Monday, May 9, 2011

Taking Stock

The past twelve months have been a day by day, little by little adjustment to the American way of doing things, getting over the customs and manners of twenty-eight years and relearning the cultural lingua franca of my birthplace. After the years spent living and working in Tokyo, returning to daily life in the US has involved some shocks. Some changes I have welcomed. Rough edges smooth out over the passage of days and months, but there’s still a part of the experience that continues to feel ‘wrong’ or uncomfortable, a part more resistant to changes. Either way, a full year back—into the swing of it or not—is a reasonable perspective for weighing impressions.

Most of the shocks and adjustments over the past year have involved: customer service, getting about, telephone service, attitude and friendliness-politeness in people.


Judging from what I’ve seen and experienced in the past year, the term ‘customer service’ is an oxymoron in the US today. The words are contradictory. Service provided for customers is superficial at best compared to the same concept in Japan. The only exception (and I wonder if it is special in my case) is my bank, which provides a service I don’t believe can be improved upon. One of the supermarkets in my area is pretty good in dealing with their customers, but other than these two places service is mostly poor. Employees here for the most part don’t much care whether a customer is pleased or displeased. The feeling is too often, “This job’s not my thing. Its temporary.” Can’t be bothered. In describing a problem to a service rep last week the answer I got was, “I can’t do anything for you.” Instead of two weeks, the same problem in Japan would be taken care of in forty-five minutes with apologies for the inconvenience. The overall impression is that employees in the US rarely take pride in the work they are doing—full-time, part-time, temporary or permanent.


The years of using public transportation in Tokyo have made driving here another something to acclimate myself to. Not a matter of learning how to drive, but of settling into it almost every day. A little scary at times because so many people use a cell phone while driving, and because reckless driving is more common here than in Japan. If I had a choice and the system were efficient, I would be happy enough using public transportation, but where I live at least the traffic is never bad and free parking never a problem. Gas prices? This week it’s $4.24 a gallon in Tokyo and the cheapest around here is between $3.80 and $3.89.


For most of us landline telephones have become modern day dinosaurs, and telephone service in most cases is measured in terms of cellular service. My experience is mostly with Sprint, and the problems have been pretty bad. From what I can tell, other carriers are far from trouble-free. Dropped calls and no service are common on AT&T iPhones and Verizon cell phones. Anyone using a provider other than Sprint gets no indoor service where I live. Those using an iPhone, Blackberry or otherwise can neither make nor receive calls without stepping outside. All of this is absolutely unheard of in Tokyo. Cell phones (including iPhones) are frequently used there three levels underground, forty-six floors up, as well as on trains and subways. There are no dead spots anywhere apart from remote country villages in the mountains. Cell phone service in the US can’t be compared with service in Japan.


This is a hard one. Probably hard for anyone to leave Japan for a western country—especially America—and not find the average person either aggressive, confrontational or in some cases arrogant. I quickly learned that strangers can be volatile and for safety’s sake it’s often a good idea to walk quietly away. I've also sensed that self righteousness is not uncommon here. Not traits often encountered in Japan and adjustment to the American way of expression is still a work in progress.


Let me first dispel the myth that Japanese people are always very polite. Politeness among the Japanese is, publicly at least, a superficial mask. Yes, in many cases behavior there can be loosely described as polite. The truth is, the lack of true feeling is recognizable to those who are not a tourist. It’s called tatemae or ‘public face’ and it serves a very good purpose but is a mere shell of genuine politeness. Are the Japanese more polite than Americans? Easy answer—yes. In my experience these past twelve months rudeness often outweighs politeness in my neck of the woods. On the other hand, Americans impress me as being friendlier than the Japanese, but that could be because the Japanese are ninety-eight percent dyed in the wool shy. Until friendship develops, Japanese are for the most part reserved, and among friends and acquaintances extremely polite in the best sense of the word.

But hey, it doesn’t matter where you are, the grass tends to look greener on the other side. A friend asked me recently if I missed Japan and given the opportunity would I go back. My answer was, “In a minute.” On reflection I’m not altogether sure that is really the case. If I truly did want to go back and live in Japan I suppose I could, but I returned here because it was time to reacquaint myself with the place I grew up and where I spent my early years. My next time in Japan will be as a happy but jaded old tourist.


  1. I is amazing that just this morning early I was thinking of you and wondering why you hadn't written about your 1st year and some comparisons with Tokyo. This was an absolutely wonderful post and I enjoyed it tremendously.

  2. P.S. I must correct my previous comment. "It" is amazing.....not "I" is amazing. Maybe you had better add to your post that some Americans don't pay attentions to details and make corrections to comments.

  3. Dead solid perfect on the attitudes of Americans and customer service (or lack thereof) in the US. A very interesting post. Would earn you an "A" as a Compare and Contrast essay in school. Nay. An "A+" in my grade book.

  4. We're glad you've come back or we wouldn't have met you and enjoyed your company. Japan is minus one kind and compassionate person - and we are the richer for your return. I've not traveled as extensively as you have, but, no matter how lovely - home is always best. We're glad you've come home!

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America