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?