The first time I came to Japan, back in 2004, I didn’t have culture shock.  I did have reverse culture shock when I returned to the States.  It lasted a week or two.  Americans seemed unbelievably rude; I couldn’t stand it!  I kept accidentally biting on my fork, so I went back to chopsticks for a while.  And I had only been in Japan for 2 weeks! When I visited the country of my birth for the first time after immigrating to the States, I didn’t really have culture shock either.  But when I got back to the States after that trip, Americans seemed unbelievably polite.  If I remember correctly, my thought as the cabby at the airport loaded mine and my mother’s luggage into the taxi was “Thank God for the Americans!”

I haven’t had culture shock this time around either.  Partly, I think that having been an immigrant to the States in a time when assimilation was still the norm in education gave me the mindset that “when in Rome, the Romans make the rules and they might not be rules I’m familiar with.”  So, I don’t go, “OMG they do things differently! Arrrrgggghhh!!!” I just go, “This is how they do things.  I may or may not like them, they may be good or bad, but for now this is what it is.”  So, it would seem I am now only capable of being shocked by the place I call home – the States.  But, as my reentry from Honduras showed, things like level of politeness are relative. At the moment, I no longer feel that Japanese are more polite than Americans.  I think each is polite and rude in different areas, so it ends up evening out. In any case, that’s just one aspect of a bigger story.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I get back home this Saturday.  And then, what will I think when I get back to Japan in April?

Anyway, while I don’t have culture shock proper, there are things that annoy me.  I suppose it’s possible one day small things will irritate me enough to the point where I’ll experience this big bad culture shock the JET orientations focused so much on preparing us for.

Well, one of those small annoying things is how many Japanese use the word “gaikokujin” or “gaijin” to refer to people who are not Japanese while said people are in their own country. Now, I’m not talking about the debate over whether foreigners should even be called either word.  Frankly, I don’t care if a Japanese calls me “gaijin” or “gaikokujin.”  As long as I’m an American living in Japan, I am a foreigner, the same way that as long as I was a Permanent Resident in the States, I was a foreigner.  To make the difference clear, this is what one of my second years wrote in her composition about what she wanted to do when she and the other second years go do a homestay in Australia:

“When I go to Australia, I want to speak with many foreigners.”

She wrote that in English, so the mistake was immediately clear.  What this sentence says is “I want to speak with people who are not Australian nationals.”  What my student wanted to say was “I want to speak with Australians.”  If she had been speaking in Japanese to other Japanese, her intended meaning would have gone through.  But to say that in English to someone who didn’t know much about the Japanese language and culture, well, I imagine they might have been confused as to why she wanted to go Australia expressly to speak with people who weren’t Australian nationals.  At least one other student from her class wrote the same sort of thing, and a few from the first years did so also in a later assignment.  It’s not just children; from what I’ve read on the Japan blogosphere and heard from other JETs, Japanese traveling abroad tend to call that countries’ people as “gaijin.”  I suppose it’s okay as long as they’re speaking in Japanese, but I wish more Japanese people would realize that if they’re speaking in English (or Spanish or French or…a bunch of other languages, probably), they can’t use the word “foreigner” to refer to people who are in their own country. To that end, I think I’ll add a bit saying as much in my broken Japanese to this post later when I have time to sit down and try to write something intelligible.

I told the first years today, as they were getting “tips” for being in other countries, “Right now, I am a foreigner because I’m an American in Japan.  When I go back to America, I am not a foreigner. Please don’t call Australians in Australia ‘foreigners.'” The look of utter confusion on most of their faces…it was painful for them to ponder the concept, and it was painful for me to realize how painful it was for them.

The other day an interesting twist in this saga occurred.  I was messaging with a Japanese acquaintance who asked me if I used Second Life.  She said that she liked it, but that communication was hard, because most users on Second Life were “gaikokujin.”  My first reaction was “huh?” Second Life is run by an American company, so, to me,  if anyone’s going to be labeled a “foreigner,” it would be people who aren’t American nationals.  But really, it’s a virtual reality!  Who is a “foreigner” in a land that exists on a server?