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Broadening the Expatriate Experience

Going it Alone in Japan

My first weekend in Nagoya, Japan was a blur of neon lights, hard glass towers, and wide boulevards. People walked faster, their polished shoes clicked on the pavement. Pedestrians did not wait for the green to cross the street. They streamed by me while I waited patiently, like I was used to doing. 

I had come to find an apartment, to be ready and waiting for my arrival one month later, at the end of July. The rental agent was not deterred by my hesitant Japanese and zipped me around in his Toyota Prius, throwing open the doors to apartments and inquiring every few minutes, “Suki desu? How do you like it?” Before signing the contract, he offered me a “joke” cracker—wasabi flavored, so strong you could smell it across the room. If I hadn’t been distracted by the relief of finding a place to live, and his staccato bowing, I might have noticed.  As it happened, I took a huge mouthful and ceased to breathe for several seconds, choking up the half-chewed cracker into my napkin as politely as possible, tears running involuntarily down my cheeks. The travel agent had a good laugh and we sealed the deal.

From the rush and clamor of Honshu island, where the Japanese do big business and live the big city life, I flew back to Oita, the quiet town on the often-forgotten southern island of Japan, where I had been living and working on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for the last year. I took the last month to say goodbye to all that was dear and familiar to me: my fellow JETs, my Japanese co-workers, my schools, the local tempura restaurant that knew my face. I cleaned out my apartment and packed my bags. I took with me the drawings my 6-year-old students had done of me, my pair of portable chopsticks, email addresses written on scraps of paper with appeals to keep in touch. Some things I left behind: a pair of Crocs, which had been a good-bye present from Sakura-sensei at Wasada Jr. High School, and a shelf of Japanese language books. 

As difficult as it can be to move to a foreign country for the first time, a second move within the same country can be more daunting. It had taken a full year in Oita to adjust to life as an expatriate, and that with the quite ample support of the JET program. Finally, I was comfortable in my work, I had my apartment set up nicely, I had friends.  I knew how to get around the city; I knew how to work around my faulty Japanese. I had found a good hairdresser, the best ramen in town, the best running path. An entire year of trial-and-error, and I was to leave it behind to start from the beginning.

Nevertheless, city life tempted me—I yearned to know more of Japan. This is what Japan was, after all, in our foreign imaginations; the land of skyscrapers and crowds, lights and high-speed trains and robot technology. Was there some truth to the images, outside of sleepy rural towns? Oita had become too quiet, too comfortable, what else was there left to discover? I was not ready to return home—very few JETs are, after only one year—and I had just settled in Japan. I decided to move to Nagoya, the 4th largest city in Japan. Those of my JET colleagues who did not return home stayed in Oita.

Would I miss the intimacy of small town life, the friendliness of small town people? As the plane left the blue coast of Kyushu Island behind, I thought of Yoshino Jr. High School, where the math teacher had presented me with an icebox of fresh squid he had fished himself from the river, because I had mentioned that I liked squid sashimi. I thought of Kimi-san, the prim old woman with perfectly coiffed hair who invited me to her home and showed me how to wear a yukata, the summer kimono.  I thought of Shinya with the spiky hair and corny jokes, who offered me free Japanese lessons over a teriyaki burger and fries every Thursday at Mosburger.  Would I find myself lost in Nagoya?  Would I be able to find a job, find friends?  Would my Japanese degrade with less easy exposure to Japanese locals? Don’t people always say that the most authentic cultural experiences are found in small towns?

I arrived in full blast of the Nagoya summer.  My apartment still lacked an air conditioner, and Best Denki, the appliance store, had none left for several weeks. I set out on my job search, navigating through pockets of humidity in a black suit. Sleeping at night was impossible. The neon sign from the love hotel next door blinked through my window, reflecting pulses of red light onto the ceiling. I continued my search. 

After a few weeks the heat lifted and allowed the city a deep breath, the air conditioner arrived, and life went on. My apprehensions about finding a job and getting settled were quickly forgotten. Jobs for teaching business English in Nagoya, the automotive capital of Japan, seemed to fall out of the sky. I quickly filled in gaps in my schedule with private lessons and English conversation schools. Within a month I was managing a full-time freelance schedule.

I found a message board at the Nagoya International Center and posted requests for Japanese and French language partners.  My cell phone inbox was flooded with messages for weeks after. I found dozens of Japanese community classes, and started going to lunch with other foreigners in the classes. Our conversations every week were a hilarious hodge-podge of languages and accents. Japanese, English, French, Italian, and Spanish flew every which way, sentences entangling, jokes communicated through gests.  My Japanese blossomed. I found yet more work through contacts.

More importantly, my vision of Japan grew wider and more detailed. Women on the Nagoya streets wore their hair as high as their heels. I met many Japanese people who spoke fluent English as well as other languages. Every weekend there were art exhibits and independent films. In contrast to conservative Oita, I saw that Japan could be cosmopolitan, cultured, and creative. I saw variety. In Oita, I had been the only variety in a population of Oita-born-and-breds. In Nagoya, my foreign presence was not exceptional. People were not impressed with a few words of clumsy Japanese. They were not astounded that I knew how to manipulate a pair of chopsticks. They brushed past me on the street without a second look. I learned that the impression I had formed of Japanese people the previous year did not describe Japanese people at all, but only Japanese people who lived in Oita.  I stopped forming sentences along the lines of, “Japanese people do this . . . Japanese people are like this . . .” I stopped feeling like a foreign resident of Japan and more like a resident of Japan.

As an expatriate living abroad (and especially in a country like Japan, which is so radically different from western countries), It is easy to mark differences between your home culture and theirs, to be too quick to generalize, to define all the variety of Japan by a small town in the south. Living in Nagoya—or rather, living in a totally different context than I had experienced before—taught me that a true cultural experience does not depend on the size of the community, but rather on how you integrate into the community, how much you are changed from the environment and learn from the people.  For me, integration was much easier in Nagoya simply because it was a larger city, with a greater variety of people to meet, more job opportunities, more language classes, and much more to see and to get involved in.

For expats who have the opportunity to move to another location and try something new in the same country, seize it! Now I can say that I have truly lived in Japan; I have seen two sides of this country and I have a better idea how many more there are to discover.

After one year in Nagoya, I left for new horizons. I found myself saying sayonara yet again, but this time the goodbyes were more profuse, even more profound. I was sad to leave the workplaces that I had found myself and the friends that I had made out of effort and common interest, not out of circumstance. My life in Nagoya was one that I had built myself, and I had become more attached to it.  Looking back on my time in Japan, I find that both experiences compliment each other, but it was my year in Nagoya that defined what Japan meant to me and how my life was affected by it.

For More Information

Information about teaching English in Japan as a participant of the JET Program can be found on their website: www.jetprogramme.org.

Tips on working as a freelance English teacher in Japan can be found at: www.all-about-teaching-english-in-japan.com/workingoverseas.html.

Two recommended books on living and working in Japan are Living Abroad in Japan by Ruth Kanagy and Live & Work in Japan, 3rd edition by Erica Simms. 

Valuable job resources on the web for English teachers in Japan include Gaijin Pot, www.gaijinpot.com, and Ohayo Sensei, www.ohayosensei.com.

Japanzine is a wonderfully funny, creative, and informative magazine about expatriate life in Japan: www.seekjapan.jp.

Excellent textbooks for learners of the Japanese language are Japanese Step by Step by Gene Nishi, Japanese the Manga Way by Wayne P. Lammers, and the JMinna no Nihongo series, which is entirely in Japanese.

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