10 Things I Used to Think About My Host Culture . . . and How I’ve Changed

by Roberta Adair

Few things remind me of how much I’ve changed in the 10+ years living in Japan than sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms). I remember first-term Roberta rolling her eyes a little at the way people gushed about sakura, like they were really special or something. I remember thinking grumpily, “They are overrated and impotent. Why didn’t they plant something that actually produces fruit rather than all of this flowery nonsense?” I remember on a really rough culture stress day shaking my fist at a tree and bellowing, “You couldn’t even produce a peach, you impotent tree!”

Fast forward to now, and I’m regularly organizing mini excursions to see sakura with friends. They bloom for such a short time, and I anticipate these adventures, plan my days and meals around them, and thoroughly enjoy them. I have come to love the emphasis on beauty for beauty’s sake rather than for production and usefulness. I gush over the different varieties, the different shades of white and pink, the different shapes of blossoms and petal formation, and the different experiences viewing them when they are budding, in full bloom, and falling (“like snow!”). I love seeing gnarly, ugly trunks spouting these delicate, fragile flowers – the contrast between rugged stability with momentary beauty stuns me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve thought of other ways I’ve changed, whether my perspective has shifted to “it’s not wrong; it’s different” or all the way to “it’s not wrong; it’s very, very good!” My list grew quite long, so here is just a sampling. In no particular order:

1. I used to think that trees in Japan were “pruned within an inch of their very lives! Let them be freeeee!” Now, I often find myself thinking, “Wow, there isn’t a lot of space here, and it’s amazing that Japanese people have found ways to add green anyway.” The art form of making trees fit a space impresses me (and reminds me of Dr. Seuss illustrations). Bonsai trees, carefully trimmed and controlled over decades, can grow in a yard that’s not quite a yard, and I have a deepening respect for people committed to this long-form, natural art.

2. I used to roll my eyes at parasols. When I first came and saw so many people carrying umbrellas in the summer, I’d think, “The sun isn’t your enemy!” and made all sorts of judgmental assumptions about people’s vanity. Now I realize that it’s more humid here. Sunscreen is both uncomfortable and sweats right off, so hats and parasols make a lot of sense. They are effective against the heat (not just sun rays), and I’m also impressed by people proactively taking care of their skin.

3. I used to think that concrete everywhere was an eyesore. There is a ton of concrete in Japan. Many, if not most, rivers have concrete along at least parts of them. (“Why can’t they be free?!” — yep, broken record.) Where we live, concrete sea walls have been built (or rebuilt higher) to help protect people along the coast from future tsunamis. Our city is really hilly, and loads of hillsides are covered in concrete. I thought it was a bit much when I arrived, but now I see it as a lot of smart science-y and engineer-y people working together to keep hillsides from collapsing and rocks from falling in this land of earthquakes and typhoons. I still don’t think it’s pretty, but I’m grateful for it now.

4. I used to think the rain and haze was a drag. I heard myself complain about the wetness and compare Japanese skies to Pennsylvanian skies All the Time (now I just do this Quite Often). I am in the process of accepting that we live in a different climate, that this isn’t Pennsylvania so stop comparing it to Pennsylvania already. I’ve also come to appreciate beauty in fog and clouds. It was pointed out to me years ago that Japanese art is rarely bright and blue-skied but is instead cloudy, misty, and nuanced. Mystery is beautiful, and Japan has helped me see this.

5. I used to think my way was (shhhh) better. One example of many is that I’d feel disoriented and defensive when I’d drop someone off at their home and they wouldn’t go inside but would wait until I drove off. In the US, the driver makes sure the person dropped off gets inside safely, whereas in Japan, the person dropped off makes sure the driver leaves well. This one is small, but it felt uncomfortable to me for years, and what was uncomfortable to me often got interpreted as wrong. Now it’s not only in the “not wrong; just different” category, but I also see it as quite lovely. I love getting our boys involved in waving people away when guests leave our house after dinner or when they are dropped off after playdates.

6. I used to struggle with the emphasis on ganbatte (persevere). Initially, I loved seeing the word on bumper stickers and spray painted on walls in post-disaster Japan. It conveyed something like, We will make it. We will overcome this together. Press on and don’t give up! Yet the longer I lived here, the more it grated on me. “Workaholism is a big deal here,” I would say to myself. “Stop persevering and rest already!” Then when I had kids, I’d prefer to say to our boys, “Have fun at school!” (or swimming lessons or the craft event) rather than joining the other moms calling after their kids, “Ganbatte!” Yet now I’m mostly thankful our boys grow up hearing that their effort matters just as much or more than their level of fun. Work hard. You can do hard things. Keep at it. Be a koi and swim upstream. Persevere. (And of course, have fun too!)

7. I used to be a little skeptical about uniforms. For middle and high schoolers, I now think there is a pretty good argument for them. Yet as a middle or high schooler 25ish years ago, boy oh boy would I have spouted off about how they cramp my individuality and make it difficult to express myself. (My mom endured years of my suspenders, fedoras, grandpa sweaters, and old bell bottoms in the name of individuality.) I’ve changed over the years, and I marvel at the dozens of uniformed high schoolers around me as I write this – collared white shirts, vests, and plaid skirts. Self-expression is a lower value here (at least in school), and I might say that this is in the “it’s not wrong; it’s very, very good” category (especially recently coming back from the Land of Self-Expression on Steroids).

8. I used to think Japanese women, particularly moms, must all be miserable. I pitied them for not having “mom’s night out,” for having to look a certain way, and for having (in my interpretation) such small lives. But I see some of my American friends trying to do it all with big, expansive lives. I see them investing in their careers, hosting Pinterest-perfect parties, living in tastefully decorated houses, working out, baking homemade bread, and taking epic family vacations — and they look exhausted. Here, I have mamatomo (mom friends) with simple, content lives, and I’m better for being around them. Their homes are small, their lives involve a lot more laundry and dishes than their American counterparts (many here don’t have dishwashers or dryers), and they aren’t rushing around. I’m thankful for the unassuming influence of several dear mamatomo on me. They’re not documenting their lives on social media or chasing some ideal they’re told by someone somewhere they’re supposed to pursue. Basically, I used to pity women around me and thought they were trapped, and I don’t think like that anymore.

9.  I used to think I would never be able to belly laugh in a country that values self-control. For years, I struggled with how women around me laughed, covering their mouths and laughing through their noses, if at all. Yet now I have a neighbor and other friends with whom I can laugh until I cry (and have). Recently I was drinking coffee with my 65-year-old neighbor across the street, and the topic turned to my eye wrinkles. I referred to them as my shima (stripes) rather than shiwa (wrinkles), and for reasons I’m forgetting now we cackled and snorted, which of course made us cackle some more. Another time this neighbor was telling me about her new hobby, crochet, and I noticed the beautiful, expertly croqueted vest she was wearing. I asked with bug eyes, “Did you make this!?!” “No,” she said perkily, “I made this.” She handed me a half-finished potholder full of mistakes, and we laughed until we cried. This is one example out of many “I’ll never get to ______ in Japan” thoughts that have proven to be untrue.

10. I used to roll my eyes at all the ceremony. Three-year-olds are expected to sit on little wooden chairs in suits for the entrance ceremony for daycare. Between our four boys, we’ve sat through eight entrance and graduation ceremonies and counting. (We have 16 more to take us to the end of middle school.) While I still sit and endure, feeling semi-lost and occasionally questioning why the emphasis is on somber, serious, and ceremonial rather than fun, light, and funny, I now think there is a lot of valuable stuff connected to these markings of time. I think my home culture is missing out on not having more ways to recognize coming-of-age moments. Other things that surprised me by how somber they were include weddings, new year celebrations, and kids’ campfire ceremonies.

I’m not sharing these items to say I’ve arrived. I still occasionally struggle, compare, and complain – yet I hope I’m also growing, learning, and changing. Being past the 10-year mark, I want to remember that I used to think one way and now I think differently. Hopefully I can be patient and kind when I hear others having similar reactions and attitudes as I did. And if I see some frizzy foreigner shaking her fist at trees, I hope I will take her on a whimsical picnic and let her bellow about peaches in peace, imagining her going from accepting to valuing to celebrating them.


Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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