Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reflection After a Year of Living Abroad

A year ago I stepped off the airplane wide-eyed and scared to death. While I had spent 5 days in Kobe during my "look-see" I really had no idea what to expect as far as living here. My husband had sold me on moving to Japan by taking me on vacation to Phuket, Thailand. He told me "this is Asia" and "these are the places we would visit if we moved this way". All my fellow Japan expats, I know you are laughing. While I lam really enjoying Kobe, it is definitely lacking the tropical fruit, year round warm temperatures, white sand beaches, clear blue water and elephants. There is a reason Matt works in marketing.

This past year has been filled with adventures, frustrations, many laughs and even tears. I have met some amazing people from all over the world. I have made friends I know I will remain in touch with for the rest of my life. This experience has changed not only me, but our whole family as well. I can honestly say I am not the same person I was a year ago before embarking on this adventure.

We talked with our kids this past weekend about how the past year has been for them living here. They all agreed that Japan is nothing like what they thought it would be, but that wasn't a bad thing. It was just different than what they had expected. They all agreed that while they miss friends, family and some of the conveniences we had back in the states, they do not regret moving here at all.

The People
Japanese people, as a whole, will bend over backwards to make you happy. They will do whatever they can to not "ruffle your feathers". They will never tell you no, but rather "ahhhh, shhhhhh, ummmm, that will be very difficult." And in reality that means there is no way in hell I can/will do that. We have had people walk 15 minutes out of their way just to take us to where we are trying to go. We have been given three umbrellas by different random people who have seen us walking in the rain without one. Customer service is typically top-notch anywhere you go.

After being here a year I still cannot figure out the fashion style. Anything goes. From Dazzy Duke shorts and knee high boots in the winter to plaids, stripes and polka dots all being worn at the same time. Hair styles are way out there and most guys carry some type of "man bag". Men wear too small suits and shoes with toe extensions. It is common to see people doing their hair on the train, at McDonalds, and even at the beach. People shave while they drive, tweeze at Starbucks and I even saw someone using a blackhead extractor on the train before.

Many people do not speak English, but if you write it down, they sometimes can read it. And the ones that can speak English are many times shy and worried about making mistakes so they will not speak. They love anything with logos and English words. They love US music.

The one place everything we know about Japanese people goes out the window is behind the wheel of a car or their scooter. Forget being helpful and considerate. It is every man for himself.

And one of the most important things about the Japanese people? They really love their dogs.

The Country
Japan is a country rich in culture and history. You could probably travel all around the country for a year and still not experience everything. There are many National Holidays, and all of them involve some tradition or cultural event.

I love going to different temples and shrines and watching the Japanese people. I love watching the women dressed in kimonos. There is so much tradition within this country that I am like a sponge trying to soak up all that I can.

Japan loves their processes. Everything is a process. And while this sometimes can be very, very, very annoying (like getting a driver license), it also can be good. No matter where you go, you will almost always be asked/told the same things in the same order. Don't try to figure out why the process is done like it is, because you will go nuts doing so. I still am trying to figure out the process in place for getting your re-entry permit. You seriously move from line to line, many times having the same person help you, then you go have to go 7-11 and buy a "stamp" and then return to the same lines again. But anyways, I digress.

The Japanese love to eat, drink and smoke. How they stay so skinny and have one of the cleanest bill of health in the whole world is beyond me. Must be all the green tea. They love to shop. Well maybe not so much buy, but go to the stores. Going to Ikea, Costco or Sannomiya can be dangerous on a weekend. Many times their houses are small, so I guess going to these places are their ways of getting out. The crowds are Matt's least favorite part of living here. As he likes to explain, it is equivalent to putting the whole population of the United States in California.

Japan is a very cash based society. It is not uncommon to have $1,000 laying around the house in cash. Credit cards are accepted in larger stores. There are no such things as checks. You either pay in cash or do a bank transfer from your account. You can pay all your bills at 7-11 and Lawson's.

Less than 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian, but yet somehow it doesn't feel that way.

Our Experiences
Our family has been fortunate to have been able to have some fantastic experiences in the short amount of time we have been here. Within Japan we have been skiing in the mountains, swimming on the beaches in Shirahama, climbed the cliffs in Wakayama, and taken many outings to local places like Kyoto and Nara. We have been to Miajima and had an emotional visit to Hiroshima. And of course we have spent lots of time exploring Kobe and Osaka.

Outside of Japan we have been to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali, and Malaysia. Our kids have been changed forever by their experiences in these places. We have learned so much about other cultures and countries. Our kids haven't learned about the culture and history of different people from a book, but from a real life experience. And while some of these trips were full of sun and sand, they also were a huge lesson in humility, poverty and tolerance. You can't help but be changed when you pass where people live or being begged by a 4 year old at night to buy a wilted flower. Being hugged by a dirty faced little boy as you walk down the street because you gave him a dollar because it will buy him a whole meal, will change you. And while we may not be doing so much to change these people, they are changing us.

The kids are enjoying school and their friends. Emily is on a Japanese gymnastics team and will be competing this April. Matt has been drowning in work. I have jumped in volunteering at the school and at CHIC. I have taken cooking and culture classes. And do not forget one of my biggest experiences this year –– the hike.

One of the hardest and biggest challenges has been adjusting to being so far away from everyone. While we have never lived closer than 6.5 hours from my or Matt's family, knowing that we could be home in 6.5 or 10 hours was always comforting. Only seeing family in the summer is a huge adjustment. I miss my family. I miss my friends. One of our close friend's dad died, another is getting divorced, another had a baby, others go through things, and being so far away is hard. I feel like I am not there for them like I should be. I guess there was something comforting about being in the same country at least.

In a way I feel displaced from everything -- television, politics, economics, sports. It is sort of like being the boy in the bubble where you can see everything, but nothing can get in. The time difference is hard to get around too, but since I am a bit of an insomniac it is easier for me than others.

Obviously there are challenges living here. The language barrier -- written, reading and spoken. Driving, shopping, traveling... well just about anything really. But if you look at each of these challenges as a new adventure it may not make it less challenging, but it may make it easier to laugh at down the road.

It's hard to believe a year has gone by already. And through all the adjustments, fun, and tears, I do not regret once choosing to take this leap.

Ja mata (see you later)


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Jill said...

What a great post! I'm glad to hear your family is adapting so well and that you are able to take in so many new adventures and experiences. And isn't it nice to have technology that helps you remain closer to far away family and friends? I'm sure it's hard to not be able to "be" there... but I'm sure they are comforted to know you're only an email away :-)

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Kimmber said...

I can't believe it's been a year. I'm glad it's been more than you ever could have imagined.

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