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The Asian ApertureEmbrace the Unknown
POSTED BY JASON FETTERS, June 26, 2011    Share

Everytime someone learns that I spent years in Japan, one of the questions I get is what is Japan like? It is a difficult question to answer. Part of the reason is that the longer you spend in a foreign country, you encounter greater opportunities to grow. The very first difficulty to deal with is culture shock, which can take any number of forms and affects different people in different ways. What may bother me may not bother you. You may even look at me strange if I tell you what bothers me. I did hear some strange stories as an exchange student attending Kansai Gaidai University. I heard about a female student who was so afraid to try Japanese food that she refused to eat anything that wasn't shipped by her parents from the U.S. She spent a year eating boxes of macaroni and cheese and instant oatmeal and little else. That cannot be healthy. Japan is one of the healthiest countries worldwide and no matter what country you are from, you have a good chance to learn something about dieting from the Japanese. I know I did. I ate more vegetables, seaweed, and fish and I walked everywhere because I had no choice. I also lost around 30-pounds and was in the best shape of my life. Now to take a deeper look at what you make go through, I will explain the stages of culture shock and observations I made.

The first couple of months in Japan was a lot like people a 5-year old child going with your parents to a department store and allowed free reign down the toy aisle. Everything was new and shiny. I noticed anime characters advertising goods and services. I saw high school kids wearing school uniforms. I smelled all the good food that was cooked by the street vendors. Journeying into the local supermarket, I make a quick mental inventory of the differences in groceries between American and Japan. I won't say one is better than the other, I will say that both have positive quantities. It helps if you know what you want. I had already read several Japanese cookbooks, so the bottles of sauces, the octopus hanging down, and cases of ramen noodles, were all something I had already experienced growing up in Tampa and taking a chance by wandering into any given Asian market. I did hear of students that had stomach problems in Japan. This never happened to me, mainly because I had Japanese roommates at USF and I ate what they cooked. That made a big difference when I arrived in Japan. After my honeymoon period wore off I enter the next stage.

Slowly I became overly concerned about the lack of personal space. Just walking around, people would bump into me. In America, you have a wider circle around you and people don't walk as fast and knock into you, unless you happen to be in a big urban city like New York City. The main thing that got to me was the daily commute. I am used to getting in my car and driving. In Japan, I was like an infant. I would get on a train. People would crowd the train and I would get lost somewhere in the mass amounts of bodies. Getting off at my stop was the hard part. I had to be pushy and nudge people in the back to get to the door and jump off before that door could close. It was so un-American to me to have to turn rude to move through people just to get somewhere. What scared me was the foreigners who had been in Japan too long and developed this thousand eye stare. They all had this glazed look like someone in an old 70's Vietnam War movie. I never spoke to anyone with that stare. I was afraid to. It was during this time that I reached disillusionment. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing something about myself that I really didn't like and helpless to do anything about it. Eventually my bitterness ended.

Suddenly, I was walking the streets of Japan, with my friends, and I stopped making all those annoying comparisons between East and West, Japan and North America, and so on. Nor was I thinking to myself why do the Japanese act this way? I became mentally flexible. I was able to get along with Japanese people that went against my fixed stereotype of how Japanese people should act. I applied flexibility and compromise and together, both led to adjustment. It was like wiping the dust from an old dirty mirror and really seeing yourself for the first time. One thing that helped me to remain focused on being flexible was an old poem I once read in the Tao Te Ching that stuck with me over the years.
Lao Tzu wrote:
A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff
when dead. Grass and trees are pliant and fragile
when living, but dried and shriveled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are comrades of death;
the supple and the weak are the comrades of life.

There is no shame in being weak and not winning the argument for the sake of maintaining harmony. Being flexible as a piece of bamboo that does not resists the blowing wind, is the way to adapting to nature and your environment. Once I applied that concept, I had fewer problems and concerns. That brings us to an end the culture shock phases. The worst was yet to come.

The hardiest thing to deal with was reverse culture shock. After spending time abroad and expanding your mind, at some point you decide to return home. When I returned to Tampa, I saw how rude people really were. I encountered the same narrow minded small people who were so afraid of that big scary world out there. Those people who don't want to get out. Everything they need is right there in their own backyard. They are stuck in a well, down at the bottom with all the dirt and mud. My hope is one day they will learn how to climb up out of the well and really see what's out there.

"The Asian Aperture" is ©2011 by Jason Fetters. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova.

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