"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
August 19, 2015

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.

Christopher Cox 9 years ago

Thanks, Fernando, for a thoughtful reflection on your experience. I enjoy your writing. In this piece, I especially felt pulled to what you said about “belonging.” The second year, and how we live it, or not, gives rise to the term “sophomore slump.” What we do as we settle in, as we face adversity, suggests something of our course. Anyhow, thanks for sharing yoru reflections. They got me thinking.

George Neill 9 years ago

Have to agree with Christopher. Beautifully written, and though I’ve never lived outside the US, I think I understand your thoughts and feelings from your words. I mean, I have moved from the conservative Southern US to the liberal upper Midwest. And, in many realms the cultures are as divergent as those between countries.

Daniel 9 years ago

Having done the expat thing in two different countries in the last nine years, I’d have to agree with your observations. There does seem to be a split in the ex-pat communities in most places between those who accept their new home ‘warts and all’ and those that continue to pine for ‘the way things are done at home’. I hadn’t really thought about the second year in country as being decisive before now though but it does feel correct now that I reflect on it.

Pyotr 9 years ago

Thanks – this is interesting. Not sure though why “even” London – not the easiest place to live I guess?)) In terms of comparison with other cities, say Hong Kong, would you have other observations in addition to air quality?

fernando 9 years ago

Christopher – thank you, belonging is a theme I hope to return to in the future.

fernando 9 years ago

George – as an outsider, the US does sometimes feel more like a set of closely related but distinct cultures, than one unified whole. The two states I’ve spent the most time in were Massachusetts and South Carolina and they were very different, certainly different enough to ask for some adapting if you had to move from one to the other.

fernando 9 years ago

Daniel – I’m constantly amazed by the connotations the word expat evokes and without doubt one of the key points of contention is the difference between those who accept their new home (sometimes not even wanting to call themselves expats) and those who as you say, pine for the ways of “home.” Of course, there are other splits, between those gain economic advantages as a result of being expats (increasing rare as that is) and those who don’t, between those who hope to stay and those who plan to leave, those who dream of another expat opportunity and those who are counting down the days till they repatriate.

fernando 9 years ago

Pyotr – I meant to say that as wonderful as London is, there are also downsides, no place is perfect.

I’ve already written a lot about Hong Kong, things I loved and things I struggled with. Hong Kong is a fascinating, vibrant, photogenic city. No place I’ve lived has been better for meeting people or easier for setting up a business and making money. But, while I made some good friends, too many of the relationships I forged felt shallow and disposable. And, as easy as it was to set up a business, I was never going to be able to make enough money to have the space to live and work that I’ve had everywhere else I’ve lived.

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