This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.
Part 5: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese – Conclusion
We lived in Africa for a year and returned to Japan. I got my teaching job back and the Wife worked on writing up her thesis. For our first few months we lived in a Japanese professor’s apartment taking care of his cat while he and his wife were in Africa, and while there we saved up enough money to rent small apartment in a building where the landlord only let to foreigners in a neighborhood that was shabby and run down by Japanese standards but worked for us. Soon we learned a baby was on the way and we began to entertain an extended life in Japan as the Wife’s advisor said she had a good chance to get a fellowship to continue her research on chimpanzees in Japan. We envisioned making Japan our home for years to come.
When things fell apart they fell apart quickly. On Jan 5, 1997 after submitting her thesis she learned that the post-doc had fallen through. Her advisor had failed to pull the strings necessary for her to land it. Such positions are treated as favors among scientists, so I don’t know if her advisor, one of Japan’s eminent primatologists, had used up his chits with other scientists or if he had simply forgotten to ask. Regardless, her scholarship was finished with the thesis submittal, and it would be another year before she would be able to find another fellowship. The loss of the scholarship halved our income at the very time when we needed money more than ever, and with a newborn it would be impossible for her to make up the difference editing scientific papers or tutoring English.
And I was burned out as a teacher. The lessons taught at Nova were extremely regimented, based around a textbook American Streamline. American Streamline was designed to be taught by any native speaker, teaching experience was not required. 20 years later I still dream about it, finding myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manila folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C alone – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 20 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”
And what about our newborn? Was it fair to him to grow up in a place far away from his grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins? What would life be like for him, an American child growing up in Japan? Growing up for anyone is tough. Growing up in Japan is even more difficult. But growing up a foreigner in Japan? We decided we couldn’t do that to him.
Besides, after completing her degree the Wife was having a change of heart, something that I noticed during our stay in Africa. She really wasn’t interested in becoming a primatologist. She was interested in medicine. So within days we formulated a plan. We would return to the US and live near her parents. She would take care of our child and take some required courses needed for medical school. By the time they were complete she would apply for medical school, right around the age our son would start school himself. I would get a job and build a career, supporting our family alone until she finished medical school. It was a crazy plan and would take almost 10 years to fulfill. But we stuck to it and it worked.
So what did I learn?
Living in Japan was nothing like I expected. I had studied the place in college and read everything I could on it but wasn’t prepared for the reality of what life in Japan is like and who the Japanese are.
I have said this many times and only because it bears repeating: I have traveled the world and the most unique people I’ve ever run across are the Japanese. Everything they do they do differently than other nations. In fact I don’t really consider the Japanese just a nationality: they are more of an ethnic group or even a religion. Being Jewish or African-American shapes your thinking and determines how you react to the world. It determines what you wear, what you eat and other aspects of daily living that we really don’t consider.
The same is true with the Japanese. Being Japanese determines what you eat, how you speak and relate to others, what you wear (depending on age group and sex), even how to laugh. Cultures are different, and the Japanese culture is one of the most different of all.
Just as importantly I learned about what it meant to be an American. I saw the US through the eyes of not just the Japanese but the Canadians, New Zealanders, Brits and Australians I lived and worked with. I realized that outsiders think they understand the US, and believe they know how to fix us. Some see us as the root of all evil, yet when disasters strike or wars start abroad no one wonders how New Zealand is going to react: they look to the US.
I realized that being an American I had to accept the shame of our mistakes, such as slavery and the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War. But I also could accept the wonderful things the US has done in the world, like helping Japan, a former enemy, to rebuild and encouraging it to grow into a peaceful unique society true to itself and not becoming a clone of the US.
Living in Japan humbled me and made me a better citizen of the United States while making me realize that the people in the world are much more different than we expect – and that’s actually a wonderful thing. Why travel if the people on the other side of the planet are just like you, they just speak a different language? How easy it must be to solve the world’s problems when everyone is the same, sharing the same outlooks, perspectives and values, divided only by language.
It’s a naive view, and one I see infecting today’s political discourse on topics as varied as Chinese actions in the South China Sea to the threat posed by radical Islam.
When I returned from Japan I started my IT career and although teaching and IT don’t have much to do with each other on the surface, I view my experience working in Japan as critical to success in my IT career.
Accepting Different Cultural Assumptions: Working in Japan prepared me for integrating better in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic IT field. I learned that the same base assumptions we have don’t always hold, that there are fundamental differences between cultures and ethnicities that we have to consciously bridge. I realized I needed to approach people from other countries and ethnic groups with a broader, more open perspective. I couldn’t assume they would think like me, and that it was up to me to help understand their thinking and harness it for the benefit of our team and company.
Improved Communication Skills: Teaching English made me realize how we often speak using overly complicated grammar and syntax, and by using idioms that are useless to most non-native speakers. Not only did this teach me to communicate better with non-native speakers, it also helped me communicate more effectively with those outside of IT and to higher management by stripping out jargon and simplifying my speech (an ongoing challenge!)In Japan I taught ages 7–84, students with 0 ability to simultaneous translators. I got pretty good at understanding a wide level of pronunciation, something that comes into play everyday on phone calls with teams in Mumbai or in conference calls in rooms with acoustics like a bank vault.
It Sparked My Curiosity: I grew up in a monocultural environment in the American Midwest. I went from one monocultural environment to another, one that was in many ways its polar opposite. But living and working in Japan fed my curiosity and helped create within me a strong drive to see what made “things” like computer hardware, software and their systems work. It also made me intensely curious about the world around me, and that curiosity to learn about the lives of my colleagues from China and India, as well as to study systems and see where they succeed and where they fail, lays at the core of my IT career.
Would I live there again? Absolutely not, although I’d love to visit if only to sate my deep love of Japanese fried food.
Do I regret living there? Nope, although I do wish I could redo the first few years with my current perspective.
When will I go back? I’m not sure. Japan is so far away and there are so many other places to see in the world that are just as far away such as India, China and Australia.
20 years on my love of Japan and the Japanese continues. You can take the gaijin out of Japan but it’s impossible to take Japan out of the gaijin.
While the culture shock of living in Japan should be clear through these essays, what I haven’t mentioned is the culture shock I experienced after returning to the United States. Reverse culture shock is real, and the State Department has a good write up on it. For my first two years I had a rough time adjusting back to life in the US.
I remember being depressed riding the SEPTA trains in Philadelphia. The trains were filthy compared to the Japanese trains, and the train workers surly and uncooperative as opposed to the polite and cheerful Japanese train drivers and conductors. The neighborhoods the trains traveled through looked worse than anything I had seen in my travels in Japan or even Africa. Through the scratched yellowed windows of the train, Chester Pennsylvania looked as if it had been recently devastated by a war. It made me feel ashamed to be an American.
Then there was readjusting to family and friends. I had had so many unique experiences over the prior five years that I felt I would burst unless I shared them with others. But most people weren’t very interested in hearing about them. What I had seen wasn’t very interesting to them, and my experience became a conversation killer. “So what have you been up to?” “I just returned from Japan.” “Oh, that’s nice.” (crickets).
I found myself seeking out Japanese people, food and culture, and I was lucky enough to land a consulting job for a Japanese client in New Jersey, helping them protect their systems from the Y2K bug. Although I didn’t interact with them much, it was a comfort of sorts just seeing Japanese language on the computer screen and hearing snippets of it in the break room. I took to the Internet and advised people interested in Japan in various forums. It took some time but eventually the frustration of reverse culture shock went away. But those who were interested in my experiences were likely a bit overwhelmed by my overly eager responses.