Two Years In Tokyo – The Story So Far
It’s now just over two years since I moved to Tokyo. Apart from adapting to life in Japan and learning the language, a lot has happened in that time, including writing and releasing my first book, building a new studio, and the usual assortment of travel both locally and overseas. The Second Year Thing A […]
It’s now just over two years since I moved to Tokyo. Apart from adapting to life in Japan and learning the language, a lot has happened in that time, including writing and releasing my first book, building a new studio, and the usual assortment of travel both locally and overseas.
The Second Year Thing
A while ago I wrote about how the second year really defines the expat experience in a place. I still feel that to be true. For me, the second year in Tokyo was largely about trying to live well in this place; having a good hairdresser, pilates instructor, masseuse, favourite cafes and boulangeries, and a steady stream of concerts (John Scofield, Gregory Porter, Taylor Swift, Jane Monheit, Robben Ford, St Vincent, Robert Glasper, to name a few).
Increasingly, during the second year, going out of home, whether it was to the supermarket or the ski fields, felt less like an exotic adventure in a strange land and more like a normal part of life. I’ve lost enough weight to (just) manage to fit into Japanese clothes and I’m constantly enjoying how much quieter and friendlier Tokyo is compared to Singapore and how much cleaner the air is compared to Hong Kong.
Sure, Not Everything Is Perfect, Whatever That Means
Of course, there are things I could complain about, if I felt that would make any difference. Switching countries is always hard, especially if you have kids and it takes time, effort and patience to adapt and build a new home. Despite the uniqueness of Japanese culture and the challenge of learning a new language, I’ve found settling in here easier than almost anywhere I’ve moved to before.
But, when I look at social media, I wonder, because there does seem to a spectacular amount of negativity towards japan from a lot of expats (actually, it’s not just restricted to online complaints, I’ve heard a lot in person as well). A lot of expats hate it here, which perhaps says more about them than it does about Japan itself, since so many of the criticisms aren’t really Japan-specific, they are more the kind of things frustrated expats say everywhere, complaints I’ve heard before in Singapore, Hong Kong, Delhi, even London.
Of Course I Live In A Bubble
Some expats are so negative, they are prone to saying that any foreigners who enjoy Japan are simply deluded, living in a bubble and disconnected from “real life” here. I never quite know what to make of that kind of comment.
After all, I grew up in a bubble and I’ve lived my whole life in a bubble. Growing up in Australia, I was a third culture kid, speaking English at school, but Spanish at home and with a foot in each of two very different cultural worlds. But, regardless of how well I adopted the local culture I was never destined to be accepted as a “true Aussie,” I would always be a “migrant.” Since leaving Australia in 1999 I’ve been an expat in a series of different countries where, even though my neighbours have almost always been locals, I’ve been an outsider – whether it’s migrant, wog, antipodean, expat, gweilo, any moh or gaijin, there’s always been a label applied to me by others.
The reality is that in my day to existence here in Tokyo, with my family and with the (mostly Japanese) people I interact with, these questions of labels and bubbles never come up. Sure, I’m treated like a foreigner, but the reality is I am a foreigner, it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
What Is Belonging Anyway?
Maybe the issue is the difference between fitting in and belonging. When I go back to Australia, fitting in is a hand into glove experience, I know the code, the language, the customs and can slot back in. How to order a coffee (it’s a short black, not an espresso), or whether to hand the money to the cashier or put in on the counter, the right kind of slang at a football match, or how to make small talk, it’s all ingrained.
But, most Australians don’t seem me as “one of them.” I’m past being angry about it. They sense something foreign, different, not entirely aligned with their worldview, not fully assimilated. That’s just the way it is.
To me thse kinds of things, fitting in, being assimilated are largely about how other people see you. It feels really self-centred and narcissistic to expect the world to always like you, just because of a choice you made about where to live, or visit. You have to adapt, take the initiative, own your place in their world.
Belonging, for me is something entirely different, it’s about how you feel in a place. It’s whether you can be the person you want to be and have the life you long for in this place; can you be and have what you long for?
In that sense, I feel a deep sense of belonging in Tokyo. I love the quietness of the streets, cafes and public transport, the serenity of the parks and the design, order and process of most experiences. But, I also love the pulse and vibrancy of the city, the crowds in Shibuya and Akihabara, the relentless consumer choice that leaps out of every corner of this town, from food to fashion and everything in between.
I feel more myself in Tokyo than I have anywhere else I’ve lived in Asia, possibily anywhere else I’ve lived in my life. This has nothing to do with “turning Japanese” and everything to do with feeling free to be myself. Often in this second year in Tokyo, I felt myself breathing deeply, able to really focus on whatever I was doing in the moment and generally feeling less constrained than I have in a long time. Life here gives me the things I want and the time to enjoy them. I feel a deep sense of belonging.