Hopping Trains

6 Striking Cultural Personality Differences

We’re all human, and share a lot in common. But now that I live in Japan, I can witness in person how culture works to mold our  personalities from childhood. If you transplant a person from one culture, and place them into another – unprepared, it could result in a fish-out-of-water experience. This is especially interesting to me as my kids were born in the US but now developing here.

While I see very subtle differences in Japanese and American culture on a daily basis, here are a few that jumped out at me early on:

1. Projection of Strength

In the US I’ve often felt as if to get things done, you must prepare to go to battle. Need a utility bill corrected? Start out nice – but be ready to ramp up the intensity. Need to convince a boss of something? Things might get a little heated. The appearance of strength is often interpreted as being passionate about something in the US. Not so much in Japan. Superior effort and service is the norm while maintaining order, balance and harmony in society as well as with your own emotions is expected. In short, being determined, persistent yet respectful, and showing great effort are how you will succeed.

2. Eye Contact

How shall I put this – it’s just different. In America eye-contact happens always, and is expected to show respect. In Japan having direct eye contact with a superior could even be seen as disrespectful. While I enjoy quite a bit of leeway here as a foreigner, I do feel a subtle difference. People are happy to engage me and connect – often after I extend a friendly greeting. If someone walks by me they might not make eye contact, possibly thinking I’m a tourist, don’t speak the language or most likely just nervous about an awkward encounter. But once I engage people, I’m often lavished with friendly conversation, attention and yes, eye contact.

3. Driving Habits

I would say that in the US, there is a the bad stereotype of the asian driver. I have found that in Japan that people are generally excellent drivers, who are extremely polite and courteous of other drivers. This probably has something to do with the fact that they must spend $2000-3000 on driving school to become certified experts, and a huge investment of time to receive a license. The upside for them, is that generally traffic cops often tend to just leave people alone, at least in the countryside. Possibly being a great driver depends on everyone following the rules too, rather than the general chaos of the US. Rather than a friendly wave – you’ll see people waiting for each other, and bowing as a respectful thank you.

4. Straightforwardness

This extends into a number of areas, from the language itself to confrontations with others. Approaching something very directly can commonly be seen as rude, and the result is that in the language, you often hear people dancing around a topic, and decisions and issues often taking a surprisingly long time to get worked out. I’ve often thought – can’t we just ask directly? As with most things, there is a Japanese way to approach things, and often every angle must be considered.

5. A Process for Everything

There’s been a few times since moving to Japanese that I’ve thought, “without help, I could not have got this done”. Getting a cell phone, setting up a bank account, applying for a drivers license – things such as this, seem to take a ridiculous amount of time and old fashioned written paperwork. Japan is advanced in many ways, but there is a specific process for everything, usually involving a lot of paperwork. Make a mistake – you will likely be starting over. While I believe the attention to detail results in fewer errors and a clear result, the process itself can often feel far less efficient or overly complex. Cutting through the red-tape seems like a uniquely American ideal.

6. Looking Out for #1

There is a certain level of independence that Americans have, which wasn’t exactly clear to me until I moved to Japan. Not the kind of independence you might imagine (like, Yay – America – Freedom, Independence). I mean acting independently, the actions we take serving ourselves, but sometimes being only self-serving. The great positive side of this is our willingness to take risk and act alone, and make a big or even risky decision! Americans roll the dice once in a while, and I love this about our culture. Japanese tend to look towards the collective success and happiness of the group, whether it’s their company, their family or even group of friends. This cultural difference holds plenty of room for misunderstanding, simply because our approach to things can be so different.
That’s it for now. I know there are an endless supply of differences which make living in a different culture fun, interesting, at times frustrating – but mostly thought provoking and exciting.

Have you experienced an obvious cultural difference? Please comment and share.

From Crows to Coke Bottles

The first couple trips to Japan, almost everything stood out as different.
Even the things that were nearly the same still bore some tiny, interesting differences. Now 5 trips later, and a month into living in the Gifu countryside – the initial shock has wore off, and the much smaller things which were overshadowed before, stand out a bit more. Not forgetting of course that even a move from a big city to the countryside itself brings many differences, even within the same country. Every once in a while I’d like to note some of the differences experienced in my new daily life. Today I have a small list.

I could write many blogs on how the sounds alone are so different…

Opening a Coke bottle:

A strange looking Coke
A strange looking Coke

It’s more of a sudden pop, a tiny explosion. Rather than the American gradual carbonated burst. Probably due to the different formula. Main ingredient looks like sugar rather than corn syrup.

The sounds at night:

I guess this one should be obvious but even the crows make a different caw than the ones in California. Different animals, temperatures, and spirits. Makes things a bit surreal in the dark.

The cost of goods:

When I would tell everyone I was moving Japan the question I often got was, “Isn’t it expensive there?”. And it’s a bit tough to answer, when comparing the countryside of Japan to the middle of LA. Rent is a fraction of the price here, as you would expect with such a city/countryside comparison.  Gas is more expensive, although I’ll be driving far less now. Groceries are more expensive in general and the quantity is noticeably smaller. But quality is definitely higher, locally grown and sourced.

Sushi grade fish on the other hand (for sushi lovers like me) is definitely less expensive! In short – it really just depends on what you are talking about.

IMG_0269Convenience Stores:

On that same topic. Convenience stores have a dedicated wall of inexpensive food, with lots of healthy options made fresh that morning. And when it’s gone – the shelves are empty. In the US, shelves never go empty and eating from a 7-11 is rather gross considered an absolute last resort.

Relative safety:
Part of it is probably being in the countryside, but I see it in the cities too. Bikes are rarely locked up and more than likely people leave cars and houses often unlocked. It feels odd to see a long row of bikes completely unsecured, and people leaving valuables out in the open. Understandably, it’s because the crime rate is extremely low.

Talking toilets:

Talking everything really. If it’s an appliance made recently chances are it talks to you.

Coffee Vending Machine

Money:

In Japan it seems like in large part, everyday life in Japan mostly deals in cash and every store has their own point card. I’m thinking Americans like seeing the immediate discount while Japanese more prefer to spend points. Also, the American equivalent of a dollar and five dollars are coins, meaning lots of coins! I guess I need myself a new wallet with built in coin purse.

Atmosphere:

I guess this more relates to being in the countryside but the sound of running water is everywhere. And being nearly spring time everyone is turning over the earth preparing their fields for planting and you get the smell of fresh soil. It is very peaceful.

The Egret Has Landed

We’ve landed in Japan and after a few weeks, so much has happened since that 11 hour flight that I hardly know where to start. I could write a blog on 20 different topics;

First and foremost in my thoughts are my kids, and how I’m explaining this whole adventure to them. My sweet 1 year old girl, is mostly just loving all the new attention and excitement as she is still a baby. But I do find a greater importance in speaking to her in English consistently and repeatedly, so that she gets enough exposure to the sounds and syllables of English speech to develop appropriately. The fact that she’s just started walking here is a reminder of everything “new” that she can get her hands on. And there is so much that is new! She’s also sleeping more, which i mostly attribute to all the new stimulation and winter weather.

My toddler is a bigger challenge in my mind;
At age 3 he is basically a mostly-functional person, complete with independent thoughts, emotions and lines of questioning and reasoning. I’ve explained a lot to him in very simple terms for his understanding, which he recites back to me with extraordinary accuracy. But while I think he understands that much has changed, I’m not sure he understands the permanence. To him, it’s still as if his old preschool and friends could reappear at any moment, which sadly they will not. But there is much for him to be excited about.

Our long daily walks outside bring out a vast amount of English communication between us on a variety of subjects, which of course delights me. It’s almost as if he knows he needs to practice with his one source of English as he talks nonstop. Food is something of a challenge, as I have never seen a voracious of an eater, pound for pound, as my 3 year old. At least I can say that it is generally quite healthy food. 

The support of grandparents and other friends and family here have helped smooth the transition. The broad countryside, snow to play with, and new places to go and experience. Yet I am also watchful, for any sense of loss he may experience – yet not have the words to express.

He has started an entirely new preschool based in a different language. I have faith in his intelligence and adaptability, but still – it’s a lot of change at once for a little guy. The number of items required to start a public preschool is rather surprising when compared with the US! From hats, to indoor shoes, a kids futon bed, umbrella, handkerchief, tissue paper holder, bags for school items, etc. I can only assume there will be lessons associated with each and a high degree of organization involved because I’ve never seen anything like it. But the teachers are sweet and wonderful, and he is loving and embracing it completely – which puts me at ease. I’m hoping that with my toddler starting “full time” tomorrow i’ll start having more hours for Japanese studies. I’d hope to remain illiterate for as short as possible.

Our room, currently with family, is mostly settled and organized at this point. The first couple weeks was just about figuring out up from down, getting a bank account, getting a cell phone (neither of which was an especially smooth process) and getting bills settled.

Generally we are enjoying the clean air, a quieter more natural environment, good food and drink, and more time with each other and other family. 

The Daruma Awakens 達磨起きた

It was a little over a year ago, my last visit to Japan. In the fall, with a spectrum of leaves. This was the visit in which to decision to move would manifest itself, starting from a cute notion, to a plausible idea, to an actual full-fledged plan.

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I had been conducting my usual shopping trips for souvenirs. These usually consist of hitting the local Santa themed thrift stores, the Daiso dollar store, and various other small stores for trinkets and small gifts. On one such occasion, a cute little Daruma figure caught my eye. He was nothing of significance really. I had found and purchased much more interesting Daruma figures before.

But this Daruma was a little solar-powered toy, the kind you might place in a  window. There was probably 50 of them in the display, all rocking back-and-forth, side-to-side like cute, red little pendulums, powered by the light.

santaIf I was going to pony up the 150円 (about $1.35) for the little guy, I wanted to make sure he was working well and would work at home. I picked up several, examining each individually. A face with a little frown and furrowed eyebrows staring back at me – setting them down one after the other. They all seemed to function, so I’m not sure what I was really looking for. Maybe the one rocking the hardest? Or most accurately? Quite likely they were all identical, but I tend to be a very slow and meticulous shopper.

I settled upon one, and he was purchased and quickly found his way into my suitcase and pile of other souvenir give-away’s.

And there he sat for weeks.  After some some months, he returned to my memory, and thought I’d bring him to work. I placed him in my window. I being thoughtful to place him in the path of a sunbeam, for maximum exposure. I checked on him through the day, but he would not budge.
He only sat. Staring blankly. Possibly meditating.

drama

Thinking that maybe he just needed some time to charge, i left him alone – and after some days forgot about him. An occasional glance would confirm his stubbornness.
I would move desks at some point, and he would be inherited by another co-worker. He became lined-up with a number of other colorful desk figures, including Star Wars, superhero’s, etc.

Many months would pass without so much as a jiggle – nearly a year.

But somehow, once again the little red orb would find his way back to my desk, as our office became reshuffled. It was somewhere around this time (a few months ago) that we began to sell off our possessions, and truly take action toward our move to Japan.

And it was around this time I noticed something.

I thought it was just my eyes at first. The vibration of  the room or imagination, but i would catch an ever so slight movement. Not easy to verify at first. Not until I clearly noted a full rocking back-and-forth ever so subtly one afternoon.
daruma2
It also happened that on this day I would sell a majority of my music equipment. And the next day he was still,  once again.

A week or so later, I would catch him in the act again, rocking a bit – on the same day in which we would sell our furniture. Again, the next day, perfectly still.

He has kept up this pace, with ever increasing frequency. I’ve begun to check him, almost like a clock now.

Will we sell something today? Will we receive news? Will today be lucky?

As the days tick-off, and our departure grows near – his rocking has become quite frequent! Likewise, our posessions are quickly heading out the door, and our commitments to leaving grow, our 30-day notices at work, and to our landlord has been submitted. Goodbyes are being exchanged.

At this rate, I expect him to be fully and completely rocking-out by the time we depart for Japan. Is there some significance to his awaking and his apparent excitement about our big move? I cannot tell you.

But I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better not to question the universe, and to just move in the same direction that it takes you.

3 Types of Buyers to Avoid When Selling Your Posessions

With 46 days before moving, we rapidly scale back our possessions, reducing to critical-items only. It means selling off a lot, including a couple cars. We’re going this via a number of platforms… Craigslist, mobile apps, auctions and specialty websites. I have to say, I think we’re getting rather good at it. img_7529

At this point – initial messages of interest from potential buyers are coming fast and furious, and nothing really surprises me. (Although i did get one from a girl about my digital voice recorder asking if she could “catch ghosts with it”. My answer? Of course. Absolutely.)

There are a few messages which I believe to be big red flags, warning you to avoid business with some people. After all, your time is precious. Why waste it on someone who has immediately identified themselves as not-really-serious ?

When you get one of these messages, take notice;

  1. Their first message is “Why are you getting rid of it?”
    While this isn’t a 100% deal killer, it’s certainly not very classy right out of the gate. For one thing – it’s none of your business why i might be getting rid of something. For another thing, you are hinting that there may be some hidden information about the item. I don’t mind this question once money is changing hands, but as your first question – this gives off a bad vibe.

    RECOMMENDED ALTERNATIVE TO BUYER: Once you have met in person, looking at the item together and money is changing hands, I believe it is a fair question to ask. Other helpful questions might be… “Are you the original owner?”

  2. Their first message offers you 50% or less than your asking price.
    Hold on! I’m all about the bargain, and haggling, and being flexible with pricing. Actually I recommend asking for  least 20% more than your intended sale price. But what i’m talking about is a specific type of buyer.

    By offering half price immediately, they identify themselves as someone who is immature or inexperienced in business dealings. Not only are they showing lack of respect for your perceived value of the item, but they are basically saying: “I care so little about the nuances of this transaction, that I probably won’t even show up to buy it – at any price.” Will I sell for half my asking price? Sure – on occasion. But there is a correct path of negotiation to get there.

    RECOMMENDED ALTERNATIVE TO BUYER: Ask a seller what his lowest acceptable price is IF they are able to come and get the item immediately with cash in hand. There is value in a buyer who can take immediate action – and this can be used to an advantage. 

  3. Their first message is “Whats wrong with it?”
    There are many ways to get more detail from a seller. This is not one of them. If there was something wrong with it – I would state that clearly in the description. So when you ask this as your first question, you tell me that you don’t believe or trust my description. Not the best foot to start out on, right? This kind of attitude reveals a personality that will agree with you on a price, and then “find some problem” with the item in order to try and reduce their cost later on. Always try to agree on a set price before the buyer comes to get it.

    RECOMMENDED ALTERNATIVE TO BUYER: Engage in conversation and ask for additional descriptive details. Ask specific questions. Are there any visible scratches? Does it power on normally? When was the last time you used it?

A note about selling all your possessions:
As the seller you have the ultimate power, the power to say “no thanks”.  You will be surprised to see how quickly some people’s minds will change when you are willing to walk away from a sale. Never feel pressured into giving things away . Sometimes you will sell things for a bit less than you would have liked. Sometimes what you get will surprise you. But overall, this can be a profitable and fun venture for you!

Happy selling!

 

Disappearing Furniture

In our small 1920’s era Los Angeles rental, the rooms grow bigger every day. Actually the possessions become fewer, which just makes the house look and feel far more spacious. People arrive daily now, answering ads and apps regarding our items for-sale. Completing the transactions quickly is a daily ritual of mine.

While it feels right, preparing to move (& slimming down to the basics) it does feel a bit surreal. Maybe it just goes against my pack-rat tendencies. It stirs up some feelings, and brings heightened emotion to the moment.

perceptionsI think to myself: This is the only house our children know. I’m suddenly valuing that feeling of “home” more highly. How long will it take, following an international move, for that feeling to return?

The memories of having 2 babies come into the world here, and watching them grow, are precious. It is the end of an era.

With a matter of weeks remaining, some nagging insecurities exist; not knowing the language well enough, not being prepared enough to generate an income there, wondering if i can adjust culturally. But these rather silly thoughts are quickly drowned-out as my thoughts turn to the kids. Will they have any memories of this home? How will such a major move affect their growth?

But we can’t let a few worries control our actions and destiny. Otherwise we’d never get out of bed in the morning.

I’ve had enough of Los Angeles for a while – change is long overdue. Our family will be entering a life of amazingly healthy food, pristine nature and clean water, a support system with loving grandparents and family. The countryside with children – is a dream environment and playground. The opportunity for them to grab a piece of their own culture and soak up the language naturally.

I have no doubts about the decision. To fear the unknown is natural. It is clear that love of family is perhaps the only thing that truly matters.  A challenge to a family can bring them closer together, strengthen bonds, and demonstrate that “home” is the comfort that comes from making memories together.

 

What is the first step ?

The first step is the decision.

Once the decision has been made, and the psychological switch has been flipped – we’ve entered the planning mode.

I won’t lie, the reality takes a little while to sink in. Wiping the slate clean – starting fresh somewhere entirely new. Thinking about everything that needs to be done can be overwhelming. For us… living in a house with kids, one in preschool, and 3 cars, and multiple jobs and a house full of accumulated stuff – where does one even start with preparing for an international move?

When eating an elephant take one bite at a time. – Creighton Abrams

It’s important to break the pieces of such an endeavor down into small, achievable pieces. More than that, it’s important to maintain a clear and positive state of mind and live in the moment while completing each steps, with each one bringing you closer to the final goal.
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For those considering such a transition, my recommendation is to:

    1. Start with a date. Mark the calendar. Now you have a timeline. There is an end to your time here – no matter how distant it might seem. One trap I could see falling into, is letting this seemingly distant date make you think… “Hey, I’ve got plenty of time!”. Because let me tell you – that date will arrive faster than you think.
    2. To combat this way of thinking, you’ve got to have  some short term goals. Monthly, and preferably weekly or daily. Get this up on a calendar and post it UP at EYE LEVEL where you are forced to see it daily. Want to rely on your cell phone? That’s your choice. But I don’t recommend it.  I’m a fan of big changes to my current life, which remind me that the date is coming – and force me to consider things differently, every single day – outside the normal daily grind.
    3. Start consolidating. I’ll go more into this later – but it’s time to start thinking about what you really care about. Is anything worth saving? Is anything work paying $2000+/YR in storage? Maybe you have a place to store things with family. Regardless, if you are anything like us, you probably have a ton of things you don’t need. Don’t get stuck having to scramble at the end. Craigslist, Ebay, Selling Apps and even a big fat Garage Sale (or three) can be your friend!