I have been living in Japan since 1990. Most of my life now.
In that time I have only visited America three times. With a family of five, such a faraway vacation is too expensive.
Our most recent trip to America was to Florida in early August 2004…exactly ten years ago now.
It’s been so long since I’ve been to America, it feels more like a foreign country to me now. Japan has become home.
It was fun to visit America, but I’m not really used to it anymore, I guess. I experienced “reverse culture shock” when we went there in 2004!
First of all, the flight. We went there in August because my kids were on summer vacation from school. That is a peak travel time so airline jack their prices way up! So, I looked for airline that was one that had a good safety record but offered the lowest fare.
We decided to fly with the American airline “Continental Airlines“.
The flight itself was fine…they got us to America and back safely, on time, and with all of our luggage. But I guess I might be too used to Japanese customer service because the attitude of our cabin attendant was surprisingly bad.
I heard her audibly sigh when she was asked a question by another passenger.
And my kids (who were still elementary school students at that time) wanted more of the complimentary snacks that they gave passengers…so I asked her when she was passing by us if we could get some more – and she snapped “No!” and continued on her way without further explanation!
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal…and it isn’t, I know. But that would be unheard of behavior in Japan, so I was surprised.
My next culture shock came in the airports in America.
We started our journey to America at Narita Airport in the Tokyo area.
In Japan, people don’t use their cellphones for talking so much. Emailing through the phones is much more common. And when people do talk with their phones, they do so somewhere away from other people and talk quietly.
I never gave that a second thought before. Even to me, that just seems like normal phone manners.
I came to Japan before cellphones were used by anyone, so I had never even seen a cellphone in America before my trip there ten years ago.
Before we boarded our plane in Japan, everyone in the airport who was using a cellphone was doing so quietly by just sending emails. And when we got off the plane at the airport in America, it was totally different!
There everyone was talking on their phones…loudly.
I don’t want to seem like we didn’t enjoy our vacation in Florida in 2004. It was a lot of fun…but it didn’t feel like “coming home” – but like visiting an interesting foreign country.
Probably because most of my life, and my entire adult life in Japan…I really only lived in America as a kid and teenager…so Japan feels like home.
In fact, after eating American food everyday for two weeks, everyone in my family (including me) starting actually dreaming about the food we wanted to eat once we returned to Japan!
On our drive to the hotel from the airport, I noticed a “Taco Bell” fast-food restaurant. It had been years since I’ve eaten at a “Taco Bell”, so I decided to go through their drive-thru window.
We ordered some tacos and five soft drinks…two medium and three small. The “small” size colas at were bigger than a “large” in Japan! And the U.S. “medium” drinks were too big to fit in the car’s cup holders!
If I had known they were that big, I would’ve ordered one medium for the five of us to share.
Similarly, the clothes in American stores were so big! It was difficult to find our sizes.
Also, I was never sure who to tip or how much. Tipping isn’t done in Japan so I’m not used to it.
I tried to tip everyone in America because I didn’t know who was and who wasn’t expecting one. Gas stations, the rental car place, the hotel cleaning lady, waitresses…
And I probably over-tipped them too because I wasn’t sure how much to give them.
It began to get stressful wondering “Am I supposed to leave a tip here?”
Another event that happened which surprised us because it would never happen in Japan:
We went to a small beach side restaurant for dessert. We each had a slice of cake.
The cakes came and looked good…but they were hard to finish. In fact, my kids couldn’t finish theirs. The cakes were so sweet! Way too sweet!
That was a bit shocking…how different the food tastes. But what was the real culture shock was when I went to pay the US$21.60 bill. I gave the cashier $22…and he told me that he doesn’t have enough coins in the register to give me my 40¢ change!
He said “It’s alright, isn’t it? It’s only 40 cents!”
I didn’t know what to say. Sure, it was only small change…but, in Japan, if a store didn’t have ¥40 in coins to make change, they’d give the customer a ¥50 or a ¥100 coin rather they just assuming they can “keep the change”!
Like I said, none of these events “ruined” our vacation. We still look back on them as “only-in-America” situations!