Person: Angela Shetler
Drink: Starbucks venti coffee to go
I’d set my alarm early enough to run to the corner Starbucks and back before nine. I hadn’t gotten used to the early morning routine of the semester and knew waking up would require something stronger than what my puny coffee maker could brew. Once back in my room, I sat down at my computer and got ready to chat.
Angela Shetler was also drinking coffee at her computer; and likely just as tired, but for the opposite reason. Halfway around the world, it was 11 pm, and Angela was finishing a busy day teaching English in a Japanese high school.
After graduating from Michigan State’s Professional Writing Program in 2005, Angela found a job writing copy for the American Cancer Society. She enjoyed her job, and she was good at it, but her husband (also an MSU grad) wanted an adventure abroad. They knew if waiting too long to travel abroad—they would get comfortable in their careers and never leave the US. So they decided to apply for to the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
With the applications submitted, Angela and her husband began a waiting game to see what the next chapter of their lives would bring. Weeks later, when the acceptance letters arrived, they sold their furniture, packed their suitcases, and moved 6,000 miles away to start new jobs in a very foreign place.
Luckily, with the magic of technology, Angela stayed connected with her American friends, which is how we originally met. We found each other on Twitter and had a few friendly exchanges. Nothing too substantial, but enough to know she was living in Japan. This fascinated me because ,although I’m fairly adventurous when it comes to travel and moving far from home, I’m not sure I could brave moving to Japan.
I had hoped to meet up with her while she was home for the holidays, but I was home in Wyoming by the time she made it back to Michigan. I considered a weekend trip to Japan for coffee—but decided Skype was a more economical decision.
So that’s how Angela and I shared cup 24, which is easily one of the most peculiar cups I’ve had thus far. Not because of Angela (she’s awesome), but rather the process. After 23 cups of coffee, I’ve grown accustomed to the process of meeting someone new for coffee and this meeting broke all the rules. There wasn’t the typical—hi, are you Angela?—exchange followed by a handshake and hello. There also wasn’t a coffee shop ambiance or ability to read body language (which is more important than I had realized). Our conversation was confined to a 3 by 4 inch image on a computer screen.
Despite the differences, it was still a great experience. The conversation started rolling when Angela told me about the differences between the two cultures. It was a reminder that we get so caught up in our own cultural norms, we forget people in other cultures often live vastly different lifestyles.
For example, she made the coffee she was drinking with a single serving coffee filter that she placed on top of her cup and filled with hot water. She held it up to her camera so I knew what she was talking about—it was a smart little contraption and something I’d never seen in the US.
She explained that the Japanese don’t use coffee as essential morning fuel like Americans do. They drink it mid-afternoon, and if they buy it in a store, they drink it in the store—no grabbing a cup in the middle of the afternoon commute. In fact, that’s what they do with all food and drink, they consume it where it’s made. For that reason, their cars don’t have cup holders and the convenience stores always have places to sit.
They also aren’t big on peanut butter, cereal, or really sweet foods (although Angela has found 43 different flavors of Kit Kats). Another surprising fact, which I found shocking, seeing as I’m a normal college kid, is that Facebook isn’t big there. Japanese teens use other social networking sites that allow for more anonymity. They are a homogeneous culture that values the group over the individual. It is common that school or work performance is based on group achievement rather than individual achievement, which is more common in the US.
Hearing about the differences was interesting because it revealed how drastic Angela’s life changed when she moved. It wasn’t just a few small changes like coffee and technology, she had fully submersed herself in a new culture, which you can’t do without getting a few bumps and bruises in the process.
When she left the US, she didn’t know speak Japanese, which essentially made her illiterate as she tried to navigate the streets of her new home. In addition to that, blond-haired and blued-eyed women are a rare sight in Japan. It was common to have locals stop to stare and babies look at her in wonderment. Of course, she had an idea of what she was getting into. Before leaving she had done her reasearch read about the four stages of culture shock, but that didn’t make it much easier. It helped that she had her husband with her. Together they had signed up for an adventure, and knew the adjustment period was a price they had to pay for the experience.
Now, almost three years later, their adventure is ending and they are preparing for a new one. Once the school year is over, they are moving to Australia where Angela will pursue a Masters degree. Her original plan for grad school was MSU. She was comfortable with the school and knew it was a good option. But that was before the Japan experience.
When I asked her how moving to Japan had changed her, she said this,
“The experience has made me comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Three years ago, she didn’t have what it would take to move to Australia for grad school. But challenging herself to move to Japan revealed her strengths and capabilities. Overcoming the struggles helped her realize she could tackle more than she thought.
I could relate to her statement. I left the Wyoming town I grew up in for the unknowns of Michigan and faced a few hurdles of my own in the transition. Despite that, I have had a incredible four years at MSU and learned that so often, the most rewarding things in life are those that are most challenging.
Just because I learned that lesson firsthand doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to have a reminder. The thing about change is that if you wait long enough, the uncomfortable eventually becomes comfortable. After four years, I feel right at home in Michigan and frankly; the idea of uprooting to a new location and starting from scratch again isn’t exactly appealing.
I had that thought a few days before I met with Angela and it scared me a little. I’d been planning on moving to a big city so when the idea to stay closer to the Midwest—where things are familiar—popped into my head, I was surprised. And a little worried. Was I losing my courage? Was I thinking about settling? Was I really considering the comfortable route over the adventurous one?
While I don’t know where I’ll end up in a year, I do know this: at the end of my life, I’d rather look back on adventurous memories than comfortable ones.
Cup 24 was a reminder that you have to constantly work to stay comfortable with being uncomfortable.
That doesn’t necessarily mean moving to a foreign country like Angela. It means staying open to trying new things, taking risks, and finding new challenges instead of getting stuck in the comfortable routines of life. Because the ability to explore difficult situations is like a muscle. If you stop exercising the ability, it loses strength.
If I start choosing the easy route over the one with a few twists and turns, I’ll never discover just how far I can really go and miss remarkable experiences in the process.
That sounds a lot worse than a little culture shock.