***For the record, I am fully aware of how privileged I am to even have a chance to complain about a life in Japan, let alone to compare that life to a life in Germany, Norway and the Netherlands plus various points on a map of North America. The adventure and opportunity of our life never ceases to amaze me and I am grateful. All the same, some days are hard and this is my life and the feelings I have are all real to me.***
Living abroad, even in the permanently temporary way that hockey families do, can be hard. It’s a constant balancing act as feelings of homesickness are countered by the excitement of adventure (I wrote about this extensively around this same time last year, please re-read or read that here). We have been on this path for nine years, almost a third of my life. A path that finds us never quite settled, never quite home, never quite belonging. When we are away during the season we are cultivating new friendships and navigating new customs and making do. When we go to our homes during the summer we’re readjusting and reacquainting and trying to fit in with people who don’t understand and sometimes don’t respect our lifestyle. As soon as we start to feel settled, it’s time to pack two suitcases and fly away again.
To some degree, when you live far from home you live far from home. We were 3,500 miles from home when we were in Oslo, we were 4,100 miles from home in Germany, we were 3,900 miles from home in the Netherlands. Once you get oceans between you and your roots, at some point it’s all just a numbers game because Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
In Japan we are 6,000 miles from home. Farther, obviously, in miles, a difference I was prepared for. A longer flight, fewer visitors, a larger time difference. But we are also farther from home culturally, linguistically, gastronomically. I knew all this, in theory, before we came, but living it is different.
I take my daughter to daycare. To play group, to the park. I see other moms, close to my age with cute outfits and friendly smiles and I use all the Japanese I can possibly muster to answer the most basic demographic questions and then they politely fade away and talk to each other and for all I know they are talking about dust bunnies or drying paint but they laugh together and lean in for more details and my imagination pictures conversations about deepest darkest secrets and feminist conspiracy theories and I want to know. And I feel so alone, mostly because I can totally understand why they don’t want to bother with the work of awkwardly talking to me.
My husband spends part of every day in the rink. With men his age, who have the same passion, some who have children or share his love of fried foods. But he can only ask them how they are and if they can pass the sock tape. Meanwhile the banter of the locker room goes round and round and peals of laughter fill the air and Dave exchanges knowing looks and quick comments with the only other English speakers. And sometimes those looks and words are misinterpreted by his teammates as rude when really their eyes were only saying ‘I’m homesick’ and their mouths were stating ‘I think we missed the joke.’ No one to be blamed but it’s all lost in translation.
I go to the doctor. The dentist. The pharmacy. The market. Out for lunch. All of these activities, some very important and others quite trivial, involve a large degree of misunderstanding, confusion and guesswork. At the doctor this can lead to fear. At the market it brings frustration and sometimes wasted food. If I play the tourist, the locals I need help from tend to ignore me. If I exhaust my Japanese to explain that I live here, they get frustrated that I’m not able to communicate fluently. In other words by engaging in my community I’m bringing attention to my status as an outsider more than I would be if I kept up the facade of a tourist who is only on the periphery of daily life for the people of Nikko.
When we lived in Europe we also felt isolated at times. Even though the language barrier was much more breachable there, we still struggled at times to get our utilities working or answer our doctor or deepen our friendships. And we missed our friends and family back home. And our favorite foods. We found ourselves baffled by cultural differences and inconvenienced by normal aspects of life in the areas we inhabited. And at times we got blue and got better and blue again, just like we do here in Japan. But our life there felt a little more connected.
The Netherlands was my first experience living abroad, instead of merely traveling, and I was a newlywed, putting me in the honeymoon phase of marriage and of expatery. People spoke English, I took a Dutch class, I rode a bike every day, cheese was everywhere, wine was plentiful.
Germany had an advantage because I took German in high school and college and could communicate with our entire hockey community and those in our village who I needed to do business with. I learned to drive stick and the dark cozy pubs were plentiful and the Christmas markets were lovely and bottles of wine cost 2 Euro.
In Norway I had my first expat moment like “I could LIVE here. I could STAY here.” Oslo is gorgeous and the socialism feels so good and we had a real, true community of Norwegian friends along with a healthy dose of expat camaraderie. And the wine was expensive but I had a job to help increase our wine budget.
When I’m honest with myself, I can admit that Japan started at a disadvantage because of these previous experiences. On days when I’m especially frustrated after an attempt at socializing or accidentally buying the wrong milk or getting brushed off by the doctor, I get really harsh on Japan in my mind. Which is entirely unfair. Because this is a beautiful place. With hospitable people. With incredible culture. With so many lessons. And Japan, this lovely island, gets prosecuted in my mind simply for having a different alphabet and so many foods soaked in fish broth. Unfair, to be sure.
Homesickness can happen anywhere, but here we’ve experience for the first time the combination of homesickness and isolation and ‘otherness’ that leads to a special kind of loneliness. The perfect antidote is still unknown, but some components are laughing, mountains, dog kisses, the love of my daughter and Dave, countdowns, Annie’s Mac’N'Cheese, and wine. Expensive, delicious wine.