Wowee! It’s been 4 years to the day since I landed, a couple of bags in hand, at freezing Kansai Airport. A lot has changed since that day. For one, I’ve gone from my mid 20s to late 20s. That’s slightly depressing, so let’s move on… Those bags have since turned into an entire apartment full of ‘stuff’! For a while, I was conscious of everything I bought and thought about how I would take it back to Australia. But at some point, you start to just let go and make your place home!
The usual story of expats in Japan goes that they plan to stay here for one year, and then the next thing they know it’s been 3 or 4 years. But even before moving here, I had had a bit more of a long-term plan. One of my goals was to improve my Japanese and I knew that’d take a while. Plus, I’d lived in Melbourne for 4 years and could easily see myself living in Japan for the same amount of time.
And so now, I’m about to start my 5th year in Japan, and 3rd year in Tokyo. Crazy! What have I been doing for the past 4 years, you may wonder. Well, I have improved my Japanese (phew!); I’ve gotten a lot of experience teaching English; moved 2 times and about to move again, yay!; seen A LOT of Japan; gone back to Australia twice; visited 7 countries; made many wonderful friends from all around the world; experienced typhoons, snow storms and a catastrophic earthquake; taken up snowboarding and hiking; and eaten puffer fish, raw horse meat, and many kinds of mushrooms (and survived, of course). It’s been a very busy and fulfilling 4 years!
This milestone has got me thinking about things I’ve learned or observed from living abroad, specifically in Japan. Here are some thoughts:
#1 Being away from family and close friends can be hard, and realising that you can stand on your own two feet just fine gives you a lot of confidence. But it’s learning how to lean on others when you need help or support, especially when you’re living in a foreign country, that is more difficult!
#2 As an expat, you naturally meet a lot of other expats. It’s always fun sharing stories of how you both came to be where you are. You become friends. And then a year later, they leave. A lot of people go in and out of your life and you quickly realise that goodbyes are tough. I will admit that I have held back from getting close with people who I know will be moving away soon – I know how sad that sounds!
#3 I never realised how much I would miss having space. Here, houses are teeny tiny (my current apartment is about 20 m2), narrow lanes are somehow 2-way streets and trains are jam-packed even on Sundays! Whenever I return to Australia, one of the first things I notice is how much SPACE there is! A 3-bedroom house where every room is bigger than my whole apartment… a backyard AND a front yard… and all that street parking!! Sounds like a dream!
#4 Japan has made me realise I have to learn to be more patient! Here, everything runs seamlessly because of the cooperation of the people. If you accidentally bump into someone, they won’t yell at you to ‘watch where you’re going!’. They are more likely to say ‘I’m sorry’ even if it’s not their fault at all. I also love that wherever you go, there are orderly queues. No one pushes or cuts the line; everyone waits their turn patiently.
#5 Australia is largely a mystery to most of the world. I am continually surprised when people say I’m the first Australian they’ve met. As soon as I mention Australia, the immediate reaction is often: “Oh, koalas! Kangaroos!” Unfortunately, no one knows what arvo means, what netball is, or who the Hilltop Hoods are. It’s nice when I do meet someone who’s been there, because I can say anything without worrying if I’m understood or not!
#6 Japan has got the art of comfortable living down to a tee. Where else can you find vending machines every 50 metres, trains that run precisely on time, heated toilet seats, and little rubber figurines that hold down the lid on your 2-minute noodle cup?! It makes life here so easy!
#7 In Japan, a bow can mean many things and is a very convenient way to communicate! I love how a simple nod of the head can mean so many things: hello, thank you, I’m sorry, yes, I understand or excuse me. The deeper the bow, the more respect you show. If you see someone knees and hands on the floor bowing profusely, you know they’re apologising for something terrible!
#8 Facemasks are so common here they may as well be part of the national costume! According to my high school students, masks prevent spreading sicknesses, keep their faces warm in winter, cover up acne or cold sores, cover up their faces pre-makeup; prevents their throats getting dry in winter; and can even be a fashion statement. Who knew!
#9 The seasons are very important in Japan. Depending on the season, the food you can eat, the colour and style of clothes, and even people’s lifestyle changes. It all starts in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. Japanese people really seem to appreciate the fleeting life of these beautiful flowers. They gather under the trees to drink and eat and make the most of this short life we have. It’s almost poetry in itself!
I don’t really have any plan for how long I’ll stay in Japan. It would be awesome if I was living in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics – but that’s 5 years away! Who knows what the future holds. I’m excited for many more adventures, wherever they may be! :-)
Can you relate to any of these points? Have you ever lived abroad? What are some of the things it taught you?