If you have been an English teacher in Japan you are living far away from the people who you grew up with, and who may know you best. Coming to Japan was at first, a great adventure and an opportunity to learn something, see another culture, or just to get away from the familiar. But somewhere along the line, being in Japan was not only your “escape”. It became your “home away from home”. Life here got better, you became acclimated, and you started to speak pretty good Japanese. You have friends here, you have hobbies or a lifestyle that you enjoy. Life in Japan, compared to a lot of alternatives, is pretty great. Yet… there is something pulling you too.
Maybe your mother is saying to you on the phone something like, “Well dear, so… how much longer do you think you might be staying all the way over there in Japan?”
This is kind of a code for, “When are you coming home?”
To a lot of the parents of English teachers in Japan, they never really believed that you could make Japan your home. They always expected that you would “get it out of your system”, come back to the place you grew up, and just get a regular job like everyone else.
I am not saying that people who come to Japan for a few years, have a great time, enrich their lives, experience another culture, and then go home are “throwing it all away”. Far from it. I think that a year or two or three can be marvelously intense experiences that can help people go on to the next thing that is calling them. Living in Japan, as a long-term expat, is not a bed of roses. For people who choose to have their family and make roots here, though, Japan becomes their “home”, even if the local neighbor ladies keep asking, “So… when do you think you’ll be leaving Japan?”
Being an expat in Japan is always a life that is “between cultures”. This is not a comfortable place to be for many people, but if you can figure out what you enjoy about being in Japan, and what keeps you happy, it can far outweigh the negatives of feeling out of synch with the culture of your younger days. In addition, being “between cultures” is a good place for you to be positioned as there are many people on both sides of you who need you as a bridge, a facilitator, a teacher, a guide, and a counselor.
It seems that the longer you are in Japan, and the more you are focussed on developing skills as a teacher, and growing your Japanese language skills, the more valuable you will be. The skills you develop can see you advance and grow in your career and give you opportunities that you did not know exist. At some point you get a sense of “being professional” as an educator, as a person between cultures, and as someone who has a better sense of reading and understanding others around you. You can grow a career, you can grow a company, you can really do a lot of different things here.
I don’t know about you, but I have a very common experience that happens every time I go back to Canada. It kind of looks like this:
Extended family member: So Mark, you are still over there in Japan, eh?
Mark: Yep. That’s right.
Extended family member: Been there for a long time I guess huh?
Mark: Yeah, it has been the better part of about 20 years.
Extended family member: You don’t say.
Extended family member: A lady from our church has son over there in Japan. You know Jason don’t you? He’s that boy with the crazy hair and that mole on his cheek, always listening to that crazy hippity-hop music.
Mark: Oh, is that right.
Extended family member: Yep, teaching English to kids.
Mark: That sounds great.
Extended family member: Yep, just like you are doing I guess.
Mark: I guess.
Extended family member: So, you gonna come back next summer too?
Mark: I’m thinking about it…
This conversation has played itself out in a whole bunch of scenarios. The people I know in Canada have gotten used to me living here in Japan, but they really have no idea about what we are doing. To them, foreigners in Japan just run around a classroom having fun with kids, singing the ABC song. They don’t understand that people grow and learn things in Japan that are really important, and significant, and beautiful.
I think that we need to be okay with that. The experiences of being in Japan are so far removed from our loved ones back home. We need to accept that there are things they cannot see. They still love you of course, but there is no way they can sit and listen to you for more than three minutes about what your life is really like here. We just need to accept that, and if you have a chance to have your loved ones visit you here, you should do it. Maybe then they will see a little more of the life you have, and the incredible impact you really do have on those around you.