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Reflections on being an expat

by Amy Chavez

The hairstylist exclaims, “Wow, you live in Japa’an!” — pronouncing the word as if it was a diphthong. I am home for a friend’s wedding, and getting my hair cut.

“How exciting!” the hairstylist says, which really means she thinks I must be a complete moron to live in Japan.

“I could never do that,” she confesses, confirming my suspicion. “What about your family? Don’t you miss them?” Now she wants some answers.

“Oh yes,” I said. “But, you know, I enjoy living far away from some of them.”

“I could never leave my friends,” she continues, defending her position.

“Oh, that wasn’t a problem for me,” I assured her. “I didn’t have any friends.” Hey, I’m not going to lose this argument!

“What did you do with your car? Your bills?” She wanted to know.

“I sold my car. And I didn’t have any bills,” I said. “I still don’t.”

“Wow, no bills. You must make good money. What do they use for currency over there? Won?”

“Yen.”

“Oh yes, that’s right.”

“You’d be making, like ¥250,000 per month if you lived there,” I say.

“Wow, that sounds like a lot,” she says. “But, I’d still miss my friends. And what would I do with my dog?” she says, as if I was now forcing her to move abroad.

This conversation reminded me that not everyone is cut out to live abroad, and that furthermore, understanding why one would choose to become an expat is not always easily understood. Why would you leave “the best country in the world” (fill in with the U.S., Australia, Finland, Brazil, or any other country in the world)? Especially if, historically, people have immigrated to your native country, not away from it.

Yet expats live in countries all over the world among other expats just like them. We’re all advocates of pro choice: Choose a country, get a job there, and go!

When I chose to come to Japan, it had nothing to do with already living in a great place. The Japanese economy was booming, Japan bashing was rampant and Americans were darting around their country in Datsun sports cars and Mazdas with rotary engines. Edwin Reischauer had just written “The Japanese” while in college I was studying “Just in Time Management” under Chinese professors from Hong Kong. And in New York City at Christmas time, I watched Americans ice skate among Japan-owned Rockefeller Center buildings. There was no doubt where I wanted to move to.

Expats are a fascinating breed. They’re people who’ve decided to take risks, embrace the unknown and see the world from a different perspective. Yet sometimes I hear disparaging remarks about expats from other expats who say things like “I don’t like to hang out with other foreigners,” as if foreigners are infected by some strain of foreign influenza. The feeling is that when living in another country, you should expose yourself to that country’s culture and people, not your own. While I understand the sentiment, sometimes I wonder who is more paranoid about the foreigners, the Japanese or the foreigners themselves.

Would you say the same thing about hanging out with Donald Richie, Alex Kerr, Robert Whiting, or Lady Gaga? They’re foreigners too. Oh, that’s different, you say, as if this is soooo obvious. So, you’d hang out with other foreigners as long as they were famous?

Let’s take a step backward. First of all, whether you enjoy hanging out with other foreigners should not depend on whether they are foreign but rather on if they are people worth spending time with. Are they thought-provoking individuals? Do they offer insight into the culture you are living in? Do they have cultural problem-solving skills you need, or experience you can tap? Are they good people who are fun to be with? Do they make you a better person? Choose your friends, foreign or not, and choose them wisely.

Just because someone is from your culture or speaks your language shouldn’t disqualify them from being someone you hang out with. Nor should their nationality, race or gender. Now, if they pick their nose in public, then that’s different (caveat: unless picking your nose is a cultural politeness in their native country).

Let’s take a step forward now. One of the advantages of being a foreigner in Japan is that you have the opportunity to get to know a variety of people, many of whom you would never interact with in your home country due to geographical distance, or differences in ethnicity, hobbies, political viewpoints, etc. With a little practice, however, you’ll see the good in people you previously thought you had no time for. I have found that most people hold a wealth of information inside them.

Every expat’s reason for coming to Japan is different. While people back home may not understand your choice, it’s one thing that every expat here will understand. This shared experience is what makes us a part of Japan’s foreign community. As expats we should be role models for tolerance, diversity and social responsibility.

Look for insights, and you will find them. There’s likely a brilliant person sitting right next to you now. They may even be — egads — a foreigner! And if they are picking their nose, well, maybe you should ask them for some tips.