Culture Gaps is located in Metro Atlanta, Georgia – USA
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Hello, my name's Jeff Shibasaki (American). I'm an explorer, facilitator and functioning introvert (INFP). I graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelor of Science in literature and am a CELTA-certified English language instructor. I've worked in Japan, South Korea and Thailand as a curriculum developer, digital content producer and English language instructor at private institutes, schools, university, multinational corporations and government organizations. During that time, I've also lived with the Urak Lawoi (Sea Gypsies) on a remote Thai island, crossed the DMZ into North Korea, cycled across Northern Thailand, South Korea and Japan – and ultimately arrived in time to meet my future wife, Aya (Japanese), sitting across from me at a Tokyo izakaya.
Three years later, we got engaged on Christmas Eve in Japan after an all-day, ‘will-you marry-me?’ scavenger hunt. Since our wedding day, the zest we share for travel and culture has driven us to climb Mt. Fuji, publish books on Japanese gestures and Japan's 47 prefectures, cross the Pacific Ocean by ship, cross the USA by train, present at Georgia’s Japan Fest and much more.
Just as life led me around the world in a fantastic, decade-long adventure that culminated with meeting Aya – my entrepreneurial endeavors have been a journey as well. In Thailand, I commissioned hundreds of red and green artisan boxes and handmade Christmas cards to sell online. In South Korea, I worked as a freelance travel writer. In Japan, I developed student-centered iPad curriculums and implemented a flipped classroom model for adults learning business communication skills under the business name Ready To Go and also self-published ebooks under the publisher name, Pangea's Tribe. In the United States, I established a web design company called Bento Sites to help small businesses establish an effective online presence. Throughout all of these endeavors, I never really considered myself entrepreneurial – it just became a recurring need to meet others, facilitate high-quality experiences and improve communication. I didn't know it then, but I was failing often – so I could eventually get it right when it mattered most.
Combining the lessons of my entrepreneurial past with the urgency to improve mine and Aya's lifestyles in the United States and to become culturally competent led to establishing Culture Gaps. With Culture Gaps, my personality and background are aligned with my passions and desires.
I'm a returnee – someone who returns after a prolonged absence. For more than a decade, I lived abroad and helped everyone from children to senior executives learn English and improve cross-cultural communication, but when I finally returned to the United States for the first time in over 12 years, my arrival quickly became less of a homecoming and more of an arduous journey filled with reverse culture shock and miscommunication (misunderstandings, non-understandings and misinterpretations).
My wife, Aya, and I decided to embark a transpacific crossing from Tokyo to Vancouver and then travel by Amtrak to Seattle and all across the United States until we ultimately arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. While I hadn't been to the US in over a dozen years, it was Aya's first time. We thought the long journey would be more adventurous and help us gradually adjust. Once we arrived, I immediately noted the accelerated speaking speeds and the evolution of language.
"BOGO," said the cashier at a sandwich shop.
"Pogo?" I said.
He looked at Aya. "BOGO."
"BOGO?" she said.
He turned back to me. "It's BOGO, man!"
"BOGO don't know." Oops, there went the pigeon English.
He stepped back and looked at both of us. "Buy one. Get one. BOGO!"
We sat at a table, waiting for our food. If I didn't know something as simple as BOGO, what else might I be missing that other Americans were expected to know? "Tell me about BOGO," I said to SIRI on my iPhone.
"Alright, here's what I got:" SIRI said. "Bogel is a municipality in the district of Rhein-Lahn, in Rhineland-Palatinate, in Western Germany.
"Looks like SIRI and I have the same problem," I said to Aya.
Aya raised her drink and smiled. "We've got to start somewhere. Cheers to BOGO!"
If you can imagine living abroad for a dozen years in countries where English is not an official language, then you can imagine the satisfaction I found to effortlessly read signs, menus and advertisements, to see family and friends, to meander the grocery store aisles as if they were vintage toy stores. It was my 12-year reunion with the United States. Nevertheless, getting comfortable and getting established took more time than it ever had abroad. Remembering how to do trivial things like make small talk with cashiers at the grocery store and correct my pronunciation required time and patience.
"Say yellow!" said my brother.
"It sounds funny."
"Yellow is not my only problem."
While my brother thought my pronunciation made me sound like a peculiar American, others thought I wasn't American nor even Caucasian. "Is Mr. Shibasaki home?" asked a soliciting Asian women. "Can you give him this important flyer and tell him that he can make a difference with his vote? Atlanta's Asian community needs to work together to create the change we desire!"
Meanwhile, talking on the phone reminded me who I used to be. "I'm going to ask you a series of questions in order to authenticate you," said the customer support staff member. "Which of the following street names have you not lived?" He listed 5 streets.
"Where'd you get this information?"
"Public records, sir. Which street have you not lived?" he repeated.
"Look, can I ask a question about you? Sorry, I mean...can you ask another question about me?"
"What was the color of the Ford Mustang you once owned?" He listed 5 colors.
Yellow wasn't my only problem.
Most middle-aged Americans 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 more than a decade ago and comparing that outdated information with how things were done in Atlanta today. Becoming familiar with pop culture references, leasing a car, setting up health insurance, finding an apartment and learning how to establish a company all left me feeling like the most irrelevant and obsolete American. Being the victim of a head-on collision only made bad, worse. Plagued by unnatural pauses and unable to quickly recall vocabulary that I hadn't accessed in over a decade just made uncomfortable, intolerable. During my prolonged absence, language had changed. Customs had changed. I had changed.
"12 straight years outside the country!" 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. No job. No car. No apartment. No furniture. No insurance. No driver's license. Just backpacks and initiative."
"Are you helping?"
"You're an anomaly!"
"Can you say something positive?"
"Don't worry! You'll figure it out. That's what you do."
As I relearned, rediscovered and reclaimed my culture, I contrasted my experiences abroad with my recent experiences in the United States. If unprepared for common social and cultural norms, even the most well-intentioned visitor, expatriate, immigrant or returnee can get baffled, nervous and confused – and that can lead to mistakes and miscommunication. Knowing what to do, expect and avoid can help bridge those gaps.
Sometimes, your weaknesses can become your greatest asset – understanding how to transcend those weaknesses into strengths and provide genuine value can be the key to success. I established Culture Gaps out of the urgency to improve mine and Aya's lifestyles in the United States and to become culturally competent. With Culture Gaps, I'm working to improve cross-cultural communication for myself, for my wife and for you. After all, culture is a shared experience. Let's make it better for everyone!