People say that when you live in a foreign country you change. It’s true. Naturally you pick up some of the culture of the inhabitants, your food and clothing preferences change, and you are stretched by having cross cultural interactions.
But there are other ways you change that people don’t always tell you about. You change to accommodate what is available to you from your own country within the limitations of the local environment.
Let me explain with the following examples, brought to you by the letter “M“:
A. Milk – I love milk. I am a die hard skim milk drinker. Through and through. And in the states, while I will occasionally drink 1%, given the choice between 2% and another beverage, I’ll pick the other beverage. Or go without. Whole milk is entirely out of the question. I don’t like the fatty taste or the way my stomach feels after drinking enormous quantities of fatty milk. It isn’t the lactose, as I will drink a quart of skim milk without flinching. It really is the fat.
But I can’t find skim milk in Japan. At least not in my rural area. I can’t even find 1%. There is exactly one brand which carries 2% milk, and that is the only one I will buy. Early on, I had to face a decision: drink 2% or don’t drink milk at all. It wasn’t a hard decision. What’s more, the milk that shows up in school lunch is whole milk. At first it was strange to drink that cup a day. But I built up a tolerance to it.
One of the local junior highs often sends milk home with my coworkers. My coworkers have more than they want to drink, so they offer it to me. I could turn up my nose at it, seeing as the fat content is higher than I prefer. Or I could accept it gladly. See, milk here is 188 yen a liter. That’s about $8 a gallon, for my U.S. readers. So if someone offers me six cups of milk (1.2 liters), I’m not about to turn up my nose at it, especially because that is one of the first items I run out of, so the milk is not only free but saves me trips to the grocery store.
B. Music – Karaoke is big in Japan. In fact, the Japanese invented karaoke. In the states I didn’t go because most of my mental database is of the genre labeled “Christian.” While I appreciate a good melody, it is the lyrics that are most important to me. Songs have a way of solidifying their message in my brain, so I am careful about what I choose to sing. An awful lot of songs are about love, usually either the whirlwind of a fresh romance or the sorrow of unrequited love. I don’t seek out a lot of those songs. I don’t need the former reminding me of what I don’t have right now, and I don’t need the latter reminding me of where I have been in the past.
Then came Japan and karaoke. I wanted to be able to engage with the culture, but I can’t read fast enough to keep up with the Japanese lyrics. Every karaoke selection I’ve seen has a large section of English songs. But they aren’t ones I inherently know. Living here has been a crash course in American pop songs. I’ve become familiar with the most popular songs from P!nk, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Plain White T’s, the Fray, and others. In fact, I’ve intentionally youtubed a lot of these songs so that I am ready for karaoke.
C. McDonald’s – In the states I shunned McDonald’s. I didn’t like the way it made my stomach felt and there was almost always a healthier alternative. I went years without eating at that franchise.
Then came Japan. I don’t remember when I started frequenting McDonald’s, but now I go there once every couple of months. Sometimes it is because I’m craving beef. Other times it is because I just want something American. The other local U.S. franchises either altered their fare to fit the local taste buds (I’m lookin’ at you, KFC and Subway) or aren’t actually a meal (ahem, Starbucks) or are ridiculously difficult to get to ([cough], Dominos). So, I eat there. When I return to the U.S., I will probably shun McDonald’s again. But for now, I eat it.
D. Marvel Comics – As a kid I never got into comic books, and being only slightly interested in the movies D.C. comics put out, I didn’t jump on the Marvel band wagon. Until Japan.
It started gradually: I watched The Avengers with some friends. The most frustrating thing to me was the lack of character development. Exactly why did I care about these people? But I realized most other people had seen the movies that came first. “I bet that would have made more sense to me,” I commented to Ashley, “if I had seen Iron Man first. Or Iron Man 2. Or Captain America. Or Thor. Or a movie about the Hulk.” Her eyes grew wide. “You haven’t seen any of them?” Nope.
And so the saga began. We watched all four movies, then went back and rewatched The Avengers. Last year I saw Iron Man 3 on one of my flights between Japan and the U.S. And last weekend I felt like seeing a movie, so I caught Captain America 2.
Why? Why this sudden welcoming to Marvel Comics movies? Well, now that I’ve seen them I am following the genre, though clearly not wholeheartedly, else I would have bothered to see Thor 2 last year. It’s because there aren’t a lot of English movies that make it out to rural Japan. Sure we have our own collection of films, I subscribe to Hulu Japan, and there is a video rental store about half a mile away. But sometimes we just want to go see a movie in a theatre. And of those that make it to the nearby city, quite a few are dubbed into Japanese.
In fact, to see some movies in English, we have to go to the next major city over. Instead of just a half hour, we’re traveling an hour and a quarter. And even though I saw Captain America 2 while in Tokyo, it was the only movie in English in that cinema. I watch Marvel movies because Marvel movies are some of the only options I have.
So, I am changing. At least for the time I am in Japan. I’m becoming more like the Japanese, but I’m also adapting pieces of American culture I never would have thought I’d adapt. C’est la vie.