Writer @ Culture Gaps &
Web Designer @ Bento Sites
I'm a returnee – someone who returns home after a prolonged absence.For more than a decade, I lived abroad and helped everyone from sea gypsies in Thailand to senior executives in Japan learn English, improve cross-cultural communication and bridge the culture gaps.
However, when I finally returned to the United States for the first time in 12 years, my arrival quickly became less of a homecoming and more of an arduous journey called reverse culture shock.
Culture Gaps was conceived during that time.
Culture Gaps' Mission
Culture Gaps provides cross-cultural communication resources to help visitors to the United States and permanent residents become effective communicators of English in American culture.
A Story About Reverse Culture Shock
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage
My wife, Aya, and I embarked on a transpacific crossing from our home in Tokyo to Vancouver for an amazing 2 weeks at sea. After disembarking in Vancouver, we entered the U.S. via Amtrak and for the next 3 weeks continued riding the train across the United States, stopping in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio and New Orleans. The final destination to our fantastic and unforgettable journey culminated with the arrival to our new home – Atlanta, Georgia.
If you can imagine living abroad for a dozen years in countries where English is not an official language, then you can imagine the comfort and satisfaction I felt to effortlessly read signs, menus and advertisements again, to see family and friends again, to meander the grocery store aisles as if they were vintage toy stores. This was my 12-year reunion with the United States and Aya's first time in the U.S. We were having a blast!
Stage 2: The Crisis Stage
Most middle-aged American men weren't pillaging through dust-covered plastic containers that served as time capsules to their former selves nor trying to recall the way things were done in Michigan (my home state) more than a decade ago and comparing that outdated information with how things are done in Atlanta today.
Studying to get a driver's license, leasing a car, applying and interviewing for Aya's green card, finding an apartment, setting up health insurance and learning pop culture references all left me feeling like the most irrelevant and obsolete American.
Nobody was interested in where I'd been nor what I'd accomplished abroad. Only the present mattered, but the present was an unnerving chain of misunderstandings, non-understandings and misinterpretations.
What should've been familiar, wasn't. Who should've been familiar, wasn't. People didn't understand me. I didn't fully understand them. Language had changed. Customs had changed. Systems had changed. I had changed. I felt like a foreigner in my own country.
Plagued by unnatural pauses and unable to quickly recall vocabulary that I hadn't accessed in more than a decade made uncomfortable, intolerable. Being the victim of a head-on car accident only made bad, worse.
"Say yellow," said my brother.
"It sounds funny."
"Yellow is not my only problem."
Stage 3: The Recovery Stage
"12 straight years outside the U.S." reflected an old friend. "That's all of elementary, middle school and high school. That's three presidential terms. And you returned on a boat!"
"It was a ship."
"You're like an immigrant! You and Aya arrived here with nothing. Just backpacks and initiative!"
"Are you helping?"
"You're an anomaly."
"Can you say something positive?"
"Don't worry. Sometimes your weaknesses can become your greatest asset."
Slowly, I stopped comparing the U.S. with other countries I'd lived abroad and began to accept the cultural differences. As I relearned, rediscovered and reclaimed my culture, I understood how even the most well-intentioned visitor, expatriate, immigrant or returnee can get baffled, nervous and confused – and that can lead to miscommunication. Knowing how to communicate in the right situations and could bridge the culture gaps.
Eventually, I established Culture Gaps to help visitors to the United States and permanent residents become effective communicators of English in American culture.
Stage 4: The Adjustment Stage
It's now been a few years since Aya and I stepped off the train in Atlanta. I no longer feel irrelevant, obsolete and distressed by cultural differences and my speaking speed and pronunciation have returned. Returning to the U.S. has been an incredible inward and outward journey with immeasurable personal growth. We're now comfortable. We belong.
Sometimes your weaknesses can become your greatest asset – knowing how to transcend those weaknesses into strengths can be the key to success.
To learn about culture shock, read my post – The 4 Stages of Culture Shock.