Things Learned Abroad № 1: On Leaving Problems Behind
[1,200 words, estimated reading time 6 minutes]
It has now been two years since I moved to Japan. It has been an alarmingly fast two years, but also very full of valuable and interesting experience. I'm sitting at my father's dining room table in Ohio as I write this, currently Stateside for a couple of weeks to see family and friends, and this seems a good time to look at some of the things I've learned in the last two years of life in Japan. With the second Japaniversary still fresh in my mind and the physical and experiential distance provided by briefly being on a different continent giving extra dimension to my life in Tokyo, it's worth asking such a question as this: What have I learned so far? This post series will explore some of the more important things I've learned.
These are observations derived from life while working full time in Tokyo, not from traveling around as a tourist. Not that there's anything wrong with coming to Japan as a tourist, but when you're working six days a week it's just not going to yield the same sorts of findings as when you're on vacation. Shinjuku Station at rush hour, for example, is novel madness to the traveler, but a bothersome daily nuisance to the haggard commuter. On the other hand, living in a place means getting to know its secrets and hidden locations in a way you just can't do while visiting.
Your problems will follow you wherever you go, but that's OK.
This is not just true of what happens when moving to Japan, but any time you move to a totally new place. Whether consciously or not, I think we often equate moving to a new place with an opportunity to start fresh, and it often does function that way. Japan in particular represented a real reset of just about everything in my life. That said, sometimes we also want to believe that starting over means automatically leaving our problems behind entirely. This does not tend to pan out as well as we'd like, however. People tend not to tell you this when you're aiming to join the global expat community, but then why would they? Plenty of people do try to leave everything behind, problems included, but in time these things have a habit of catching up.
If you're interpreting this as me saying that you can never get rid of those things dogging your existence day in and day out, no matter how much you distance yourself from them, you're partially right (but this isn't a bad thing). A lot of people in the expat community have problems they're running from. Sometimes big, serious problems, sometimes little things. In either case, though, just getting far away doesn't fix anything, and if we were plagued with money problems back home, for example, chances are we'll be plagued with money problems anywhere else we go, too. Though something like an international move can provide a great opportunity to establish new and better habits, a healthier lifestyle, etc these things don't just happen all by themselves. You don't just step off the plane as a new person, wholly distinct from the person who boarded hours before. I'll admit to having indulged that fantasy on my first couple of international moves, though.
What I'm getting at is this somewhat obvious but inconvenient fact: such problems really only go away if you actually deal with them. Yes, the precise thing that nobody wants to hear but what everyone eventually has to do. I'll quit being general and give a specific example from my own life. Historically speaking, I've never been very good with money, my only related skills being those of being able to make nearly any quantity of money quickly disappear (as if into thin air) and of being able to accumulate consumer debt. I was bad at planning, saving, and all those other critical things that you really should be competent at as a working adult. When I lived in Korea, Taiwan, and in China, it wasn't hard to keep afloat and even save pretty well, as the cost of living was quite low relative to what I was earning. For a time, I was able to pretend.
When I was getting ready to move to Tokyo, however, I quickly had to get my shit straight. I was going to have to survive on cash only for an unknown period of time after I arrived. I had arranged a cheap place to stay and had some job interviews in the works, but had no idea how long it would take to begin working or when I would begin getting paid, so before I left China I had to save as much as I could, and after I arrived in Japan had to adopt the lifestyle of an ascetic hermit for a while. Even after started getting paid (three months after arriving), I knew there was very little room for slop in my budget, so it was either own up to a problem I'd been avoiding forever or crash and burn. I chose to figure things out and do it right, and it was not a fun thing to do, but everything is a lot better now. Really, I should have sorted myself out financially fifteen years ago when I first started freelancing after college, but oh well. Better late than never. I'm no finance wizard just yet, but I'm not the disaster I used to be. I avoided it as long as I could, but had to face it eventually.
If you go abroad avoiding your problems, you too will eventually have to face them. The fact that we need to actually deal with what's biting at our heels instead of just avoiding it is especially true in a place like Japan, where basically everything works pretty well and the standard of living is very high. If you're living in a developing country or a place where very little seems to make any sense to you, it's easier to scoff at the idea of facing your problems. How can I be expected to deal with my addiction or this bad relationship, you might ask yourself, when every day I have to run down the street chasing a truck to take out the garbage? Excuses are easier than action, but eventually they run dry.
The point here is not to be a downer or a killjoy, but to point at something I wish I had realized and internalized far earlier than I did. We all avoid certain problems, and sometimes it's actually an important survival strategy, but the joy we're often seeking when heading abroad can be sabotaged by what we're avoiding or trying to leave behind. Do the work and face the uglies sooner than later and you'll have a much better go of things living abroad in Japan or anywhere else. Whether it's something to do with money, relationships, career, family, addiction, or whatever else, do what you need to do, but realize you can't run forever. Don't be afraid of this. See it as the opportunity it is: a chance to do a bit of work and thereby be truly free from that which you were so eager to escape.