Walking Through Culture Shock


I recently submitted an essay for a contest sponsored by the JET Programme.  It was a good excuse to write something longer than a typical blog post entry that was reflective on our overall experience in Japan.  Anyway, if you’d like to read it, please click on the link below.

Walking Through Culture Shock

Stage 1:  Euphoria

It’s August and I ride casually through the backstreets of Noheji — past chirping cicadas, green meadows, and locals depositing bags of burnable garbage in wooden sheds.  “Ohaiyo gozaimasu!” I chime to anyone I come into contact with, sometimes accompanied by the ringing of my bell to let them know I’m coming.  I speed past before they have a chance to respond.

I get lost; end up at the wrong high school but I retrace my steps and have just enough time to wipe the sweat from my forehead before taking my seat in the office.  All is well.  It’s just me and kyoto-sensei (vice principal) in the office, holding down the fort.  We both stare at our computer screens in the summer heat.  I can’t communicate with him very well but for now it’s fine!

After lunch he tells me to go home early.  As I unlock my bike I wonder what Olympic event will be showcased on television when I get home and out of the corner of my eye I see my vice principal has made his way to the main office to watch the famous high school baseball tournament with the secretaries.

The ride back to my apartment is mostly downhill.  I rarely have to pedal as I race through the narrow streets in my shirt and tie.  As I approach my destination I meet a steep hill but a shot of adrenaline allows me to conquer it without losing much speed.

My wife comes home a few hours later and I’m inexplicably crying with joy watching a medal ceremony montage to the music of Mr. Children.  After she makes fun of me we walk to discover a new restaurant and along the way discuss how we want to live here forever.

_ _ _

While living in Japan, I wanted to pick an enjoyable skill or hobby to develop in my spare time that also informed me about Japanese culture.  I selected Go – an ancient board game where two opponents place black and white stones on a wooden board.  During my first session at my town’s local club, I was still swimming in stage one euphoria.  I lost my first match, badly, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing.  But I was so happy and excited to be there that I didn’t care.  I even asked my wife to take a picture of my opponent and me in the middle of a match.  The photo preserved an epic loss and a pleasant memory.

Stage 2:  Adjustment

It’s October.  Although the sun is out, I’m walking to work with an umbrella.  A few weeks ago I made the mistake of riding my bike, with no coat, on a cloudy day.  On the way home a sudden downpour rendered my white kakis see through, exposing my boxers to pedestrians of the neighborhood.  When I reached the big hill towards the end of the ride I found it too steep and difficult.  Defeated, I had to adjust by hopping off my bike and walking the rest of the way home uphill.

Since I can’t ride a bike and hold an umbrella at the same time, I now walk to work just about every day.  It’s a three kilometer trek, one-way, and takes about twenty-five minutes unless I stop at the convenience store about three-quarters of the way through the journey.  In the winter this place becomes a necessary stop to warm my face and hands, withdraw some money from an ATM, buy a drink, and of course, converse with my students who also walk to school.  They also enjoy a respite from the elements and a sugary bottle of coffee or tea first thing in the morning.

I see many other people along the way – mostly elementary and junior high students walking to their schools in the opposite direction and older people out for a morning stroll.  I still say “ohaiyo gozaimasu” to everyone I come into contact with.  Some people return the greeting enthusiastically.  Others continue to walk in silence as if I don’t exist.  I interpret this as anger and wonder what I should do differently.  I don’t think about how I would never say “good morning” to every single person in my home country or how, even if I said “hello” to a stranger I wouldn’t necessarily expect a reply.  I also don’t think about how nervous some of these pedestrians might be to engage me in conversation.  I don’t think about any of these things, but eventually I will.

I think of other differences between life in Japan and my home country as I walk – mostly school activities like assemblies, ceremonies, and other procedures.  Then a heron catches my eye as I walk on a bridge over the river and I forget about them.  A couple of ducks I see every day swim peacefully downstream from the solitary long-legged bird.  He sees me too, gets nervous, retracts his neck, and flies away.  Suddenly my mind turns to the differences in landscape between this place and where I lived in my home country.  I walked to work there, too.  In replace of herons, swans, snakes, and bush warblers I saw scrub jays, geese, and nutria.  Here there are low, rolling mountains in the distance that change color with the season and a river that only has a few miles to go before it finally empties into the ocean.  There were no such views on my walk to work at home.  Instead I gazed upon gang graffiti tagged on suburban picket fences and perpetually green lawns as I walked down streets nearly three times as wide as the ones I now walk on in Japan.

_ _ _

My Go games during fall and early winter were mostly terrible.  I did not play aggressive enough and my opponents took advantage.  One opponent in particular seemed to enjoy playing a style every bit as aggressive as mine was passive.  He routinely destroyed me.  Afterwards there were no encouraging words, just harsh rebukes in a language I didn’t understand.  Rather than quit, I decided to adjust.  I began studying more outside of the club and tried to adopt a more aggressive style of play.

Stage 3:  Acceptance

It’s February and I’m shuffling home in a blizzard.  Ice is forming on my beard for the first time and all I want to do is get to my apartment as soon as possible to take a picture before it melts.  But before I do that I have to pick up groceries which means taking a different route home.  Along the way I recognize a familiar parka walking towards me through the white veil of snow between us.  It’s an older woman I see every morning on my walk to school.  As we approach each other I notice that, with each step, she’s spreading out the fresh powder in front of her with her foot; making a wider path for others.  As always she carries a plastic bag containing trash she collects from the ground with wooden, disposable chopsticks.


“Konichiwa.  Ano…”

And it begins.  For the first time she stops and we both try our best to have a conversation apart from our normal passing greeting.  After she affirms her suspicion that I teach at the high school, we hit a snag.  She mentions something about the high school and the number fifty-nine.  I can’t quite put all the pieces together and acknowledge defeat by explaining that Japanese is difficult and I need to study every day.  She tells me to do my best and we go our separate ways.

At home, after my facial hair has thawed and I’ve uploaded the picture of my ice beard onto Facebook, I realize the woman probably tried to tell me she graduated from my high school fifty-nine years ago.  That means she graduated right in the middle of World War II and is most likely seventy-nine years old.  As I sip milk tea by the warmth of the heater, I wonder how many times she’s walked the streets of my town.  I wonder how her home has changed over the past seven decades and what impact the War had on her worldview.  A few months ago I would have beaten myself up at my language deficiency thinking of all the things I could have learned from this woman if only my Japanese was up to par.  But now, at home, I am at peace leaving it a mystery.

_ _ _

On Saturday I leave the apartment after lunch to attend Go Club.  I’ve been attending the club for about six months now.  I sit down to play a game with a high ranking opponent and receive nine stones on the board before the match begins to compensate for my weakness and make the game competitive.  He plays in the upper left corner and I aggressively attack his stone from the left.  It’s a major mistake.  The move is crass and vulgar, too aggressive – especially during the opening.  But I can’t take it back.

We count up our stones at the end of the game and I’m shocked to discover that we have equal amounts territory.  It’s a draw.  As we put the stones back in their wooden bowls, I ask my opponent about my first move.  He agrees that it was terrible, points to the location where I made the move and says, in English, “Hard.”  He then moves the stone to a more acceptable position; one that actually works with the other stones I already had on the board.  “Soft,” he says.  By “soft” he means polite.  The move is actually very firm and assertive as it puts pressure on the opponent while building up a nice wall of defense.

There is a saying in Go that the stones want to go walking.  What that means is that there should be a natural rhythm to the placement of the stones.  These moves should be firm but cautious, aggressive but not reckless and develop good formations on the board. Just as there is a right way to make the stones walk in Go, there is a right way to walk in a culture other than your own.  Stand firm.  Test your limits, whether they are preconceived ideas or your ability to communicate through a new language.  Be aggressive but avoid recklessness.  Connect your stones.  And always, always be aware of what is happening everywhere on the board.  Remember as you walk that every move is part of a much bigger picture.


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One Response to “Walking Through Culture Shock”

  1. kotonii Says:

    I finally read it!! I liked how you used Go as a metaphor for living in a different culture.

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