It’s often said that ‘culture shock’ is more apparent when you go home from a foreign country, rather than when you arrive somewhere strange and new. The same can be said for when you receive a visitor from home. It goes something like this: you move to Japan and at first it’s all weird and strange. But after a while things start becoming normal: you learn the language, you get used to the food, the weather isn’t odd anymore and you learn the local customs. But then as soon as you get a visitor from home come to see you, it’s like an instant identity crisis where you can’t seem to remember who you are anymore – much to the amusement of your visitor! Let’s take a look at some of the strange things that happen to the Japan-immersed foreigner when a familiar face pops up on the other side of the globe.
Maybe your Japanese is near fluent, or maybe you’re still a long way off and have only a smattering of poorly pronounced words. Either way, as soon as your visitor from home arrives you’ll be pretty much entirely unable to stop yourself from speaking Japanese to them. Perhaps a Japanese word will slip into a conversation where you’re not used to using the English version (maybe you don’t even know it in English…) or maybe you’ll hand them a menu in a restaurant before remembering “oh yeah, you can’t read that, can you?” After a few puzzled glances you’ll realise what you’ve been doing, but somehow being aware that you keep using Japanese to a non-Japanese speaker makes you even more inclined to do it. If all else fails, perhaps at the very least your guest will go home with a few Japanese words under their language belt.
As if accidentally speaking Japanese weren’t bad enough, the arrival of your visitor from home makes you realise that while you’ve been busy learning a new language, you’ve also subconsciously been unlearning your native language. It’s not that you’ve actually forgotten English, it’s more that you perhaps don’t use it as much as you used to and so the big words you used to say all the time are no longer in your active memory.
This happens particularly if you work with kids in Japan (whose language ability is going to be limited and so you’re unlikely to be conversing with them on high-level topics) or if you work solely with Japanese people who have limited language abilities in English. Even if your colleagues speak English really well, you’ll still find yourself ‘dumbing down’ the language you use and speaking slower. So when another Westerner comes to visit and you speak to them about topics you don’t talk about with Japanese friends, you might find yourself forgetting occasional words and doing the old “oh… you know what I mean, it’s the thing… the thing by the stuff with the, oh… it begins with a P… you know?”
Your guest doesn’t bow when they meet someone for the first time… oh no! Your guest receives a business card with one hand instead of two… shock horror. Your guest doesn’t take off their slippers before entering a room with tatami… whatever next? Your guest stabs their chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice… unforgivable!
Depending on how long you’ve lived in Japan, these customs and traditions may be like second nature to you now, but just remember that when you first arrived in Japan, you made all the same rookie mistakes that your guest is making now. Honestly – don’t worry about it. While tradition is very important in Japan, I think it’s fair to say that most people will be very forgiving of the mistakes a foreign guest makes. If you think there is something your guest is likely to do that will actually offend people, warn them about it beforehand. There are plenty of online resources about how to be polite in Japan, so encourage them to have a read of those before their trip.
“So, I don’t have an oven in my kitchen but look at this… it’s a rice cooker, ooooh!” to which your guest responds “Uh, yeah. We have those at home…” While some of your guests might only really be visiting for the purpose of seeing you, chances are that they have at least a passing interest in Japan and will actually know some stuff about it. At the same time, you’ve magically forgotten about all the Japan-related things that you knew before moving abroad and find it impossible to conceive of the idea that your guest might know something about Japan. Don’t be shocked if your guest isn’t mega-impressed by the word ‘sake’ or ‘tonkatsu’ or ‘teriyaki’… these words are common-place in Japanese restaurants back home – don’t you remember? Also, there is this thing called ‘the internet’ that people sometimes use to learn things – don’t dismiss the possibility that your guest has done their homework!
This is just the tip of the iceberg– when you have visitors come to Japan you’ll find yourself accidentally doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the best things about having visitors from home (particularly family members or close friends) are the things you can’t quite put your fingers on – the glances you give each other which result in peels of laughter that neither of you can explain, in-jokes that you’re actually in on rather than the usual ‘in-joke that is an in-joke for Japanese people and you’re out’, a sense of humour that accords with your own (particularly sarcasm!) and of course, just hanging out with someone who you can really ‘be yourself’ with.
Showing a visitor around your new local area and sharing your foreign life with is one of the greatest joys of travelling and living abroad. So don’t worry about the mishaps and enjoy the experience – and don’t let yourself get too homesick when they leave.