London: Stranger in Familiar Lands

Christmas 2015 saw my first return to the UK since moving to Japan 17 long months ago – so what did we learn about the UK? Well…

English Only Please

Even at the airport, all signs are in English! It was almost embarrassing! Having spent months reading (I used reading very generously) signs in English, Japanese, and often Korean and Chinese it was most bizarre to only see a single language – surely we should at least have Chinese characters or something?

So much to understand

It’s surprising how little you need to understand what’s going on around you to serve. Guess a couple of meanings from a couple of familiar words on a poster, observe someone’s face, learn from experience.

Drop yourself back in England and you’re bombarded with sounds, people you don’t even know of dying, or talk of traffic ja…m….s….. zzzzz all dull stuff! Then posters! You can understand everything! Why are they sooooooo long? So much information and nonsense!

Japan has definitely been a lesson in minimal communication, thinking about user experience and designing for behaviour – so much superfluous stuff everywhere!

No Special Entry

It took so much longer to get back into the UK than it does in Japan! Despite the electronification of border control, the large queue of fellow Europeans meant this took maybe 15-20 minutes vs the first in line for the Special Entry permit back in Japan – thanks Japan!

Supersize me

OMG! Everybody is so much bigger in the UK! I forgot I’m not actually a giant! Trains feel smaller since every takes up so much space, so many much fatter people – or is it just cos they’re taller they seem fatter – I don’t know! There also seems to a lot more old people – or is it people let themselves go at a lot younger age? I’ve met many a foxy 40 or 50 something in Japan, whilst 30 seems to be some upper age limit here? Does cultural acceptance of obesity (I myself being medically considered overweight!) permit people to assume all hope is loss and fit and maturity and only achievable by the rich and famous?

On the one hand I think, though don’t know directly, that Japan has a lot of pressure to be slim and petite, I also have come across far more active lifestyles, with nearly everybody engaged in some active sports or recreational sport, even into the 60s and 70s. Food for thought.

Mirror Mirror

Seeing men my own age – boy have I let myself go! But so weird to fall back under the pressure of appearance, to feel invaluable and unconfident due to efforts of those around me! To once again feel like I’m competing, and out of place in even my old stomping ground nightclub.

No career, no house, no car – those pressues already feel soul destroying after a week of being back, and at only 25! At least I’ve not fallen under the pressure of marriage and kids, though no doubt that time will come!

Not understanding things

Perhaps a touch counter-intuitive, but it was strange not understanding other languages.

In Japan, you only hear Japanese, and it’s natural not to understand everything going on around you. Coming back, you have the hyper-awareness of everything around you since it’s in English, that is until, you hear a different foreign language! Suddenly there’s a little bubble of language you don’t understand instead what feels like the whole world!

The polite-meter

Getting on the bus, buying a snack, as the bar, it felt very strange to talk so much, and I found I had no idea of how polite to be. My throat rattled as small, everyday sentences climbed their way out of my mouth, against my usually quiet manner in Japan and I felt the nerves of what should I do, what should I say as I interacted with people in the street and those paid to serve me.

Angry Eyebrows

So many aggressively plucked, aggressively shaped, pointy eyebrows that just made ladies look angry – please sort this out, along with…

Oompa Loompas

When did it become acceptable to ACTUALLY be orange? Not tanned, but orange, as orange as an actually flipping oompa loompa.


Britain, get your act together! In Japan, it’s clear what’s in fashion – soft hats and camel coats. It gives the place a nice coherent look, like an event where every adheres to the dresscode, that makes the place look tidy.

The Rolling Hills of Home

Britain is barren in winter ain’t it? From frost nipped fields, to naked hedgerows and trees that look like they’ve been turned on their head, when did every part of the countryside become as bleak as Wuthering Heights? The evergreen hills (and dare I call them mountains?), coupled with copious bright sunshine – the kind that reminds me of break times spent in primary schools lying on the ground and looking at the sun with me eyes closed (just me?) – makes even winter feel a bit more like an eternal spring.

I think I saw the sun once in 17 days?

Final Thoughts

So what was it like being a stranger in my own land?

It was bizarre feeling such a stranger in somewhere that should feel so much like home. I spent the past 17 months calling London the best city in the world, but there were moments where it felt as foreign and unsafe as the Nairobi of my gap year.

I learnt that London is most definitely not the season to spend in central London, wherein the greys of the skies mirror a little too closely the dull greys of the buildings and the grey of the ennui of those passing through, broken only by pockets of illumination and merriment.

What I think Japan has given me is a much greater appreciation for the countryside and such pursuits, but then again I’m quite sure I will speed up and adapt back to London life – I guess time will tell.

By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.