Every year I look back and I can see a clear progression of where I was to where I am now. Moving to Japan has been no different. It’s been about eight months since I moved to a foreign country and I feel like a completely different person from the one who stepped off the airplane in March. While my early blog posts contain lots of funny and/or frustrating anecdotes of living abroad, I think that it’s important to re-evaluate foreign life now that I am “settled in.” I do this by imagining all the questions I’ll get when I return home: Do you miss it? Would you ever live there permanently? What was the best part? As if I could ever boil down such an experience… but I might as well get a head start on all those responses that come to mind.
So much of my time in the first few months was spent getting over “culture adjustment.” I don’t like the term culture shock, it has a negative connotation to me. I quite enjoy all the “shocks,” they are what make traveling so mind-openingly awesome. Even some of the more awful experiences we had in the first month are now badges of honor in the journey of life. Plus I love telling the stories to first-time listeners, because they are as always equally horrified for me as I was at the time. In a way, I am justified by being an example of the “worst case scenario.”
Now, the initially overwhelming things, like grocery shopping, navigating unreadable menus, and not knowing basic vocabulary like “please” and “water” are a thing of the past. I can make slightly more informed decisions about what kind of fish I’m buying, as well as go to dinner with Japanese speakers so I can avoid using my terrible Japanese skills all together! But seriously, it’s amazing what a little time and vocabulary growth can do for your self-confidence. Some things about adjusting to life as a foreigner come naturally and quickly, while other things are just now happening for me that I feel have been too long in coming.
Part of this is due to my lack of experience living abroad. It never occurred to me, for example, to go to the International Center that I didn’t even know existed. These places are there to help foreigners get resources, to meet international students and find Japanese language partners. I hadn’t thought to reach out to the universities’ international departments, go to an English speech club, take free classes in Japanese offered by local volunteers, or meet fellow ex-pats through swing dance clubs.
Of course I didn’t know all these great avenues and resources existed because I had never needed them before. What’s sadder than not finding these sooner is that no one in my company ever bothered to mention any of it. Yes, the company whose job it is to hire foreigners and place them in a country that is relatively inhospitable to immigrants, did not think that foreign employees might benefit from this kind of information. Rather, we were dropped off in a small rural town with a few Japanese/English contacts nearby and left to fend for ourselves. I have bemoaned my lack of Japanese conversational skills to more than a few acquaintances, who reminded me that if you have no Japanese friends to practice with, it’s nearly impossible to improve. It is also the downside of living abroad with a spouse; since you always have someone to talk to (in English) you don’t seek out Japanese speakers the way you might normally if living alone.
As my comfort level in Japan increased I began to think about my identity no longer terms of bumbling tourist but as some type of more permanent resident. The term ex-pat has never sat well with me. When I hear it, I immediately conjure up an image of a scraggly, ex-military man in a bar. Not sure where I got that mental picture from. Probably a combination of bad movies and all the scraggly ex-military men I have seen hanging out in foreign bars. Either way, it is a term I use sparingly. Immigrant, on the other hand, implies an intention to live indefinitely in another country and I know I don’t want to live here forever. Does saying that diminish the validity of my experience as a temporary resident? If I am not an immigrant, what then, is an apt title for the static traveler, the casual migrant?
As you can see, another side effect of moving abroad is the struggle to pinpoint one’s identity. Identity is quite a fluid concept to begin with, and I find myself immersed in an uncertain sea. The sea of uncertainty is a lovely place to vacation, and I recommend that everyone give the waters a try. However, be prepared for all the self-introspection and questions that come with it. Is it solely what you bring to the experience that will affect that experience, or is it also the place you find yourself in that matters? I believe it must be both, and I believe that Japan is quite demanding on its temporary residents.
End of Part One. Intermission.