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<<

replanting my roots

After I had been living in Japan for a while, I started to notice a recurring condition that was affecting my sleep on a nearly nightly basis. It's a little hard to explain, but I will do my best.

Dreams are rarely considered hallucinations because the conscious part of our minds is turned off while the images and very real feelings course through our still-active brains. But sometimes our consciousness comes partially awake during the dreaming cycle and is unable to overcome the images of our dreams. The intense experience of moving to a the land of my dreams and adapting to the unique activities of my job affected my sleep enough to awaken the observational part of my consciousness during my dreaming cycles.

I explained this to a friend as such:

"When your dreams become reality, your reality also becomes your dreams."

The truth is, upon further thought, my bedroom has never quite felt comfortable to me since I moved in. Despite being a pretty Western-style apartment as far as Japanese apartments go, my bedroom has always had a bit of a foreign atmosphere to it. Perhaps it is the futon on which I sleep or the lack of familiar images on the walls (my landlord won't let me open any holes for hanging pictures), but I didn't pay much attention to this as I thought that it would become more familiar as time passes.

The scariest time happened recently after returning from my month-long travel across the country. When my consciousness awoke, I was able to recognize that I was in a bedroom, but my vivid dreams made me think it was someone else's bedroom entirely. This really hurts the relaxation of sleep when you feel like you are sleeping somewhere you shouldn't be.

And then the solution came to me, not two days after my sushi incident. It literally came to me, arriving in my mailbox both virtually and physically. My parents (acting independently but through a seemingly divine happenstance) sent me pictures from my childhood that arrived on the same day. The picture from my mother was in my inbox when I logged on in the morning and an envelope containing two full-sized pictures from my father (indirectly from my grandmother) was sitting in my mailbox when I got home later that day.

Sitting on my living room floor (because I don't have a sofa yet) and looking at the photos, I realized what I had been missing since I arrived. When I packed and shipped my belongings, not a single picture was among the items I sent. I had thought about it briefly at the time but decided that I didn't want to risk handicapping myself with a bridge back to my "old life," as a friend of mine similarly described when lamenting about going to college close to home. Now I see how foolish that thinking was and how important these old pictures are to me.

Without hesitating, I ran out and bought a couple frames for the pictures. One now sits at the head of my bed and the other greets me every time I walk into my living room.

As much as I want to explore this opportunity to change, I must not push myself too hard. It is easy to get lost and forget where you come from when in a foreign land. With these pictures now in place (and perhaps more to follow), I have set up reminders of how I came to be who I am today.

Now when the phantoms of my reality invade my dreams and wake me up thinking I am lying in the middle of a tourist route at some ancient temple in Kyoto, I can roll over and be reminded by the picture of my siblings and I as infants that I am exactly where I ought to be.

And this is where I ought to be, because a work visa speaks louder than prejudiced whispers.

back to the basics

Hello my faithful readers! (Do you really exist?)

Life has been pretty intense since my last post as I have somehow managed to settle into an apartment, find some kind of rythm at work, and overcome the language barrier day after day. On top of that, I spent the last four weeks travelling all across the country visiting my friends and sightseeing the most significant of locations in Japan. With just a backpack, shoulder bag, and a hip pouch with my camera in it, I rode on plane and train alike from one destination to the next without taking a break. Now I'm finally back in Kanazawa and resting before classes start up again in two weeks. Photos of my month-long vacation can be found on my Picasa web gallery. I hope to create albums for Osaka and Kyoto soon.

As I traveled, each destination greeted me with a new role to play as a foreigner.

Visiting with my friends in Nagoya was a good start as we noticed that each store, restaurant, and movie theater had at least one other foreigner. Since Kanazawa has very few foreigners, I was reminded what it's like to be part of the somewhat common crowd once again.

In Sapporo I was the guest being shown around by my Japanese teacher (a very wonderful person for being so kind to me!). Although she wanted me to do many 'gaijin-like' things just to see the Japanese reaction, I continued to try and act as Japanese as possible.

In Tokyo, the Japanese paid me little attention and would always use what little English they knew when speaking, making me feel like any other citizen.

In Shizuoka I was a bit of a spectacle and became even more of one when my ability with the language showed.

Fukuoka refreshed my perspective of being foreign when I took a day trip to South Korea and experienced for a few hours what it's like to have a complete lack of understanding of the language, both spoken and written. This experience improved my empathy for similar foreigners in Japan as well as my enthusiasm for dealing with the foreigner identity thrust upon me in Japan where I have better understanding.

My presence in Hiroshima felt welcome as I visited a World Heritage sight with many other foreigners and I was interviewed a total of four times at the annual memorial ceremony of the A-bomb.

The way I was treated in my last two destinations seem to have made me forget about the foreigner identity in Kanazawa. Osaka and Kyoto both are ripe with foreigners and as such I was not treated out of the ordinary in the least bit, other than my friends laughing at my attempts to use the local dialect.

Now I'm back in Kanazawa with a grander view of Japan and the way foreigners fit within its borders. Already tonight I had an incident that reminded me of the reason I started this blog in the first place. In my three months of work and one month of travel, I became comfortable with a carefully crafted ignorance that I had created for myself in hopes of adapting to this culture. Let me first tell what happened before I reflect on it.

After the gym, I headed to a kaiten sushi restaurant for a delicious dinner of fish and rice. I was aware from the moment I walked in how awkward the sight of me must have been. Revolving sushi bars are an especially Japanese place that every foreigner needs to be shown how to use upon their first visit. Because of this, a gaijin sitting alone in a sushi bar is a rare sight, especially in the relatively gaijin-free areas of the country. So when one of the sushi chefs came over to my end of the bar halfway through my meal, I thought I saw a little fear in his eyes as he noticed me. What happened next confirmed my suspicion. He hid behind the long-haired chef stationed at my end of the bar and whispered something. The long-haired chef, with whom I had already placed an order, responded and made a motion with his hand in front of his mouth that appeared to indicate the speaking of words. I immediately understood that the frightened chef was concerned about 'the gaijin' and he was being assured that I could speak just fine.

At first I laughed to myself about the situation, almost speaking up and letting the frightened chef know in his own language that I understand Japanese. But then I felt a bit of panic myself as I realized just how great the separation is between native Japanese and foreigners in this country. No matter how much I study, or how long I spend here, I will always encounter people who are scared stiff by just a single look at me. I felt somehow responsible for the chef's feelings and realized that this is just the fringe of a very real racism. It made me nervous and a bit sick, unable to easily finish the rest of my sushi.

It's easy enough when with friends to laugh about being a foreigner and it's fun to make jokes about taking advantage of it at times. But now that I feel like I have a life here, that sort of separate thinking has become redundant and tiresome. I started to get upset when visiting one of my friends during vacation and it seemed like every other sentence out of his mouth began with "I'm Japanese..." or "You're American..." And when I'm alone, this sort of thing just makes me feel like I'm unwelcome or out of place.

That, I believe, is the root of gaijin syndrome. Each one of us must come up with a coping mechanism for dealing with the different behavior we receive on a daily basis simply due to our looks.

As a white male American, I am incredibly humbled.

Now that I have unearthed the cause, I must ponder on a solution. If only people had labels, I would give myself the sign "Japanese OK!"