So This Is Canada: 12 Unguarded Observations of a Returning Canadian

Reverse culture shock is an interesting beast. It’s been six weeks that I’ve been back in Canada after living in Japan for four years, and I am in a weird headspace. People ask how the adjustment is going; it is certainly bewildering. I feel that I have not actually adjusted a single bit, but that I have simply been plucked mid-step from one life, one world, and shoved straight into another.

I've always felt a certain affinity with the little green men.
I’ve always felt a certain affinity with the little green men.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about this strange land since arriving/returning. I realize that some of these points might touch on sensitive subjects, so please take them for what they are: not criticisms or statements made to be inflammatory or offensive, but raw observations and unguarded thoughts of a person seeing their home country with fresh eyes.

1. I am small.

This was one of the very first things that shocked me when I got off the plane. In Japan I got pretty used to being taller and thicker than most of the girls and about average height amongst the guys. Now I have to look up at almost all of the guys, and many of the girls as well. The thickness… well I just won’t go there. People in general are certainly on a different scale here. Oops, sorry.

2. White people do all look the same.

In Japan I would often be bewildered when someone mistook me for another foreigner (seriously our hair is a totally different colour and everything!), but to be fair it is kind of a trope that “white people” can’t tell “Asian people” apart either. I feel that I learned to distinguish people pretty easily in Japan: there is actually a lot of diversity amongst Japanese people, and that’s not even considering other people of East Asian origins that live in Japan. Then, when I got back to Canada, it took me a couple of weeks to stop thinking that I probably knew every white person I saw (in my town in Japan I usually did), or that every person I saw looked like someone else I knew (now I’m down to about every 10th person).

Famous white lookalikes

3. Strangers talk to me.

Not because I’m a “foreigner,” but just because they’re trying to be nice, random people will just talk to me. It was a little scary at first, I won’t lie, and I’m sure I gave people weird vibes the first few times people tried to talk to me, but I’m slowly getting used to the passing comments about the latest sports ball game, or the neighbourhood construction, or the bus being late. Speaking of which…

4. The buses are LATE!

I was five minutes early for my bus home the other night and watched the sun go all the way down before it arrived. I’ve learned to leave my house and start walking leisurely towards the bus stop at the time the bus is due to arrive. Also, the bus drivers, while some are quite friendly, are completely unapologetic about it all. It’s just the way of things. Japanese bus drivers would typically apologize profusely and give detailed explanations as to the reasons for their tardiness if they were even a couple of minutes behind.

Bus: Schedule? LOL we just drive around

5. If people hate their jobs they aren’t afraid to show it.

The other day I went into a shop to ask where something was, and the staff person scowled “I don’t know” without even looking up or probably even actually listening to my question. Another place I went in to get my pants hemmed, the staff person was openly staring at the clock as if willing it to move faster and me and my pants to disappear entirely. In Japan you’d likely never know if anyone hated their job because they’ll always serve you happily… because that is their job. Which leads me to…

6. Good service is something you pay extra for…

It’s not something you get as part of the package, and despite the extra price the “good” isn’t guaranteed. Yes, I’m talking about tipping.

"I give God 10% why do you get 18?"
Note written by a pastor in response to mandatory tipping, as posted on Reddit.

In Japan tipping is generally considered inappropriate and offensive, because the business is expected to compensate their employees sufficiently and the employees are expected to serve you properly because it’s their job. Tipping would be an insult to the employer because it says “you’re not doing enough” and an insult to the employee because it says “I’m better than you.” Tipping culture is something I’ve dreaded returning to, and something I think we as Canadians need to seriously reexamine for a wealth of reasons I won’t get into here.

7. Sales employees are rivals not teammates.

There’s a pretense of teamwork, but when you pay employees by commission – clothing stores, for example – in the end it’s everyone for themselves. And the result is me, in a mall store, answering a million questions with “I’m doing okay” and “I’m just browsing thank you” when all I want to do is choose a new bra in privacy. Then I have to pick which staff member “helped” me the most! What? All of you? None of you? Why are you asking such an awkward question in earshot of your coworkers? This is quite the difference from Japan where everything is about the group, and most workplaces have team meetings every morning, sometimes even exercising together to start the day off right.

Morning meeting stretches in a Japanese office.
Morning meeting stretches in a Japanese office.

8. Convenience stores are anything but convenient.

They only offer things like junk food, cigarettes, coffee, lottery tickets: essentially, only vices. They’re the last place I’d ever want to use a toilet (in Japan I’ll go to a convenience store over most other locations just for the clean robo-toilet) and I’ve yet to be convenienced in any way by their existence in Canada. In one stop to a Japanese convenience store, you could get a balanced lunch to go and a made-to-order ice cream sundae, pay for internet-ordered plane tickets in cash, pay all your bills, pick up a package, scan some documents, sing a round of karaoke, and buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate how productive you were in the span of 10 minutes.

9. It smells terrible on garbage day.

Garbage is collected only every two weeks here (rather than twice a week in my neighbourhood in Japan) and the resulting odour is just awful. The garbage in my neighbourhood was collected this morning, over 12 hours ago, and the odour still lingers. What’s the deal?

Twice a month the entire neighbourhood conspires to emit a smell like rotting corpses.
Twice a month the entire neighbourhood conspires to emit a smell like rotting corpses.

10. Garbage day aside, it at most other times almost always smells like bacon.

This is not a bad thing, except in the case that I am not the one eating the bacon, which for my first few weeks here was most times since my things had yet to be delivered by the movers and thus I couldn’t cook. This is quite a difference from my neighbourhood in Japan, where the default smell was usually cooking fish.

11. Japanese is a secret language.

In Japan, Jordan and I didn’t really speak Japanese with each other because (A) it felt awkward and (B) we were each others’ only way to maintain natural English. In Ottawa, we’ve started using it together in public because (A) it feels normal and (B) we are each others’ only way to maintain our Japanese.

12. I can’t English.

Because I’ve spent the last four years simplifying and slowing down my speech so that I can be understood by people for whom English is a second language and a work-in-progress, as well as attempting to use Japanese in my personal life whenever possible, I’ve forgotten a surprising amount of English myself along the way. I’ve also learned to express myself in new ways with phrases that don’t actually translate into English. This has led to me stumbling over words on embarrassingly frequent occasions, as well as uttering the phrase “I’m sorry I don’t know the English” far more than the average native English speaker should probably be allowed to.

When The Claw took me away from Canada initially, I was prepared and excited for the adventure to come in the great unknown. I was less prepared to return to Canada and feel like a stranger in my own land. I’m not sure if it makes it better or worse that I don’t *look* like a stranger: I certainly don’t attract nearly the same attention as I did in Japan, but I also no longer have an obvious excuse for my linguistic, social and cultural deficiencies. I guess the moral of the story is, as creepy as it may sound, there will always be a little green man inside of me.  strangerfromtheoutside

Have you every been plucked from one environment and dropped into a completely different one? Or returned to a familiar place after time away to notice things anew? What do you think “strangers from the outside” might think odd about your place?

17 thoughts on “So This Is Canada: 12 Unguarded Observations of a Returning Canadian

  1. I loved the part about not looking like a stranger but being one. I constantly get awkward responses when I have to explain “my linguistic, social and cultural deficiencies” to Texans. I like the term “hidden immigrant.” Love catching your blog now and then, Janelle. Hopefully we will be in the same place again at some point.

  2. Reblogged this on ReloNavigator and commented:
    “Repatriation and re-immersing to the old place” is one of the most challenging part to people who have lived abroad for years. Cultural adjustments are tricky, language barrier and aculturization require time and effort.

    Glad to see this very honest observations, along with the comparative differences of certain situations that caught her experiences. Thank you for sharing your experience. It will be a matter of time when you finally get used to your new place (aka old place).. and more power.

  3. Yup, twice a month garbage here (Markham)! Go down the road to Toronto, and theirs is still weekly. Mississauga – weekly. And they call it environmental…

  4. But what if I’m not quite dead yet on garbage day? 🙂 Love the reference!

    I would love to leave the US for an extended period (forever) for a lot of reasons and cannot even imagine what it would be like to adjust, much less readjust.

    1. …I think you know the answer to that. Get on!

      If you leave the US forever, actually, you won’t ever have to worry about the readjusting. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve become expats, thinking at first it would be temporary, then realizing they could never go back so they become lifers. Beware!

  5. Three times in Cambodia have also made me aware of being comparatively large to many of the world’s population, and also unable to communicate freely. I loved your observations! btw – where do you get your pics? They are hilariously entertaining.

    1. Wow, Cambodia would definitely do that – my first experience in Asia was actually the Philippines, and everyone marvelled (loudly) at the size of my feet. A little hard to take at first!

      Most of the pics in this post I found through Google Images – things people have posted on I Can Has Cheezburger or Reddit or whatever. I probably spent much longer than is healthy looking for exactly the images I wanted to illustrate the feelings behind my points so I’m glad you appreciated them!

  6. Yup, so much resonates with me. Non-tipping culture and conbinis were probably the things I missed the most when I left. I also found I was speaking soooooo slooooowwwllyyyyyy.

  7. Loved this! I’ve made this move myself and you have hit on most of the main observations so accurately. Good luck as you adjust to being a ‘hidden immigrant’ now 😉

    1. Thanks! “Hidden immigrant” is a good term for it, I feel like it must be similar (though obviously not as extreme) as how some of my Japanese heritage Canadian friends probably felt in Japan when people looked at them like they were crazy for not being “Japanese” properly! It’s a bit of a mindjob. (@_@)

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