Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Land of the Free, and Home of the Endless Cereal Aisle

I've made it a rule to touch American soil at least once a year. My built-in hard drive signals when it's time to refresh my settings and I dust off that blue passport. It's funny to consider that I don't have two passports. After all, I've been going back and forth for 15 years now, so I feel like I lead a double life. But the going back and forth, which feels more like running backwards and forwards, has finally reached "normal" on the lifestyle scale to me. I'm only in the States for 2-3 weeks a year, but the fact that there is no longer a shock value involved makes me feel like I should be fulfilling some fantastic fantasy of having two persona. I could be an undercover agent, or a national celebrity on one side, and get to live out an average day in day out on the other, but, alas, the feeling is just a flat "normal" at this point on the culture shock scale. I still haven't pinned down what this ease in transitioning milestone can be attributed to (it's certainly not the ease of the flight or time change), but as run of the mill as it sounds, I am happy to say that flat normal USA or Japan is a good place to be.

The trip is long, longer, and with a kid now is longest, no matter what tricks you take on board to keep entertained. There's little variation to the routine: Pop a book in the seat pocket in front of you, check the in-flight magazine for the audio visual line-up, skim the catalog for the people who have everything and now need everything for their dogs, and peruse the menu: meal, mid-flight snack, meal. Go back to that book for a minute, put it down, and fiddle adjusting the pillows and blankets to find a comfortable posture until the refreshment cart makes its first round. Jet lag hasn't really been easier to take over the years. There is no magic bullet and no fighting the animal when the animal's face falls flat. Jet lag as a term is all wrong, it's not the jet that stings, it's the time zone, and hard to be dropped into a society and told to work the graveyard shift for your two week vacation. I often hear, "but you should be used to it by now!" (People voice this with the same tone I get from the locals in Japan, "Oh! You're from Ohio, you should be used to the cold!") Oh, and yes, that is true. I am used to jet lag, I am used to cold winters. Unfortunately, "I'm used to it" does not translate to "I like it"; rather, I have accepted the adjustment as a matter of course, but in this case, acceptance is not the first step to recovery. Time zone lag experience doesn't ease the symptoms, and, unfortunately, it's not exactly a resume builder either.

The first few trips back to Ohio after a year in Japan were like feasts for the senses. It felt like that Thanksgiving overload where you are incapable of getting up from the table, so you just wait for the shock to subside, which is around the time the pies roll out of the oven. But everywhere my daily jaunts around my home town took me, gave me that Thanksgiving feast feeling. Suddenly the place where I grew up, was educated and lived for 25 years was a brand spanking new over-sized package with a big red bow. I was a kid in a candy store, awestruck at size and selection in a rainbow of colors before me. Houses, roads, cars, stores, people, parks and pastures -- everything was super sized. I don't believe that in one year I lost my memory to the large-scale reality, but in that time I was plowing through a new land of rice fields with blinders on, having had devoted all my energy into walking tall while adjusting to a down-sizing way of life.

My first apartment, although enough for one person, was small. There is nowhere I could stand without seeing dirty dishes in the sink (OK, if I washed them, I would not see them, but that's not my point). I wondered how I could manage with the refrigerator that felt half the size of an American hotel mini bar. It took one quick trip to the grocery store to realize that that was not an obstacle. Everything in the store is small scale. The carts are designed to carry "baskets," which is used in the States as a cart alternative for the emergency trip for that last ingredient to ice the cake just before the guests arrive. There is no milk or juice carton in the store larger than a quart. Loaves of bread average 5 slices, and a dozen eggs is actually a pack of 10. The portioned out items for sale are suitable for mini refrigerator storage space. But those shopping "baskets" are as big as the come in Japan, the cart is compactly designed to stack two, along with a slot to stow your umbrella while you shop. Being forced to limit your purchase load could be a bitter sweet blessing when you consider that shoppers will transfer their shopping bags into a bike basket which may or may not call for a free hand for an umbrella on the ride home) and then park the two wheeler to walk the bags up 1-3 flights of stairs to their "mini bar" fridge. The Japanese shop for three meals and essentials daily; whereas, Ohioans essentially stock up for the month weekly.

Taking into account that I had to grocery shop 365 days that first year in order to stay a step ahead of my dwindling bunch of bananas, I guess that adjustment was concentrated, and thus, accelerated. The ritual of the daily milk, bread and butter was pretty engraved in my system when I walked into the auto doors of Kroger after a year away. I was amazed at the size of the grocery carts. They could fit people in them. I am not simply describing the "child seat" at the front of a standard US cart, but the new (anything that happens post 1994 is new to me State-side) "car" carts for kids. In front of a full sized cart is a two passenger car for children, with steering wheels and leg room. I wondered if the cart had four wheel drive, since by the time you got through frozen foods if you were really maximizing the full capacity this cart could handle, you'd need a gear change. I wasn't going to be the Samsonite Gorilla and test it out -- it was all just a little much to swallow in one food stop. The biggest tourist attraction Columbus has to offer can be found in aisle 9: the infinite options, colors, sizes and shapes of breakfast cereal available. We always had a variety of cereal in the house growing up. In fact, it was easy for me to have fun slumber parties since I our house developed the reputation of being stocked with the "good stuff," which in elementary school kid terms means that you prioritize Cap'n Crunch over Muesli. But in Japan, I had grown, or shrunk, accustomed to 3-5 choices of cereal, and nothing larger than that quart container of milk to wash it down.

The 174 variations on the concept of a Cheerio, a figure that represents only 10% of the amount of channels available on American TV, just illustrates one form of reverse culture shock during my annual visits to the States. If it wasn't the size of life through a magnifying glass, it was the sound of life through a megaphone. Americans have a reputation of being more vocal than other cultures. I'm not trying to turn the volume down on a population, but after adjusting to life in another language, I lose a sense of silence that I've incorporated into the Zen side of my life when I visit the States. After years in Japan, I have achieved a respectable level of Japanese language know-how which pays off in the ability to understand what's being said to and around me. At the same time, I've maintained the knack to tune out those now comprehensible conversations surrounding me. On a train, in the supermarket, sometimes too often at a meeting at work, I can elect to tune out and slip into a cultural escape zone.

However, I've learned that I lack this handy language tool in my mother tongue, and I never knew it could be a useful tool pre-1994. Whether it's waiting in line at a bank, a ticket window at a movie theater, or sitting in a semi-crowded restaurant dining room, I can't help but be aware of the conversations in English going on around me. It's a wonder why this chatter never bothered me before -- certainly I wasn't really concerned about the struggle the woman waiting for a decaf refill at the counter is facing trying to find her son a tutor in Algebra. No, it's not an interest in eavesdropping on content, but there was a sense of peace in me I'd grown found of, and there is no silent space to hide in during my trips back -- the native tongue just lashes too strong for me to tune out. So in a sense, during my off months from the States, I have some polishing to do in my un-listening comprehension of English.

In both of my worlds, even though I am Kathryn on one side, and Kya-sa-rin on the other, it's the worlds that change, not me. And like anything else, whether a linguist learning a language, an athlete shaping up for a game, or a musician tuning up a pop star fantasy, any master will insist that practice and repetition hones the craft. Well, the old adage, "practice makes perfect" doesn't exactly apply to the art of travel. But with repetition and practice of running backwards and forwards over the ocean, the overall turbulence of the journey and transition has gotten smoother. Yes, 15 years of repeating the flight ritual and the adjustment routine have led to a general ease in the acclimation process, and surprisingly, the shock factor has mellowed too. I can handle the jolt to the senses, fueled by breakfast cereal overload, bottomless listings in the TV Guide, and even the incessant background chatter in super-sized Americana. In fact, now I revere the qualities and personalities of both my home land as well as my host land. I guess I have mastered the art of transitioning between two cultures; one innate and one learned. Either way, living as one in the two worlds has gone from bumpy to become flat normal to me at last. I'm happy to say that I think I'll always only require one valid US passport to transport Kyasarin and Kathryn wherever I go.

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