Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Reverse Culture Shock - Back to the U.K.

I couldn't believe that I was going back to the U.K., even if only for a few days. I had never been away from Britain for more than a week at a time before I came to Japan, but I quite quickly got used to the idea that I wasn't there anymore. I had adapted to thinking of the British isles as being miles away (I visualise the world map a lot, and my relative position on it), nine hours behind us, my old friends and family members reduced to pixels and occasional Skype conversations. The U.K. was no longer my reality... it was a memory which, like childhood, like school and family holidays and old TV programmes, I had lovingly crafted and distorted with my mind. Going back seemed surreal, like going back to school again, back to an old job. I tried to distract myself on the flight, getting myself back into the mood with English films, but as the plane began its descent onto British soil, I could not get my head around it.

The thing is, I might have been in Japan for nine months straight, but every night when I close my eyes, I inevitably dream in British. I am usually always somewhere back home, in Wales, as if my subconscious was never able to evolve past the landscape of my early years.
Sometimes I will be somewhere totally different, somewhere that doesn't exist in reality. But I don't think it's ever been Japan. So, visiting home every night, vividly recreating friends and family members with my imagination, it never felt as if I was truly away from home. A silver thread kept me connected all along. Butphysically being there again was something else entirely.

At Heathrow, I had a couple of hours to wait until my connecting flight to Manchester. I approached Starbucks and thought "wow, they have loads of things that we don't have in Hamamatsu". I looked at the prices, all in pound sterling, and blinked. I paid with some of my freshly exchanged money, and when a handful of coins (two pound coins, heavy and gold... a fifty pence piece in its heptagonal glory) were shoved unceremoniously into my hand, I felt my mind explode a little. What was this? Not Yen! Why did they just expect me to give them the money, instead of having me slide it into a little tray? How crude!

Escalators were the biggest surprise for me. In Japan, people almost always (a few obnoxious teenagers aside) stand on one side of an escalator, leaving the other side free for rushed commuters to walk up. In Britain? As if. I stood at the bottom of an escalator and observed in horror the higgeldy-piggedly assortment of inconsiderate civilians. An obstacle course for any flustered traveller. It made me angry... I wanted to physically push everybody to one side... it seemed so rude to me, now, and yet I had never noticed it before, never thought about it.

In Japan, you are expected to remove your shoes at the entrance of a house, a school, a doctor's surgery and some restaurants. A lot of people in Britain do remove their shoes before entering a house - it is definitely polite if you have been somewhere a little dirty or wet, and especially before you tread on somebody's clean carpet. Still, it is not as enforced as it is in Japan, and I found myself cringing at my parents' trainers on the kitchen linoleum... even more at my grandmothers' heels and sandals on the living room carpet. It seemed wrong, unnatural. I realised, at this point, that living in Japan had given me a mild OCD. That rigid order, that cleanliness that people talk about - it's there, and you become subject to it more quickly, more deeply than you would ever had expected to.

Incidentally, on the way from Heathrow to Manchester, the airline managed to lose ALL the suitcases from the flight. Exhausted, I filled in a form and went to meet my parents, trusting that my clothes and Christmas presents would be sent on to me in a couple of days. Luckily I had had the foresight to put my laptop and most important things in my carry-on luggage. Still, all my presents from Japan and all my clothes were in that suitcase. After an emotional reunion with my parents, on the drive back (through the snow) I realised that a few months ago I would have snapped at having my suitcase lost. I might have taken it out a little on the unfortunate member of staff left to deal with his colleagues' incompetence. But what I did was sigh, shrug and say "shoganai" ("what can ya do?")... which left me to wonder. Had Japan made me more laid-back, more willing to accept problems, or had it made me compliant, obedient, the kind of person who quietly accepts their fate?

This notion was tested again a few days later when I went to a restaurant. British staff incompetence being what it is, I was given something only vaguely resembling what I had ordered. My first thought was "this would never happen in Japan!"... my second thought was to resign and just eat it. My friend urged me to go up to the counter, to complain, but this seemed incredibly rude and arrogant to me. If I was given the wrong order in Japan, I wouldn't say anything, although this is largely due to the language barrier. Eventually, I mentioned to the waiter that I had ordered something else, although I couldn't shift the feeling that I was being incredibly rude, displaying an undeserved sense of self-importance so often seen in Westerners. I am told that the Japanese often see Westerners as childish, rude - that our displays of anger are perceived as childlike, while biting your tongue is the mature thing to do. It seemed to be now that this attitude had rubbed off on me, as I couldn't help but feel like a child throwing a tantrum because they don't want to eat their vegetables.

Later that day, I took a bus into town. I had only a £10 note on me, and the ticket was £3. Now, in Japan, you can pay for something that costs 10円 with a 10,000円 note, and the cashier will smile sweetly, counting out your vast amounts of change for you, unblinking, polite. The bus driver in Manchester grunted at me, and said "you're taking all my bloody change". How's that for customer service? What better way to thank somebody for their custom, their money... to make them want to return again?! Now, I've never been one to hold high opinions of Britain's bus drivers. There are a few nice ones, of course, but the majority have always seemed to be incredibly rude and bitter. After nine months in a world of politeness (however fake it may be), this was quite a shock to the system.

Still, what I have mentioned were just the minor shocks. For the most part, I fell straight back into my old life for a few days. Sinking into my parents' living room chair, relaxing in my bedroom, reading back all my old diary entries, eating food that I had longed for, and most of all spending time with my family and friends, it felt almost as if I had never been away. Japan seemed like a distant memory, a dream... I started to wonder whether I had ever really been there. I shared photos with those who were interested, and almost everybody asked me the vague question of "so, how's Japan?", but the more I talked about it, the further away it seemed. When asked, I couldn't recall anything but the simplest words and phrases from the language, and I felt as if I was digging my fingers into a muddy cliff, desperately holding on to the memories of the last nine months. My only real anchor, my assurance that I had actually been there, was Jeff. All the way over in the USA, he was feeling the same strangeness at being back home. I felt scared, he was so far away... if I didn't talk to him enough, would I start to lose his memory, too? It was as if my conscious mind could only hold on to one reality at once. Hanging out at my old house for days with only my parents for company, I felt myself regressing once again into a teenager. I was snappy, bored, irritable - and only home for 11, 12 days! I was ashamed of it, but that's what happens when you revisit somewhere - all the old feelings are stirred up as if no time has passed. A silver thread kept me connected to Jeff, and as such to my new life, my other life.

It was great to see everyone. It was great to eat Christmas dinner, to meet my brother's new pets, to see my family, to see my friends... to dance in Canal Street, to see a West End musical (Love Never Dies, for the record), to have real Pizza Hut and curry on the Curry Mile, to drink tea, to go to Wetherspoons, to eat bacon sandwiches and drink with people I haven't seen properly in months, maybe years. And coming back to Japan at the end of it was just as strange. I momentarily couldn't remember how to use my Japanese phone, but once I got the hang of it, everything came flooding back. Oh, here I was again. I could once again buy hot lemon from a vending machine, people would stand on one side of the escalator and nobody would be angry with me for not using small change in shops. My consciousness flipped back into Japan mode. Once again, my parents, my grandparents, my best friend, everybody I had just seen were 6000 miles away, and I started to wonder whether I had actually gone back at all, or whether that, too, had been a dream.

The view from my bedroom window in Wales

Christmas dinner!

My brother's pet pug, Winston

North Wales

My two best friends!


  1. Hahaha "you're taking all my bloody change" :D classic British bus driver!

  2. Gywn...once again a beautifully written blog..which 100% relate too!! ...even Geoff.... :P glad I was not the only one who felt as you did!! xx

  3. I can really relate to this Gwynnie!!

  4. Yeah, I can definitely relate to this. It felt so weird being away from a country it felt so weird coming to, nine months prior. Glad it wasn't just a dream, though!

    Oh, and thanks Tommii, I'm glad we have that strong connection; I don't know how I could've gotten by otherwise!!

  5. It's funny, the way experiences of the same countries can vary so much. Coming to the UK from Italy, I've found blessed solace (I may be prone to exaggeration) in the way everyone in The UK DOES stand on the right and MOSTLY wait for you to get off the train before getting on (always a few exceptions) and the way, unlike in Italy, most people in shops don't scowl and demand exact change. And I've found that my English boyfriend and friends wouldn't dream of sending food back or ever complaining about any product or service whereas I, as a half American, half Italian, fully expect to receive exactly what I ordered if I'm going to pay for it and only hesitate for fear of my food being tampered with as punishment for my gross audacity. And in any case I've found the English much more accommodating and apologetic than Italians tend to be. It's all relative, eh?