Jul 9

Posted by Ashley Thompson (Shizuoka-ken, 2008-10), Community Manager for Nihongo Master and editor of Surviving in Japan.

Japan is home–the place I got engaged, married, and gave birth to my daughter. It’s the birthplace of my husband. I never expected Japan to become so special to me six years ago, let alone that the most important events of my life would happen there. It isn’t a perfect county–no country is–but I love many of its quirks, traits and customs.

We didn’t know what the future held and we had set up a life there.

A sudden turn of events and circumstances forced us to move back to the US in January of this year. We made the decision to move  only two months before, as financially and emotionally we weren’t in a place to stay.

I’ve been struggling with reverse culture shock since coming back. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I “fit in” here in the States, but I feel it even less so now. I’m trying to adjust while pining for Japan, despite the fact we had plenty of reasons to move back.So to those planning to repatriate from Japan anytime soon, here are some things I’ve learned that might help. As we’re all different, I don’t think we experience reverse culture shock in the same ways or to the same extent, so please feel free to share your thoughts.

1. You might feel like you’re in a foreign country even though you’re moving back “home”. I walk around my hometown with a mix of memories playing in my head on repeat and nervous thoughts as I try to grasp what isn’t familiar anymore.

2. Even if you’ve kept in touch with family and friends, those relationships might be different now. This depends on many different factors, but you may find that some relationships faded in your time away, while others you thought were long gone might suddenly resurface.

3. People may see you the same way they did before you went to Japan. If you have changed a lot, you might have difficulties relating. Family and friends might have an image in their minds of who they think you are that doesn’t reflect who you have become. It takes time for people to see you in a new way, but some may not change their views.

4. Be aware of your expectations. For example, I thought returning to the US would mean our families would bend over backwards to help us, considering the dire position we were in. In some ways I wanted to return to the US if only to have family help, particularly with our daughter. Some family members are willing and happy to help, our parents in particular, but they also work and have their own busy lives, or live too far away. Some aren’t interested in helping. And of course, it takes our daughter a while to warm up to people.

This was depressing at first and I sometimes wondered what the point of coming back was. Once I changed my expectations to match reality, things improved. So my advice: don’t give up; adjust your expectations; and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5. Give yourself time to rest if you need it. It’s a big transition. Get sleep and eat well. Do what recharges you, whether that’s socializing with others, traveling around at “home”, or devouring stacks of English books–finally!–from the library.

6. Get involved with Japan-related projects to keep yourself connected to the country and to work through all those emotions. Volunteer, put together photo albums or scrapbooks, get involved with JETAA, read and write about Japan for JETwit or other publications or blogs, and stay in touch with your Japan community.

7. Going shopping may cause overwhelm and panic attacks, especially if you are prone to anxiety. The sheer amount of “things” always jolts me when we go shopping, even still, six months later. Japan has plenty of “things”, too, but the US is is overflowing with options. It’s nice to have more choices, but more choices also means more decision-making, and that can be stressful. Don’t berate yourself if you feel this way, and there’s also nothing wrong with shopping online.

8. Your English might sound funny. If you’re used to speaking Japanese a lot of the time, you may find yourself struggling for words more than usual when trying to communicate with others, or using the wrong ones. Treat this as you did when you were learning Japanese–laugh about it. Or you might be using words you didn’t use before Japan. Some people may not understand, but if they have never lived abroad, they probably won’t.

9. Finding a job can be hard. Depending on the economy, where you’re moving to and what your education/training is, don’t be surprised if it’s difficult to find a job immediately after returning. I recommend networking as much as possible before leaving Japan, whether you plan to leave or not, and make connections all over the world. It’s easy to do now with social media. (e.g., the various JET Alum professional groups on LinkedIn.) If it’s relevant to your occupation, start a blog, become an expert, and brand yourself.  And definitely join the JETwit Jobs Google Group for the most up-to-date, JET-relevant job listings, if you’re interested in staying in a Japan-related career.

10. Realize the five stages of repat grief (from this video, based on the five stages of grief):

  1. Denial — “What could be easier than moving home?” “Nothing has changed, I’ll fit right in.”
  2. Anger — “It’s not fair!” “Nothing will ever be the same.”
  3. Bargaining — “Just one more posting, anywhere!” Or in my case, “Why not move back to Japan?”
  4. Depression — “My life may as well be over.”
  5. Acceptance — “I had a great time overseas.” “I can make a good life here.”

It’s normal to feel these emotions. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t cried about missing Japan. Multiple times. It’s ok to wish you were there again even if you know you made the right decision to return home. And you can always go back, even if just to visit.

Returning home can be tough. Especially if you lived in Japan for a several years. But remember that you aren’t alone, and that you will be ok.


3 comments so far...

  • Jeff Johnson Said on July 9th, 2013 at 10:34 pm:

    Great article! Having lived in Japan with the U.S. military and then as a civilian gaijin working in Tokyo, I experienced reverse culture shock more than once. I have endless examples of reverse culture shock that I could add to your list. I’m not as good as you are about identifying ways to cope, although sharing them with someone who can relate is a way to cope. I still have a hard time coping, and I seem to spend more time looking back at my life in Japan than I do looking forward to life here in the States. I’ll share five of my own examples of “what to expect” when returning to the U.S., and sorry about the lack of recommendations for coping. What I write will sound very negative. I don’t intend to be, but you experience a lot of negatively with reverse culture shock. You’ll notice that I exaggerate for effect. :)

    1. It’s so dark here
    Even in the rural, small towns of Japan, you can find a pachinko palace on a street corner that lights up the night like a Las Vegas casino. In the States, nighttime is really dark, and it’s depressing. You might find yourself driving through a dimly lit subdivision at night trying to find the address of a person who invited you to a party, but you struggle to read street signs and house numbers because it’s so darned dark here at night. You’ll start to miss the bright nighttime in Japan and Tokyo in particular. You’ll miss the sounds of Japan at night, too.

    2. Your colleagues talk over you
    If you’ve worked in Japan, you’ve probably noticed that at meetings your Japanese colleagues typically allow everyone to express their opinions while others politely listen and consider those opinions, or at least pretend to. Here in the Sates – are you kidding? You’ll find that just about any time you express an opinion at a meeting one or two people at the table will interrupt and talk over you and everyone else. Americans are good at talking and poor at listening. We treat a discussion at the office like a race. You’ll feel frustrated because you can’t get a word in edgewise. You’ll tune out everyone and daydream about being back in Japan where the Japanese have too many meetings, but at least the Japanese communicate at those meetings. You’ll go home, turn on your TV, and observe the same behavior on Cable TV news networks. You’ll hear the host, the liberal guest, and the conservative guest, all talking over each other. They’re shouting. They have no interest in hearing what anyone has to say. Even if they know their opinion is wrong, they must get their talking point out within the limited amount of air time and drown out the other side. If they actually listened to the other side they would lose their job. You’ll think you’re back at the office. You’ll curse at this brand of professional wresting on your TV and wish you were back in Japan watching “Gilgamesh Night”. (Did I just date myself?)

    3. World Class Customer Service
    American companies pride themselves on “world class” customer service. They will brag about all the J.D. Powers awards they’ve racked up for customer service. They can keep their “world class” customer service. I’ll take Japanese customer service any day. In the States, you’ll go to Home Depot and find that there is no one to help you choose a particular floor tile grout. When you do find someone in an orange apron you’ll be told that the floor tile person is at lunch and should be back soon. If he’s not at lunch, you’ll be told to wait for just a moment while the floor tile person is paged over the intercom. He will never come and no one else in the entire depot wearing an orange apron can help you. You will say to yourself, “This would NEVER happen in Japan!” and storm out. You’ll wish you were back at Tokyu Hands where if you buy one screw the clerk will package the screw in wrapping fit for a wedding present. You can also forget about the 0 yen/free smile at McDonald’s. Hope they get your order right. If I ever started my own company, I’d fly my employees to Japan for some customer service training. Oh, and the wobbly wheel on your shopping cart at Walmart! Have you ever experienced a wobbly wheel that makes a loud “pah-dup, pah-dup, pah-dup” sound in Japan? I haven’t.

    4. You must own a car to survive
    Unless you’re living in New York City, you’ll need a car to survive in the States. Some people need a car to check their mail. Even if your local grocery store is within walking distance, modern American neighborhoods are not designed the way they used to be. There’s not much in the way of functional pedestrian walking paths in many places in the States. Our nation is built around the automobile. Even if there are sidewalks and crosswalks, American drivers aren’t accustomed to significant volumes of pedestrian traffic. You’ll fear that you’ll get run over on your walk to the store. So you’ll grab the car keys and spend a buck in gas to buy a loaf of bread. If you have kids you’ll soon tire of having to drive them all over the place; soccer practice, school activities, shopping, etc. Many parents these days are sick of driving their kids all over the place, so the “sleep-over” has taken on epidemic proportions in America. It’s easier to drive your kid to his or her friend’s house, let your kid stay overnight (which would be considered an imposition in Japan), and have the other kid’s parent drive your kid back home the next day (another imposition). Hardly a weekend goes by that my kid isn’t sleeping over somewhere or a friend isn’t sleeping over at my house. My Japanese wife was griping about this before I began writing. You’ll wish you were raising your kids in Japan where they can safely walk or ride the train or bus and where you can walk one block to buy beer from a street corner vending machine in a well lit neighborhood. When your kids become old enough to start driving you’ll lay awake at night worrying about them dying on the highway and wishing they were riding the subway to Shibuya to meet their friends instead of at the mall.

    5. Korean-ized Japanese Restaurants
    I live in Atlanta. There are tons of Japanese restaurants here. Only a few are owned and operated by real Japanese people. Most of the Japanese sushi and teppanyaki places are run by Koreans. You’ll probably not hear “irrashaimase!” when you walk in. You might wonder why the cook added sautéed green peppers to your katsudon. The food will be good, but it won’t be the same. If you take colleagues to lunch at a Japanese restaurant, they might ask you to speak Japanese to the Korean waitress. They will be stunned to learn that cooks don’t really flip shrimp through the air and into the mouths of customers in Japan. If you’re ever in Atlanta and want some really good gyoza, let me know. :)

    I could go on, but I’ll leave it at five examples. And for the record, I do love my country. There’s a lot about America and her culture that I do love and there are things about Japan that I don’t like, so anyone who has read this far should keep in mind that we are discussing reverse culture shock and not whether one country is better than the other. Makes me wonder what Japanese people experience when they return to Japan from the States.

    JJ – Twitter: @Gyoza_Jeff

  • AshleyJapan Said on July 10th, 2013 at 12:51 am:

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff! Yes, we all have such different experiences returning, and I’m not sure it’s easy to tell someone it’s negative–we know that some of our observations or feelings are negative, but we they are human feelings. I’m actually thankful for the dark, but one of the places in Japan we lived the longest was actually quite dark as well, so it really does depend on where you live.

    I also miss not needing a car. Of course, after we had a baby we got a car to make things easier, but before that I loved biking everywhere (except during the awful, bitter cold winter winds in Shizuoka!)

    Another thing I noticed was how grungy and casual people in the US dress. Let alone the fact I usually dressed casually before I went to Japan (and even in Japan, compared with most other women out in public), but it’s still shocking to me to go out and feel like everyone around me is wearing pajamas, yoga clothes, or some other variant. It’s not wrong, but it feels so odd to me, even though I like not having to worry as much about how I dress. Of course where we are in the US is much more casual than say, the east coast, so that depends, too.

  • Alice V Said on July 10th, 2013 at 9:16 pm:

    This is a really good list. I think number 7 is the real kicker for me–I was overwhelmed by North American grocery stores *before* I came to Japan!

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