Tag Archives: expat

Looking back

Although it’s still two months before I return to the United States, I’m beginning to wrap up my affairs in Japan, job-hunt, and plan my future. So I’m starting to be able to look back on my life here and articulate what it’s been like.

This is actually something I thought about a fair amount before I came to Japan: What will I have to say about this time after it’s over? When people ask me at church or work or parties, “What was it like living in Japan?,” what will I reply?

I had imagined it as something along the lines of “It was a blast” — sentences brimming with superlatives, tales of unforgettable cultural experiences and, most importantly, all tied together with the concept of FUN. Because if you’re 22 and abroad and not having “the time of your life,” you’re doing something wrong, right?

It turns out that, like Eryk — the blogger behind This Japanese Life and my absolute favorite author on expat life — what this year abroad has given me hasn’t been crazy, exotic fun so much as life lessons and a greater understanding of myself. So here are the things I can say about having lived here:

I found a career path that excites me, challenges me and inspires me. I stumbled on work that I love doing but also developed larger ideals and goals behind that work.

I formed close friendships with people whom I might have written off in my old life: people whose superficial identities — political views, taste in music and movies — don’t match mine. We connected not over shared likes and dislikes but over being emotional human beings who could give and receive support. I came to see myself a lot better, I think, than before, through the various lenses of these diverse relationships.

I learned it’s okay to be alone. Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, or sad, or antisocial. I stopped passing up opportunities just because I didn’t have a buddy to go with me and hold my hand.

This is the most important thing I learned:
I’m not responsible for how others feel about me or how they treat me. When I first wrote this down, I was thinking about dating: in the past year, I’ve dated more than I did before (which is not saying much), and a few things went pretty wrong. At first, I was devastated when I was mistreated, used, lied to; it sounds cliched, but I think I blamed myself.

And somehow, something clicked in the latter half of this year. Others’ treatment of me is where I end and they begin. It is not a reflection of my value as a person. This has been perhaps more important for me in Japan-specific situations than in dating: in my life as a foreigner, I’ve run up against so many situations and remarks intended to make me feel strange, incompetent, less-than. But the world does not decide who I am. If a guy lies to me or a stranger gapes at me, that is a reflection of their identity, not mine.

Last, I’ll address the thing I thought, a year ago, that I would have to say. The thing about FUN. This Japanese Life puts it better than I can:

“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. … How much did this compound the feeling of failure and insecurity about my ability to cope in Japan? …

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.

I’ll add that, even beyond rest, security and good relationships, there is value in the experiences that are decidedly un-fun. Dragging myself out of various states of despair did a lot more for me in terms of personal growth than any drunken night or awesome getaway weekend could.

Maybe all of these things would have happened for me even if I hadn’t decided to move to Japan. Maybe it was some cosmic time-release system: “You will learn this set of life lessons within a year of graduating from college.” But who knows?


An imagined second year


I have hit a low point in my attitude towards Japan. Well, towards life as a foreigner, filtered through the lens of Japan. I’m not dissatisfied with the country per se; I’m disappointed in the treatment of foreigners and the underlying cultural attitudes about them. It feels like instead of meeting the Japanese halfway and striking a balance between our cultural differences, I’m stretching 90% of the way all on my own – and still find myself pushed onto a strange pedestal that feels more like a prison.

There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” I think the glaring exception to this rule is foreigners: no matter how much we try to worm our way into the proverbial wood, we are firmly held back, held separate, by the surrounding culture.

I’ve noticed a change in myself in the last month or two: for at least my first six months here, I tried so hard to adapt, to “read the air,” to show coworkers and the general public that I could fit into their culture. I was always on edge, always apologizing or preparing to do so, trying to do everything the way I saw others doing it.

I used to privately distinguish myself from other foreigners who really seemed to want, literally, to become Japanese – people who obsessively studied the language, put on all the cute clothes and mannerisms– but it turns out I was working just as hard to change myself, in the hyper-adaptability and humility I tried to exude. Now, I act and react more or less as my American self, stripping away the makeshift Japaneseness that everyone always knew was counterfeit anyway.

 I will always, my whole life, maintain that Japan is a gorgeous country with a culture worth learning about, both in the teeming cities of Tokyo and Osaka and off the beaten tourist track. But I cannot endorse it as a place to live and work as a foreigner. I don’t pretend to speak to the experience of all foreigners here, nor to imply that immigrant or resident alien life is better in the United States or elsewhere. All I am saying is that I’m disillusioned by my experience, and that life as a gaijin is not for me.

My Fantasy Second Year

There are so many things that I wish I could stay and accomplish, so many frustrations from this year that I know will never be resolved. So I like to imagine that, if I stayed a second year, I would confront head-on everything that has bothered me about my life here.

I would start by refusing to play along anymore in the caricaturizing of foreign countries.

One day, I would refuse to smile indulgently when a teacher told her 10-year-old students that, “if you put up the middle finger in America, you will be riddled with bullets” (this last clause not spoken but vividly mimed). My supplies of temperance and patience would run dry as I continued to correct the stream of outrageous and offensive assumptions about Americans or foreigners in general (because all too often in Japan, those two terms are interchangeable), presented to me gleefully by coworkers who should know better.

I would also confront the routine harassment of foreign women, the legions of men who target us because they assume that we lack the language skills to object.

When a store employee said, “you have long legs compared to me,” and reached to grope my hip – or when a stranger asked me out of nowhere if I was wearing nylons and pinched my knee – I would finally yell at him like I always wish, in retrospect, I had. I would embarrass him for the whole country to see: I’d eloquently tear down stereotypes (because in this second year, I would be practically fluent in Japanese) as well as this creep’s inflated ego.

No More Ms. Nice Guy

And yet, at the same time, I would be a stereotypical American. I would put my foot down, set ultimatums, stand up for my individuality and my personhood and my culture, for the ideals of tolerance and respect that America has instilled in me.

Why I haven’t done any of these things this year, I couldn’t tell you. All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.

Until tonight, I had felt guilty about the recent transition I’ve mentioned, from desperate attempts at adaptation back to plain old me. Until tonight, I had seen it as giving up. But I’m beginning to view the problem of cultural exchange (and yes, in Japan it is a problem) as one that can’t be solved with tact and gentleness and a sugar coating. I’m beginning to believe that, as someone hired for my foreignness, my job is more about constructive criticism than about playing nice. And my job extends far beyond the classroom: in a way, I’m always at work – challenging prejudices one at a time, in every interaction with every store clerk, postal worker and creepy stranger.

I think our countries have things to learn from each other, and the closed-mindedness I’ve run up against time and time again here discourages me. I can only hope that I won’t find a similar brand of exclusivist nationalism in my own country when I return.

An open letter

To my friends on JET,

Recontracting is all anyone can talk about these days. For a while, I had been considering writing a post explaining why I’m not recontracting, why I’m doing one year on the JET Program. But I feel that, through so many different conversations — both with many of you here and with friends and family back home — I’ve actually expressed it pretty clearly already.

What I want to write about instead is the reception of my news that I’m leaving in August, and how much it disappoints me, saddens me, stresses me out. Explaining my decision to my supervisor a few days ago was certainly a somber occasion, but after just one question she accepted my decision and that was that.

The reactions of some of my fellow JETs, on the other hand, have all too often been accusative, pitying, and altogether lacking in understanding and support. People have nagged me about all the great stuff happening after August that I’ll miss; they have insinuated that they know better than I how I should spend my youth (many other JETs are older than me) and that it is a waste to leave the program after one year.

A wise fellow JET told me a while ago that the root of people’s negative and unsupportive reactions is their insecurity at knowing I and others will be leaving while the recontracting JETs stay behind in Japan: they become afraid to grow too close with me because soon I won’t be around. I understand this feeling of uncertainty and fear. I also understand that JETs who have been here longer than I, but have decided to return home this year, experience similar misunderstanding and guilt-tripping from their friends here. But I think the pressure on me and the other one-year JETs is harsher and is patently unfair.

Let me first say that I had absolutely no inkling when I applied to the Program that not only was staying for more than one year the norm, but there would be such intense pressure to stay — not from my workplace, but from other JETs! In fact, part of why I chose to apply to and then to accept a position through JET was that it began with a one-year contract; other well-known programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps have a minimum commitment of two years.

My plan from early in university, maybe even from high school, was to spend a year abroad after graduating, and that plan did not change throughout the JET application and acceptance process. So I feel like I’m being punished, by people who just met me a few months ago, for having my own expectations and ideas for the near future. Had I arrived in Japan and chattered constantly about my glowing plans to stay for three years, and then backed out, I could better understand people’s disappointment and judgment. But I have known myself and my goals since the beginning.

  • [Note: There are many other facets to my decision to leave: it’s not as simple as “I made a plan and I’m sticking to it.” For a while after I had begun to settle into life here, I was seriously considering staying another year. If you’re interested in the other factors in my decision not to recontract, I’d love to talk about it online or in person!]

Here’s the simple truth: I am not you. Every single person here on JET comes from different circumstances and accordingly has different plans and values. To presume that you can discern or even prescribe my goals and priorities insults me.

Maybe this post has begun to sound like I resent everyone who signed the “Yes” box on our recontracting papers. Far from it! I’m calling you out on your treatment of my decision not because I dislike or disrespect you — it’s the opposite. Many of you have become my closest friends already. I love that I have the privilege of getting to know such different people from so many parts of the world. I am so honored to be a part of this program; I know my time here will be a fond memory for the rest of my life. And having had such an amazing time so far, I completely understand why many of you want to continue your experience for another year or more.

However, I feel that my friends’ obsession and unease over my “imminent” departure (six months! The blink of an eye!..) harms our relationships. I can’t connect with you if you see me as a calendar date rather than a person. I want to settle this point of misunderstanding so that we can enjoy more comfortable friendships for the remainder of my time here.

Please remember also that this focus on my leaving tarnishes my experience. As a one-year JET, I am working extra hard to pack in as much fun, travel, work experience and friendship as I possibly can, and it is difficult to live in the present when I’m constantly being reminded of my departure.

For everyone except the few JETs who will end up living in Japan long-term, this is a temporary situation. Mine is more temporary than many of yours, but we will all have to deal with departures and goodbyes at some point. So I’m asking you to do me the great service of accepting that I will leave you in August, for reasons that are legitimate and my own, and moving on to enjoy the significant amount of time we still have together.

I want to hear from everyone out there, too: What is on your mind as the recontracting deadline approaches? What are some communication difficulties between leaving and recontracting JETs, and how do you approach them? Should JET change its minimum contract to two years?

One last thing: this post certainly does not sum up the behavior of all the JETs I know, and I want to thank many of you for being incredibly supportive, respectful and understanding. I already feel that I’ll look back on JET as a time of significant personal growth, and it’s in large part to do with the really quality people with whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends. Stay classy, Toyama. 🙂

An essay contest that showed me the sad state of my writing

I’ve actually been here for 6 weeks now, but the topic of the following piece is “My first month in Japan.” I wrote it for a contest that was connected with a social event this weekend: all of the Toyama prefecture JETs (and friends) went to a campsite high up in the mountains with plenty of beer and had some pretty sweet adventures. Had I won the contest, I could have gotten a whole 1500 yen (US$17-ish) off the price… but alas, it was not to be. Somehow, dear readers, I write comfortably for you, but when competition was involved, my recent stint in academia reared its ugly head and my writing got all stiff and cheesy. You can read the excellent winners here.

Anyway, despite its flaws, I’m throwing the mini essay up here because there are some fun anecdotes. I found out later about the belly button thing in the first paragraph: Japanese parents tell their kids during thunderstorms that the thunder god will steal their belly buttons. 😀


Since coming to Japan, I haven’t had any huge moments in which this drastic change to my life becomes clear. Instead, there’s been the occasional surprising minor event. The weather is one example. Obviously, sweating for the majority of each day, I had noticed that the weather wasn’t what I was used to. But somehow it didn’t really sink in until my Japanese teacher and fellow students (from China and Thailand) were discussing thunderstorms and all the ways thunder affected them: they felt scared, covered their ears, and there was something about belly buttons that I didn’t quite catch. “So, Melissa, what do people do where you’re from?” As I said, “We don’t really have thunderstorms in California,” there was a mini jolt: I really am halfway across the world.

Of course, some changes to my daily life are much more apparent. If you were to rely on the remarks of Japanese people, I have transformed into a deity since coming here. Everything I touch turns to gold; everything I do is jouzu*. The Western goddess appears to have only one flaw: she is oblivious to the fact of her own youth. Luckily, I have a supportive community of teachers, acquaintances and complete strangers (and some ALTs…) to remind me every day how young I am. If you made a list of most frequently used words in my Japanese class, at the top would be wakai** – said with that cutesy intonation that only the Japanese can pull off.

Although I’ve had plenty of bizarre and delightful interactions with Japanese people, I have spent the vast majority of my first month here in the company of other JETs. We’ve all been under the spell of what I’ve come to think of as the summer camp phenomenon. Nobody knows anybody else, so everyone is extra open to making friends. I think it’s beautiful. We’ve made a fresh start; all the habits and preconceptions that we carried around with us back home are gone. Friendships grow out of practically nothing. Spend a few minutes chatting with someone at a barbeque and you feel you’ve found your soulmate.

“Who are you replacing?” That’s a question I have become used to; it tends to occur very early in conversation with senior JETs. It reminds me of an article I read at university about rural Corsica, where it’s taboo to ask for someone’s name when you first meet them. Instead, you establish some point of commonality by turning up a mutual acquaintance. It’s like my predecessor is that tenuous connection between me and veteran JETs, an absent third party who helps us bridge the gap between being strangers and being friends. Maybe it does us some good to see the imprint that this person has left, the effect he or she has even after leaving Japan. I’m inspired to make the same kind of mark, however big or small, during my time here.


To become Japanese?

I have been forming these thoughts for a while, and I’ve already talked to a lot of fellow JETs about this topic in person. So if you’re one of those people, sorry for the repetition! Maybe I’ll be more eloquent on paper (well, on screen).

I always used to envy friends whose families had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. It seemed like there was this huge facet of their identities — that of having a mother culture — that I lacked. My family has been in the same country for generations; we never had to pack up our heritage and bring it to a new place. We never had to work to preserve the traditions, clothes, language that were important to us; these things already surrounded us, they were already part of the dominant culture. I always felt a little deprived, passed over, for not having the kind of cultural history and identity that I could see was so important to my friends’ families.

Coming to another country has helped me to become aware of my American-ness and how profoundly it has shaped who I am. Some people begin their journeys abroad as visitors and then become permanent expatriates; they create a home in a new part of the world. I have a strong feeling that the opposite is true for me. As I wrote in the last post, I feel that I belong in America, whatever its flaws may be; at least they’re intimately familiar ones!

This position of being between cultures — of growing up in one culture and then being transplanted to another — is one that people approach in a variety of ways. Some hold tight to what they are used to and fail to see any value in assimilating; they create an individual-sized American bubble in Japan, or a Mexican microcosm in the United States, and so on. Others attempt to balance the familiar and the strange, the old culture and the new, while still others dive enthusiastically into the new culture and try to soak up as much of it as possible.

Which brings me to my main point: The great paradox of the JET Program is that the Japanese government hires Westerners with the aim of bringing a small piece of authentic, pristine Western culture to Japan — and yet, many of the people who make the final cut are Westerners who want more or less to become Japanese. It’s this perfect, circular irony, like The Gift of the Magi or something! As Japan works hard to accommodate our difference and learn from a different culture, some JETs work just as hard to efface those characteristics that make them un-Japanese.

As you’ve probably figured out, I don’t believe we should become Japanese — indeed, I don’t think we can. I do think that we can and should learn from and appreciate the culture that surrounds us. So it’s a balance. If some behavior or belief that you brought from home is important to you, you can find a way to fit it into your life here. If it’s a hot day, I’d go ahead and wear that spaghetti strap blouse, even though I haven’t seen any Japanese women dress like that. But at the same time, I make every effort to eat new and strange foods, to notice and emulate the behavior of the people around me, and to speak Japanese.

At its best, I think time abroad should teach you an infinite number of new things while also showing you exactly how and why your home culture is precious to you.

“So, why Japan?”

When you think of Western expats living in Japan, what comes to mind?

Go ahead, you can say it:

Manga geeks. Anime devotees. And, most of all, Western men on the singular mission of getting a Japanese girlfriend/wife. Protest all you want, I just said what many of us were thinking.

None of those things are bad! They’re just the stereotypes. And it’s easy to see why: each of those types of people has a particular fascination with Japan, a specific reason to come and make a life here.

Which brings me to a small problem I’ve been facing: many Japanese coworkers and friendly strangers expect me to have a special cultural interest that brought me here. Last week, when I met the principal of one of my schools, we sat down to chat over some cold tea and one of her first questions was: So what is your #1 interest in Japan?

I was caught off guard and ended up answering lamely, “Learning Japanese.” I could feel her wanting me to say “tea ceremony,” “karate” or “Arashi,” and no matter how much I think about it, there’s nothing like that that really resonates with me.

So, if we’re talking about my reasons for coming here, let’s just get the pragmatic one out of the way: yes, I just graduated and am still not sure what to do with my life and the job market back home is abysmal. Yes! No shame! For a year, I can support myself, and if it happens to be in Japan, so be it.

But beyond that, what I failed to explain to the principal and to many other people here is that my interest isn’t so much in Japan as in the world beyond the United States in general. I don’t want to live here forever; I know deep down that my home is America and that’s where I’ll be long-term. But I do love the challenge of living in another country. I’ve always loved learning other languages, learning to express myself in new ways, and examining the ways culture determines how people live their lives.

But if the interest is that general, why did I end up in Japan? I guess I feel a sort of affinity with the culture of politeness, as overbearing and tedious as it may be. As an introvert, as someone who worries about pleasing others, I feel a little more comfortable here than in the U.S., where inflated individualism is a major influence (to say the least!). Maybe I’ll expand on this in another post.

But even if I knew how to explain that in Japanese, I’m not sure it would really satisfy people. “Your culture is good for quiet people like me.” Hmmm.

So is it bad that I don’t have a passion for anything uniquely Japanese? Is it my responsibility to have a keen interest in the nation I’m now a part of (even if I’m still kind of a guest)?