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.