It’s been 5 months since I moved to Japan. I never got around to writing about my initial impressions of Nihon (think deer-on-MDMA in the headlights) but a constant flow of enquiries about daily life in Japan had me thinking I really should jot something down.
I hope this post gives you some honest and balanced insight if you’re thinking of moving to a (or another) foreign country. If you’ve already moved away from home then I hope that this provides you with some sort of assurance that you’re not the only one who felt like an idiot for spending a week of sleepless nights wondering why the fuck you made the decision in the first place. It’s okay. Moving to a foreign country will test you to breaking points but it will take you on highs you’d never dreamed of experiencing before – all within within a matter of minutes at times.
Before arriving in Japan we were told that we’d experience a wave of adrenaline and enthusiasm that would last approximately 2 months thereafter we’d crash for a while before reaching a plateaux of stability and happiness. I’m not sure who researched this theory but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t fucking nail it.
My first 2 months of Japanese summer were a series of straight highs. I couldn’t believe Japan looked exactly like the anime I’d watched, the images I’d pinned on pinterest and the videos I’d watched on vimeo. It became apparent that going to the convenience store to look at packaging design would replace scrolling through pinterest, dancing at local clubs would replace hours spent on soundcloud seeking out the sound of Japan and using google translate was obviously no substitute for actual Japanese conversation. It was a surreal blur of discomfort, disbelief and dreamy distraction from the reality that I’d just uprooted everything and moved (leaving my country for the first time) to a country as ‘foreign’ as Japan. I was no doubt unbelievably naive about it all but had I been even a touch bit more realistic before leaving I probably wouldn’t have boarded the plane. That said; I’m absolutely glad I did – it’s been the best and most naive decision of my life and I don’t regret it for a second.
So what’s it really been like then?
Japan is a constant sensory overload, even for the hardiest of humans. Perhaps it’s a bit more pronounced for me (my mom’s been telling me for years that I’m hypersensitive but I’d like to think 10 minutes stuck in Shinjuku Station would wow the hell out of anyone). I was 93792835% certain that culture shock wouldn’t hit me – I’m the girl who’s obsessed with Japan, I’ve done my research, I’m level-headed, enthusiastic and grateful. I’ll be fine. Again, naivety got me. And so did culture shock it seems. I came off the prescribed 2 month high and culture shock hit me harder than the sound of a taiko drum on a hangover. The reality is you’ll never be prepared for the experience that is living in a place where you aren’t fluent in the language or the culture. Anyone who’s read a book or watched a movie about said place won’t get it either. No one does until they’ve lived it. See the thing is books and movies don’t include the part where living within a new culture where your inability to read, speak or write a language (let alone understand and practice daily rituals of a deeply rich and intricate culture) will have you thinking you fucking suck at adult life. And not just in the oh-I-fucked-up-my-taxes-in-English-kinda-way. I spent a fair amount of time pre-Japan absorbing as much information about my new home as possible and visualizing myself navigating a world of limited communication and complex cultural norms. You don’t get it until you’re in it and it’s as simple as that. Because with all the beauty and convenience you’ll still face the reality that you can’t speak Japanese and that means feeling frustrated that you can’t do a bank transfer, fill out a doctors form nor understand exactly how you should bow when the kind shopkeeper greets you. Things you took for granted back home where people speak ‘your’ language and gesture like you do. You’ll resist the confusing way paperwork is done, or the way meetings are held. You’ll feel alone when everyone in the office knows how to dress for winter or laughs at the joke you don’t understand.
As a South African I can be grateful for the fact that I’ve finally experienced what feeling like ‘an other’ feels like. Yes, the white girl in a homogenous society is a thing. It’s a thing and it can suck. But dammit can it make you strong. It can make you empathetic. And it can make you proud to be who you are. And suddenly it’ll change; amidst the wave of culture shock and confusion of fitting in while standing out you’ll have an unexpected experience and it’ll all be plain sailing again, things will make sense and you’ll feel part of it all. It’ll switch and those seemingly massive challenges will feel minute against the experience of wearing a kimono for the first time, pronouncing a new word correctly, being invited to drink matcha with a stranger, someone bringing you a presentation about wabi-sabi or being taken to the doctor by a mom who made time between her 3 jobs just to sit with you in the waiting room. The difficulty will fade into the background much like bad music at a party does when you kiss your crush for the first time.
It’s been 5 months since I arrived and I feel like I become a more authentic version of myself with everyday that passes. Being in a state of constant challenge, occasional isolation and rich new experiences and knowledge will teach you a lot about yourself. I’ve learned that you know yourself in your comfort zone. You know how to respond and how you’ll respond. Easy game. The trick is observing yourself when you’re at your most uncomfortable. Do you still react the same, do you retreat or gain confidence? If anything; you learn about the deepest constants of your character when you’re able to take note of the details that stay the same while everything around you changes. I’ve come to learn what I value, how to be kind even when I want to scream, how to pick my battles and when to just take a nap and start again. I’ve learned that it’s okay to fast-track friendships because life’s too short to do otherwise, to ask for help, to take yourself to Tokyo for a weekend because seeing Alt-J is worth getting lost in the subway, to slow down and to speed up. I’ve learned to learn and unlearn.
Thank you Japan X
Photographs: @lechevs (my Jamaican homie living in Japan).