Foreign Wives Club
An American's Struggle to Adapt to Japanese Life Inspires an Internet Site for Women in Bicultural Marriages
I met my husband in the summer of 1995 when he was in New York City on a 2-year assignment with the Japan Local Government Center and I was an English teacher at Berlitz Language Center. He made it clear from the beginning that he took our relationship seriously. We dated then lived together until March 1997 when he had to return to Japan. I followed in May of the same year and spent the next two years going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan on 3-month tourist visas until we finally married in September of 1999.
Living in Kochi—a modest, regional city of approximately 300,000 on the Pacific coast of Shikoku Island—far from the sophisticated, international urban centers of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe, without access to a large foreign community, I had to learn Japanese, make Japanese friends, eat Japanese food, and, in general, do things the Japanese way.
Unable to find any formal Japanese classes for foreigners, I hit the books at home and practiced speaking Japanese with my future in-laws and acquaintances. After a few weeks, my boyfriend found an instructor for me. By the end of three months my Japanese had improved drastically. I could hold basic conversations, understand about twenty percent of the dialogue on Japanese television dramas, and go shopping on my own.
I decided to stay in Japan, and over the next three years my cultural acclimation went well. I enjoyed Japanese TV dramas, I learned to make sushi, and I bathed in the Japanese-style bath every night—especially during the winter months to warm up before going to sleep in the unheated bedroom. I even led the local “Kochi Club,” a team of foreigners and Japanese intended to promote internationalization, in the annual Yosakoi street dance festival.
In short, I was doing great. I was part of a lively, friendly community. I had future in-laws who were kind, helpful, and accepting and a supportive boyfriend who did his best to help me fit in. I had a job teaching English at a local elementary school, my own money, and a newspaper subscription. I was also inspired to begin writing fiction again for the first time in several years.
It wasn’t always easy, though. I had a period of depression during which I had little energy and slept nearly all day. I gained weight and felt sluggish and unattractive. I suffered through the summer heat and humidity and through the dry winter air. Except for the living room, our house was without heat and air-conditioning. I missed my home in the U.S. and having friends and family nearby. I missed the variety of people, food, television and movies in the U.S. I missed hearing English and being able to communicate in my native language. I missed feeling competent and independent.
Despite the difficulties, however, living in Japan was still an adventure. I could deal because, in my mind, my move to Japan was not permanent. It was only after my marriage and pregnancy that the reality started to hit me and deeper discontent set in.
I realized that my child would grow up in a culture vastly different than my own. Even though we planned to raise our daughter bilingually, Japanese would likely be her dominant language. I was also overcome with guilt knowing that my own family would only get to spend brief summer visits with her and that we would grow farther apart as time passed. I grew angry and resentful of my husband and in-laws for being in their home country and with their loved ones year-round.
Too sick and too pregnant to work at first and then too busy caring for my daughter, I stayed at home all day feeling lonely and isolated. I had no one to confide in who could understand where I was coming from. Most of my foreign friends had come to Japan on only short-term teaching contracts and had returned to their home countries. I knew some Japanese mothers but found it challenging to connect with them given language and cultural barriers, including differences in child-rearing philosophies. I found myself longing to connect with mothers from my own culture and, with no other choice, turned to the Internet to find them.
I stumbled across a site for breastfeeding moms called “Militant Breastfeeding Cult” and joined. I enjoyed talking about parenting issues and many other topics with them but found there was a gulf of experience between us. None of them were married to men from another country or culture, none were raising bicultural kids, and none of them were living in a foreign country. What I needed was to connect with other women living in foreign countries. I looked but could find no such site. So I decided that I would have to start my own.
I went to ezboard.com, a site that offers free message board services, and Foreign Wives Club was born. In those early days, nearly four years ago, FWC had a small but devoted membership. Of 18 registered members, only five or six of us were active participants. Still I was elated. We stayed at the free board for a little less than four months and then in February 2002 I bought the domain name, found a web host, and recruited my mother to design the new Foreign Wives Club site. Once parked at its own domain (and with a little word-of-mouth advertising) FWC began to attract new members from all over the world.
Today FWC has 488 members from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom. We are a welcoming community that offers friendship, understanding, and support to all foreign wives.
Tips for Making a Successful Move to Your Partner's Home Country
Looking back to my move to Japan I am amazed how ill-informed and ill-prepared I was. I often ask myself how many things would have been easier if only I had prepared more. Though no amount of preparation can completely stave off culture shock, identifying it can help you handle your emotions.
1. Do your research. Get online or go to a library or bookstore and look for anything you can find about your host country and culture. Guidebooks that offer cultural tips can be useful to a limited extent, but to find out all the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day life in your host country I strongly recommend travel memoirs. Books that particularly helped me (and that I wish I had discovered before living in Japan) are Being A Broad in Japan: Everything a Western Woman Needs to Survive and Thrive by Caroline Pover and Looking Beyond the Mask: When American Women Marry Japanese Men by Nancy Brown Diggs.
2. Learn the language. Sign up for a few classes or buy a book and some CDs. You don’t have to arrive speaking the language fluently but you will find that being able to greet people in their native language will make an excellent first impression and give you confidence in your ability to cope far from home. I used a handy little book from Berlitz called Basic Japanese and was able to engage in simple conversations with Japanese friends in just a few weeks.
3. Expect culture shock and have a strategy to combat it. You may go through some of the standard five stages of culture shock as you adjust to life in your new country. (I recommend reading The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidences Around the World by Paul Pederson. For further reading on how each of the culture shock stages are characterized go to www.urop.uci.edu/SURP/sample_proposals/SURP%20Humanities%201.pdf.)
Before you leave home come up with a plan to minimize your feelings of culture shock. Decide how you are going to spend your days when you arrive in your host country. If you have a job waiting for you this won’t be much of a problem but if you don’t, you will need to plan activities to give your days structure. Take language lessons, find expat organizations, take up a hobby, go to the local community center and take a class. Anything you do to participate in your community, make friends, and increase your language skills will give you a feeling of belonging and accomplishment.
4. Get help. If you find yourself struggling with deep and persistent depression don’t be ashamed to get help. In Japan, Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL) offers counseling over the phone at 03-5774-0992 as well as in person. TELL can also be found at www.telljp.com. In other countries your local embassy or consulate may be able to assist you in finding counseling services.
5. Keep lines of communication open. As you transition into your new life, talk to your significant other about your feelings and expectations for your relationship. Consider what you want out of your career (you may not be able to pursue your chosen line of work in your host country); marriage (Do you and your boyfriend share similar expectations of marriage? Will there be culture expectations placed upon you such as caring for and/or living with aging in-laws?); and children (Do you want your kids to grow up with your native language as a second language and your native culture as a second culture?); and the impact living abroad will have on your relationships with your family and friends back home (Are you okay with missing important events in each other’s lives?). Find out if your significant other would be willing to move to your home country—or even a third country—if you were not able to live happily in his country long-term.
6. Create your own culture. If you decide to get married and build a life together, I recommend you create your own “home” culture that combines both your cultures in terms of food, language, holidays, etc. Adapting to life in a foreign culture is stressful enough; you shouldn’t have to continue feeling the pressure to assimilate in your own home.
7. Have a back up plan. No matter how in love you are, there are numerous cultural hurdles you will have to straddle to make your relationship last. Should it not work out, you will need a plan to get back on your feet financially and emotionally. While abroad, stay in touch with home friends and family. Stay in contact with former bosses and coworkers. Try to keep your job skills current (something that may not be easy depending on your host country) or work on developing new skills to increase your value in the marketplace. If you can legally work in your host country, get a job even if it is not in your chosen field so you will have some degree of financial independence. Finally, if you do decide to marry in your host country, know the laws governing marriage, divorce, and child custody. For more information, visit the International Divorce Law website: international-divorce.com.
8. Finally, be open to new experiences—and be ready to face the unexpected. Moving abroad is, first and foremost, a great adventure. In the end, your experiences abroad will be what you make of them. Make them an opportunity to reinvent yourself and your life.