Tokyo Shock


Culture shock is what happens when you leave your home and go some place different. Then, when you come back you get reverse culture shock because the different place got so normal that your normal place feels different. But what happens if instead of going back to your own country you go directly to yet another different place with another different culture. Some things may be the same as where you just came from but different from where you are originally from, or just like your home country but different from where you have been living. Suddenly sameness and difference must be assessed relative to multiple points of reference. Sounds bad. Don’t worry. I’m ok, but the move to Tokyo has been a bit of an adjustment in more ways than just one.

Culture shock <–> Bali

You might be tempted to think that switching from one Asian island nation to another wouldn’t be such a big change, but that would be wrong. People in Japan and Bali both eat rice, they bow, they burn their dead, and the cultures share some Buddhist influence. That’s about it. The differences are much more striking. Japanese food: light, fresh, healthy. Indonesian food: deep-fried, salty, spicy. Japan: punctual. Indonesia: late or never. Indonesia: weirdly obsessed with kites and songbirds. Japan: weirdly obsessed with emoticons and cell phone jewelry. But the difference I feel the most is the way these two cultures deal with privacy. Indonesians love asking questions, be they mundane, practical, or oddly personal. Every transaction and chance encounter was an excuse for interrogation. In Japan I am lucky if I make eye contact with a single person in my whole 40-minute commute. Coming from Bali I feel isolated; the streets feel quiet. Why is no one talking? Surely your curious where this tall foreigner is going and how many children he has. At first I was on the lookout for strangers to strike up conversation with but that really isn’t done here. So I’ve signed onto the social contract of silence, sitting on the train trying to understand the strange characters and colorful animals that plaster the subway cars.

Culture shock <–> America

Japan is a progressive, modern, industrialized nation, and these qualities are most evident in the capital city of Tokyo. Most people are not terribly religious; they dress in western-style clothes and ride to work in buses, trains, and cars. Economically, the place is much closer to home than to Indonesia. But Japan’s hearty embrace of development and modernity over the past century has not erased its unique culture. In particular, the level of courtesy and formality here is jarring considering the less than friendly service I expect in American mega-cities. I see businessmen bowing repeatedly as they back onto the train. Police cars blast apologies from PA speakers as they blow through intersections. But the best example is the Japanese convenience store clerk. I can walk into a 7-11 at one in the morning to buy a popsicle (or beer for that matter), and be treated like a visiting foreign dignitary. I will be welcomed as I pass through the automatic door. The young man behind the counter will be neatly dressed and composed, undistracted by magazines and handheld video games. He will not eye me suspiciously as I walk around the store. Once I approach the register I will receive a non-stop stream of babbled formalities until my popsicle is bagged and my change returned. Then the young man will bow and thank me, then bow and thank me again as I exit the store. To be fair, a 7-11 in Japan is a far classier establishment than the American original. At a Japanese 7-11 you can pay your electric bill and buy baseball tickets (side note: Japan has more 7-11s than any country and Tokyo’s 2,000 branches account for about 5% of all 7-11s worldwide). Here it is a truly convenient (and congenial) store.

Economic Shock <–> everywhere else

I am a cheapskate. I bristle at every penny (or yen) spent. Indonesia suited me quite well. I could eat lunch for under a dollar and buy a bunch of bananas for 50 cents. After I year I got used to these agreeable economics. A two-dollar meal was a true indulgence, a five-dollar massage a rare treat. Now that five dollars will fetch me some ramen noodles or an ice cream cone, forget about a decent meal and a massage. By all accounts, Tokyo is one of the most, if not the most expensive city in the world: 10% more expensive than New York and at least 10 times as expensive as Bali. A month’s rent here could get me a simple room in Bali for a year. As I get myself set up and wait for my first paycheck the yen are only moving in one direction, and alarmingly fast when your mind is still in Indonesian Rupiah. My only consolation is the knowledge that once I save up some yen and go back home I can live like a king again.

Lifestyle Shock <–> the rest of my life

I have never lived in a city. I have never been surrounded by concrete as far as the eye can see from the top of my apartment building. I have never lived in an apartment building. There were always trees. In Bali there were rice fields. Now my building overlooks a six-lane road that rests on an artery of the world’s densest metropolitan rail network. Five days a week I tuck in my shirt, climb into one of those tin cans, and drift through the transfer stations on autopilot. In Bali I lived the free-wheeling artist life. I travelled by bike, shaved when I liked, ate with my hands, and generally did as I pleased. From that to the first real job of my life in the biggest city on earth is the greatest shock of all. And like all big transitions, what’s most startling is the way it forces you to consider the path your life is on and how you feel about it. It gives perspective, and the rare opportunity/unfortunate task of building a new life from scratch, consciously deciding what kind of life you want to live. I am busy trying to lose that perspective, shake the shock, settle into a routine, and get lost in the crowd. I’ve come to the right place for that.


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