Gradualist culture shock

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Tue, 7 May 1996 01:20:06 +0900

Dutifully (if belatedly) submitted:

Having lived in a foreign culture for eight years now, I feel I am in a
good position to evaluate the phenomenon of culture shock, and reverse
culture shock. In regards to culture shock, I experienced little in the
way of culture shock at first. What surprised me was more that the country
I had come to, Japan, was in fact more similar to the country I had left,
the U.S., than I expected. In addition, since I found myself in a work
environment where most people could speak English, the ability to converse
in Japanese was not absolutely necessary.

Gradually, though, I did come to feel what may be called culture shock. Of
course, since it was not a sudden process it would perhaps be better to
call it culture malaise than culture shock. After the initial period of
enthusiasm with my new situation (mixed with perhaps a sense of mild
disappointment that Japan was more ordinary than I expected), slowly a new
sense of unease developed. This was in part because my Japanese language
skills only developed slowly. If I did wish to try to use Japanese, it was
a difficult experience both for me and the other people who I attempted to
speak with.

Concerning language difficulties, I found that I was again put in the
position of being a very young child. During my childhood I remember how
sometimes guests would come to my parents' house for a visit. The period
in which we children could be with the guests was usually a rather short
one. We would soon be asked to go play somewhere else or to go to bed if
it was late. But children are naturally curious so sometimes we tried to
listen in on the adults' conversation. What I recall, though, is that I
rarely was able to make sense of what the guests and my parents were
talking about. The language they used was too difficult for me. Now,
almost 30 years later I found myself in the same sort of situation of not
knowing what other adults were talking about (let alone children, whose
language is actually quite difficult to understand for the non-native). I
could in a fashion make my needs and wants known, and respond in a limited
degree to those of other people, but I couldn't communicate anything more

Of course, my difficulties in communication did not merely concern language
as such, but also the cultural background to the use of language. While at
first I was slightly disappointed that Japan had little about it that was
truly exotic, with time I realized that if the outward lifestyle of
Japanese people and the patterns of their interests, hobbies, recreational
activities, etc. were in most instances not so different from the
lifestyles and habitual concerns of people in the U.S., at a deeper level
their style or manner in engaging in the same kinds of things I was already
familiar with was quite different. In other words, they had a different
attitude towards social relations (or a different mix of attitudes towards
social relations) than I was used to. And since I wasn't used to this
style, in social situations (even if I understood the language they
used--the meaning of the words) it would happen that I felt bored,
frustrated, confused, ill-at-ease, etc.

This sense of unease in being forever out of place and inept was
intensified after I changed jobs and my location. For my first two years
in Japan I was in Hokkaido which like the western half of the U.S. was only
intensively colonized during the past century and a half. Hokkaido is thus
a kind of ahistorical place (they want to live in the present and forget
the past). It also is made up of Japanese people who have come there from
a variety of regions in Japan. This makes it in some ways a cosmopolitan
kind of place. After being in Hokkaido, I moved to Shobara which is a
couple of hours from Hiroshima City. It is in a very rural area, and the
people tend to be conservative, even closed-minded. Many people here also
use the dialect of this region (and needless to say very few people can use
English to communicate). As a foreigner in a small rural community in
Western Japan (marginal to the center of economic/political/cultural life
in Tokyo), I experienced countless communication problems. These problems
were made worse by my difficulties in adjusting to life at a small, middle
(middle-lower?) ranking Japanese university. On the outside, Japanese
universities look the same as their counterparts in the U.S. But I
gradually realized there were profound differences in the way things worked
(basically because of the difference in the conception of how social
relations should be conducted, maintained, symbolized, etc.).

Here, I cannot go into the details. It would take too much time. Let me,
though, make a long story short. After six years here in Shobara, I'm
feeling rather better about things (and about my own role within this very
different society). My language skills (although still deficient) have
improved considerably. And I understand the cultural rules which frame
"talk" much better now, so ordinary conversation is less boring and less
frustratating. For example, I know what people are trying to communicate
when they speak in banalities or stereotypes (I have some sense of the norm
by which to measure productions at any moment of speech). I also can
communicate (imperfectly) my own "raw" desires, impressions, opinions in a
way more befitting the cultural realities I find myself in.

Culture "shock" in my experience is thus something which can be overcome.
If one is older (I came to Japan when I was 31), the process of overcoming
it can take more time, but on the other hand because of my age I came to
Japan with more knowledge about their culture, as well as about how people
are in general, wherever they may be. The interesting thing, though, in
all of this is that I am beginning to wonder whether reverse culture shock
can be overcome. If I am gradually becoming more confident in my Japanese
identity (however imperfect or incomplete), I am also at the same time
becoming less certain of what I think of American people. The longer I
stay in Japan, the more difficult it seems to be for me to relate to other
Americans in a natural sort of way. While of course I have not forgetten
my native language, I am influenced by the way Japanese people handle
speech acts (the rules of how you converse with others). This means that
my performance in English in a native context is somewhat strange. People
think I am Canadian or British. They can't place me.

I can more or less place other Americans as being Americans, but now I have
the feeling of otherness in my interactions with them. I realize the
strangeness now of their American ways--the arbitrariness of it all. I'll
forgive Japanese for having this same fault (because their way of being
arbitrary is still new to me), but with Americans I tend to just find them
shallow, eccentric, egotistical, aggressive, etc. This is somewhat of an
exaggeration of my standpoint, since I also know that there is much that I
love about Americans (both their strengths and weaknesses included), but
nevertheless what I once took for granted as the best way of being human is
no longer that.

Reverse culture shock is perhaps ultimately the realization that in gaining
knowledge of the other, and in becoming an other yourself in ways, you have
become marginal to your own culture. You are an expatriate. This
experience has its interesting points, but they are all confined to the
other culture you find yourself in (delving deeper into the other that has
become yourself) or are made manifest in the act of representing yourself
to members of your own culture as an other (you can be the expert, albeit
people will only want you to display your knowledge at the appropriate
times). You cannot simply go back to life as it was for you before you
left your homeland. Or, if you do, you have to do this by an implicit
rejection of the foreign. "Yeah, I spent a number of years there. But
there's no where like the U.S. Thank God I'm back."

Thank the "kami" that I'm still here (which is there for you)? I don't know.

And about sex, well, . . . This, though, is only a move to suggest that I
am interested in the discussion of sociobiology. Sociobiology has
relevance, of course, but how much of its relevance depends on the social
factors that Foss related about the decline of the nuclear family (it's
degradation into various fissionable products)? In other words,
sociobiology whatever its scientific function also has an ideological one.

At any rate, my apologies for this kind of late night writing. What I wish
to suggest through all of this, though, is that narrative is the basis for
ethnography. We want to tell our own stories, and have them heard.
Anthropology is the basis of all the sciences, but only in the sense that
all the sciences are so much "talk." But here, as with Asad, I must cut
short this "talk" of "talk" and recover silence, which itself is history:
the histoty of trees left alone to mark the borders (European medieval
history through the lens of the classic _Traces on the Rhodian Shore_,
Clarence J. Clacken, U of Cal. Pr. 1973). Good night.

Clyde Davenport