Damn, it happened again.

I have this unfortunate tendency to stifle my own writing and put off writing about easy or simple things because I have multiple big ideas for posts, and I feel like I owe it to someone to write something “of substance” instead of “shallow” day-to-day posts. For instance, part of the reason I haven’t written in my study abroad blog here for a while is that I feel that, since I’m getting space on the Whitman Pioneer website, I ought to do my liberal arts education at least a bit of good and try to post content that’s actually analytical or thoughtful, and not merely, “I went here! I saw this!” I’m not sure how much there is to that–while it would be good to apply some thinkin’ to my experiences over here, I imagine it would be better to post shallow day-to-day content than post nothing because I want to be deep and significant.

I suppose I can always write analyses after I return, too. After all, I do get to take my experiences through customs.

Of course, there’s also the excuse that I haven’t had too much time, what with homework and adventures, and that much is true. Still, a moderate chunk of my excuse for not writing has simply been my (misguided) desire to write something “worthwhile”.

So, worthwhile or not, here’s what’s on my mind.

Lately, I’ve been starting to think about America again. Not just in my typical terrified-of-how-absurd-American-politics-is way, but in a more real sense. I’ve been mentally placing myself in the US again, thinking about the foods I want to eat, the places I want to go, the things I’ll be able to do when I return. I think about all the packages I’ve had shipped to my house, and–maybe most dangerously–how I’ll be able to “continue” my life when I get back. As if my time spent over here in Japan was just a diversion, a detour from our regularly-scheduled programming. As Sam says, I’m “slipping out of Japan”.

The problem is that I’m a whole two and a half months away from being done here. It makes no sense to be thinking as if my time here is already done when I have all of this time left.

This is what Ben, a previous student who stayed with my host family, described as “culture fatigue”, one of the steps of the cross-cultural experience. After being immersed in a foreign culture for six months, it’s starting to wear me down. Not in any conscious way–it’s not as if I’m actively hating anything at all about Japan–but rather in a subconscious way. It’s not easy to spend six months straight in a country vastly different from your own, and after a while, the difficulty of navigating daily activities, making yourself understood and understanding others, and ultimately attempting to be a functional human being in an entirely new context all piles up. My brain has decided to take a cultural holiday, and it’s pushing me hard to just go back to being American again.

So, I’m speaking more English. I’m enjoying my (scarce) leisure time by reading English books and English websites. I’m hanging out with American friends. It’s as if I’m doing everything in my power to avoid Japanese culture and language.

Which, y’know, is absolutely stupid.

It wasn’t really a conscious choice to begin with. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror and say, “Well, we’ve had a good haul–time to stop all that Japanese stuff.” (However, now that I’m aware of it, it must be conscious to some extent, since choosing not to address it is a conscious choice.) But even if it’s not conscious, it’s moronic. Or, more accurately, it would be moronic to keep doing this now that I see what’s going on.

According to literature on the topic that we studied last semester in my cultural psych class, cultural fatigue is part of the study abroad process. It happens to many. I’m not unusual in trying to revert to my American lifestyle. However, as is likely obvious, it’s the make-or-break point of a cross-cultural experience like studying abroad. If I allow myself to continue insulating myself from Japanese culture, that’s essentially the end of my experiences here in Japan. If I let my mind resituate itself in America now, then I might as well be there in the flesh for all the good I’ll get out of the rest of the semester. On the other hand, if I take this opportunity, bunker down, and throw myself full-force back into Japanese culture, I have the feeling I’m going to reach a very happy place by the time the year is done.

It’s a tempting trap, though, particularly because completely pushing America out of my thoughts is impossible for all practical purposes. I have to secure housing for next year. I have to look at job and internship opportunities. My future doesn’t end when I leave Japan, so there will be some things that require me to switch back into “American mode”.

I suppose the trick, then, is finding how to switch into “American mode” when necessary–and then going promptly back into “Japan mode”.

A rainy manhole cover in Kyoto

A wet manhole cover


Today, it rained.

We’ve had a couple days of rain before, but mostly of the drizzle and sprinkle varieties. Today, it was rain all day; big, heavy drops dripping down from a uniformly gray sky. It was still quite humid, but the weather dropped to about 22 or 24ºC (71-75ºF), a welcome relief from the oppressive 33ºC (~91ºF) weather we had last week. I was thrilled to be able to throw on long sleeves and jeans for the first time in about a week. Apparently, a small typhoon is blowing toward Japan, hence the weather. My host family and I agreed–we–d be very happy if this storm signaled the end of the heat and the beginning of fall. We’ll see how that pans out.

After a stressful week of review and tests last week, my Japanese class was finally finalized on Friday, and classes began today. I was worried because I wasn’t in a class with people I expected to be with, but I think I can let those worries dissipate a little. My class will be challenging, since it’s conducted entirely in Japanese and we’re working at a pretty fast pace, but I’m hoping it will work out well. The goal is to improve all of our proficiencies in a number of key areas, including 漢字 (kanji) recognition and speaking, which are my two highest priorities. Now that all my courses have begun in earnest, however, the workload has begun. My host mom was teasing me tonight at dinner, saying, “You’re a student who came here to study–who would have thought you’d have homework?” So it goes.

In another of my classes, Lenses of Culture, we’ve started the semester by investigating culture shock. Scholars like Pederson and Adler have suggested that culture shock is a multi-stage phenomenon. In this model, cultural transitional experiences begin with a period of honeymoon-like glee, as the traveler is wowed by all of the novelties of the new culture. Following that, however, is often a period of rejection of the host culture. It ultimately progresses to a harmonious acceptance, making the culture shock experience a learning opportunity, but there are about two steps of rejection involved in these models.

I mention it because, although I thought I would have little trouble transitioning, I’ve started to feel elements of the rejection phase. Other AKP students I’ve talked to have felt the same. We’re not bitter or angry, by any means–we’re in freaking Japan, after all, and it’s still an amazing place filled with opportunity–but the glossy veneer of novelty is wearing away, and our perspectives are broadening, for both good and bad. One thing my friends and I talked about in particular today at lunch was the outsider phenomenon. When riding the train, we’ve all had the experience of looking up and catching people staring at us because we, as obvious American 外人 (gaijin — “foreigners”), stick out. After two weeks here, we’re at least starting to feel like residents instead of tourists, but in the eyes of commuters on the train or people walking down the street, we will always look like we don’t belong. Coming from America, where the broad range of ethnic diversity makes it easier for visitors to blend in (at least in large cosmopolitan areas), this is quite a different feeling, and may prove a challenge as the year progresses.

Rain on a vending machine

Exclamation point

Stale Content Alert!

This post was written a long time ago, and my views have almost certainly evolved since then. Please keep that in mind while reading, commenting, or sharing.

Having been home for a week, I figure I ought to actually write something of content. Here it is.

On July 5th, 2007, I left Portland, Oregon at 7:30 am with a group called People to People. I boarded a plane, which ascended above the clouds and flew for an hour before landing at San Francisco International Airport.

After a 4-hour layover, I then got on a bigger plane and took a ten-hour flight… to Japan.

I spent two weeks in Japan, traveling all around the country. I saw the unbelievably large megacity of Tōkyō, and experienced the slow life in the little community of Hirado. I discussed world peace with students my age at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Memorial Museum, and walked around downtown Kyōto as preparations for a summer festival were being made. I spent two nights living with generous homestay families. The trip was amazing beyond belief, to the extent that the first word I use to describe it when someone asks is always “life-changing”.

And now I’m back in the United States, and it’s horrendously difficult to readjust, partially because there’s so much that I simply can’t take for granted anymore. Continue reading