Culture Shock – The Bathtub Edition
The biggest misconception about culture shock is that it is a sudden event involving surprise of any kind in a new country or environment.
If you’re surprised at a culture other than that of your own at first sight, that’s not culture shock per se. That’s just good, old-fashioned surprise, and it’ll fade in a few minutes or hours. Culture shock, one of the challenges that many international students face (myself included), works differently.
To be specific, culture shock is the slow, dawning realization over the course of several months that you are, in fact, living in another country. You’re not here for a month or two before going back to your home. Suddenly, homesickness hits. You realize that outside of your living area and circle of friends, you can’t communicate well with others. You may feel self-conscious of even the smallest actions in your daily life.
Part of the exhaustion of culture shock is how we feel alienated by the unfamiliar cultural rules and nuances; we start to think about our actions—being afraid of making mistakes, of losing our identity, of being forced to change our daily routines. But I woke up one day and decided that I shouldn’t try to stick to what I knew because those rules no longer applied to me. It’s a new country, so I have to become a new me. My tactic was to just let go of any fears and do entirely new things—the things that people of this country would do. Radically shift my mindset. Be a better me, and all that.
And that is how I found myself soaking in a large hot bath, in the nude, with ten other people. Who were also in the nude.
You see, my Japanese roommate had been rather vocal about me trying out ofuro (お風呂) or sento (銭湯), which is the Japanese practice of soaking in a public bath. Ones that use natural hot spring water are known as onsen (温泉). These are especially common in southern Japan, particularly in – you guessed it – Beppu. With eight different areas and hundreds of natural springs here in town to fuel one’s bathing habits, I think it is safe to say that the citizens of Beppu have integrated this custom into their daily lives more so than any other community in Japan.
For those who don’t know about this part of Japanese culture, allow me to explain: after getting undressed in the changing room, you enter the bathing area sans swimming suit (i.e., naked) alongside whoever else is there—family, friends, or strangers. Don’t worry, baths are divided by gender, but it still took me weeks to pluck up the courage to actually enter the room. Keep in mind, I come from a culture where being nude around others would earn me a mark of shame for the next year, or three. So breaking a decade and eight years’ worth of tradition was not easy. I realize that it’s difficult to convey just how much of a social taboo it is where I come from—but think of it as something that would make life quite uncomfortable if word got around.
So how did it turn out? Well, when I finally did talk myself into taking the plunge and entered the changing room for the ofuro, I was struck by how casual everyone was about the whole process.
In fact, nobody seemed to care about the things that for me were once a complete no-no. At first, I’ll admit that I was on guard, but combined with just how nice it felt soaking in the bath and how completely at ease everyone was, I soon felt more relaxed. Going to ofuro changed from something I tried to avoid to something that was an addiction. I started taking baths every other day, even on my own, saying hi to people despite not understanding what they were saying (they just mostly smiled and nodded back).
Everyone, despite being strangers, were so friendly and supportive of my attempt at fitting into their culture.
It made me realize that, as long as I’m genuinely trying, it’s alright to make mistakes. It takes time to adjust, and sometimes you need to do things your own way. You’re not expected to change in a day, or in a week, or even in a month. Do things at your own pace. Nobody’s forcing you, and you can talk about what you are comfortable with—or not—with your peers. Remember, they’re going through the same things you are, so keep an open mind.
Lessons learned aside, try the baths. Really.
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