Culture Shock


I’ve always had these funny little “aHA!” moments that seem to come later than they should. I remember the time I found out that the saying, “eavesdropping” was not “ease dropping”. I thought you’d ease around the corner and listen in on people’s conversations! Made sense to me. And then there was the discovery of the “old wives’ tale”. I’d thought it was “old wise tale”. Legends sounding so wise that they were passed down the generations. Some of my discoveries don’t have to do with mispronunciation. I won’t even go into the time [in HIGH SCHOOL :O] that I realized that the word refreshment had to do with being refreshed!!!

A few months ago, I was driving down the street here. I was taking notice of how the old buildings didn’t seem that strange to me, the cars and street signs don’t seem so weird anymore. It was becoming normal. I thought back on my first weeks, even months here. The hard struggle of adjustments. Suddenly a phrase was rolling around on my tongue. Culture shock. Hm. CULTURE shock. CULTURE SHOCK!!!. Suddenly with eyes wide open and mouth agape I realized that what I had experienced was just that. It had a NAME!!! And it was documented somewhere!!!

Growing up in the states, I’d mostly thought of culture shock as a southerner trying to figure out why life in the North ran so much faster while the northerner tried to understand the slow pace of the south. I just thought it had to do with things like grits vs. bagels and lox, rural vs. uptown – that sort of thing.

Before moving to overseas, I was SO looking forward to such a cross-cultural experience. Non-military friends would look at me with wonder and say things like, “You are so brave!”. I’d smile and probably felt a bit proud. Sure, I was a bit nervous but I was really looking forward to living off the continental United States again. We’d lived in Hawaii before and have such fond memories! I was looking forward to exploring a new culture.

Fast forward three months. One hot afternoon, I’m picking up my kindergartner and nearly break down on a new friend. We’d planned to get together but I asked if we could reschedule because I was having an “off” day. We ended up at a picnic table where she let me pour out my anxious heart while our boys played on a playground.
That day, I was mostly anxious about being anxious. I was finding it so hard to adjust. I felt thrown by the way nearly everything in my life was opposite or just very different than it had been.

Japanese Culture Shock

I didn’t think I had any expectations before coming but I must have expected it to be a lot like Hawaii because I keep thinking about how it doesn’t remind me of Hawaii at ALL!! I can’t figure out how to adjust my air conditioner because it’s not written in English! Even the gears are written in the opposite order on my dashboard! And the other day I tried saying “Thank you” like the locals and teared up as soon as I walked away. Because I felt so weird about feeling so different and I felt stupid for feeling so weird!!!!

My friend was kind and patient and somehow managed to give me dignity during the unraveling. She told me that she thought it took most everyone [moving here] at least six months before they felt normal. What? I was confused. “But how come you never hear about that? How come I’ve not heard one person talk about it?” I asked. “Well, maybe it’s like childbirth. You forgot how painful it was after a while.” she answered. Hm. That makes sense.

She went on to say that after a while, people come to love it. “After a while, you’ll see…” she continued as I looked on suspiciously, “that it is a lot like Hawaii.” I wanted to believe that she was just a bit nuts but she seemed so sane, wise and like she knew what she was talking about.

“Seems like you are very disappointed with yourself. Like you don’t think you’re doing this “right”.” Ah. she’s perceptive too! She was right. I felt like a failure. All I could find on-line before moving here was how much everybody loooooved it here. Everything was incredible but I’d still had such a hard time.

Turns out, there are some things you can never quite be prepared for. Some things (most things?) just have to be experienced. Until that day, I thought I was alone in this. I feel that my anxiety was nearly doubled by my sense of failure. If during those initial days, I could have told myself, “I heard it would be like this. This is normal. It will pass.” I might have been better able to focus on the adjusting. Rather I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me that I would feel so unnerved in my new environment.

You know what? I’ve been here for over seven months now. And I love it! I do! I really do. And it reminds me of Hawaii. I can’t even explain why but it just does. There is something relaxing in the air for me.

culture shock –noun
a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.

I have one thing to add to that definition: NON-permanent.

This post was originally published on Okinawa Hai, but we think it relates to life here as well. Overseas Yes and Okinawa Hai have no legal or managerial affiliation; please see the Legal Page for more information.

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