It can be difficult to be an American living in Japan, or to be any westerner living in Japan, really. It’s easy to interpret a lot of things that are very different as being bad, or the “wrong way” to do things, but I found myself realizing that a lot of those different ways turned out to be okay in the end. It’s normal for an American living in Japan to first experience a honeymoon phase. Once the honeymoon is over is when things begin to get hard.
The Honeymoon Phase
Just like in a new relationship, people often have a honeymoon phase when they’re new to Japan. During this time, you’re enamored with everything, as everything is new and exciting. Each new day is a new adventure. I’d say the honeymoon stage lasted around three months for me. It was around that point that I had the realization that I was here for good, living in a foreign country, and that these different things in Japan were replacing the things I’d grown comfortable with throughout my life. Our instinct is to revert back to what we know, to return to our culture and comfort bubble, but that wasn’t an option.
I ended up feeling quite homesick: missing family, friends, and food! Even junk food, like taco bell… Some of the stuff that I thought I could easily manage would start to bother me, like worrying about not offending others by simply behaving like an American. There’s a lot of stuff you can do that people from different cultures consider to be rude, even though they know you’re from a different country.
A Stranger In A Strange Land
I was in a Japanese language school within only two short weeks of moving to Japan, and I lived at my father-in-law’s apartment, which left me with almost zero privacy. I never anticipated that my Japanese in-laws would treat me and my wife like children. They’d walk into our apartment whenever they pleased, and it only made matters worse when I complained. Every single time I resisted the flow of things, it created more stress for my wife. She once blocked the door with a stack of boxes so that whoever opened the door would just see a wall of boxes. That’s what I got for complaining… Other things would add up and bother her from time to time, like when I’d ask too many questions about why their culture did things in a certain way.
I soon realized that I was on my own here. You’re expected to do your own research, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. My father-in-law once told me: “If you make a mistake, fine. If you make the same mistake twice, learn from it. If you make the same mistake three times, you’re an idiot.” If I had better educated myself, I could have avoided a lot of headaches. I didn’t understand that a parent in Japan always remains in the role of the parent and always demands that high level of respect. This means your parents never treat you like an adult. Is this bad? Well, that’s debatable. It’s certainly different.
The Road To Understanding
I fell into the trap of making constant cultural comparisons between the US and Japan. I didn’t realize it soon enough, but this marked me as a complainer. This makes enough sense now because when I look back… I guess I was a complainer. Regardless, I learned some very valuable life lessons from my time. You can’t have someone hold your hand all the time. You should never have the expectation that someone is going to hold your hand through life’s challenges. Sometimes you’re the only one who can help yourself. Yeah, life can be scary when you’re unfamiliar with everything around you, but finally confronting those unfamiliar things taught me to be more aware of my surroundings, to study people, to learn to emulate when necessary, and to blend in with my surroundings when it doesn’t compromise my character. These are lessons that have helped me in all aspects of my life.
Let me give you a clear list of some of the pros and cons of my tenure abroad, coming from the perspective of an American living in Japan.
- Learned valuable life lessons
- Learned to adapt to my surroundings
- Learned that the way my culture does things isn’t necessarily the right way to do them (a moral landscape)
- Learned at least a little bit of a second Language
- Ate great authentic food
- Experienced different types of holidays/festivals
- Became a world traveler (something to be proud of)
- Gained a different outlook on life
- Exposed to unique people from all around the world
- Most obvious one—STRESS
- Letting go of aspects of your native culture that don’t have a place in the new one
- Food (you think I’m kidding? You’ll never miss your country’s food so much)
- Receiving dirty looks and glares from people
- Being told by a few students to go back to my country while teaching, and the Japanese English teacher doing nothing to correct the student
- Being molested (yes, I had a student boy grab at me because he thought it was funny and he was “curious” because I was a foreigner)
The reason why I include “The Ugly” here is because these are some of the darker, shocking sides of being in a different country. A lot of us like to think that other countries will handle a situation the same way that we do in our own country, and that’s just not the case. I was infuriated when this 15-year-old boy grabbed at my private area, and the student was then angry with me when I reported it to the head teacher; he acted as if I had betrayed him. Conclusion: the head teacher said “I’m sorry” to me, and nothing was done. I’d assumed things would be handled a certain way, and they simply don’t make a big deal about that sort of thing over there. This taught me to be more aware and to stop a bad situation before it goes overboard.
There may be a few other things that can be added, but they’re small and are normally more of a case by case situation. For example, Hollywood films are released late in Japan. How late? Up to a whole year late. Star Wars Episode 8 is slated for a later release in Japan. So, um, good luck avoiding spoilers…
I hope this provides some useful insight. I will continue to write about Japan and my experiences, so stay tuned. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.