Culture shock, or mere static cling?


Culture shock, similar to an electrical shock, is something one experiences when moving to a foreign country. One can also experience reverse culture shock when returning to their home country after having lived abroad for an extended period of time. The culture shock I experienced coming to Japan for the first time was mere static cling compared to what I experienced going home, which sometimes felt more like the shock of an electric chair. But overall, it was surprise at the things I had forgotten about my country.

I had forgotten, for example, what a vast country it is. This is because, like most Americans, I had spent most of my lifetime flying over the country and missing most of it. This time, however, I had traveled across the U.S. by train. But with my Amtrak one-month pass expired, I had to fly back to San Francisco to catch my flight back to Japan. Although flying is convenient, seeing America at 25,000 feet with binoculars is just not the same as passing just inches above it on the train, the countryside passing you out the window like a movie screen. It’s the people you meet on the train, such as the ex-rodeo rider, the children on school vacation counting dead deer, the person reading a Garrison Keillor book, that give you cultural clues to this diverse gargantuan country.

Flying was different. First, I had to be checked by a security wand to make sure I was not carrying any lethal metals. “Wanda,” as I call this device, found nothing unusual but was sure to beep to inform the security and other passengers that I was wearing an underwire bra. I was asked to “turn down the fastener” on my pants and to take off my shoes as they wanded my crotch and my toes. When my polka-dotted underwear and cow pajamas in my carry-on were scrutinized by security personnel, I couldn’t help wishing I’d taken the train. But I suppose tightened airport security was to be expected.

For me, it was the more subtle things about America that were culturally shocking.

Such as how big everything had become. A “tall” coffee at Starbucks in America means carrying around a paper cup as tall as the Empire State Building. Laundry machines were big enough to fit a family-size load of laundry plus a couple of Labrador retrievers. Yet other things that had not grown at all were still big — like trash cans. Yep, big round 50-gallon trash cans with no lids, just gaping mouths. The kind of trash cans you can look straight into and actually see unsightly rubbish: rotting banana peels, half-filled coffee cups, candy wrappers. The kind of trash cans you catch a whiff of when you pass.

I was so used to Japan, where even the garbage is too polite to show itself: Receptacles are always covered and feature a small hole where you push the garbage inside into the white trash can liner. In Japan, trash cans are rectangular. But the large round plastic trash cans in the U.S. exude trash can-ness. A glorious receptacle indeed! This open trash can policy encourages even the nonathletic to try out their skills: Pitch in! This is very likely the origin of basketball, the NCAA.

When you visit a country, you can either go over it or through it. Going over it with blindfolds is easy. Traveling through it, observing it and feeling all its shocks is enlightening. Next time, take the train, and you’ll see what I mean.