Oct 29, 2018

"Culture Shock" Depression

I can still recall clearly this training presentation that my manager gave us one summer. He titled it “Culture Shock”.

While many other people working there were expecting him to talk about language gaps, mannerisms in Japan and other things that we likely have already witnessed and experienced first hand, the talk was entirely about something else, something more internal, an anxious feeling that we have and will stick with us and surface every once in a while, ultimately due to the fact that we are foreigners living in a country that is not necessarily easy for foreigners to live in. He called it 'culture shock'.

At that time, many of my colleagues simply wanted to get out of the office and go back to enjoying their summer, but his message stayed with me.

The concept is basic: we moved from a country that we have grown up in to Japan, a nation with a very different way of living. No matter how long we have been in the country for, there would still be some discomfort we face on a micro or macro level. The discomfort builds up in us, according to my manager, it overflows about once every half a year (and right after the first three months, for those new to the country), and often takes the form of depression.

"Culture Shock" Depression photo

He explained that it wasn't just the conflicts of lifestyles, but another factor is homesickness. Since we are not quite accessible to our family members back home, most likely an ocean away, we don’t get to see our family as often as we mentally need to.

Sure, there is Skype, Facebook and other ways to keep in touch, but by not sharing the same physical space, the feeling is different. Also, we would miss the homemade food, our bed back home, our rooms, our pets, and everything else that gives us the “comfort of home”, and even if we eventually set up another “home” here, it would still be a home that cannot fulfill every gap we feel.

One more factor is loneliness. Japan is still quite a mono-ethnic country with not a lot of people sharing our mother tongue. We can, of course, learn Japanese, but there would still be a lot of things we want to express but can’t, whether due to our lack of knowledge of the right words, the directness of some things being inappropriate in this society, or just that we don’t feel the same in expressing the same things in Japanese as we do in English, or whatever our mother tongue is. This most certainly plays into the difficulty of us getting real friends. Partying is not difficult, especially if you are a foreigner drunk in a bar. Likely there would be a group of drunk businessmen more than happy to have you join them temporarily, almost like a clown service.

However, where can you meet real friends that you can connect with who you can openly share everything? Most likely, foreigners like us first form circles with our colleagues, but sometimes when I hang out with friends, I don’t want to be with anyone that would make me think about work. And honestly, the choices are very limited, and I find myself hanging out with a group with a couple of people who I would never interact regularly with back home. But to resolve the loneliness, there aren’t really many options. It might resolve the loneliness on a daily basis, but it adds to the pool of anxiety that has been building up.

While the term 'culture shock' might be a bit misleading, I really do understand what my manager was telling us and was preparing us for. The different lifestyles, the homesickness, the language barrier, the loneliness, they all bond together to create this force that we are finding ways to cope with everyday, but we do have regular times that it overflows.

The point of my manager, besides offering us the help we need when we feel depressed or anxious, was to make us aware of it so that when we experience the breakdown, we would understand why.