When subjected to culture shock over a longer period of time... culture shock can turn into a persistent state, a syndrome.

My hope is that through an objective look at the next 3+ years I will be staying in Japan, I will be able to circumvent these symptoms and provide valuable insight to others who may look to follow a path similar to my own.
>>gaijin syndrome explained<<

lesson 1 : humility

Not even one week in Japan and I was quick to learn my first lesson.  Returning to Japan with memories of my time studying here years ago, I could feel a refreshed sense of familiarity.  Having spent the last couple of years continuing to study the language and culture while dreaming of returning again someday, stepping off the plane at Narita was like stepping through the looking glass and into the realm of my dreams.

I was excited.  I was confident.  I was ready to tackle this country in full-force.

But I was also mistaken.

I was still very much a fledgling in the ways of Japan when I left this country last time, and it seems my years of study that followed were not enough to provide me with the necessary experience for transitioning smoothly back into the culture.  Tokyo is very friendly to the English-speaking foreigner, but that guise is draped over a city with millions of residents, most of which have that robotic facade you will inevitably encounter in any major world city.

Perhaps I should have gone straight through Tokyo to my destination rather than trying to immediately immerse myself in the countries largest city.  But I have a tendency to push myself to the edge of my ability.  On my last full day in Tokyo, while navigating the web-like Tokyo train system,  I found myself unable to pass through one of the ticket gates.  I was using the card my friend had given me and it had plenty of money left on it, so I knew that couldn't be the problem.  So I approached the window at the gate and asked about the problem.  To my dismay, I couldn't understand a single word they attendant was saying while a line of people waiting to get through quickly formed behind me.  When I finally gave in and asked for English, the attendant responded with "entrance fare" and then handed the card back after the flustered look on my face didn't change.

Afterward, I reflected on the situation and realized what had happened.  I was trying to go through an exit gate at a station that I had only just entered.  Even though I hadn't ridden any trains, the JR Line needed me to confirm a charge of 130 yen (about $1.30) to the card just for entering the station.  The attendant, unwilling to try giving any further explanation, charged the card and pushed me through to maintain the smooth transition of things.  I felt beaten, and this feeling was only amplified by remnants of jet lag and the fatigue I had gathered from a day of walking the streets.

So when I reached the bar where I met up with my friend and his coworkers for drinks, I was in little mood to continue struggling with the language barrier.  Needless to say the night did not end well as my friend got increasingly upset at my tired expressions and half-yelling attempts at communicating in the noisy bar--not a very good presentation to his coworkers.  He ended up dragging me out of there before everyone else finished and I received my first lesson in humility as an outsider of a secluded society.

Before leaving the States, I had heard stories (and made mention in my first post) about foreigners in Japan who have seemingly lost all reservation.  My experience in humility has shown me that this is not necessarily an effect of gaijin syndrome, but a necessity to some extent for learning the language through immersion.  "Take your time" was the advice of my friend, and "get used to embarrassment."  It seems like four and a half years of study should have prepared me so much better to communicate than how I feel I can communicate now.  Nevertheless, getting upset about it will only hinder my ability and my willingness to try as my case of the syndrome worsens.

The Tip:  Come to Japan only with the expectation to do your best in this society, not to fit right in, no matter how much you think you know.  After all, simple things like using a pair of chopsticks will impress the Japanese more than knowing what to say in every situation.


  1. Wow. o_o What an experience so soon after arriving. I think it's really hard to not feel completely overwhelmed when first arriving . . . but I can't even imagine how you felt. >_< You are very resilient.

  2. Just want to let you know I'm interested -- and reading -- you are courageous. (mom)

  3. Thanks for the comments! I wasn't sure if my posts were going unnoticed or not.


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