Thursday, May 06, 2010

The "Other" Side of the Story

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."  Helen Keller


 I can honestly say I do not regret our decision, even for a minute, of accepting this assignment in Japan. In just the short 15 months we have been here, our family has already experienced so much more than I ever could have dreamed.  However, with all of the fun, travels and adventures there are also frustrating, hard and lonely times. Being an expat is amazing, but it is also much harder than it sometimes may appear. 

When we accepted this assignment, we went into it with the attitude that every day will be an adventure. I think as an expat you have to have that type of attitude or you may very well spend most days in tears. 

One of the hardest parts is being away from family and friends. I haven't seen my family in almost 10 months. Sure there is email, phone, and even Skype, but it isn't the same. And while we haven't lived closer than 8 hours to family in over 10 years, there is comfort in knowing we are at least in the same country if needed. It takes us almost 24 hours to even get back between traveling to the airports and connections. We have six nieces and nephews that have become totally different people in the past 10 months. And while I have been able to stay in close contact with friends, I miss them dearly. It is hard knowing that when a friend may need an extra shoulder to cry on that I can't physically be there to help. 

Moving to a country where English is seldom used and where the alphabet is totally foreign is very challenging. I remember visiting Paris and while I had no idea what things meant, I at least could read and sound out the signs, menus and other written materials. Here, everything written looks like my kids trying to draw at the age of 2. And trying to speak, most times forget it. Unless you are asking "what is your name or where are you from" many times it is like the blind leading the blind. (However I can play a killer game of charades) Imagine trying to do the simplest thing, like mailing a letter, when you have no idea how to communicate "I need a stamp" and "how long will it take to get there?"  Getting directions?  Forget it. (Although we have had some awesome people walk us to where we need to go before)

Everyday conveniences turn into work. The way you cook changes due to availability and ease of getting items. The way you shop totally changes. You need Tylenol?  Good luck at the pharmacy. Going to the Dr for an ear ache?  Not as simple as calling, talking to a nurse and asking for an appointment. And once you are in the doctor office (after you find a translator to call for you) the most basic questions turn into a long, frustrating process. Unless someone is sending mail from back stateside or from the school, we never can read what shows up in our mailbox. Driving anywhere is quite an adventure, especially when it is all done on the opposite side from where I was taught. Most times, our mode of transportation is our own two feet and/or a train.

Sticker shock -- come to Japan and you will have major sticker shock. A gallon of gas is $6. A gallon of milk ranges from $6 - $7. A draft beer at the bar is $8. Apples range from $1 - $1.58 each. A watermelon?  You are looking at $10-$15 easy.  Unless you are buying chicken breast or hard liquor, most items here are much more expensive than in the States.

Thankfully there is a wonderful expat community here. People become each other's "family". A good support system is an important key on those days when you just want to crawl under the covers, click your heels three times and hope to be back in the security of what we know. The hard part is that most of us expats here have what I like to call an "expiration date."  We are here for a certain amount of time and when that time is over we pack our bags and head home or on to the next adventure. So one minute you have have 20 people to lean on and the next they are gone.


Often times I feel like I live in this bubble of sorts. I have no real clue what is totally going on all around me and I feel separated from things back in the States. Life is just, well, different. But, no matter what challenges come with each day, I would never change it for anything. I believe without a doubt, that we are exactly where God wants us right now.


Alison said...

Nobody ever warns you about the downsides of expat life. No matter how prepared you think your are beforehand, no matter how much reading you do about your new country, I don't think you're ever really ready for that first expat experience. While most of the time things are great and exciting, it can also be incredibly hard. Being an expat certainly isn't like being on vacation in a different country. But at the end of it all, you become a stronger person and you have so many great new experiences and memories to keep forever.

Every Day is an Adventure said...

Wow....I feel like you were inside my head while writing that. You voiced the every day feelings of an expat so well. We were in China for two years, back in the US for a year, and are now on our way to India. Thanks for sharing and know there are many of us who totally understand :) This great community of expats is one of the great pluses of this life.

Terri said...

:( and : )

I can't imagine what you are going through, but I have this feeling that you all will be fine and extremely grateful for this experience once it's over. I wish I could give my kids an opportunity like that. Hang in there!