A Culture Shock Observed
Late summer walks in the park became a parable of sorts for the culture shock so many expats experience and the way fresh eyes can make the world seem a little less weird.
The locals play this strange game. I see it every now and then in the park. It’s like softball, but played with a soft child’s ball. And instead of bases, there are toilet plungers. And the batter wields a tiny stick, like something a hipster bartender would use to muddle an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Taking this observation to Twitter, I was advised the game was called ‘rounders’. Apparently, it’s been played in England since at least the time of Henry VIII – though whether any of his ill-fated wives also played the game is unclear at this stage.
An English precursor to baseball feels like the kind of thing a very young me might’ve read about somewhere. An odd footnote to the history of cricket, perhaps? It feels kind of familiar.
But I’m sure I’ve never seen this game being played, not when I lived in London before, or in all the years I’ve been on earth.
Yet here it is. Seemingly every other afternoon. Enjoying health among sprightly young people who I might’ve imagined would play a sport less ancient in origin.
Talking with someone recently, they said their office floor opted for a weekend at the park playing these sorts of playground games – rounders, four-a-side badminton, egg-and-spoon races – as a social activity. I can’t describe how weird that seems having lived so long in Asia. Young professionals, opting to spend time together outdoors, in a park, during the day, in the sunshine. I’m not sure some of my friends in Hong Kong or Tokyo would believe it.
Of course, this is what culture shock is all about. You go somewhere, you see something the locals are totally into, and you wonder what the hell they are thinking. If it were some new fad, then maybe your ignorance of it wouldn’t be so bad. But when you realise it’s actually ‘a thing’, as we say these days, then it just feels weird.
Living in Japan, I had my fill of weird Japan stories. There were so many hot takes, like the story about teenagers licking each other’s eyeballs, that were presented as trends, proof of Japan’s so-called weirdness. Really, they said more about the pressure writers and editors were under to fill news sites with click-baity junk.
Japan is no weirder than anywhere else. And anyway, most of the ‘weird Japan’ stories were not about Japan at all, but about the shock someone who hadn’t travelled much outside their home country felt when confronted with a different culture and their own feeling of being lost, of feeling marginal for the first time. So many ‘only in Japan’ takes, like the observation that people in Japan wear surgical masks in public (to limit the spread of colds and other diseases, or to avoid catching them), are, of course, not Japan specific at all. You’ll see the same thing across most of east Asia.
Anywhere feels weird if we are unaware of the culture and traditions. It’s why long-term expats experience a kind of reverse culture shock when they return home after many years away. Every country keeps evolving, but their idea of home might be stuck in time, and when they compare it against the present reality, it doesn’t match up anymore, like an outdated map of a city that has been rebuilt.
Back in the UK, my list of weird keeps growing. Not just mediaeval posts in the park. Why there are no light switches in my bathroom. Why my electricity meter is inside the house. Why everyone assumes I want to ‘go for a pint’. Why mail is delivered through a hole in the front door. Why the front door open inwards. Why the front door has three separate locks. And why I have to carry keys around with me.
Of course, all these have easy explanations if you are used to living this way. If you are accustomed to this reality. But I’m rather enjoying having fresh eyes.
Seeing everything for the first time.
So, rather than treating it as culture shock, I’m trying to enjoy culture sight. Seeing things afresh. Not taking them for granted.
Being open isn’t easy. But it can be a lot of fun.