Over the Christmas period I returned to England for the first time in fourteen months. I was warned that things would feel weird the first time I went home, and despite doing my best to be flexible and re-adapt, there were still quite a few cultural differences that unnerved me during my eleven days back in the country. Now, eleven days is not nearly enough time to fall right into the depths of reverse culture shock, but it certainly enough to feel unusual, like I was kind of separate from everything.
I figured it would be interesting to compile a list of all the British stuff that now seems strange to me, so here are seven things that made me realise just how much I’ve changed in the last year and a bit…
For the first few days of my trip, I pretty much stayed indoors, electing to stay hibernating in a Christmas cocoon of family, food, and catching up on sleep. After all, I missed home more than I missed the UK and I wasn’t going to miss out on any holiday celebrations. Because of that, it was four days before I properly ventured further than my local neighbourhood, heading into town with my best friend from high school. For most of the way there, I was pretty engrossed in conversation so we were actually in the town centre before I noticed a traffic light and did a double take.
It was such a stereotypical reaction that I was almost annoyed at myself but I couldn’t help thinking just how green the green light was.
It was just so… green.
My eyes had become accustomed to the bluish colour of Japanese traffic lights (信号, or shingō, if you wanted to learn a new word) and despite growing up with the solid green of the ones in Britain, I was still weirded out. I never thought I’d find my own country’s traffic lights foreign to me but it happened.
PAYMENT & PRICES
One thing that regularly tripped me up during my time in the UK was paying for things. Now I’m so used to putting money in a little tray in front of the cashier, and on the rare occasion where there’s no tray – directly on the counter itself. Giving it directly to the person themselves certainly felt peculiar and as a result I would keep forgetting to do it… but because I was in England, I felt rude every time.
Another thing that felt weird while shopping were prices. It was strange enough being back in the same Tesco Express I’d always go to on the way home from work, but they just made it even more so. I walked down the aisles trying to decide what to buy first and considering I’d missed a lot of things, the choice was a little overwhelming. Eventually I decided on some sweets and a peach iced tea but something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what seemed so out of place until I reached the Cadbury Freddos.
Part of life as a British millennial is judging inflation by the price of a Freddo – small piece of chocolate shaped like a frog. It sounds weird but it works. It was one of the most popular treats to get when I was younger; at 10p it was cheap enough to buy with a pound’s worth of pocket money and it was a bit more substantial than a box of candy sticks or a marshmallow Flump. For a split second I saw nothing wrong with a Freddo that was almost 30p* and that’s when I realised that after paying in yen for a year, I wasn’t used to smaller numbers on price labels anymore.
Pounds and pence just seemed like they were worth so much less and even though that is partly due to the economy – I couldn’t pin all the blame on that. It may have seemed strange but one thing I did appreciate was having tax included in the main prices. Sure, Japanese shops usually have the tax added in a small number below but when you’re in a hurry, who has time for that?
I went to the checkout and paid the exact amount on the labels, but not before putting the money on the counter and getting a look from the cashier. Oops.
WESTERN SIZE FRIDGES
Now, I’m not 100 percent sure this is a real ‘reverse culture shock’ or just my own personal circumstances, but I figured it was worth mentioning. In the UK, I lived in a house with a big open plan kitchen-dining area, nice and bright with patio doors to let in lots of light. In Japan, my kitchen is practically a box with one gas ring, one microwave, and no windows. I recently bought a mini toaster oven which has made my life easier, but finding space to put it was a struggle. It’s currently stacked on top of my microwave which is stacked on top of my fridge-freezer unit. And as a short person I can still reach it easily because my fridge is so small.
You could argue that I live alone and don’t need a lot of refrigeration space, but that didn’t stop me from marveling at how big my parents’ fridge was when I went home. Especially being Christmas time, it was so full of food and it was possibly one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Japanese fridges tend to be more on the small side, so it makes more sense to do multiple small shops during the week instead of a big shop at the weekend, and I don’t even know if home deliveries are a thing here.
It’s such a shame that I don’t like being in my kitchen here because I do really like cooking, and I found myself getting a little jealous. One thing is for sure, when I settle properly I am going to have a freaking amazing kitchen space.
WARM HAND DRYERS
I was shopping in the Trafford Centre this Christmas and that’s when I came across another unexpected surprise. All I was doing was drying my hands in the restroom but instead of the cool temperature I was anticipating, that air was actually warm. It was late December and my hands are almost always cold so I welcomed it gladly. Most hand dryers I’ve found over here are the low temperature kind which my freezing fingers don’t particularly appreciate. But, I suppose it’s better than nothing.
When people ask me about travel tips in Japan, I usually recommend either bringing hand sanitiser or buying a small hand towel from a conbini when they get here. Public bathrooms are not always guaranteed to have hand dryers so it’s good to have a back-up plan instead of wiping your wet hands on your jeans or something.
SHOES ON INSIDE
Something that I was expecting to be different back home was wearing shoes inside the house. I grew up with it and I don’t even know how many times I’ve raced upstairs with my shoes still on. Something I wasn’t expecting was my attitude being different.
Japanese homes have a genkan (玄関, translated as ‘entranceway’ in my dictionary) by the door – a space for removing your shoes that’s slightly lower than the rest of the house or apartment. You take off your shoes as you enter and step up to come inside. There’s been a couple of times where the genkan’s step has been higher than usual and I’m so used to standard genkan that it felt strange enough for me to remember. I take my shoes off at work too, changing into a pair of ‘indoor shoes’ that have never been worn outside.
But even being back home, it still felt peculiar to wear shoes indoors and it was something I couldn’t shake. Deep down, I knew it was okay but I still couldn’t do it. I got about as far as the kitchen – which my brain had justified as it was laminate flooring that continued from the hallway – but carpets were off-limits.
And speaking of which, I also realised I hadn’t seen carpet in a long time. My brother probably thought I was weird just lying on the games room floor feeling how fluffy and warm it was.
I’ve been back for a while now and I’ve taught a few lessons in the AV Room where I’m supposed to take even my indoor shoes off and honestly… I feel way more comfortable in just socks. I guess it just feels more homely that way.
It’s no secret that Japan has a reputation for having some of the best trains in the world.
In fact, during a speech I was asked to give at work, I made a jokey comment about how my country may have invented trains but Japan made them better. Even as far as UK trains go, the local ones in my area were nowhere near the ‘best in the nation’, so when I moved here it was such a nice change.
There were no threadbare seats, no old carriages, and a very very slim chance of seeing any vomit on the floor. In the fourteen months I’ve lived here, I’ve only seen one puke incident and it was quickly cleaned up while the train was waiting at the station.
I’m not going to lie, I was expecting the worst when I went back home. I thought that the trains would seem so dirty in comparison. Fortunately enough for me, my local trains have undergone a bit of a makeover since I’ve been away. They’re certainly not Japan standard but it was enough to bridge the gap a little bit. Even though they were better and it was a nice surprise, I still did a double take and an ‘oh’ involuntarily left my mouth because it wasn’t what I’d expected at all.
Also, the prices were more expensive too. Before I left, I was using my 16-25 railcard and having passed my 25th birthday, I’d accepted that I couldn’t use it anymore. Besides, it would’ve expired from not renewing anyway. For a journey to a city 30 minutes away, Japan Rail charges me for two single tickets at ¥216 each – totaling ¥432, or £3.12. Northern Rail, however, charges £9.40* for a return ticket. While it’s convenient to actually be able to buy a return ticket, that’s almost exactly three times the price. At least I wasn’t staying long enough for train journeys to put a huge dent in my bank account but I now understand why more people drive in Britain.
EVERYONE UNDERSTANDING ME
Living in a country where less than 30% of the population speak your language isn’t exactly easy. English being a lingua franca may have given me some advantage over speakers of other languages but it doesn’t help that much. People will try to communicate with you as best they can, but most times there’ll still be a language barrier to contend with. I have been learning Japanese on and off for the last few years, so I can hold a basic conversation, but I’m just gonna say it – it’s a difficult language to learn. With the sentence structure being so different and trying to remember how to conjugate words, it’s hard for my brain to process things quickly.
I can appreciate that it’s probably the same with English, and I do live in Japan so I should try my best to speak Japanese, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling frustrated at times… especially straight after returning from England.
I will be honest; the first few times I ventured out into the ‘real world’ outside my family Christmas bubble, I felt really shy. I ordered a glühwein at the illuminations we visited and my words felt alien coming out of my mouth. I have dinner out at least once a week, so I’ve grown used to ordering in Japanese, but if they deviate from their ‘script’, my language skills tend to fall apart. It felt weird to be using English in that situation again, but after I’d readjusted it felt so much more comfortable and I actually started to enjoy it (such a change from the “can you ask?” attitude I had as a teenager).
I could clarify which wine I wanted at the pub without stumbling over my words. I went shopping with a close friend and we made casual conversations with retail workers in more than one shop. I would never dream of doing that in Japan, but it seemed like a way friendlier atmosphere. Everyone I saw in public was an English speaker and that gave me a sense of relief. I didn’t have to worry about being misunderstood. Sure, it did mean that I had to be a little more mindful of what I said but I’m not the kind of person to say anything bad anyway…
Overall, it did feel weird for a considerable chunk of my time back home, but I am definitely thankful that I did get to go back this time. My family are my biggest supporters and I’m glad that could spend my favourite holiday with my favourite people. If you’re reading this, I’ll love you always.
What are these things like in your country? Let’s compare cultures down in the comments section!
(*prices correct as of January/February 2019)