Anyone new to Japan inevitably experiences culture shock. It can be something as simple as receiving change in a supermarket or, God forbid, a trip to the hospital. Having lived in Japan for so many years, I am used to this society and culture, and not much phases me anymore. But I know I haven’t seen it all!
Last April, before visiting my family in New Jersey, I decided to spend a few days in New York. New York was my weekend playground in my younger days. I hadn’t been there in over twenty years and was excited about the nostalgia I was about to experience, however I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I was about to embark on in my home country. There were bits of it everyday, but the first few hours after landing at JFK Airport were the most “shocking.”
When You land at Narita or Kansai Airport there is always a train that will get you where you need to go. The trains in Japan are often crowded, however, they are very clean, well organized, timely, safe, and quiet (that includes the passengers). Anyway I landed at JFK around 6pm, knowing there was about an hour of daylight left. By the time I got through customs and retrieved my bag it was dark. I decided the train to Manhattan was the best way to go. I had to buy a “Metro Card.” What is a “Metro Card?” Last time I was there it cost seventy-five cents to ride the subway. I had some problems buying one of those, even though it was through a machine and EVERYTHING WAS IN ENGLISH! After finally making it to the train platform, I looked for a timetable – nowhere to be found. One can always find a timetable or railway employee (for help) in Japan… Not where I was! So I waited about thirty minutes until the train arrived, concluding that it was a Sunday and not many trains run. When the doors opened I went into complete shock, actually scared to get on, wondering if I should have taken a taxi. I needed to go all the way through Brooklyn and North in Manhattan to 45th Street. As I looked around, everything was made of fiberglass, no cushioned seats, dirty…People weren’t talking to each other, they were shouting at each other, singing, dancing, kids were running up and down the car. All of this is unheard of in Japan. Train travel in Japan, other than the crowds, is usually an uneventful experience (once you get past the culture shock). A homeless man asked me for money (never happens in Japan). Another boy was selling pirated dvds (not in Japan). I looked like a tourist, the only caucasian on the train. It was right out of an Al Pacino cop movie, and I was a fish out of water in my own country! I needed to transfer somewhere (I didn’t know where) halfway through Brooklyn for Manhattan. The people and the train itself were so noisy that I couldn’t hear any announcements. Fortunately I was finally able to hear an announcement and knew where to make my transfer. Finally, after forty minutes of fear and anxiety, the train crossed the East River and I was in Manhattan..
Relief…I got off at 42nd Street, knowing that I only had to walk three blocks to West 45th in the Theatre District. The last time I was on 42nd Street it was wall to wall havoc – homeless people, drug dealers, porn shops, and all the others that are associated with big city danger. I was relieved to see that it is all gone now, and Manhattan was a very clean and much safer place. As I started my walk north and came to the first intersection, the pedestrian light was red and said “Don’t Walk,” so I stopped. As soon as I stopped, (what seemed like) thousands of people came pushing and shoving their way from behind me, mowing me down! Despite the speeding, honking yellow cabs coming down those one-way streets, it is the norm to ignore the lights and walk on (never in Tokyo). I had become programmed to stop. That should’ve been on film!
I heard English everywhere, and was a bit uncomfortable with it initially, as strange as that sounds. As I walked up to my hotel entrance, I found that it was sandwiched between a Vietnamese and a Japanese restaurant. What country is this?
I checked in, showered, ignored my jet lag and went back out for a bite to eat, craving New York deli food. I walked into the first deli I saw. The smells, the flavors, the food display – all shockingly delightful. I have never seen such culinary beauty of this type in Japan. New York deli food….mmmm… I stared at it all forever, taking it all in, unable to make a decision. Everyone working in the place was speaking Italian… I was in New York…
The next three days were filled with smaller bits of “reverse” culture shock, good food, good jazz, lots of people-watching, etc. How strange it was to experience such a feeling in my own country, in a city that I used to spend so much time in. It was scary, exciting, fun, interesting…I want to do it again and again…
Two weeks later, my plane touched down at Narita, I boarded the Narita Express for Yokohama, sat down in my quiet, comfortable, cushioned, clean, safe,reserved seat and fell asleep. I wouldn’t dare sleep on a train in New York. I was “home” again…
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