Seven years in Ohio, 6 years in Japan, 4 years of miscellaneous international travel, 3 years in Hawaii. By the time I got to the mainland United States again, I felt like a gaijin.
It's called being a "third-culture kid"-- a person raised in a culture not his/r own. They have distinctive traits, strengths, and weaknesses. Often they're bilingual. And adaptable. They can feel at home anywhere--yet not really feel at home anywhere.
For me, my first impressions of my own country after having been raised for 13 years outside it (if you include the Territory of Hawaii) were negative. They call it reverse culture shock.
It was too much. Everything was too loud, too fast, too artificial, too bright, too brittle, too in-your-face. Japanese women in their sixties wore drab colors, walked or knelt gently, arms and legs together, spoke softly. At LAX, I cringed from permed seniors bulging in hot pink jogging suits, showing too much cleavage and too many teeth, talking too much, gesturing too much. Sugoi deshita.
For some reason I noted that every container, every box, soda can, bottle, had to have specific directions on it explaining how to open it: "Lift here. Slide tab A under Tab B. Pull out. Fold under." Dooshite ka na? I wondered. As if Americans were all small children and couldn't figure these things out for themselves.
I missed Japan. "Hoh-oh-moo-sheek-oo," as my Japanese friends would have laughed sympathetically, fitting the English word into the distinctive cages of pronunciation provided by katakana, their alphabet for foreign words. I had missed more than a decade of American culture. References to I Love Lucy, Andy Griffith, and James Dean didn't have any context for me. My favorite movie star was dashing chambara hero Kinnosuke Nakamura, who battled other samurai (each of whom politely waited his turn to fight him) on behalf of his lady love. Their love-making consisted of intense, yearning looks.
When I set foot on campus, I instantly lost half my vocabulary. In Japan and even in Hawaii, we young adults spoke what we called "champon" (in Hawaii, pidgin is thrown into the mix, too). Now I could not exclaim "kirei des' ne?" when I saw a pretty sunset or "tsukareta" when I was tired.
Not and be understood. I had to stop, sort mentally through the available descriptives and pick one in English. When I stubbed my toe and "itai" came out of my mouth I had to translate: "Ouch."
If I didn't know something, "shiranai" would leave the person I was talking to just as blank as I was.
There were words for which I could not come up with an English equivalent: muchakucha, onegaishimasu, genkan, tokonoma, and others which were English to start with but came out Japanized, like "homesick" above.
I was so homesick I would stop any Asian-appearing stranger on the street and ask, "Nihon-jin des' ka?" But they hardly ever were. Sometimes they were part Japanese or second or third generation Japanese but more remote from the culture than I was. I addressed what turned out to be my last desperate attempt to a teenager filling his gas tank.
"Nihon-jin des' ka?" I asked.
He looked at me blankly so I translated. "Are you Japanese?"
"I'm Mexican," he said.
I never dared try again.
But just becoming acclimatized to American culture was not my only challenge. I was also trying to acclimatize to Christian culture.
Today I am thankful for Squeak, a little startled mouse we found in our garage, although I will be more thankful if he took advantage of our leaving the garage door up for several hours to find his way out.
"You have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature, Christians are the most forgiving, understanding, and thoughtful group of people I've ever dealt with. They never assume the worst. They appreciate the importance of having different perspectives. They're slow to anger, quick to forgive, and almost never make rash judgments or act in anything less than a spirit of total love . . . No, wait--I'm thinking of Labrador retrievers!" David Learn, 1998