Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mild culture shock (and other odd stuff about going home)

One thing's for sure about being home for two weeks: I never thought Springfield could be so refreshing. It felt good to be back in truly familiar surroundings again. But it was also a little strange, too. I didn't really realize just how used I'd gotten to the way things are in Hiroshima, to the point that things back home seemed somehow "off." It's hard to explain, but I guess you could say we felt a touch of reverse culture shock.

It was a lot of little stuff that threw me. Like, I just couldn't seem to get over the constant feeling that the world looked so empty. Hiroshima is set in a valley between lots of mountains. There are also plenty of high apartment buildings, so that everywhere you go you always feel like there's a lot above you — mountains, buildings, the Astram line, the highway. But in Springfield, everything felt so low to the ground. I looked up and there was nothing but sky. Everything seemed so vacant.

For that matter, everything was so green. The trees were bare when we arrived but everything blossomed after a few days. In Ohio I took for granted the green landscape that surrounded me everyday. I never realized how refreshing that was until we got to Japan and I saw that no one here has a yard with actual grass. Just dirt. Most of the trees and plant-life you see here are very heavily landscaped, with the Japanese exercising tight control over the natural environment so as to maximize the efficient use of space everywhere. Houses and buildings are crammed tightly together. There's a lot of concrete. Even in natural areas, there's concrete. Anyone who's been to Japan knows that the Japanese love to pour concrete down the side of mountains, along river beds, everywhere. It can be pretty hard to escape.

The money felt strange, too. Imagine that, I never dreamed American money would feel strange in my hands. But it did. All the coins seemed too small. I guess I've just gotten used to the larger Japanese coins.

The money no longer felt familiar in my hands anymore. Even the bills have been redesigned with more colors since we left. It looks like Monopoly money.

The food was another thing. A lot of food and drinks were just too sweet. Japanese food is pretty bland and the desserts aren't so loaded with sugar. I almost started to feel like there must be extra sugar added to everything Americans eat. So many things just seemed a little sweeter. The chicken at the Chinese buffet, the lemonade at the coffee shop that was so sweet I couldn't even drink half of it, the "healthy" cereal. Even my parents' tap water.

Not only that, but when did the 6-piece nugget meal at McDonald's become a kid's meal?

And the cereal — it felt funny being able to read the box again! I'm so used to sitting at the kitchen table in the morning trying to read what little bit I can decipher off the cereal boxes. Suddenly it was all in English again and it just seemed so... simple. Like somehow something was missing.

One thing we knew we'd have a hard time adjusting to was the customer service. Nothing beats Japan's customer service. Employees are always clean, respectful, and they almost never screw up your transaction. In restaurants, servers leave the bill on your table right after you've ordered, so you don't have to wait forever wondering when your server will get around to telling you what you owe. The best thing is the call system they have in a lot of restaurants. If you need your waitress for something, you just hit the button on your table and your waitress calls out "Hai!" to acknowledge you and then comes hurrying over to your table to see what you need. In places that don't have a button, it's perfectly acceptable for you to half-shout, "Sumimasen! (Excuse me!)" to get the server's attention. Compare that to America, where I'm pretty sure I might end up with spit in my food if I did that. Or where, on our first visit back last year, we had to wait for the cashier in Taco Bell to finish chatting with her buddy and pop a zit on her neck before asking what we wanted. I'd also apparently forgotten the proper procedure at check-out in stores this time, too. When I bought some pants at Old Navy, the clerk bagged them up and thanked me. I stood there staring at him for an awkward moment until he said "Everything OK?" I'd been waiting for him to pick up the bag and gingerly hand it to me as they do in Japan; he was expecting me to pick it up myself and skedaddle.

I'm also pretty sure I bowed to a bunch of people back home without thinking about it, too. Bowing becomes so ingrained in you in Japan, you do it without thinking. My aunt said I bowed to her after opening up some gifts she gave me. I toured Springfield's new high school and bowed to random strangers before passing them in the hallway. That was weird.

Another weird moment: in the movie theater. Joe was super-excited about seeing Wolverine, so we went to see the first showing at the mall theater. Above the ticket counter, there was a sign posted saying that Monsters vs. Aliens was not in 3D. I turned to Joe and said, "What, are you supposed to be able to see that movie in 3D in other theaters?" He said yes and tried to change the subject, but when I said something else about how neat that sounded, he told me we should talk about it later. Guess I was embarrassing him by asking silly questions that made it look like I was living in a cave. According to him, other people must have thought we sounded like aliens living on another planet. Hadn't I seen all the news stories on this? Well, no, I don't usually pay attention to movie reviews, and being in Japan I'm totally isolated from any of the usual buzz you hear day-to-day about various movies. In a way, I am on my own planet over here.

I also felt that way when I picked up my hometown newspaper, the one I used to work for, and discovered it had changed. There were a lot fewer pages, the pages themselves were narrower, the type on the weather map on the back page was so minuscule I could hardly read it, there was a new design. A lot more ads, a lot less newsprint in the pages that are left. I felt sad and disappointed. It just wasn't the same.

One day Joe and I went to his mom's work to meet her for lunch. On the way out we bumped into one of her co-workers and she introduced us and to my surprise the guy gushed about what a fan he was of mine. I was caught off guard, thinking, "This place is a little far away from Springfield, but he must have seen something I wrote in the paper?" No — he meant my blog! Odd to think people know me now by my writing in the blog, not the paper.

A lot of things have changed while we've been gone, even though it hasn't been that long. New stores open up, others close. Springfield has a brand new high school. They're putting in entrance/exit ramps connecting the main road by my parents' house to the highway. Downtown's all torn up for construction of the new hospital...

And suddenly there are a lot of babies. I guess we're just at that age where everyone starts to have babies? We spent some time getting to know our niece, Chloe, who was just 2 months old when we first met her and is now a lively 16-month old, walking around, saying a few words. I also met my cousin's son for the first time, as well as the chubby-cheeked baby of a former co-worker my age. It was a lot of fun playing with these kids. But it also kind of reminded me that, if we weren't in Japan, we'd probably have our own little chubby-cheeked wonder right now.

And that's a strange thought, too.

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