Tag Archives: culture shock

Confessions of a Kawaii Mind

It all started out so innocently: one small, plush Totoro. I remember standing in the aisle of a crowded shop in Osaka, trying to justify the purchase.  On the one hand, 1700 円 is a lot of money for a toy.  On the other hand, Totoro!  It’s a cultural experience! I can use it in show and tell! I can take him home and teach my friends about Japanese culture!  The rationalizations went on and on, all the way to the cash register.  Thus began my slow descent and so I find myself making a difficult confession:  My name is Meagan and I am addicted to all (alright — most) things cute.  Or, as is more commonly said in Japan, I love the kawaii!! \(^o^)/ *

Four years ago, when I first visited Japan, I did not see this coming. I walked around a shopping mall during my first visit and was confused by the stuffed animals hanging off of teenagers’ backpacks.  Surely it’s fad.  Perhaps it is something Japanese teens do ironically.  When I moved to Japan I quickly learned that no, it is not ironic, nor is it limited to teenagers.  It is perfectly acceptable for grown men and women to have full-sized teddy bears dangling from their cellphones, handbags, and pencil cases.  Cute stuff is everywhere.  Why own a plain folder/ phone case/ toilet brush when you could have one covered in kittens?  Not only did I become accustomed to the phenomenon, but I surprised myself with how quickly I adopted it.  Only three months after arriving in Japan I found myself in that shop in Osaka, contemplating my first Totoro purchase.

A completely normal pencil case for a 17 year old boy in Japan.

I did not realize how fully I had embraced the kawaii until I returned home to visit my family and friends and I noticed how“grown-up” they all are. My friends all carry handbags devoid of plush animals.  Their pens and pencils are mostly solid colours, with nary an animated character in sight. None of my loved ones in Canada – not a single one – owns a cutting board shaped like a baby animal.

As I near the end of my JET career and my time in Japan, I have started to wonder what my re-adjustment to life at home will look like.  I have a recurring daymare in which I am meeting new people and my phone rings.  When I take it out of my purse I reveal several Beanie Babies dangling from my phone. Everyone around me recoils, exchanges a look, and telepathically agrees that they must never speak with me or my Beanie Babies again. Ever. ** Making new friends might be tough.  

Is it possible that my fear is a bit exaggerated? Sure, I suppose it’s possible.  But the reality is that once I return to Canada I will slowly start to assimilate with North American norms again.  For better or worse, I have only a few months left to shamelessly bask in cute culture, and I am hoping to take advantage of it.   Now please excuse me, an adult just showed me her pencil case.  It is shaped like a chipmunk and it is wearing a bow tie. I have some squeeing to do.

*I  do not understand Japanese emoji. I think they all look like bats. 

**For the record, I do not actually own any Beanie Babies or phone charms… yet.   


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And Schnitzel with Noodles

Oh culture shock, you’re back.  I’ve written about my experiences with culture shock before so I’ll spare you another long, rambling post about my feelings. Basically, my experience this time around has been identical to my first serious bought of culture shock, full of moments in which I HATE EVERYTHING!

I have been trying really hard to stay positive. So, in that spirit, here is a list of things I love about my life right now.

1) Visiting the special needs school  

I like my base school, where I teach four days a week, but at my special needs school I get to play and sing and be goofy and there is no marking!  The kids there are always genki (enthusiastic and lively.)  They love learning English and are not embarrassed to show it. Also, they love me; I am like a rock star.  During one class about prices I made up a little song.  The lyrics are as follows “Shopping, shopping,shopping, shopping, shopping….” (Got it?) Anyhow, the elementary students now ask to sing it whenever I come in the room.  It’s like I am Barry Manilow.

2) My apartment.

No big explanation required. I just lucked out with an awesome apartment.

3) Kotatsu

4) Japanese delivery services.

Hmm… I need a new toaster oven but I don’t want to carry it home from the store and I don’t want to take a taxi.  I’ll just order it online and it will have free shipping and come right to my door! Missed the delivery? No worries, I can reschedule; no need to walk to the post office to pick it up.  So convenient.

5) Google/iphone

I do not know how anyone lived in a foreign country before Google translate.  I have trouble even remembering how I survived in Korea without a smartphone.  My life is approximately a trillion times easier because of my iphone and other internet-based wizardry.

6) Day trips

Sometimes it is so good to get out of Toyama. Don’t get me wrong, I like Toyama and I am happy to be living here. However, a few hours in a different city really recharges the batteries.  Kanazawa, which is in Ishikawa, is my go-to destination. It is a really fantastic city.  Unlike Toyama, Kanazawa was  mostly spared during WWII so there are still some beautiful old-fashioned streets and temples.   After a long work week , a trip to Kanazawa can remind me of how exotic and interesting Japan can feel.

Higashi-Chayamachi district in Kanazawa

7) Funny signs 

Japan is usually pretty good with signage.  However, every now and then you’ll find one that is a little off, even if it is grammatically correct.  Like this, seen at one of the old geisha houses in Kanazawa:

But... It's just SO EXCITING!

8 ) Last, but not least, days that look like this:

Days like this one (last Saturday) make up for the culture shocky, I-hate-everything days.


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Turning back the clock

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...

Image via Wikipedia

Fun fact: this year I will knock a year off my age on my birthday.

I only got to be 25 for 10 days. When I moved to Korea I had to start telling people my Korean age, 27.

Confused? Allow me to break it down for you:  In Canada, when we are born our age is measured in weeks and months until our first birthday.  In Korea, when children are born they turn one.  Then, they gain a year every January 1st. So, had I been born in Korea, I would have turned 2 on January 1st, 1985. In Canada I was barely 2 weeks old.

Still confused? Don’t worry; it took me a long time and some help from co-workers before I figured out how old I was. I would have gladly just ignored it, but age is very important in Korean society. It’s one of the first thing that anyone asks when meeting new people.

Anyhow, I will be leaving Korea on my birthday this year. This means that instead of going from 25 to 26, I will be regressing from 27 to 26.  Take THAT, mother nature!

EDIT: WordPress wants me to tag this post with “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” which cracks me up.

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November 11th

The cover of a Pepero box

Image via Wikipedia

This is my first poppy-free November 11th.

Today is not a day of remembrance in Korea. Instead, Novemeber 11th is Pepero Day.  What’s Pepero? Pepero is a candy.  It’s a bit like a chocolate-covered cracker and a lot like Pocky, the more popular Japanese Candy.  November 11th is a day when children and young couples exchange Pepero sticks.

There are conflicting rumours about just how Pepero Day got started. A lot of people believe that it was started by Lotte, the company that produces the candy.  The other story is that it was started by a few school girls in Busan who gave each other Pepero on 11/11 because they all wished to grow tall and thin, like Pepero sticks.

Regardless of how it got started, it feels strange that November 11th, a day which I associate with more solemn traditions, is a completely commercial day in Korea.  I feels so odd that ceremonies are being held in Canada to honour those who have fallen while fighting for their countries, and for Korea, but in Korea we are eating candy.  Weird.

I am not condemning Pepero Day, nor am I condemning commercial holidays. I see no real difference between Pepero Day and modern  Halloween celebrations.  Also, it would make no sense to celebrate on November 11th,  since Korea played no official role in World War I. (Korea observes Memorial Day on June 6th.)

It just feels strange to me. Let’s call it part of culture shock. I cannot begin to understand Korea’s relationship with war. It has been occupied by foreign countries several times and is still technically at war with North Korea. That, and the fact that every Korean male must serve in the military, means that Koreans are generally  more connected to their country’s military endeavors than most Canadians.  Most Canadians need Remembrance Day  as a reminder to pay tribute to the men and women who fought for their country.  Who am I to judge if Koreans give each other candy on the same day?

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I will have my own personal moment of silence, 12 1/2 hours ahead of any part of Canada. Then I will go to work, without a poppy, and collect boxes and boxes of chocolate-covered crackers.  And I guess that’s just life as an expat.

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. . . in which I somehow avoid making “shocking” puns

Warning: this post is long, unfunny, and completely uninteresting unless you have lived or plan on living abroad (and even then, “interesting” might be a stretch.) If you just want to read some pirate jokes, go here. Or, if you would prefer to look at cute animals, you can go here. It’s ok, really, I won’t be offended.

Not long ago, when I was first considering moving to Asia, I had no clue what culture shock was. As far as I knew — and this is embarrassing — it was akin to moving to a new country and being surprised that the people don’t speak English.  I cannot claim to be an expert on the topic now, but I can tell you a bit about what I have learned based on my own experiences and a bit of research.

Basically, culture shock refers to the disorientation experienced by travellers and people living in new cultures. When we’re at home, we never really have to think about culture. In fact, that’s kind of the point.  As the Centre for Intercultural Learning explains, “culture is vital because it enables its members to function with one another without the need to negotiate meaning at every moment.” When we exist within our own culture we have a set of (often) unspoken rules; we don’t have to think about what is or is not normal because we just know.  In Canada if I bump into someone in the street then I stop and say sorry.  That’s just how it’s done.  But what happens if I bump into someone on the sidewalk in Korea? Even in a perfect world, a world where I speak flawless Korean, I still don’t quite know what is appropriate. Based on my observations, it seems that I should just keep walking, but that just doesn’t feel right. This is where culture shock kicks in.  There is a discrepancy between what I know, what I think, and what I feel.  Suddenly I have to think about each and every social interaction. Even after carefully calculating my movements, I’m never quite sure that I did the right thing.

Culture shock has different stages, which are defined a bit differently depending on what you read. The first stage, though, is almost always referred to as the honeymoon period.  In the honeymoon phase, everything is exciting and new; it’s all a great adventure. The second phase goes by various names, but I think of it as the ugly phase. This is the time when you might start to feel physically ill. You might have feelings of resentment towards your host culture or overwhelming homesickness. Your eating or sleeping patterns might change or you might have unexplained anger or irritability.  There are tens (hundreds?) of symptoms of the culture shock “uglies” and, as with most psychological phenomena, they can vary from person to person.

the honeymoon phase

I am really lucky because my dad has travelled and worked abroad quite a bit and therefore has had a lot of experiences in dealing with culture shock. He explained to me that there is essentially an equation to calculate when an individual will hit the ugly phase of culture shock: divide your total expected stay in half, and then divide that number by three.  For example, my equation looks like this:

(12 months/2) ÷ 3 = 2 months

And you know what? That’s pretty much exactly how it went. I arrived in Korea at the very end of December. I was scared and lonely, but I was also running on adrenaline. In the interest of survival, I shoved Scared and Lonely Meagan to the back of my brain and dove headfirst into the adventure. Everything, from the fashion to the food to the bright lights, was new and exciting. However, by the end of February the excitement had faded and I found myself face-to-face with Scared and Lonely Meagan, except that she had morphed into Lonely, Angry, and Confused Meagan.

I started getting headaches for the first time since leaving Canada. I craved McDonalds.  I wanted to throw a hissy fit in the middle of E-mart when I saw a single avocado priced at 750 000 won (that’s roughly 7   CDN dollars). Ugly thoughts like “Everything here smells AWEFUL!” seeped into my conscience.  When I had trouble with my electricity bill, I thought to myself “this would NOT have happened in Canada!”  Of course, rational Meagan knew that these thoughts didn’t make sense. A lot of Korean food smells great (and, for that matter, a lot of Canadian food smells awful) and I only needed to think about my months working at the call centre to understand that Canadians make mistakes with bills too.

Before learning Korean

Unfortunately, culture shock is not a rational thing.  There was a disconnect between the rational brain that knew I was experiencing a psychological phenomenon and my emotional brain, who only wanted to hide under my covers and eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches.  Unfortunately, as tempting as it is, being a hermit doesn’t do much to counter the effects of culture shock.  So, instead of completely indulging my troglodytic tendencies I started taking Korean lessons. This helped immeasurably in making my surroundings a bit more recognizable. I can actually read the signs on the streets and even if I don’t know what they mean, at least I no longer see them as combinations of “O,” “T,” “sideways-T,” “T-with-two-sticks,” “backwards-S,” and “three-sided-square.”

So, things are looking up.  I’ve started to make a small network of friends, both foreign and Korean. I’m starting to understand why some things are done so differently than what I’m used to. And, perhaps most importantly, I’m getting excited about being in Korea and exploring my new surroundings again.  Of course, I’m not out of the woods in terms of culture shock. There will always be moments when I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing or when I don’t understand what people around me are doing. There are things about Korea that, even if I understand them intellectually, will likely always baffle me (the idea of fan death, for example.) Just like in Canada, I will continue to have good days and bad days. But I do feel like I’m beginning to leave the uglies behind.

After learning some Korean. (Also, it is my goal to speak and understand Korean well enough to order food delivery.)

*The images in this post are all from http://roketship.tumblr.com, a comic strip that captures the disorientation experienced by westerners living in Korea. I think it’s pretty hilarious and accurate (most of the time.)

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