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Blog // Travel
January 16, 2014

On Months, Years And Anniversaries

This week marks six months since I arrived in Tokyo. Moving, especially relocating from one country to another, is always a disorienting experience. I am still struggling with the language, coming to grips with the layout of this vast and extraordinary city and making frequent rookie mistakes (like forgetting to bring cash on my shopping […]

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This week marks six months since I arrived in Tokyo. Moving, especially relocating from one country to another, is always a disorienting experience. I am still struggling with the language, coming to grips with the layout of this vast and extraordinary city and making frequent rookie mistakes (like forgetting to bring cash on my shopping trip to Akihabra today). But, my enthusiasm for living here has not waned.

In fact, I still find myself, at random points in the day, saying “wow, I live in Tokyo, how cool is that!?!”

I’ve been looking back over the posts I wrote after being here for one month and after three months. There’s not a lot to add, except to say the delight of a great ski trip and living with a proper cold winter, something I’ve missed since leaving Delhi in 2006, has just added to my enjoyment of life in Tokyo.

Perhaps a more significant anniversary, one I am also celebrating this month, is fifteen years since leaving Australia.

In early 1999 I took my one-way ticket to London and set to off to start a new life under northern skies. At the time I certainly didn’t expect to be relocating so often, nor was I looking to move to Asia. If anything, I though I’d spend five to ten years in London and then, either stay there, or maybe move somewhere else in Europe.

I had no doubts, however, about leaving Australia. I’d always experienced mixed, third culture feelings about living in Australia; a burning desire to fit in, offset by perpetually feeling like an outsider.

In Australia, during the mid to late nineties it felt like a lot of things were changing, not necessarily for the better. After many years of what had felt to me like social and cultural progress, the country seemed to collectively jump backwards, with racism making a dramatic comeback, populist consumerism coming into vogue and a coarsening of popular culture. Life, on a day to day level, was getting harsher and more unpleasant.

It was only when I had settled in London that I managed to get a sense of perspective on why I had started to feel so out of place in Australia. The blessing of being an expat is the chance to see one’s culture in a broader context, to be able to compare through lived experience, what is normal in one place, to what is normal in another.

And, of course, in no two places is normal the same. It’s a common and yet powerful experience, leaving your hometown (or home country) and realising that so much of what you struggled with, the things you felt pressured to change about yourself, really don’t need to change at all and are perfectly acceptable in a different context (and perhaps you need to change the things you assumed were OK).

But, the curse of being an expat is the distance from family and to a lesser extent, from the familiar. Nothing softens the sting of being away from loved ones when they are sick or suffering. And, every move, every relocation, brings with it a period of loneliness, sometimes lasting for years, as you try to make new friends and connections in a foreign place.

That said, I have found Tokyo to be a friendlier place than my last two hometowns (Hong Kong and Singapore). I’m guessing the cultural differences make expats here more keen to make friends, or at least more talkative. And, language barriers aside, I find many Japanese I meet are keen to understand what brings someone like myself to their country, welcoming of my relentless questions about their culture or simply keen to share a smile and one of the many pleasant greetings the Japanese language affords.

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