Check out my interview with Gina, an adventurous ex-pat, who is sharing details of her life in Japan. And read on for details about where she’s going next.
Tell me a little bit about yourself…
I’m heavily dependent on coffee, and reading is my favorite way to pass the time. My favorite movies are Titanic and The Sound of Music– couldn’t really tell you why except that I would watch either 1000 times in a row without getting bored.
Do you consider yourself an ex-pat? Why or why not?
I guess I do. I take some issues with the term. It’s something those of us privilege to find life and work abroad call ourselves in lieu of just saying immigrants, which is essentially what we are.
What made you decide to uproot and move across the world?
Most simply, I found job opportunities. During my time in Chicago though, I made so many friends from abroad who became very dear to me, and I don’t think I ever could have been content staying in one place and just watching them travel everywhere.
What is the most challenging part about living in a different culture?
Communication is so important. It’s frustrating to the point of tears sometimes when you can’t make yourself understood. Everyday tasks like running to the bank or paying a bill or buying the right kind of trash bags can be daunting in a new country, new language. But most of the time it’s not that serious.
Tell me about the culture shocks and differences in culture…
Something that really grated on me at first was getting used to the strict work/age hierarchy and the expectation to take orders without complaint. Theres a huge gap between the sort of American idea of “I know my rights!” and the idea that “this is the way it is, you should respect that everyone has been in the same place as you are.”
Densely populated countries have a completely different concept of Personal Space than we do in the US. I think Japanese culture in particular just has a stronger sense of self-awareness and personal responsibility, which is something to admire. (For example, there are hardly any public trash bins anywhere, but no one would think of littering. You are expected to carry your trash with you in your pocket or bag until you get home.)
What are some things that make you homesick?
Pictures of real Chicago pizza!! Missing big family events, like weddings or birthdays. I don’t miss much about life at home though, only the people.
What made you decide to pick Japan?
I really took to learning Japanese when I started college, it was fun and I felt like I had a natural aptitude. My first teacher was really encouraging, and sort of put the idea in my head that teaching English abroad was a really great job to go for. I met several Japanese friends in Chicago, including the guy who is now my other half. So even after I stopped studying formally I still was connected to Japan, and after teaching in Korea a couple years, I finally saved enough money to be able to live and study here for a year.
How did you overcome language barriers?
Charades, interpretive dance, lots of awkward smiling and nodding. Working with little kids in kindergarten gave me some valuable skills in making myself understood. In my relationship, it was a very slow and steady process.
What is the community of people you interact with like?
This year I was in a language school with people from all countries coming to learn Japanese. I lived in a sharehouse with a handful of Japanese tenants and others just here traveling or on a work visa from Taiwan, France, Canada… Honestly I met very few other Americans in Kyoto. For many of us, the only common language we had was Japanese, which was awesome.
In contrast, In Korea I spent most of my time with my coworkers, other English teachers, and a few friends I kept in touch with from Chicago, interacting for the most part in English.
What became some of your favorite hangout places?
When the weather is nice, all of Kyoto is like a huge park, everyone is outside walking, biking, drinking by the riverbank. I liked windowshopping around Shijo-Kawaramachi and Teramachi-dori, our “downtown” essentially. The cushy express trains between Kyoto and Osaka were a great place to get some reading done.
How has this experience changed the way you view the world?
I mean, I already sort of held this view that there’s no one ‘right way’ in the world, but living in other countries for the first time really confirmed that. I’m not religious but I’ve come to really respect religious traditions and the comfort people can find in them, including back home.
Humbly accepting that other places do things better than we do. (Dear America, take off your shoes in the house, they are GROSS).
I’m still trying to reconcile myself with the need to simplify my life, minimize my belongings. I keep hopping from country to country like this and the packing aspect of that is a nightmare.
What are some other places you’ve traveled to?
So I’ve lived more long-term in South Korea and Japan, and I’ve visited Italy, Greece, and Thailand besides.
Do you believe in the importance of travel? Why or Why not?
Absolutely! Traveling has definitely expanded my worldview, given me a more sympathetic outlook on global socioeconomic issues. But I realize it’s not a privilege afforded to all.
Also there’s a difference between taking a vacation somewhere and really getting to know a new city.
Even traveling within one’s own country (especially one as vast as ours) can be really valuable too, I’m sad to say i’ve only seen a tiny corner of my homeland.
What is next for you? Do you see yourself settling in one place?
Next up, New Zealand! If this year works out well maybe I’ll think about settling there long-term. Part of the challenge is finding a place where my boyfriend and I are both able to get working visas.
I can’t really see myself being content in one place yet, but I am starting to get sick of all this packing and moving around. It would be nice to stay in one country for a while.
Anything else you would like to say to the readers…
Try learning a new language and see if it creates any opportunities for you! In whatever language you use, I find it really rewarding to talk to people from countries I’ve never been to (yet!).