At Tokyo Orientation we had the 4 stages of culture shock drilled into us:
Stage 1 – Initial Euphoria
Stage 2 – Irritation and Hostility
Stage 3 – Gradual Adjustment
Stage 4 – Accommodation and Biculturalism
But I haven’t really been affected by it so far. Sure, I was euphoric in Tokyo because, well, I was in Tokyo, but other than that I haven’t felt any great emotional upheaval. In the first few weeks in Kanazawa, we first-year JETs would jokingly ask each other what stage we were in, but I’ve been here nearly three months now and I’ve yet to feel culture shock. While I do get the odd day of frustration because I can’t read, understand or communicate with people, on the whole, I’ve managed alright. I keep waiting for the culture shock (or ‘culture fatigue’) to kick in, but it might be December before it happens, when it will be freezing and I won’t be at home for Christmas, my first.
I definitely experienced culture shock when I moved to Italy in 2008 though. It was very stressful trying to organise the move. At the beginning of September my mum and I went over to find accommodation and only just managed to secure something on the evening before our flight home. Then a week or two later I had to re-sit my summer Italian language exams ( which I had failed), the result of which would determine whether I would go to Italy or not, but before I even sat the exams I had already paid the deposit on my apartment and booked my flight over for the 1st of October. My result only officially came out on the 30th of September, but luckily I had been given a heads up by an insider in the department a week before. I arrived in Bologna on my own and had to set myself up with a new life through Italian which I really couldn’t speak very well or understand that well either. The first three months in Italy I was very homesick. The time seemed to move very slowly, and the length of time between the visits of my mum at the end of October, of my friends at the end of November, and my return home for Christmas at the end of December were very long. But by the time Spring came, I had settled in, and by the time I left at the end of summer, it had become my second home.
The move to Japan has been comparatively so much easier. I came over with a great bunch of people who were all in the same boat; we had several orientations to prepare us for life and work in Japan; accommodation was already organised for us and we had supervisors to help us set up things like bank accounts. Even though I feel guilty that I’m relying on English to communicate with people, it is such a relief that I can. The JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) at my school all have a really high standard of English and are really nice and helpful to me.
Two nights ago I went to an enkai (work party) with the female teachers at my school and we went for dinner at a French bistro (the Japanese are obsessed with French culture). I wasn’t sitting beside any of my JTEs but I was able to talk to some teachers I had never spoken to before, and they all had at least a basic level of English so we were able to carry on a very pleasant conversation. I always feel awkward about talking to other teachers in the school because I can’t speak to them in Japanese and I don’t want to force English on them, whether they can speak it or not.
It was a lovely evening, but I was surprised to find myself feeling a little homesick for Italy. Even though we were in a traditional Japanese-style house that had been converted into a French bistro, as we were all sat around a long wooden table, eating and drinking and talking animatedly, I remembered many birthday celebrations I had been to in Italy which were just like that. I really miss Italy sometimes. Because it is the only other place I have lived on my own, I keep comparing my life here to how it was in Italy and feeling how strangely similar it is. I don’t feel homesick for Ireland that much because I talk to my family a lot and there are three other Irish JETs in Kanazawa and I’ve kept in contact with the other first-year Irish JETs around Japan.
Fortunately I’ll get to have a little bit of Italy in Japan from February on, when a friend of mine from Bologna will come to Kyoto to study for the rest of the year.