Kicking Culture Shock’s Butt in Funky Shoes
Together with a flood of Japanese businessmen on their way home, I leave the train station and embark on a journey through Tokyo’s suburbia. It’s a mild summer night and crickets are chirping in one continuous orchestra as I walk by the channel of a small creek framed in green. The moon shines on high apartment blocks and houses narrowly built one next to the other.
Though all of this is the sweetest sight, I fail to see its beauty as my mind is clouded by the alienating and subtle effects of culture shock. I’ve been in Japan for a week now, and though the talk of “adjusting takes time” is all too familiar, I am failing at being kind to myself in the process.
Frustrated and exhausted, I throw off my shoes and slam the keys on the table in the tiny apartment that strangers entrusted to me and begin to despair over the challenge of trying to feed myself. I manage rice and veggies in a pan and attempt to escape the world outside the window by binge-watching bad TV.
The next morning, waking up doesn’t fall short of a hangover. My head is pounding and I have not an ounce of energy inside of me. Will I ever find the courage to leave this room and find a way to feel less like a baby failing at learning how to walk?
So I waste away on the couch, wondering if that’ll do me any good. Naively I started to believe that knowing the inside-out of what culture shock is would somehow protect me from it or give me the tools to get over it quicker. Staring at the ceiling and reflecting, I realise that there is no shortcut through it.
I do the only reasonable thing I can think of and try to call my friend at the other end of the world. We’re an unlikely match, being each other’s complete opposites in almost every way. With her Brazilian ease and outgoing personality, she calls me out when I’m over-thinking or in danger of isolating myself.
She used to do that from the other side of the room. Now we have to fight time difference and schedules to get a chat in the books. Long-distance sucks, am I right? Today I’m lucky and get through to whine about the first-world side effects of my privilege to travel.
“I feel like you should go out and get a pair of funky shoes,” my friend suggests. “Something that you have to step out of your comfort zone to wear and is unique to Japan. I don’t know, maybe it will help you feel more confident and adapted.”
Driven by my friend’s enthusiasm, I get a foot out the door before I have the chance to change my mind. I zoom up the road on my bike and helplessly try to figure out how to use the bike parking system in front of the mall. The polite stares of passers-by make me aware that I’m sticking out like a sore thumb.
Determined to get those shoes, I face the mall marked by routinised etiquette I don’t yet understand. I really enjoy browsing for a bargain and observing the little dance between shoppers and staff, memorising its steps to try a purchase of my own.
I have successfully bought a shirt when I spot them from afar: the perfect funky shoes. I try them on at once and am disappointed when they don’t fit. Looking for a bigger size or a staff member that looks approachable, I get discouraged when my search yields no result.
Instead of fighting for the shoes, I get up to leave, when I notice that I’m missing the bag with my brand new shirt. Feverishly retracing my steps through the mall, I am left with no other choice but to go to the information point. In cringe-worthy Japanese, I fight my way through an explanation of the lost-bag I’m looking for, supported by a dictionary and my trusted hands and feet. The ladies face lights up when she gets what I mean and waves at her colleague. A few seconds later I am presented with my lost bag. Someone returned it! Shirt inside and all!
Repeatedly bowing and thanking the two, I bid goodbye and laugh, relieved my shopping experience has not been in vain. With new confidence, I face the next challenge and return to the shoe shop, ask for a bigger size in broken Japanese and leave in victory.
Not sure whether it was the shoes themselves or the whole facing-my-fears and stepping-out-of-my-comfort-zone thing, but from this day on, I kick culture shock in the butt and dance through my adventure in Japan with funky shoes on my feet, savouring every moment.
Cover by Jp Valery