03 October 2012

Downsides of Expat Life :: Saying Goodbye

Photo © of Flannery O'Kafka via Lapin & Me

I lived abroad once before. It was during my junior year of college, and I studied in Seville, Spain. The program was short but intensive: I lived with a host family, worked at an internship, attended classes, and was completely immersed in español. It was chaotic and overwhelming and did not involve the copious amounts of lounging around drinking Spanish wine and coffee that I had previously imagined. (That was disappointing.) Part of me would do it again in a heartbeat. Part of me wants to throw up just thinking about it. Quiero vomitar.

I was not naive enough to think these two experiences -- living abroad and studying abroad -- would be that relatable. It's apples and oranges. (Errr, maybe more like oranges and grapefruits?). I had no Japanese 101 (or 102, or 204, or 303) to fall back on. Unlike romance languages, I had no lifetime of exposure to Japanese to draw upon once we landed. I couldn't even read! But living abroad, we have relocation assistance, corporate support, a Vonage phone line, our own apartment. No one insists or expects that we speak Japanese for every single interaction. I don't have to call home from a pay phone with an international calling card, and I'm not limited to internet access from a computer cafe (Ouff, dating myself much here?). In Nagoya, our home is ours, meaning Amos is with me and not across the ocean like he was last time. We also are making money this go-round, as opposed to the 'take-a-loan-and-worry-about-it-later' strategy I employed during college. On a probably related note, I have drank more Spanish wine and ate more tapas here than I ever did in Spain. The Japanese seem to have an affection for Spanish food, and I am making. up. for. lost. time.

Living abroad is, in many ways, much easier than my study abroad experience, but there is one thing that was simpler before: friendships. Amigos. ともだち. Everyone in my program arrived at the same time and met in the hotel. Everyone was overly-eager to make friends; everyone was in similar states of overwhelmedness, shock, and excitement. (I know 'overwhelmedness' isn't a word, but it should be, so go with it.) We went through all the adjustments of moving abroad together. We had class together, our internships together, we took weekend trips together. We lived in the same neighborhoods. At the end of our program, we all left within hours of each other.

Life here is so different. Very, very few people are on the same part of their journey. Not everybody gets here at the same time, or with the same company; no one's assignment is the same length, and, heartbreakingly, no one leaves at the same time. While I knew that on paper, it was a different beast to confront in person.  During my first week here, I went to lunch with a fun group of women. Some had been here months, some years. Some were getting ready to move to another international assignment, others to begin repatriation. My newly minted expat soul was crushed when I learned one would be leaving next week, one within six weeks, and another within two months. "Are you kidding me?" I wanted to ask. "But I just GOT here."

It was really hard not to future trip. I wanted to close myself off and ask everyone "How long are you here for? Longer than me? Okay good, we can be friends then."

(I didn't do this, but I really wanted to. I also didn't know anyone, so I decided to STFU and just make some friends already.)

It almost got harder as I made close friends. I've met wonderful people, only to have to bid goodbye to them while I am still living here, with months upon months left on our contract. Our assignment will end before others' and they will have to say goodbye to me. At the end of these teary Sayonara Parties is the daunting task of making new friends: inviting new people to coffee, to get drinks, to grab lunch. You have to psych yourself up to once again push through the initially awkward small talk so you can one day fall into the easy rhythm of friendly conversation. There is the thing you want to do (bitch about it, spend hours on Facebook, become increasingly bitter) and then there is the thing you need to do (call friends still here, invite new people out, brush your teeth). You have to work to keep your heart and spirit perpetually open to people as they pass in and out. Imagine a really, really crowded hallway. People are going to pass you by. Sometimes they walk with you a bit, sometimes they don't. Hmmm... that's not the best analogy. Maybe I should use a revolving door instead? Or a sushi conveyor belt to bring it back to Japan? No, that doesn't make any sense. Oh, screw it. You know what I mean. People come, people go. Everyone is on a different schedule. It sucks.

September was a daunting month, with a very good friend leaving on September 1st and another on September 30th. It reinforced that this is a part of life here, a trade-off to the tapas, Spanish wine, and language support that I enjoy on this go round. "Relax, man," I tell myself, tapping my inner Rastafarian."There are people in front of you that aren't gone yet." There's nothing to do but lean into the temporariness of the situation; dwelling over when everyone is going to leave only ruins the lunch that you are having with them right now.

In a way, carpe diem seems to hold more weight the older we get, the more 'established' our lives become. I remind myself that this is living life on life's terms, and to be present and grateful, which I think means making (uneasy) peace with the revolving door/crowded hallway/sushi conveyor belt. And wine. Lots of Spanish wine.


  1. I just found your blog through ESB and coming to the end of my first month of ex-pat life in NYC this post hit home so hard it made me cry. NYC is a whole lot easier than Japan I know, I speak the language at least, but my situation is very similar to yours in other ways. Thanks for writing this, it is exactly the kind of blog I was hoping to find when I was faced with moving abroad!

    1. Oh, Aoife! I read your comment when you first posted, and it made me tear up. I don't really know what to say but thank you for writing, and -- I promise you on this -- it gets better. Less overwhelming. Less like you want to break all the dishes in your house. The roller coaster ends, eventually. Language barrier or no, it's a hard go at first. Hang in there, lady. I'm thinking of you.


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