On Culture Shock

sashimi plate nakatsu japan

Imagine you are eight years old, and you’re sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time. You’re soon dismayed to realize that her parents are those particular kind, the kind that are too tidy, with an array of unfamiliar rules.

We take our shoes off in the foyer. Don’t play in the living room. Please take your feet off the couch. We don’t eat snacks in the study, only in the den.”

You’re paralyzed—what else might be taboo? Is it okay for my head to be touching this sham? My house doesn’t have shams. What are shams even for anyway? So then, in a nervous flutter,  you spill Kool-aid all over their brand new rug.

This is culture shock to me.

Culture shock is never knowing where to put your shoes. It’s daily human interactions that feel like trudging through molasses. The constant fear that your confusion and mental exhaustion might be construed as disrespect. The feeling that when you return to communicating in your native tongue, you will be psychic, unstoppable.

It’s fantasizing about your former retail job, because dammit, you organized the hell out of that merchandise, and your coworkers laughed at all your jokes. You were good. You were once a competent human.

Culture shock is looking in a bathroom mirror and being startled by your own reflection.

But there is another, less-expected feeling, one that I’ve experienced so much since I’ve been here that my conscience has a name for it: “kindness guilt.”

Kindness guilt is the feeling you get when your supervisor spends hours helping you understand your new cell phone contract, or a coworker patiently translates a piece of your mail. Or from the welcoming smiles you receive when you crash a retiree drawing group, even though all you can do during critiques is point and grunt. And the realization that when you are wiping up your metaphorical Kool-aid spills, there are usually people wiping right alongside you, patting you on the back, telling you they didn’t really like that rug much anyways.

So to all the incoming JETs, I wish upon you the same level of kindness guilt that I carry, because it will mean you received the same amount of blind kindness that I have received from Japan. And I think you will, and I think it will be okay.

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