Expatriation? Beware of the Culture Shock! Oh, and the Tentacles Too!

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by Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers

Recently by Mike (in Tokyo) ‘I Went to an Islamic and a FascistCountry…’

Recently, there's been lots of talk, and rightfully so, about Americans escaping the USA to live in other countries. If you already have escaped and are already adjusted to your new home, I say, "Bravo!" If you haven't yet done so, but are thinking about escaping, then all I can say is that you need to be prepared! This article is for you.

Of course, I can't write about specifics for every country in the world, but I can write about generalities concerning expatriation. And that is what this article is about: Culture Shock. It is a common denominator concerning expatriation to any country of the world. It doesn't matter if we are speaking about another developed western nation that speaks your language or some backwards dive in the sticks of Boroguay; Even those of stalwart mind and body, like Clark Kent, can be reduced to a pile of incoherent useless and drooling wet noodles by Culture Shock.

I have a friend whose son is moving to Japan. We’ve been having some correspondence and I really want to help my friend’s son get acclimated and become successful in the Land of the Rising Sun. (Gee, does that mean I have to immediately take him out every night getting so drunk we can barely walk and also have him start smoking two packs of cigarettes everyday within the first two days? No! That can wait at least a week or two!)

Seriously, I want to help any way I can so I thought I should bring up a nasty subject and that is about Culture Shock. I also thought since we're here, you, dear reader, might find this information useful too!

Here’s what I wrote to my friend:

Culture shock can really screw people up. Years ago, I was the liaison between foreigners and the Japanese management for a big company in Tokyo. We had about 480 foreign staff. From that experience, I’ve seen people just totally and completely fall apart. Really.

It really hits people when they become ill with the flu or something. It happened to me!

I got the flu one time and was sick as a dog. All I wanted was to have for breakfast two eggs, bacon, toast and orange juice. That’s not asking a lot, is it? Well, in Japan, it is…

I got the two eggs, bacon, toast and orange juice, but it’s not the same in Japan as it is in the United States. I know that this is difficult to understand, but trust me; there is no restaurant or person in this country that can make bacon and eggs like mom can. For one, mom isn’t here in Japan and for two; even the bacon and the eggs, toast and juice are different.

Really. They are. You have a very hard time finding a restaurant in Japan (that’s not inside a major hotel) that makes bacon and eggs like you get in the states (even inside a major hotel, I think you have trouble.) In Japan, they don’t know how to cook an egg over-easy or over-medium; In Japan, the toast is sliced massively thick (or too thin) and they often cut the crusts off. Sure, Wonder Bread sucks, but when you’re sick and longing for home-style cooked food; it sounds “Wonder-ful” (Sorry for the pun!); and the bacon? Nope. No way. There is no such thing as a slice of crispy bacon in all of Japan. I know. I checked.

Hell, the bacon is different so it’s even hard to make bacon at your Japanese apartment that is like the bacon mom makes!

And juice? Are you kiddin’ me? My episode was in the late 1970s so it is much better now. Back in the late 1970s there was no such thing in Japan like what Americans call “juice” – meaning something like 100% fresh squeezed or even concentrate – back then in Japan, “juice”, meant something carbonated like Orange Soda Pop.

Really. All I WANTED WAS A SIMPLE GLASS OF JUICE AND THEY BROUGHT ME SOMETHING LIKE FANTA ORANGE! THAT’S NOT JUICE! I wanted to scream! "Argh! Fudge frank melon monkey feathers!" How hard could it be to get a simple glass of juice?

Well, in 1979 Japan, completely and totally impossible!

“You sick? Poor baby! You want eggs and bacon just like mom made for breakfast? Well, we don’t have that, but how about some nice tentacles, instead?”

That seemingly benign episode of the flu, with no eggs and bacon like mom makes, set me off on a deep Culture Shock experience too! I was such a wreck that I thought I was going to explode!

When living in Japan, if Culture Shock sets in then if the person doesn’t come out of it relatively quickly, I’ve seen them fall into serious clinical depression. If that happens, they are finished. I’ve seen that happen more times than I can count.

One time, there was a guy who came here from Iowa (or was it Illinois?) and within 3 weeks, he was in serious depression, and we had to send him back to the USA. Why? When he got here to Japan, he thought he was going to see a Japan that had samurai and geisha running around (no joke). So, after arrival, when he saw a big modern city and business people in suits (nothing like what he was expecting) it freaked him out.

You can’t make this stuff up. I remember seeing my face in his one morning when he was bursting at the seams and complaining about not being able to get a decent steak and eggs breakfast in Tokyo. He was demanding that I take him to a McDonald’s (there were only a few around in those days) so that he could at least get some pancakes. He told me that he wanted a, “Home cooked meal!” I wondered what kind of home he was from if McDonald’s pancakes were his idea of “home-cooked”?

Then there was the lady from Nebraska (or was it Nevada?) who insisted to me that because we were in Asia, her wristwatch had started running in reverse. After telling me this a few times I decided to investigate and soon realized that she had started wearing her wristwatch upside down.

I used to joke to foreigners that dogs in America lift up their left rear leg when doing their business but, since Japan is the other way around, dogs lift up the opposite leg, their right rear leg, when doing so. After that episode with the upside down watch, I stopped making that joke to people.

Too many were taking me seriously.

Your son won’t be that bad, of course (I trust). But I highly recommend that he familiarize himself with Culture Shock, what it is and its symptoms, so he can expect it and know what’s happening when it comes and be more able to deal with it. I knew about it beforehand so I think that helped me from not becoming more of a psychotic than I already am.

Heck, I have a friend whose younger brother came here and he had lived with Japanese people all his life. He even had a Japanese mom! Even so, he had seriously bad Culture Shock for at least three months. And I know he was so incapacitated and depressed that he missed work for several weeks.

You son (and dear reader) will be better off if he understands that he will have Culture Shock like everyone else does. In fact, if he understands it and expects it, it might bounce off him like rain on a duck!

And that was basically the letter.

I hope my friend’s son comes to Japan and that he does well. I love this place and have never regretted moving here even once.

If you decide to come to Japan to live, or move anywhere else outside your native country, please do yourself a favor and at least get a cursory understanding of Culture Shock and be ready for it when it comes. That way, you’ll understand what is happening and it will just be another part of the experience.

Oh, and I also suggest that you start liking tentacles for breakfast.

For a humorous article on this same subject, may I recommend this? Five Things They Never Tell You About Living in Japan

Dedicated to my friends, Mark Davis and Shea Davis

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He is the president of an Internet & Cross Media advertising/marketing agency and a media production company named Universal Vision. He writes about marketing, the Internet and Social Media at the Modern Marketing Japan blog. His book, Schizophrenic in Japan, went on sale in 2005.

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