After Stage 1 Comes Stage 2: Recognizing Cultural Fatigue

Stage 2, AKA ‘Why Japan? Why?’

It may be a bit of a meme among JETs, but the second stage of culture shock can be difficult to cope with and get over. Luckily, it happens to strike most people worst in December or January for the first time, right when things are coldest. If you are a first year JET, you may already be starting to feel annoyed or frustrated, even if it’s for no particular reason.

Recognizing that you are experiencing these and that they are a natural part of adapting to a new life can, in some cases, help the transition into the greener pastures that is Stage 3:Negotiation. It’s important to remember that each person is different and you cannot force yourself to get over or through any of the stages. You may experience ‘Stage 2’ for one day only, or constantly for months, or you may slip back and forth for a while. You may even ‘relapse’ in later JET years. Every JET goes through these stages to some extent, so remember that you’re not alone!

Some of the best advice I received was to eat well, sleep well, exercise often, socialize,  continue to study Japanese language and culture, and stay in contact with friends and family back home. That advice can sound patronizing or self-evident, but when the fatigue hits it can be very tempting to do the exact opposite of the above things.

Here are some common scenarios, with slightly more specific advice on how to cope based on my own experiences in Japan.

1. This is your first time in Japan and the shininess begins to wear off as the hum-drum of ‘daily life’ as an ALT/CIR makes you feel cheated by your first impression.

Example: When I first arrived all the vending machines, bowing, cute Engrish my students said, and the wacky Japan-ness were as awesome as a unicorn riding a rainbow, but now that has worn off and I want all those things to die painfully.

Advice: Find something new to do! If you’re a new JET, you’ve only been here a short time and there’s still plenty to see, do, and learn about this country – vending machines, bowing, and Engrish are only scratching the surface. That being said, that original endorphin-induced state of euphoria cannot last forever and it’s important to remember that while there are many amazing things to do, a large part of the JET experience is the every day life of being a teacher/office worker.

2. You don’t yet understand Japanese language or culture well, or as well as you thought you did, and the constant lack of mutual understanding and miscommunication wears you down.

Examples: Why don’t my English teachers speak English? Why am I so stupid I can’ remember conjugation? Why can’t I remember Kanji? Why do kanji even exist? Kantaka is dumb! Why does my freaking JTE think it’s ok to pinch my bento belly? Why does no one wear shoes that fit the actual size of their feet? Why are there subtitles all over my TV screen?

Advice: Study. Motivation is a limited resource – set up a system where you have to study, even a little, each day. Studying in any way (by yourself, finding a class, in groups of JETs or other foreigners) is going to help you exist, thrive, and survive in Japan. Japanese is a complex language, in some ways, but it is possible to learn – it does take patience, though! Studying culture will help you understand some of the quirks of the culture here and studying language will help you ask questions to get answers to cultural questions straight from the horses mouth. CIRs can be a useful resource – polyglots who learned the language though osmosis are rare and most CIRs struggled to get where they are (and speaking for myself, still struggle).

3. The difference between your student exchange or last time in Japan and your current situation frustrates you.

Alternatively: You school situation is not as good as JET X, who gets more holiday, less weekend work and seems to have friendlier teachers.

Example: When I was on student exchange in Kyoshima it was much more fun because I could get drunk on a Wednesday in a raincoat if I wanted to. Why can’t I do that now? When I worked at Novaeon I got to plan all my lessons and now I get to do nothing.

Advice: Comparing between situations is totally natural, it’s just not a very useful thing to do. As awesome as your past time in Japan may have been, right now you’re in this situation and you should try to focus on that. Think deeply about how you want to improve your situation and come up with plan(s) to try and make it happen. Sometimes, you’ll be stuck in a situation you just can’t seem to reconcile with. In these cases, talking to someone else and being open to advice can be useful – a fresh set of eyes can  show you things you’d never considered.

4. You had expectations for Japan that you realize were unrealistic and suddenly the ‘dream’ comes crashing down.

Example: I’m going to go to Japan and be accepted for who I and turn from a socially awkward ugly duckling into a beautiful swan and social butterfly. Other JETs will envy my ability to blend in to society and regular Japanese people will fall to their knees in awe before me and propose on the spot when they seen my graceful foreignness and demand my gaigenes for their babies.

Advice: Re-evaluate your goals and be realistic. Maybe you were too ambitious, or were expecting too much in too short a time. People can and do accomplish amazing things while they’re here, but it does take effort and you cannot expect changes to happen of their own accord. Japan is a country like any other with it’s own flaws and weakness as well as strengths. Blaming Japan for not solving all of your problems can be quite common – when re-evaluating your goals consider that Japan will not solve your problems automatically just by moving here and it will require personal effort.

5.  Your expectations of the job were different to the reality of the position.

This often comes with disagreements/arguments with your supervisor, JTEs, or both and feelings of anger/frustration/hatred toward the Japanese education system.

Example: I came to Japan to teach real English and inspire all of my students to be global citizens, but instead, the flapper jacking JTE has me reading the word list before she plays a dialogue CD and the students are as interested in English as I am in drinking turtle’s blood.

Advice: This can be a tough situation. Some advice is to consider that while you are a university graduate with an international outlook, not all of your students can or will aspire to the same goals. It is important to encourage and inspire your students, of course. English in Japan at schools is largely based on the requirements for entrance into higher levels of education and it is compulsory, so, of course not every teenager is going to jump on that with enthusiasm.  In the same vein, some teachers will not know how to use an ALT in their class and they are generally not trained in ‘team-teaching’ at university. There is also very little professional development once they are in the workforce. If you are in a situation where you’re a tape-recorder it can be very depressing and it’s easy to give up after one or two failed attempts at trying to be used more effectively – but you owe it to your pupils, the tax-payers funding you being here, and yourself to at least try to give the kids as much as you can – even if it is outside of the English classroom. Coming into JET life with no expectations is sometimes the best way to avoid disappointment.

If you cannot seem to make your time at work improve, it may be worth switching focus to your personal life for a while and trying to get some satisfaction from that.

What if I Just Feel Down/Frustrated for No Reason?

You may not experience any of the above thought patterns consciously. Being in a foreign environment can be exhausting after a period of time, just by being here – even if you think you’ll be alright at the moment.

Look out for the follow behaviors or patterns in yourself and those around you, because culture shock and fatigue is not necessarily a rational process.

  • A free-floating anxiety that effects normal everyday behavior  Free floating anxiety means a person is anxious but they do not know why. Something is bugging them,
  • A lack of self-confidence,
  • A lack of energy or interest in life,
  • Panic attacks,
  • A loss of initiative and spontaneity,
  • Excessive anger over small problems (delays) and minor frustrations,
  • Feelings of hopelessness,
  • A strong need to be with people of your own cultural background, especially your own nationality,
  • An excessive amount of time spent sleeping or reading, introverted activities that do not involve exposure to the foreign environment.

Conclusion

Cultural Fatigue in Stage 2 is not something that is caused by a single event or even has a clear cause. It will build up slowly as the frustrations of different cultural values, different expectations, and the separation from your own culture builds up. Although there are scenarios or thought patterns listed above, none of them are cultural fatigue itself; they are merely symptoms and treating them with the advice given will not instantly make you feel better, probably. There is no one-size fits all ‘cure’. Often it’s just patience and waiting that will get you through.

The goal when you’re in Stage 2 is to recognize it, survive, continue on, and keep aiming to improve, even with small steps, so that you don’t get caught in Stage 2 forever. Some people do and they miss out.

Who Can I Talk To?

  • The Shimane PAs: We’re available 24/7 for talking and we’ve been through these feelings and emotions ourselves. Everything you tell us is confidential.
  • CLAIR JETline (Tokyo): Run and staffed by the JET Programme Coordinators (former JETs). Monday-Friday (9am-5:45pm) English and Japanese:  (03) 5213-1729
  • AJET Peer Support Group: National AJET is responsible for the Peer Support Group helpline. The Peer Support Group (PSG) operates its helpline every day of the week from 20:00 to 7:00 (basically, when the CLAIR JETline is not operating). It is run entirely by current members of the JET Programme. These are volunteers selected according to their experience with psychology, help lines, and with counseling. Everyday (8pm-7am) Toll Free:  050-5534-5566
  • Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) Tokyo: Everyday (9am-4pm & 7pm-11pm – by appointment):  (03) 3968-4099
  • Women’s Hotline (counselling – Legal and psychological support) Yokohama: English and Chinese:  (04) 4271-0091
  • Friends and family back home: Be aware that, unless they’ve lived abroad themselves, they may have trouble  relating to your situation.
  • Other JETs: Everyone’s been through this and we all know how hard it can be. Talking with someone you know who has been through it before can be very useful!

Leave a comment if you have any advice to share on recognizing & getting through Stage 2!

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