Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner pt. 1

Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner pt. 1

For many “foreigners” in Japan, the title carries with it almost a celebrity status, particularly for those with typically “Western” features (light hair, colored eyes)- my own experience was little a bit less so because my dark hair and eyes sometimes made it easy for me to blend in. When I was found out, however, the reactions ranged from clandestine stares to outright gawking to timid but friendly attempts at conversation usually in broken English and/or Japanese. While I am once again living stateside and the term “foreigner” no longer applies officially, the process of coming back, or “repatriating” has made many once-familiar experiences feel a little “foreign” to me. These incidents are sometimes are painful- like my near panic attack in a crowded, noisy barbeque restaurant in Austin- while others are pretty harmless- like when I forget which side of my car is the driver’s and accidentally block someone from trying to enter through the passenger’s side.

First things first, using a public restroom in America is easily one of the most uncomfortable experiences ever. I know it’s been lamented by countless others before me, but I just really wanted to reiterate that, ok? There’s gaps all over the place, everyone can hear your business, and subsequently you can hear theirs; it’s just overall unpleasant compared to a public restroom experience in Japan. To be fair, I’m mostly talking about Japan’s ‘western’ style toilets, and not their ‘Japanese’ style toilets, which are kind of like an oblong-shaped commode/hole thingy built into the tiled ground that one must squat over. That style of toilet going experience can also be quite uncomfortable, but for completely different reasons.

Back to their ‘western’ style toilets; they are marvelous. First of all, the toilet itself is in its own legit little room- not some plywood stall- completely enclosed with floor to ceiling coverage and an actual door, with a latch that reads “vacant” or “occupied” so nobody has to knock and interrupt someone else’s private toilet experience. Furthermore, in some of the restrooms I used, once one shut the door, soothing water sounds could be heard, I’m assuming, to help one ease into the process of toilet going. If that didn’t make you automatically comfortable, then I have two words for you: heated seats. And I’m not talking about suspiciously warm seats that one happens upon when one is forced to enter a stall that was very recently occupied by another; these seats were heated electronically by hot water passing through tubes under (or within, I don’t know the mechanics behind it) the seat, and they are a godsend in the middle of winter- trust me. And if you’re STILL not impressed, let me leave you with this: the bidet. I’ll be honest, at first, the concept of a stream of water suddenly hitting one’s tushy did not sound appealing, but, like a Japanese toilet seat, I quickly warmed to it. You just feel cleaner and fresher after using it, and it’s really nice- plus, you can control the water pressure, so it’s not like it’s going to blast your backside. And on that uncomfortable note….

Of all the words I’ve had to use to describe myself over the years, “Foreigner” quickly became one of my favourites, and now it’s kind of a downer to be back in my “home” country where the term no longer applies. But the funny thing about having spent an extended amount of time as an outsider in a foreign country, is that now I carry the feeling of being out of place wherever I go. It has its ups and downs, but I know wouldn’t trade any part of this experience for anything. It’s given me a unique perspective on things both in my home and host countries, and, for better or worse, I now know that I can handle a whole lot of weird and unfamiliar.


Two New Mini Series

Hello all, 

I hope everyone is having a great Saturday! I just wanted to take a moment to update my blog and let you all know that, at least for the next month or so, I’m going to be pretty consistent with what I post and publish- fall’s the perfect time to turn over a new leaf, right? Get it? A new leaf?! Ahahaha, I’m hilarious.

Anyways, ICYMI, this past Tuesday I kicked off the first of my Japan-related thee part mini series, called “Japan in Retrospect” in which I talked a little bit about how I experienced a turning point in how I reconciled with my short-term expat life. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, just scroll down to the previous post, and- as always- don’t be afraid to leave a comment! On that note, next Tuesday I plan to publish the first part my other mini series, “Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner”, which is a bit more of a humorous take on what it’s like to be awkward in two cultures/counties. So be sure to be on the look for that as well! I’ll be alternating each week which series gets posted, so I hope enjoy them both!

Jaa ne!  

Japan in Retrospect: The Process

Japan in Retrospect: The Process

  Several months into my time in Japan, beyond my unintended, accidental half-way mark, I met a fellow gaijin who had long since established himself; he had a Japanese wife and children, he had strong ties to the local community as well as the foreigner one, and he just seemed all-around adjusted to ex-pat life. The night I met him and his family, I was attending a concert at a small shop owned by an American missionary family who knew that I had been having difficulties with pretty much every aspect of life in Japan and as an ALT; needless to say, they were happy to put me in contact with someone who might understand what I had been going through. During that initial conversation amid a cramped but cozy setting, he said something to that I wish I had known all along: The amount of stress and emotional upheaval a person goes through in travelling to and living in a foreign country, is nearly equal to that of losing a loved one.

When he said that to me, suddenly everything about my experience during those early weeks and months started to make sense: the loneliness, the fear, the confusion, the sleepless nights, the anxiety and depression. And it wasn’t just that things made sense (finally), it also was ultimately a relief to have that experience validated, to hear someone tell me that, “Yes, it’s supposed to suck. It’s going to be freaking hard, and that’s ok.” To hear that, meant that I wasn’t a failure for struggling- I was simply human. It meant that I was going through something that was fundamentally altering my life and identity, and so of course, there are going to be some growing pains involved.

Once I began to realize and accept this truth, I started to have a little more grace and patience with myself, and I finally began to forgive myself for my piss-poor attitude that I had hinted at in my “first blog post about living in Japan.” In a lot of ways, that night was a turning point for me, late in the game though it was. It was the moment where it finally clicked in my mind, that what I had been experiencing (in some ways) was a grieving process: I was grieving the life I had lived back in my home country, I grieving the loss of the identity I had built, and the loss or alteration of so many important relationships in my life. I was grieving and sad and afraid, and all too often, emotions like sadness and fear like to wear the mask of anger because anger feels stronger, but really it’s not. Anger feels strong because it hardens us, but sometimes that hardness that we think will protect us from struggle actually becomes a barrier to us reaching out and receiving help for our struggle. That’s definitely what was happening in my case, and that was the reason it took me so long to connect to a faith community- which is commonly wherein I tend to find comfort and support- and to reach out to my colleagues.

I think the last thing I want to stress about this “process” is that it won’t last forever, and for me, a huge impetus to finally ending it was, in fact, simply having a name for it: grief. Pain. Growth. It was no longer a nameless monster lurking in the back of my mind; it was, instead, a common experience that countless others had endured and conquered. That meant I could conquer it, too. In a way, I think I did, so that even though I ultimately decided to leave Japan, I have the benefit of now being able to recognize the ways in which Japan has changed me- for better and for worse. I also know that if, for whatever reason, I ever returned, I’d most likely have an easier time adjusting, and that’s a relief.