Have you been feeling a little off lately? Sure, the dreaded in-fu-ru-en-za has been going around, but I mean something else entirely—something many people ignore: mental health. If you haven’t been yourself recently, you might even be stuck in the grips of stage two culture shock.
If you haven’t at least heard the term “stage two” by this point in your time as a JET, you’ve been living under a rock. But for the uninitiated, what the heck is it?
“Stage two” is named so because it’s the second stage in a four-stage cycle of culture shock. Culture shock is a natural and expected phenomenon that occurs when a person is taken from his or her own culture and quickly introduced into a new “host” culture. The four stages of culture shock are as follows:
- Initial euphoria (the “honeymoon” phase);
- Irritation and hostility;
- Gradual adjustment; and,
- Adaptation and biculturalism.
As you can see, after an initial honeymoon period, wellbeing typically diminishes after living in the host culture over the course of the first five to six months after arrival. During this time, the quirks and differences of the new culture lose their lustre and things generally start to get on your nerves a whole lot more.
Stage two typically hits six months after arrival and—wouldn’t ‘cha know it—this happens to be (for summer JET arrivals) in February: the coldest and arguably most difficult month in which to live in Gunma. The landscape is bleak, daylight is fleeting, there’s no escaping the cold, and Gunma’s infamous karakkaze (empty, dry wind) can keep you awake at night as it rattles your doors and windows.
You may be knee-deep in stage two if you:
- Find yourself saying, “UGH, THIS COUNTRY! :(” instead of, “Ahhh, this country! :)”
- Spend an excessive amount of time speaking to people from home.
- Believe the way everything is done in Japan to be “wrong”.
- Have delusions of grandeur and superiority over the host culture.
- Experience anxiety, panic attacks, and withdrawal from society.
The thing that is often forgotten about culture shock is that it’s different for everybody. Everyone will experience it to some extent in their time as a JET, but to what extent, how many times, and for how long differs depending on the individual and their situation. When February rolled around last year and I didn’t feel any different, I thought that I’d emerged unscathed—that I’d somehow missed out. I thought that because I’d been to Japan many times before and had been learning Japanese for a long time, I’d be immune… or something.
No such luck.
I didn’t hit stage two until about Golden Week in my first year, much later than I had expected. The best way to describe it this: the things that amazed me when I arrived became normal, and the things that only slightly annoyed me began to really irritate me. I would blame everything that went wrong in my life on Japan (even though they were mostly my fault). My frustrations were misdirected, and I became hostile to people I didn’t even know. It was only then, at my very worst, that I realised I was in stage two.
Whelp, I’m in stage two. How do I get out?
Like me, many don’t recognise the signs of stage two or even realise it’s happening to them until they’re wallowing in self-pity and complaining excessively about how much everything sucks. Here is some advice that worked for me and others around me who have experienced varying levels of stage two.
First, your own country is not better than Japan. Japan is not better than your country. They are both different nations with their own sets of strong and weak points. The sooner you realise that it’s foolish and pointless to make sweeping generalisations about an entire country and its citizens, the happier you will be. Your culture is also no better than Japan’s. Just because you may not understand or agree with why things are done in a certain way, it does not make them wrong.
Perhaps you have never been in the minority before. Consider whether minorities or foreigners in your own country face similar challenges while trying to navigate what you had considered ‘normal’.
It’s also important to take care of yourself. For many JETs, this may be your first time living alone. Remember to keep active and eat well, in spite of the weather. Do take the time to catch up with your friends and family ‘back home’, but don’t forget to keep a foot firmly planted in your life in Japan. Don’t forget that the JET Programme is first and foremost, a job. It may not be the most conventional job, but it is a job nonetheless. You must follow the rules of the contract you signed: there is little point complaining about it. It is not a holiday, or an extension of that time you studied abroad in college.
The good news is that stage two is just a phase. If you’re having a bad time, think about what you can change about your situation that will alleviate your stress and make living in a new environment easier. If you are willing to accept, explore and test out certain aspects of Japanese culture, you can move beyond this frustrating stage of culture shock.
Need to talk?
※ If you are experiencing severe culture shock and want to speak to someone, remember you can always speak to your Regional Representative, Prefectural Advisor, the JET Line, or the AJET Peer Support Group. There are many people here to help you. Reaching out and asking for help is not a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. It can be intimidating at first, but the fellowship and understanding that will be returned to you by the extended JET community is immeasurable.
Perhaps the best way to stave off the stage two blues is to get up out of your apartment and have a chat with some other ALTs. Why not soak up some culture at GAJET’s inaugural “Art Share Night” this Saturday night in Takasaki? GAJET will be taking RSVPs for this event until this Thursday, 20 February. Please RSVP directly on the Facebook event page.