Friday, March 2, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock: When does it end?

So we know about all the little things that startle you when you come home after a long time abroad. But for me there's been a sneakier side to reverse culture shock. It started one day several weeks ago when I realized that at some point while I was wrestling with New York, I had taken that last stumbling step out of my life in Tokyo. After months of knowing intellectually that my time there was over, I finally felt it to be true.  

And you'd fuckin hope so, right? Good lord, my friends, it is March of 2012. It's almost the anniversary of the earthquake! I got on that plane nine months ago. Tokyo is long behind me. I have a new city and new friends and new jobs. I don't even look the same. I've moved on.

So what's weird about it? I hate these four words, but: it's hard to explain. First of all, just because I've moved on from Tokyo doesn't mean that I've found a place here. I haven't. I've had a hard time in New York, a really ugly streak of bad luck after what was already an unusually queasy year, and I don't think I've ever had such a terrible attitude in my life. This might make you sick, but I've always  felt that I have a pretty good relationship with the universe -- that my hardships are always balanced out by the countless amusements and possibilities scattered all around me every day. That's the truth! I admit it! 

But lately I've started wondering if that's just because I've spent my life in the Northwest and abroad. Because yeah, it's easy to feel like the universe is on my side when I'm skipping along the river eating huckleberries in the Siletz Gorge, or when a bad night means throwing on a killer outfit and going out to smoke cigarettes and sulk under a billion neon lights and soulful gaze of a cheesy pop idol... 

...but that sense of cosmic benevolence doesn't shine as bright when strangers shriek IDIOT! at me on the street. Or when volatile drunks throw their arms around me outside my workplace. Or when a dark liquid from somewhere up above splatters against my cheek on 33rd St. And these are just the publishable calamities! The effect on my superstitious soul, already wearied by the whole homecoming saga, has been disastrous. I mean, one night I sat in pee on the train. I don't think I've ever felt my sense of humor under so much strain! I can take a lot, but that's some heavy lifting, right? 

So here's the point. Yeah, I've moved on from Tokyo. I can reminisce and start to miss it, but I don't die over it every day. I want to live in America right now. No question. BUT: if I went back it would be so. easy. One night recently my nerves were shot again, and I was thinking like, who is this person? What is this attitude? This is terrible! And it occurred to me that if I flew back to Tokyo tomorrow, I'd know exactly what I was doing. I'd get off the plane and onto the train like a breeze. I'd be surefooted in the stations, I'd know what to have for a snack at 7/11, I'd send a hundred texts and I'd have someone to meet by the time I got to the city. I'd have places to sleep and people to call for jobs. I'd know the good places in the right hoods and I'd probably have a few orgasms within the first day.  

You know what I mean? Tokyo's behind me, but that doesn't mean I know where the fuck anything else is. I'm still wary of my foothold. And sometimes, when I get a little tired of the long-haul process of settling in, I think of how easy it would be to run back to Japan and know just what to do. And that is rough. That kind of thinking is harder than the loud voices, the close-talkers, the subway circus, the aggressive strangers -- by far!

I have enough sense to recognize this as part of the process, for me and for many, many others. It's a theatrical ultimatum: stop or go, back or forward, fold or gamble. And you know what, I Googled this shit -- and I read a whole lot of words by people who, after 9 or 10 or 12 months back home, just said fuck it! and started making plans to go expat again.

I respect that, but it's not gonna be happening here. I'm over that shit! Rats don't scare me. Pee on the subway bench can't stop me. Recession, whatever. I'm here now and I'm gonna do this thing. So, wish me luck! And I wish you luck, too, if you're in these shoes. You know, being a foreigner in your own country for awhile is as worthy an adventure as anything -- and making a life for yourself is as rewarding and enlightening an accomplishment there as anywhere. No matter what you decide, please enjoy this advice my mom gave me when I was at critical mass last Monday: Don't forget to enjoy what's good where you are right now -- so even if you decide to leave next week, make sure this week is awesome. Hang in there, baby! Tomorrow can be brilliant! 


Monday, February 20, 2012

My Favorite Japan Blogs Part 1

My Google stats warm my heart. I'm glad people are still coming here. I don't live in Japan anymore but I'm still mad connected to Tokyo and the people I know there, and I'll still write here when the occasion calls for it. But if you dig this blog, let me suggest some current jams you'll probably like! There are a billion Japan blogs out there, but I've always mainly stuck to the circuit that revolves around pop culture, fashion, nightlife, sex, hangovers, and romantic street shots. (Incidentally, this is a pretty insular scene -- almost all of these bloggers became good friends of mine, or were already friends of friends.)

This girl's been blogging from Japan for a long time and has commented here, but somehow I completely failed to read her until recently. That's a bummer because now she's living in Tokyo and her scene really looks like my scene. Carry that torch, Vivian! Let me add that if I'm perhaps a little prone to sulk in gutters or wake up drunk with a tobacco-soaked rat's nest in place of my hair and then stay in the same position for the next twelve hours, Vivian is pure fly. She hits hot parties, snaps good-looking people, and writes professionally. This post is a great example of what I dig about her style -- in one simple string of photos and captions she shouts out to "Shibuya at dusk," drinking "Slat," "seafoam green nail polish," "Chungking Express," and taking too many self-portraits. That's my jam, Vivian! 

Homegirl hardly needs my introduction. Julie, are you not the reigning queen of stylish girl bloggers in Japan? Haha. If you are one of the small handful that didn't come here straight from Julie's blog, go there now! She hasn't been updating as often lately (bitches got lives, people -- you want us to stay interesting, don't you?) but look through her back pages. Julie tends to write much more informative posts about Japanese culture as she sees it than I do, though she keeps you in touch with a steady supply of shots from her own life and friends. She's also really good at writing interesting posts about international pop culture topics related to Japan, so for such a straight-up Japan blog hers is surprisingly full of awesome film and music recommendations

Engagement purikura! Don’t gag! It’s adorable! (apart from the cray-cray eyes of hugeness)

Sarah is a South African living in Sapporo with her Japanese fiance, so there's a bunch of stuff you don't get to read about often. She's mad prolific, posting all the time about stuff we all love like convenience store snacks, purikura, arts & crafts, snow festivals -- damn, Sarah! How do you do it? I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah during my only visit to Sapporo, and she's just as fab in person. 

Selena at Expiring

I don't even know where to start with Selena. She is, straight up, one of the most interesting and genuine people I know. She's fly, fun, smart, socially conscious, and since the earthquake she's been working her ass off to find shelter, food, and care for the countless animals up north that were left without homes or families in the wake of the disaster. Sample writing: It's still cold as balls up in the radioactive north, but spring is starting to rear its head, for which I am hella grateful. This week, my mask-wearing mug is appearing in The Big Issue (Japan), a magazine sold by homeless vendors outside of major train stations. The article is about the work of Japan Cat Network in Fukushima, and features a big fat picture of yours truly feeding cats in the zone, as well as an inset on dear King, who we hear is frolicking happily among the hot springs of Beppu. WTF! Do you want to read more of that shit or what? Aw, the last time I saw Selena was back in April or something, when we wandered through darkened Shinjuku looking for parfaits. I miss you, boo! Keep your chin up! 

Reverse Culture Shock: Acute Symptoms

Hey, baby pies! Hey from New York! How are you ? Where are you? What have you been up to? I miss you! How have I been? Oof. Let's talk about reverse culture shock -- short-term now, long-term next. I've made the trip between Japan and the U.S. six times, I think, so I know all about the acute signs of being stuck in Tokyo-mode.

OMG everyone's so LOUD
This hits you first, even if you haven't been away for long. At the airport, families shout to each other across, like, an acre of space. "JEFF! HEY JEFF! I GOT -- I GOT YOUR -- WHAT? I GOT YOUR BAGS! I SAID I GOT YOUR BAGS! NO I GOT IT!" I still remember waiting for my bags at SFO after one long summer in the Hyogo countryside and feeling tears prick my eyes because all the noise close to my head was stressing me out and I couldn't understand why everyone thought it was okay to scream around me.

Plus, you can understand all the petty bitching and mundane prattle going on in conversations around you, which makes people seem a lot louder and more annoying than in Japan, where it's easy to tune people out if Japanese isn't your first language. This sometimes hit me when I was still at Narita, waiting for my flight with groups of American military members talking loudly about gossip on the base or their plants back home or whatever.

Well this is a docile bunch, but...

And then, whoa, all the noise on public transportation! The airport shuttles are startling enough, but even after three months back in America I was still totally unprepared for the NYC subways. The first time I took the N train into Manhattan I was way overwhelmed. I sat all tense and skittish, my eyes darting around the screeching carriage at all the unpredictable animals packed in with me, singing songs and dancing and yelling at each other and smelling like hair gel and sweat and trash and perfume. Of course, I got used to this fast -- before long I was grinning and skipping from platform to platform like "America's a circus, this is so fucking cool!"

Not actually a stranger but the lovely Melissa

WTF why is this person looking at me and talking to me
I got a lot of attention in Japan. Foreigners who look different get stared at, and young white ladies who speak Japanese can cause a stir in lots of places. But Japan lacks the American tendency to interact with strangers in proximity, and you really feel this difference when you come home. A lot.

You'll be like, trying to pick out an onion at the grocery store and suddenly some random guy's asking you a question. And you're like WHAT WHAT WHAT'S WRONG WHAT'S HAPPENING WHAT -- conveyed, of course, with a look of total alarm and a stammered, confused mumble -- and it takes you several seconds to realize he's just a guy at the grocery store also trying to pick out an onion, and since you both happened to be picking out onions in the same bin at the same time, he cracked a polite little joke about how many choices there were. By the time you start to remember that this is a normal thing that happens here, the poor guy has hurried away because you made him feel real awkward.

Hey stranger 'sup how you doin' OK bye man

While this is something you notice and can get used to quickly, last year it took me months -- months! -- to remember how to banter with strangers again after living in Japan. And it is absolutely one of my favorite things about my culture. People here are so open with their personalities, moods, and senses of humor. Granted, there are plenty of times when I'm not in the mood for that, and I have many fond memories of being left alone in Japan; but basically, American sociability really warms my heart and makes me feel like everyone's in it together.

I had a hard time with this one when I visited after I'd been living in Tokyo for a full year and some months. I felt like everyone was standing so close to me. When someone touched my shoulder in a casual conversation, it was startling and weird. I can't even really explain this because, as we all know, it's not like I never touched people in Tokyo. But when I got back here I felt like everyone was jabbing my bubble all the time.

It'll be OK. It'll be OK. It'll be OK. It'll be OK.
I was deep in Tokyo for a long time, but I got over all of this stuff within about four months. Fortunately, I actually like my country and culture -- always have! So as much as I dig Japan, I was totally willing to be embraced by the United States again. This isn't the case with everyone, from what I've heard. I've met a lot of Americans who went to Japan and came back a few months later just moaning and sighing about how much better everything is in Japan and how they haaaate being back here because America is sooo this and soooo that. Maybe that's part of the process for them,  I don't know. Even when I considered staying in Japan for ever, I never felt ill toward my own country and never doubted I could be happy there. Of course, I'm from Oregon, the greatest land of all, but the point is! If you weren't born and raised in Japan, then chill out about it, okay? You can survive your own country. All this stuff fades away as quickly as you let it. Give it a few months.

What I didn't expect was the long-term version of reverse culture shock, the slow struggle to readjust as I start over in a new city in my own country. It's a sneakier feeling of disorientation, a sense of discomfort that comes and goes, a bleak confusion between your bones that you can't put into words -- and it drags on, and on, and on. That's another post.