Discovering A Sense Of National Identity: 9000km Away From Home

WRITTEN BY Kate Burke

May 17, 2023

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Discovering A Sense Of National Identity: 9000km Away From Home

by | May 17, 2023 | Arts & Culture

Kate Burke

17 May, 2023

I moved to Japan about eight weeks ago, and in this relatively short span of time, my perception of both my culture and other cultures has been stretched and reformed a multitude of times. This is an experience known to many as culture shock; however, this term does not sit right with me.

The term culture shock implies a flash in the pan moment; a staggering feeling which knocks you flat. However, the experience of adjusting to living in a culture which diverges from how one perceives “normality” does not feel like a tsunami wave; rather a series of waves, of various sizes, becoming increasingly sporadic with time.

Some of these waves have been a thrill to surf, and some have submerged me momentarily. The essential thing about these waves of cultural adjustment is that your view of the shore, of where a safe space is, shifts. 

For many people, this shore, this safe space, is at home. In my mind, home is a dependable, unchallenging space. A place where there are few surprises, a place of comfort. Home is more than an abode, it is a fluid, amorphous thing. Home, for me, will always be Ireland. A peculiar aspect of human nature is that while we are surrounded by people who identify similarly to us (in this context national identity) we associate less with that identity – unless it is a certain day in March.

When our environment shifts and we are no longer surrounded by others of the same nationality, the salience of our national identity increases dramatically. When we create a physical distance between us and our homes, our perspective and sense of identity shifts. As we saw during President Biden’s recent visit, it is often expats and generational emigrants who identify most strongly with their country of origin. 

My eagerness to connect to a sense of Irishness here has surprised me. I have lived abroad before, completing my erasmus in Paris. During this time, however, I lived in the Centre Culturel Irlandais, so naturally other Irish people were not in short supply. Even in this hyper-Irish environment, a product of Ireland’s immense soft power worldwide, I did not feel the same degree of grá for Ireland as I do now. On the very rare occasion that I hear an Irish accent, my ears prick up and I scan nearby crowds to find which ruddy faced person those dulcet tones originated from.

Biweekly podcast episodes of My Therapist Ghosted Me truly hit different when you haven’t heard that lovely, familiar sense of humour in a while. I have even joined the Japan GAA team (yes, it exists!) much to my family and friends’ amusement. I have not played Gaelic football since I stoically claimed it was taking time away from my studies in fifth year of school. It has been the most refreshing experience: ability doesn’t matter very much, and a wonderful mish-mash of English, Japanese, and even Irish is thrown around. It is a happy release in my schedule which can sometimes feel (owing to my suit-clad crowded train commute) a tad métro boulot dodo. 

Before moving to Japan, I was prepared for the many elements of the culture which foreigners cite as being central causes of culture shock – the low levels of English, the head-ache inducing paper based bureaucratic system, and the high-context manner of communication. While these elements can be frustrating, I have not found them to make me miss home. Instead, it is the less obvious aspects of Irish culture that I miss – the small talk, the easy sense of openness, hugs, and a world outlook which is seen through a rosy filter of “it’ll be grand”.

These seemingly insignificant elements of Irish culture are what transform Ireland from a country to a home. As time passes, I hope that the many wonderful aspects of Japanese culture become increasingly familiar for me, and can too create a feeling of home. 

In this period of cultural adjustment, daily experiences are elevated to new heights. Going to the supermarkets and conbini feels like an adventure: entire aisles dedicated to soya sauce! Delicious and healthy pre-made bento and onigiri everywhere! Incredibly cheap alcohol! Strange blueberry flavoured cheese! I feel like an explorer charting new lands with every ingredient list I scan with the Google Translate app. Mastering the rubbish system has not been without its anxieties (it could not be more different to Ireland). I expect to be greeted with applause after managing to join a library or read something in Japanese. I relish the head bows, the smiling eyes, and the “ohayo gozaimasu”s that come from all directions when I arrive at the school I teach English at every morning.

It is a joy to walk down the street and notice the acute level of appreciation the Japanese people have for their surroundings – elderly men and women pause and admire the cherry blossoms, no matter how many times they have seen them before; my heart swells for whoever decided that schoolchildren’s uniforms should comprise of bonnets, berets and sailor outfits; and despite the streets being devoid of rubbish bins, they are immaculate.

These stark differences between Japanese and Irish culture provide me with a sense of affinity with each country. 

Before I left Ireland, many people assured me that this would be an incredible and life changing experience. And, so far, it has been. To live in a way that is conscious of how special each day is is a remarkable thing. Life is seen in a slowed down, technicolour way. Ordinariness slips away and everyday things take on an extraordinary glow. Fellow train passengers become subjects of fascination. Displays of kindness are almost overwhelming.

With time, these sources of intrigue and joy will no doubt merge into the realm of the mundane. However, in its place I hope a recalibrated identity will be forged; a new sense of home.

In the time being, there’s nothing a cup of Barry’s tea can’t fix. 

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