On Staying Sane as an Expat in Japan

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I have a few months left before starting my new life in London, but I’ve already filled 11 rubbish bags to bursting with the debris of my life in Japan.

Nothing can stay, and the lack of sentimentality I’m forced to feign has only made me more nostalgic. Rummaging through the closets, I see myself as I was a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, an archaeological dig through handkerchiefs and exotic (spicy citrus!) Kit-Kats I was supposed to mail home in 2010.

Throwing all of it away feels a bit like erasing a well-earned scar. This was my stuff, damn it, these are the remnants of experiences that defined me here. Sending it all out to the bins means it isn’t around to facilitate nostalgia or reflection. So I’ve decided to write a few things down. The ideas that have kept me sane – or have been learned after losing and finding my sanity – while practicing to become the person I am today. I’ve tossed a lot of ideas out in Japan, these are the ones I’ll be taking home.

1. Complain on Tuesdays.
Complaining is useful to a point. It’s important to feel supported, especially if your problems make you feel isolated and alone. Complaining is a comforting indulgence, like chocolate, and too much makes it hard to want anything else. Chocolate complaints on the ends of your fingertips will end up smeared on everything you touch.

You will feel a lot of emotions that will inspire you to complain about your life. Frustration, loneliness, a sense of constant confusion. These are natural to feel and they are natural to talk about. Talk about them on Tuesday – or any one night of the week where you can go out, get a beer and eat all the chocolate you want. The rest of the week, talk about ideas, projects and the things you can control.

2. Every friendship is a cultural exchange.
If you have ever been to a “culture festival,” you might have felt the sense, as I have, that there was something missing from the picture being painted by ceremonial dances and $1 samples of national cuisine. The idea that a culture can be reduced to music and food preferences is revealed as a total absurdity the moment you encounter your own country at one of these events. Country music and hot dogs – now, you know about America!

While the culture of a country is awkward to define by its music and food, so, too, is a human being. Music – and culture, like art and movies and books – was how I defined myself in America, how I made friends and influenced people. But this is more or less presenting a “cultural festival” version of anyone’s identity.

Here, in Japan, people don’t always react the way I would to things. The idea of defining my friendship circle by the music people listen to, the books people have read, or the movies they like now strikes me as insanely superficial. I’m proud to say that most of my best friends have absolutely no interest in anything I like – and I’ve found that, in the absence of going along with pretense, I’ve gotten totally sick of a lot of what I used to like.

Culture is more complicated than that, and so are friends. You don’t get much sense of how different a country will be – the subtle changes in approach, soft shifts in the way people interpret you and your actions – until you really live there, really get to know it. Friendships are the same. Sometimes people withdraw in a situation where I might reach out. Sometimes people are embarrassed by things that I’d be proud of. Everybody is a different country! Our parents, schooling, friendships, life experiences, all give us a different idea of how to be with other people, how to share ourselves, how to set and realize our goals – even if we grew up across the street.

My most inspiring friendships here have been with people I fear I might have ignored back home because we didn’t like the same bands. Don’t judge a country by its food stall.

3. If a friendship makes you anxious, stop calling it a friendship.
People are strange, and perhaps that is amplified by the constant state of stress I’m under as an expat. For my first few years I found most other expats incomprehensible. I’d get angry. People were abrasive, shifty. It seems like nobody takes anybody else very seriously at all.

If everybody is a foreign country, not every country is a place you’d actually want to live. You don’t have to. We wouldn’t move to a country simply because it’s there, and we shouldn’t be friends using that criteria, either. But when it comes to the limited pool of expat friends you can make here, you go with what’s there — at least until you break the barrier of local friendships.

Stressful countries might offer rewards and experiences you could never find anywhere else. You might see pictures and be filled with a yearning to conquer the challenges it presents to you. That is an enriching compulsion for travel, and a terrible compulsion for relationships. Some people are not good for you. When it comes to countries, go for the hard ones. When it comes to friends, stick to the comforting ones.

4. You can be alone.
Loneliness is kind of the prevailing story of the expat life. It’s the underlying state that propels people to traveling adventures, to hostel hookups and to Instagramming every meal. Sometimes, even at home, it felt like there was just no point in doing anything unless someone was there to share it with. We are all social beings who like to have a chat now and then, but requiring the presence of others is a textbook case of neediness.

For a short time, I rejected my neediness. I traveled by myself to Thailand and Kyoto. It wasn’t the first time I’d traveled entirely solo, but it was reassuring to survive in a foreign country without anything but my own resourcefulness. I have friends who feel alone, and it makes them sad, and this is human. But it is important to know that you can do things without a companion. I liked having someone with me who could direct me to adventure and push me toward new experiences. But it’s important to develop that for yourself, too.

5. You don’t have to be alone.
Isolation is not ideal, either. For a long time, I was obsessed with the idea that I should never need anything outside of myself. I wanted to cultivate detachment. To a point, this is useful. But it’s OK to care about people, to get dragged into feeling things, even unpleasant things. That’s part of life. Isolating yourself from the pain of human drama is impossible, but indulging in it is unnecessary. Care about people, even if it hurts sometimes, and never be ashamed of wanting good company.

6. You don’t have to have fun.
“You’re going to have the best time of your life.” I heard this a lot from people before I left. Nobody meant for it to stress me out, but it did. After all, when you think about the adventures of a lifetime, the rare opportunities you should make the most of, living abroad was always at the top of my list. How many nights did I go out based on subconscious compulsion to “have the best time of my life?” How much did this compound the feeling of failure and insecurity about my ability to cope in Japan? Sometimes I’d look at people’s pictures on Facebook, usually taken in the midst of some drunken romp, and ask myself, “Why am I not having as much fun? What’s wrong with me?”

Truth is, I’m pretty sure posting pictures of yourself drunk at a night club doesn’t have much relevance to how much fun your life is on any given day. Some of the worst nights of my life have been documented with cheering pictures of myself holding drinks. The idea that everyone is having a blast while your mind is slowly unraveling in a terrifying fashion only makes everything feel so much worse.

Fun is a side effect, not a goal. Life requires rest, security, and the comfort of people who actually care about you. When those conditions are met, happiness organically emerges. It takes time to get that all in place, and it can be frustrating here, as the connections you make are, by nature, fleeting. Don’t depend on forcing “fun” into a substitute for the things you actually need.

7. You can always leave.
At every peak and crest of the culture shock wave you’re jostled about. The train conductor won’t refund your ticket and you can’t understand why, your coworkers give you mutually exclusive instructions on what to do (and then tell you to do both), you go to the grocery store and have no idea where to find a sponge and you assume that’s why you feel like crying beside the bath soap.

You will feel powerless, but there is always something you can control. I found it in my legs and in my writing. I threw dinner parties. Some people pick up an instrument, some learn to cook or to mix an excellent martini. But I’ve learned a fundamental truth: I can always leave. We can say no. You can quit your job. You can break up with your partner. You can call off the wedding. You don’t have to go to that party you’re dreading. It doesn’t make you a failure.

I always worry that saying no came from being uncomfortable, that I was scared of an experience, that somehow I wouldn’t grow as a person if I didn’t stick it through. Might be true, might not be. But you always have the option to cancel. Likewise, once you remember that you can leave, you have the choice to stay. That choice is surprisingly powerful.

You can say “no” to liking This Japanese Life on Facebook, but that could just be your comfort zone talking. 

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33 Responses to On Staying Sane as an Expat in Japan

  1. James Booker says:

    You’re leaving Japan?
    I must have missed that update or was this the first mention of it?
    What are your plans for London? :)

    Good Luck!

  2. zoomingjapan says:

    A lot of great insights. Thank you so much for sharing.
    How long have you been in Japan?

  3. Perhaps leaving Japan is like dying; this post is thoughtful and honest, like the clarity you’re supposed to get when you know you’re going to die.

    • owwls says:

      Coming to Japan felt a lot like dying. I knew I would be leaving one life to come to some place, change, and then possibly return, without ever able to be back to what my life was.

      I guess Japan, then, is sort of a zombie apocalypse, and leaving is a kind of miracle cure for zombies.

      But seriously – thanks for the kind words about the writing!

  4. Eric says:

    Best of luck in London! It’s sometimes hard to tell from your tome whether you like, love, or loathe living in Japan, but in any case, hopefully this will be a good move and another growing and learning experience. Congrats on working through such a challenging experience!

    • owwls says:

      That’s probably because I have yet to figure out of I like, love or loathe living in Japan. I am equally satisfied with my time here as I am about the idea of leaving — that’s all I have sorted out at this stage. Thanks for reading!

  5. oneslikeme says:

    aww, i really like this post. thanks so much for all the insights! it’s given me a very nice look into life in japan before i go myself. i look forward to reading about london! take care and thanks again!

  6. Archana says:

    Going from Japan to England is a good transition – good luck with your masters there.

    A small part of me really misses Japan and wants to go back but I know how unlikely it is that we will ever live there again.

    I look forward to your impressions of China. What will you be doing there?

  7. Kat says:

    I think you moved to Japan at the same time I did, and I left 6 mnths before you are due to leave. I really love your writing style, and you often wrote about what I was feeling or thinking in such a concise “hit the nail on the head” type of way.

    I am afraid the Japan to London transition will be hard. I did the reverse move 2.5 years ago, and used to go to Osaka just so people would bump into me, push onto the train and not apologise just to feel a wee bit normal :D

    I look forward to your post-Japan processing posts :) and to your first published book, which you should woo write! no pressure or anything :)

  8. So you’re leaving! Congratulations- London will be amazing, and oh-so-different from Japan. I hope you keep writing this blog. Somehow, it always makes me sad when a blogger leaves Japan, as I find reading other blogs so comforting. I think to me, reading blogs was the most comforting thing when I felt like I was losing my mind in Japan. Also, taking small trips around the country helps me, as it reminds me of why I came here in the first place. I also think you should write a book, your insight is always so dead-on.

  9. kamo says:

    Where are you studying in London? I still know more than is healthy about the universities there Like yourself, I transitioned off JET into an MA there a worryingly long time ago now. Email me if there’s anything you think I can help with/advise on (I’m probably the last person you’d ask, but the offer’s genuine).

    Just to clarify Kat’s point above, if you do bump into people on the tube, please please remember that unlike in Japan, you do need to apologise. I think only the fact that I’m well over six foot stopped be getting thumped for the first few weeks back.

    • owwls says:

      I’ll be at LSE for a year, then a year in Shanghai at Fudan, studying Globalism and Mass Communication. I assume you’re a native of England, then? Most of my questions have to do with the UK’s insane student visa policy!

      • kamo says:

        The LSE’s good. I was just across to road, so I suppose I should feign some sort of inter-collegiate rivalry. But I spent too much time in the Library there researching my thesis, and it’s a very nice library. Not as olde-worlde pretty as the Maughan, but easier to navigate.

        Yep, as a Brit I’ve not got much to offer on the visa front, I’m afraid my wife (then girlfriend) had a bit of a faff sorting it when she did hers, but apparently they’ve got even more anal about things since then. ‘Insane’ is probably a good word for it. Just try to prove you’re not a terrorist or ‘benefit scrounger’ and you should be OK…

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  12. jdslagoski says:

    Hello! I am a PhD Candidate from the Department of Foreign Language & ESL Education at the University of Iowa. I am conducting a research study on the adjustment process of people, like yourself, who have gone abroad to teach English. I am sending this invitation to you based on your blog postings about living and teaching English in Japan. I believe this is a timely request in that you have decided to leave. The study will involve being interviewed for no more than 3 hours online via web conferencing or online survey in either one, two, or three sessions within a 3-month period. If you are interested, please email me.

    Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

  13. Joleen says:

    I’ve been studying in Japan for some months now as an exchange student and your article has really relieved. Although I too have only around 70 days left, since I’ve been living here loneliness, confusion and the want to cry has hit me several times and the thought that I’m wasting my time also has occured to me several times. I might have had my hopes set too high, but your blog has made me understand that it’s ok to have these feelings. After all, we’re only human. Thank you. :)

  14. Pink Barry says:

    Getting that “oh thank goodness – everyone feels this way” feeling again. I truly wish I’d read something like this before I ran away like a chump – may have stayed in Japan and toughed it out a little longer… I do, however, take great comfort in the drunken night club photos I managed to accumulate in my short time over there. If a picture of yourself drinking a bottle of champagne in the middle of a busy Roppongi street with a group of 7-foot tall Nigerians dressed as Power Rangers and an unusually-unattractive-and-therefor-affectionate local gal doesn’t convince you you’re having a good time, nothing in this life will.

  15. James Booker says:

    @ Kamo,

    I’d have said “Just try to prove you’re a terrorist or ‘benefit scrounger’ and you should be OK…”

    London is pretty decent, can be messy though! After 3 years of living in sheltered ‘suburbanite-esque’ Japan it might be a bit of a culture shock!

    I’m not too clued up on our ‘insane’ student visa policy… so I can’t help, or can I?

  16. sdubinina says:

    #6 is so spot on! I think my year of teaching in Prague has been marred by my idea of it having to be the time of my life and the disappointment of its failure to turn out as such. I am still hoping, though, that Japan will be far more exciting and interesting (flavored kit-kats???) But I’m only reading your blog and not psyching myself out the way I did pre-Prague for a few months.

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  18. sdubinina says:

    I read this a year ago and I read this now as I’m leaving Japan.
    I spent a year here and it was one of the most lonely and frustrating years of my life.
    I like 4, 5, and 6 as I relate to them like crazy (too bad we weren’t in the same place and time in this country), and I’m happy to confirm: you can and in fact at times should leave.

    I also especially agree with fun being a side effect rather than the aim point.
    I left for Prague in 2012 thinking I’m going to have the time of my life and instead got disappointed — when will the amazing fun-having commence?
    The most fun I had was in my late teens with no money but with some amazing friends doing things that didn’t cost much.

    I’m constantly amazed by your on-the-dotness.
    Good luck in China!

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  21. will says:

    are you still in China?

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