When Michelle Castro first arrived in Shimane Prefecture 2½ years ago, the California native says her schedule was jam-packed with activities. It took her nearly two months to introduce herself to each class at the seven schools she started teaching at, and she had other errands to get done as she adjusted to her new home. It was also her first trip outside the United States.
As things got under control, she started feeling homesick.
“It hit me during the holidays and again in the spring, when my father and grandmother’s birthdays are celebrated,” she says. “I’d never lived this far from my family before. It was hard with the time difference to have regular contact.”
Castro faced a common situation shared by those relatively new to Japan and even some who have lived abroad for years: She simply missed home. Homesickness is a particular concern for foreign residents in December, when the holiday season starts to conjure up images of family dinners and drinking parties with old friends. For new arrivals, it’s further complicated by the simultaneous challenge of adjusting to a different culture.
“You start out with what’s called the honeymoon phase — all the differences are wonderful,” says Vickie Skorji, director of the Tokyo English Life Line (TELL). But after living between six to 12 months in a new country, Skorji says, individuals often start to struggle with cultural adaptation.
“During that period, you don’t feel efficient. You feel incompetent, unsure about yourself. That’s why home feels so wonderful, and that attraction to go back to that place you felt competent.”
Hal Edmonson is long past the honeymoon phase — he’s been living in Aomori Prefecture since 2009 as a teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme — but he still finds himself missing Wisconsin from time to time.
“Homesickness kind of comes and goes . . . it’s always sort of there,” he says. “When it comes to frustrating days at work, or knowing about things happening back at home, like a friend’s wedding, I have moments where I feel like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
Yet Edmonson has found ways to cope with his situation, and now shares strategies with other JET teachers as the national coordinator for the AJET Peer Support Group. That outfit operates a hotline, running from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night, where JET participants can call in and chat with a volunteer about whatever they are dealing with — homesickness being a regular topic, according to Edmonson — in complete confidentiality and anonymity.
Like the AJET hotline, the TELL number can serve as a vital cultural and linguistic link to expats when they are feeling isolated.
“One of the reasons the life line was created 40 years ago was because there were many foreigners who were feeling isolated and they wanted to reconnect with someone from their own home country, or someone who spoke English,” Skorji says.
Everyone copes with homesickness in their own way, but she says interacting with people back home — whether it be a phone call with your family or receiving a care package — can go a long way. Castro says that after admitting she was homesick, she would make time to talk to people she missed via Facebook and Skype.
Turning toward the place where you’re from can help stave off homesickness in the short term, but finding a way to feel more comfortable with your present situation is just as important in the longer term.
“Try to stay busy, try to make yourself involved in your community,” Edmonson says. “In particular, if you can find things you enjoyed back home and find a way to transplant them here, that can be a great strategy.” He suggests reaching out to local community centers or, for teachers, asking around the school they work at for leads.
“I was very involved in theater groups back home,” Edmonson says. “I live in an area of Japan where that doesn’t really exist, so what I found instead was a local festival group. We make floats, and it gave me that sense of artistic camaraderie I had been lacking.”
Living in a more rural location, like Edmonson does, can be one of the challenges of being on the JET Programme, but he prefers to see this as a positive.
“In my opinion, it’s easier to ward off homesickness in rural areas in Japan,” he says. “People in small towns tend to be more open to strangers than those in big cities. You have more chances to make friends and a more relaxed pace of life.”
And even though not knowing the language well can be tough, it doesn’t have to be a barrier.
“The best piece of advice I could give to rural teachers who don’t know Japanese is say yes to everything, no matter how mundane or outside your range of interests it is. Every time you say yes to somebody, it is a chance to meet someone new to say yes to.”
Castro says she has come up with strategies to make her life in Shimane more comfortable.
“I ended up joining a rowing team and training for my first marathon with other ALTs (assistant language teachers) in the area,” she says. The holidays have become easier too, she says: She picks up ingredients from stores that sell foreign food to make holiday meals and uses photos and videos of her family celebrating the holidays in class.
“This helps me feel like I’m at home,” Castro says.
TELL’s Skorji also recommends expats try to transplant some of the festive cheer in their native countries to their life in Japan.
“It’s important to put in an effort to mark that occasion you are missing at home,” she says. “They might find themselves surprised at how many Japanese people are doing something for Christmas. Maybe there is a church in the area, or maybe it is a good time to travel.”
Yet the most important thing to remember when feeling homesick is to connect with others, especially during the holiday season.
“Just reach out for company,” Edmonson says. “I think a lot of people around that time will think, ‘Everyone else is doing just fine,’ when in fact there is someone the next town over feeling the same way. Try to create some new holiday traditions for yourself.”
A friendly ear awaits
If you’re feeling homesick during the holidays, reach out and contact someone.
TELL (Tokyo English Life Line) can be reached at 03-5774-0992 between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. For more information on TELL activities and volunteer opportunities, visit www.telljp.com.
The AJET Peer Support Group is run by the Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching. The group operates a hotline at 050-5534-5566 between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. For more information, visit www.ajet.net/ajet-peer-support-group.
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