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Saturday, March 21, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Culture shock connections


Japan is not as shocking as it used to be.

I mean culture-wise. Culture shock Japanese-style doesn't have the same voltage as it had before.

By "culture shock" I refer to that delicate period of adjustment when newcomers find their fingers stuck deep in the cultural sockets of their adopted way of life. The anxiety of that adjustment can distort, discourage and inevitably short-circuit any visitor's stay.

If you have made Japan your second home, you certainly have friends and acquaintances who arrived here with the same sunny hopes as yours but never found the light at the end of the dark tunnel of adjustment.

Those friends and acquaintances are probably no longer around. Odds are the cultural jolt was too much and they packed their bags and departed.

Yet, modern times have reduced the cultural amperes in a wide variety of ways.

First, the hardware is much better grounded. Japan isn't as Japanesey anymore. Cities here flash the same glassy facades as cities anywhere.

Streets are wider than they used to be, cleaner, more antiseptic. On those streets, people dress in a fashion sense that is cozily cosmopolitan. Suburbia, despite the lack of green grass, wears a Western cloak of uniformity. Even old-style Japanese pit toilets are harder and harder to find. (That is, if you're looking.)

Neither does food cause the stomach growls it once did. Nowadays, most foreigners arrive already familiar with the mainstays of Japanese cuisine, an advantage gaijin of the past did not have.

And whether Western junk food is to be enjoyed or endured is not the question. For if you're homesick, a Big Mac, a pepperoni pizza or a Snickers bar might provide a quick answer for what ails you — food favors that did not grace the plates of foreigners past.

In the old days if you missed your friends, your grandma, your best girl and so on, there were only two avenues open: either you bought a plane ticket back or you picked up the phone and called, at a per-minute rate that made the plane ticket look cheap.

But the Internet and e-mail have made those days obsolete. With the proper equipment, a call home need not cost a single yen. And — again, with the proper equipment — you can now gaze straight into the eyes of your beloved and share sights as well as sighs.

You can also keep up with hometown events, popular TV shows and the ups and downs of your favorite ball clubs, as if you had never even left.

The same Internet has largely unraveled the tangled woes of shopping. For example, I have a long-time friend here who used to travel home once ever few years to return with one suitcase full of nothing but shoes. No Japanese shoe company made her size.

Now they do. More than that, with simple browse and click, she can shop for shoes from the convenience of her own house from the very merchants she always visits on trips abroad.

No, the stiff drink that once was culture shock has been largely diluted. In most ways but one — the most important one — language.

Sure, there is more English to be found. Sure, there are more English speakers too.

But if culture shock is that state in which the individual feels set adrift from the security of his/her grasp on daily circumstances, then language and communication are the keys to insulating against and overcoming that shock.

For what are we as individuals, but our language?

Close your eyes and peer into the depths of your soul. What do you see? Perhaps only the darkness that holds us all.

Yet there are sounds, are there not? The sounds of your own thoughts, the sounds of how you frame your concept of the world.

These sounds — bundled in words and bound together in the grammar strings of our language — match up with our history of experiences and the mystery of our emotions to create who we are. It may be too simple to say we are made of words, but take away the words and we have a harder time anchoring into our surroundings.

That's what culture shock does. It cuts that anchor and leaves us floating. It can be scary to float.

Those that overcome that shock are those that learn to become comfortable adrift. Or they knit a new communication line through Japanese. Or they immerse themselves in gaijin communities where the old lines of language still work.

Yes, culture shock is not as tough as it used to be, but it is still not easy. For the power line of such shock is not natto, tatami, rush-hour trains or homesickness; it's connections.

Sever those and it can still be shocking.

And all the Snickers in the world won't help.



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