I was chatting with a friend back home I haven’t spoken to in awhile. She praised my exciting adventures and how lucky I was to be living a fairytale life.
And then I thought, “Does my life really look like a fairytale?”
Sure, as an expat I get to have interesting experiences from trying different local cuisines to exploring a different country. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I’m not the only one guilty of posting pictures of beautiful sights or interesting occurrences. Coming from the United States, I can attest having encountered many different things abroad than I did while living on a rural college campus or in a suburb outside of Chicago.
As many beautiful countries as I’ve seen, different cuisines I’ve eaten, and people I’ve met, living in Japan isn’t always easy. Sometimes, living in Japan is downright hard—especially when things go wrong.
Inability to communicate
One of my first struggles when arriving in Japan was being completely stripped of the ability to communicate. As someone who can converse in two other languages besides English, I felt helpless and powerless to do anything for myself. I never knew what it felt like to be robbed of words…I took for granted gifts that were my birthright because of my circumstances.
While some Japanese I meet are very kind, speak slowly or meet me halfway, others are impatient and finish my sentences for me without giving me a chance to speak. This frustrates me because I hate having answers given to me. While I understand the Confucian way of teaching (and perhaps the people who cut me off are trying to help), I personally, cannot learn this way. The struggle to think about what I want to say makes me remember and acquire the language. If I’m given the answer, why even bother trying?
Although I do my best studying and learning to converse, I find myself needing more and more vocabulary to express what I truly feel. If you think about it, we spend our entire lives learning language, and even then, most people don’t acquire a mastery of their native tongue.
I would like you all to remember an important lesson I learned the hard way: communication is a powerful tool that will take you many places.
Another harsh reality I encountered was doctor visits. Doctors all ready do what they call “practice” and then they speak a different language from you? No way, Jose.
I had been ill for almost three months and had to return to the doctor on five separate occasions. It was enough to leave me crying tears of frustration because I was tired of being sick, I wasn’t getting better, and I felt I wasn’t getting proper care.
Through this experience, I learned culture plays a large part of the care I have received in Japan. I learned you have to ask for doctor’s notes if you’re sick and they cost money. Some doctors I have seen won’t directly say what your ailment is. Instead, they’ll say things like, “I think you have this” or “Let’s try this medicine and come back if it doesn’t work.” Those phrases are enough to smack my palm to my forehead and never want to see a doctor again. I’m sure they’re trying to help, but their uncertainty makes me feel uneasy and uncomfortable.
Dating was another dingy reality for me. While some girls have been lucky to find other expats or wonderful Japanese boyfriends, I haven’t been so lucky. To see the prelude of my dating stories and mishaps, check out Dating Military on Okinawa, An Expat Woman Dating in Japan, and My Happily Ever? [Never] After.
Relationships are based on communication and compromise with your partner. As effortlessly as I was able to express myself before, I found I couldn’t do easily in Japanese. What was accepted as flirting in my country suddenly wasn’t accepted in Japan. An example of this would be touching the opposite sex while conversing to show interest. Sometimes I feel like a bull in a china shop with cultural cues I’m unaware of. At any moment, the bull can make one wrong move and all the beautiful china will be in ruin.
Bam. Bye, bye love life.
Another one of my continued struggles is food. Coming from America and eating bastardized world cuisine, the food in Japan is very bland in comparison. Sometimes Japan just gets some food really wrong, but I appreciate the effort in working with what they’ve got. Thinking back on it now, I wonder how on earth I thought I could find the same things in the grocery store in Japan when I’ve been to Mexico many times and know that’s not the case?
Okinawan food is mostly pork and fried or fried. There is no in between and while Okinawa soba is more delicious than menudo, the soba is full of sodium I should not be eating. Some days I just wish I could burn my mouth so good with something delectably spicy, but I know I’m not going to find fresh jalapenos anytime soon.
Living in Japan isn’t always rainbows, unicorns, and fields of daisies. Like every place in the world, there will be different struggles different days. Obviously, I think Japan is pretty great otherwise I wouldn’t be here for as long as I have. The good about this country has usually outweighed the bad. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy being fifteen minutes from the beach or being surrounded by Americans when they feel like it because of the large military presence on Okinawa? (This perk also lands me access to the Chili’s on base! TexMex, anyone?) Not everything in life is as perfect as we may paint it on social media. My life isn’t a fairytale but it’s pretty close to one. Why? Because it’s real, because I’m in Japan, and because I’m living the life I always dreamed for myself.