one generation. These expats do sometimes make fun of “them,” to be sure, but it usually doesn’t have any malice in it.

        On the other hand, there are some expats who not only cannot decrease the us-vs-them gap, but rather start embracing it. When these expats talk about “them,” you will recognize unmistakable anger there.

        Since this type of expats refuse to make efforts to integrate, they will live a rather stressful life where few local people would appreciate their existence. The guys who belong to this group often chase local girls whom they think they can dominate over and whom they actually look down on.

      • blondein_tokyo

        In my experience, plenty of the second type of expat tried very to integrate, and only became angry and bitter when they realised they’d never really fit in the way they wanted to, so they just stopped trying. IMO, their rancor is fully justified.

        Myself, I understand their bitterness even though I don’t fully share it. I’m flexible enough that I managed to make myself a niche where I feel comfortable and can, mainly, fit in.

        But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still get seriously angry at a lot of the same things they do, such as being constantly stereotyped or discriminated against.

        The careless, girl-chasing type you describe never stays that way for long. They either finish their one-year English teaching contract and leave, or they catch a girl – and marry her….thus slowly but surely turning into the first type. ;) LOL.

      • Chibaraki

        I have seen Japanese junior high students go through phenomenal changes after one year abroad. One of my 3rd year girls left for Bristol, England with only the foundations of English – greetings, and perhaps 200 words of English. She returned a young woman, fluent in English with a clear regional English accent, independent, mature. Her peers at school were also so-called “returnees”, so she had people around her who understood her experience, and treated her like an old friend.

        I have been in Japan since 1999, and have to admit I have gone through all the phases, and watched others cope or not cope with maturing in a different context. I also feel disconnected from North American culture. I’m Canadian.

      • KenjiAd

        Back in the US, I once met an American guy who’s been in Japan for a long time, like 20 years. While talking in English, he kept throwing in Japanglish, e.g., Makudonarudo instead of McDonald’s, teeburu instead of table, etc.

        Come to think of it, when I was speaking Japanese, I also tend to throw in a lot of English words. And many Japanese people don’t like it; they think I’m showing off or something.

        But anyone who’d spent a long time speaking a foreign language would know that, after some time, you start forgetting your mother tongue.

        But they don’t know that. So when I have to speak Japanese to Japanese people, I try not to “sound like Americans.” I don’t want any trouble.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I know what you mean. When visiting my family in the US, the Japanese word for something often comes to my mind before the English one does, and I wind up using the Japanese word quite unconsciously.

        But I don’t feel at all bad about it. There are a lot of habits or quirks I’ve picked up living in Japan. That’s par for the course, and anyone who accused me of showing off is likely just jealous or resentful of anyone who has had experienced they haven’t. It also sounds a bit xenophobic, as if the person thinks anything foreign is bad or weird or wrong.

        Personally, I don’t mind giving that person “trouble”. Too effing bad if they don’t like it. Maybe they should get out of their comfort zone and open their eyes and minds to the world, instead of being a stodgy old wet blanket. :)

  • Jonathan Fields

    “Japanese citizens who choose the United States as their first country abroad are exposed to massive portion sizes, greasy food and baked goods that are almost unbearably sweet. So, it should come as no surprise that when Japanese students return home, they enter a state of food-loving euphoria. Rice is consistently on the menu! Food is prepared with care and respect, and customer service is dependable and, importantly, conducted in their own language.”

    As someone who’s worked in the service industry in both Japan and the US, this passage makes me angry to no end. I’d love for this stereotype that American food is all gigantic, greasy, and over-seasoned to end. The service in Japan is not more dependable either, it’s just different. Japanese people who go to the states have this image of burgers and fries, and it prevents them from truly experiencing American food culture (transportation is also a huge issue). If I came to Japan and ate only kaiten-zushi, karaage, and beef bowl, I would have a very skewed impression of Japanese cuisine.

  • Les Grossman

    Freakin’ Weaboo. Teaching Engrish in Kyuushuu and now what? Teach Engrish in NYC? Not really. Might as well just go the hell back. Ganbatte Ne! You’re f#cked. LMAO! :D

  • Les Grossman

    Freakin’ Weaboo. Teaching Engrish in Kyuushuu and now what? Teach Engrish in NYC? Not really. Might as well just go the hell back. Ganbatte Ne! You’re f#cked. LMAO! :D

  • Les Grossman

    Freakin’ Engrish Teachya Weaboo. You’re an idiot. There will come a day when your waifu will leave you because either you’re only an English Teachya or because she’ll just have to go back to Japan. It almost always happens that way with all Asian women and you’re nothing special. My advice is, don’t have any kids. If you have had any already, then I hope you can stop her from kidnapping them on her way back to Japan someday. Good luck. You are going to need it.

  • Peppe

    I’ve been living in Japan about 2 year, the first year was difficult to accept the culture and life stile ,so 3 months is impossible to be agree with reality . It’s more than 20 years I visit Japan , every summer for 3-4 weeks .From my experience I don’t change anything in my life when I go back where I live , I’m always me .I don’t think it is nice to live in Japan , they don’t have common sense ,its like one rail way , one direction without touch . For the (rely traditional)Japanese who live at abroad they have the same life stile and I don’t think they feel comfortable ,for the young people travel for vacation or study they learn new life stile and very comfortable for them , but when they go back to the country they can be relax like in abroad, they don’t accept people with different mentality ,they have to be all the same,very strong to don’t change .I think its right if they wont keep the own culture ,I don’t recommend to move in Japan ,its nice country,safe,….many thing nice but they not think about easy going ,common sense ……Now I know better them and I can live with out problem ,but I can stay only with turist visa unfortunaly

  • Les Grossman

    Another idiot English teacher idiot trying to pay the bills by doing surveys and writing about them for the Japan Times. Gee what a great idea! Who would have ever thunk it? Well, first of all, you destroyed your single life by marrying a Japanese woman in the first place. Now you are about to destroy your sex life after you and her have a child and she stops having sex with you. Later on, whatever is left of your mind, will be destroyed after you divorce her because she will have taken half of what you own and then kidnapped your child/children back to Japan never to be seen again.

  • Ken Morgan

    At least you CAN move back.

    Look at Ryan Boundless. He’s been an ALT/Eikawa worker (calling him teacher devalues the word teacher) for 16 no not a typo SIXTEEN years. He spends al his time hating on Japanese people, doing creepy videos of Japanese women and complaining bitterly about Japan.

    He passed the point a long time ago where he might still be able to convince a US company to hire him. Therefore he’s completely trapped in Japan. Unable to leave due to a lack of skills. He has nothing, no property, no career, no car even. Yet is trapped so deeply he can never leave.

    • KenjiAd

      “Ryan Boundless” sounds like some of the expats here in China. But many Chinese girls still worship Caucasian English “teacher” guys, even though the rock-star status they enjoyed in the past are now largely gone.

  • Clayton Forrester

    I’ve been living in Japan for around 25 years, but I’m planning to retire in my home country — the U.S.
    I’m really worried that I won’t feel comfortable there and will end up wishing I had stayed in Japan.

  • Paul Martin

    Fantasize away because many if not most expats would not share such amorous delusions about how wonderful their Japanese experiences were!

    I fact becasue of much blatant discrimination and hostilities towards gaijins many expats were and still are glad to visit their home countries!

    • Barry Rosenfeld

      I have a suggestion. Return home to Middle America where you belong and leave Japanese to the Japanese. You could save us your uneducated middle American and ignorant views on Japan and everything else!