Reverse Culture Shock – Part 1

I recently returned from my first trip back to the USA, after 2 Years of life in Japan. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a mixed bag of emotions. The concept of reverse culture shock, of returning to your home country after spending just a couple years away – is a real thing. I suppose in my case there is also a Big City VS. Small City contrast which plays a part.

LA - The Belly of the Beast
Although it was only two years away I think it was the closest that I had ever come to seeing America, specifically Southern California, from the eyes of an outsider. It had me thinking about my identity a bit.

Some of the Things That Popped Out;

Disorder:
The chaos of American is both good and bad. It feels quite liberating and free, while the lack of process can be frustrating at times. It’s good for my kids to see that this world (and life) is more than any one country or culture. A person needs to have the skill set to thrive in both an environment of chaos, or an an environment of order.

Volume:
LA is a big city, noise pollution and people are loud. But beyond the number of people, they are also unconcerned about others. Whether it’s someone speaking loudly on their cell phone, or bumping music from their car – it’s simply a louder environment.

Korea Town Los AngelesThe Food:
It’s no secret that I like to eat. The city holds a range of ethnic foods that is simply unavailable in small town Japan. It was great to eat all of the things I had been missing for the last couple years, and I definitely gained a few pounds. How many tacos did I eat? I lost count! But the almost universally unhealthy food as you walk through the average grocery store (American snacks) – that’s another story.

Friendliness:
While LA is not especially known as a friendly city, it sure felt welcoming to me. I imagine this was just due to being around English and feeling at-ease. Also, all those tiny conversations you have throughout the course of a day, you usually take for granted. But as a foreigner in small-town Japan, people are far more hesitant to strike up a conversation for multiple reasons.

Cleanliness:
Never underestimate the convenience of being able to walk into a clean bathroom anywhere you go. This is not the case in Los Angeles. One of the big reasons for moving to a smaller town, I got sick of telling my kids not to touch things. The pure unspoiled nature of the Japanese countryside is hard to compare with anything else. The grim of the city, I don’t miss.

Traffic:
Oh boy, the traffic. When I lived in Los Angeles I hated it, but I was used to it and tolerated it because… what choice is there? But visiting it again after getting used to a small town made me scream むり, impossible, and that I could never deal with that again.

Anxiety:
While living in Japan, the local supermarket we used to shop at was in the news recently. The police had chased a suspect into the store and gunfire was exchanged. One of the employees was caught in the crossfire and unfortunately killed – by police. While crime exists everywhere, theres no denying the number of guns and crime levels in big American cities. It’s nice to worry about my kids less in a small, relatively safe town.

Relationships:
To have my children get to know my family and bond was/is priceless, and our time together was too short. This is a huge downside to living abroad. Seeing old friends reminded us of all the things that we have in common with them, and the close relationships we had there. We miss them. Starting over in a new country, with new priorities means that new, deep friendships come very slowly.

There’s more of course, but these are the things that most jumped out at me. But what I realized more than before, is that Japan is now my home, at least for now. I need to do a better job of making my home a place that I cherish by creating deeper bonds, reaching out to people and embracing my experience to its fullest.
Strive for fearlessness.

In my next blog post I speak more about having children caught between two cultures – Japanese and American.

Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs

So you’ve moved to Japan from the USA, or maybe you’re just here for an extended period. Chances are there’s a few things your going to miss from home. While big cities offer about anything you might need (for a price), dwellers of the countryside like me might be out of luck, or forced to compromise during those rare moments we’re feeling nostalgic.

Costco Toyama

Fortunately we have that giant American wholesale warehouse we all know and love, Costco, with stored spread throughout central and southern Japan.

Naturally when I have the chance to visit my nearest location (Toyama) there are a few “must have” items which go into my cart regularly.

Real Cheese
One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of processed cheese in Japan. If you do find the good stuff, it’s not cheap! Bricks of real cheddar and jack cheese can be had from Costco. I always buy a couple bricks and put some in the refrigerator and cut the remainder into pieces or grate and freeze. Freezing it whole does ruin the texture a bit (gets crumbly) but still great for cooking and keeps indefinitely, or at least until the next Costco Trip. Costco puts all the expensive cheese together in the busiest part of the store, while hiding their affordable Kirkland Signature cheese in the refrigeration isle.

Oats & Cereal
Cereal is expensive in Japan, and you certainly won’t find any that you loved as a kid. You can buy a huge amount of steel cut oats at a great price for making oatmeal (or porridge as my UK counterparts would say). This is especially great when you have kids and want to occasionally offer a healthy alternative to rice, pasta, or bread. They also carry a few common cereals for us old-kids like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Wheat PastaOrganic / Wheat Pasta
We like to give our kids healthy options whenever possible. While pasta is readily available throughout Japan it’s kind of rare that i see all wheat or grain versions of pasta, which I feel is a better option than…. just flour/water/egg of regular pasta. Costco has it.

Baked Beans
If you’re looking for beans in Japan – I hope you like desert. Sweet red bean filling is the most common place I find beans in Japan, and while it’s not bad (once you acquire the taste) it can seem very strange to what Americans and British folks think of as beans. I personally prefer a spicey ranch style pinquito beans from my home town, baked beans is still a comfortable reminder of home.

Pork Ribs
I love Japanese style BBQ, I of course have my grill out on the back porch ready for the summer. But there’s no argument that it’s a completely different style than the US. Once in a while, I’ve got to get a taste of that old home town style BBQ and in the absence of a Tri-tip, pork ribs are a great next best option. You can get a full rack at Costco at a relatively affordable price, where as at countryside supermarkets you may see a few small ribs in a pack on occasion – if that.

Taco Seasoning
I know what you home master-chef’s will say, “I use my own seasoning for taco’s”. Yes, I get that. But when you live in Japan, Mexican food seasonings are either non-existant or expensive. For quick meals, Costco has a huge container of taco seasoning that will probably last you a year. You can kick it up a notch with your own seasonings to get your taco’s in the right happy place.

Fresh / Frozen Pizza
Costco’s giant “ready to bake” pizzas are nearly identical to those in the US (with the exception of the seafood pizza). In fact, most Japanese kitchens probably lack the size of oven required to cook it! This means most people probably cook it in sections (I’m guessing). One alternative is their 3-pack of frozen pizzas which are also quite tasty, and at about $5/per pizza quite a good deal. Add your own toppings to make it something special.

Bakery and BreadDinner Rolls / French Bread
I’m an American and this pretty much certifies my love for white bread. What’s great (once again) is that bread keeps rather well in the freezer. Costco’s bakery cranks out favorites that are identical to the US version, and make you feel right at home.

Ritz Crackers
I admit this one is something of a personal favorite that I was craving last time. Japanese crackers are great, but something completely different. If you miss the buttery, salty (can’t be good for you) snack that I was craving, they have them. Top them with some cheese or…

Peanut Butter
I’m listing this one because they have it, and Peanut Butter is rarely ever seen by me at the grocery. If I do see it, it’s a tiny container. Here’s my beef with you Costco, you only carry the sweet full-of-sugar PB’s like JIF. How about a nice natural one, 100% peanuts only? I guess my Trader Joes jar will have to last a little longer.

Tequila / Wine / Beer
Tequila! Oh how I’ve missed you. I never see tequila in supermarkets, and only one option when in most liquor markets. Costco has a couple options, and the Kirkland Signature is quite drinkable and very affordable. I got spoilt on wine in California, as many of the wines imported to, or made in Japan taste watered-down to me. Costco’s cheapest (bottled) red wine is usually imported as well, but you can tell that they’ve taken the time to select a decently drinkable one. Imported beers are always pricey – but at least they have some to pick from.

English Books
If you happen to have kids like me, raising them in Japan – English books might need to be ordered online unless you get lucky at a second hand store, or live in a big city. Costco has a ton of children’s books (and adult ones) in English at your expected new book price.

Avocados
I thought Avocado’s were expensive in the US, then I moved to Japan. Wow! Costco carries avocado’s by the bag, still not cheap, but maybe better than many supermarkets and always large in size.

BONUS ITEMS:

The oven roasted chicken at around $6 is a steal, especially considering most people don’t usually buy whole-chickens (or have big enough oven to roast it for that matter). It’s obvious why it’s strategically placed at the back of the store. And you know I can’t go without mentioning the all-beef hotdog from the food counter. It comes with a drink, AND it’s under $2? Shut up and take my money. Don’t tell me how it’s made, just leave me alone and let me eat my dog. Maybe i’ll get one for the road too.

What’s your craving from back home? Whether Costco or not – leave us a comment below and tell us what you’re missing.