The Particular Lonliness of Japan

***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.

13 thoughts on “The Particular Lonliness of Japan

  1. I know how you feel. I felt that way in Senegal. The people in the village where I lived had never seen an airplane so I couldn’t even explain to them how I’d gotten there and we could only communicate in conversational Pulaar. Sometimes it’s okay to connect on some basic human level, but often you need more than that. Maybe my France was like your Norway (easiest cultural transition) and my Afghanistan was like your Germany, in that it was easier being among other Americans, but I still felt isolated being 1) a woman and 2) a civilian on a US military base. The funny thing about living abroad, for me, is that the more time I spend feeling lonely in some far away place, the more lonely I feel when I come home, since friends and family haven’t shared the same life-changing experiences and can’t really relate to that part of my life. When I got back from Afghanistan most people asked “how was it?” which is an impossible question to answer in a few sentences. They would let me ramble on for a minute, then lose interest. I’m grateful to have picked up a husband during my last adventure who I can chat with about things that I learned, saw, was shocked by, while I was there. And I have a much greater appreciation for Soldiers who have to shift back and forth between suburban life and war. They leave their spouses behind, so the person they are closest to in the world has no framework for understanding what they’ve been through. That would be a whole other level of lonely!

    1. Anna…I can promise as soon as we can figure out a way to get together, I will have HOURS of attention span to hear about your experiences in Afghanistan.

      As for what you said, it’s so true. At home I am also a bit lonely, not in the same isolated sense, but sometimes in the worldview sense. It’s a little bit sad, but a fair price I’m glad to pay for having had all these experiences.


    2. Wow Anna, you really summed up the experience that the more removed your experience is abroad the more lonely it feels when you come home as people just can’t understand. I’ve been there after a year in China and watched other people go through it too. My feelings toward that question of “how was it?” were very similar to yours. I can only imagine if I spent years of my life as an expat like you and Lane, how it would feel.

  2. It’s hard, living in Japan. It gets easier, and better, and now, 6 years in, I feel more at home here than anywhere else, and when I have a crappy day I don’t immediately think of leaving, but it’s still hard, especially outside the big cities. Tokyo has such a big expat population, mothers’ groups, activities… I am way more isolated here, finding friends is harder. And being an outsider, so obviously, is hard. I worry about my daughter in that regard. But the more Japanese I speak (and it’s still pretty bad, shamefully bad!) and more than that, just the longer I’m here, the less often I get those “I HATE JAPAN” days. (I used to get them a lot.) Online groups for foreign mamas here have helped me a lot, although it’s not the same as ‘real’ friends, of course.

  3. I can’t even begin to comprehend the homesickness that you and Dave (I write like we have all met, lord knows why) feel but your description helps me empathize. You two are brave and living life and that is admirable. Thankfully you both seem to be cognizant of everything around you and communicate the challenges to each other, that is also very admirable. Thanks for sharing, I tend to focus on all the fun pictures and stories and forget the struggles that you and your family have living abroad.

  4. As much as my situation is different in that I am an expat in the long haul, feel sort of settled here, the language is not (much of) an issue etc I can definitely symphatise with a lot of what you wrote. A tiny example is that I celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January and this is already when everyone is tired of all the food and merriment, back at work/school, trees taken down and waiting for the rubbish truck. We do our own celebration at home but the lack of holiday spirit gets to me every year.
    On the other side living here has changed me so much that when I go back “home” I feel I belong there even less.
    Oh well, I guess once an expat, always homeless :).
    We all do live vicariously through your adventures so that’s another plus, right ;)?

  5. They say it typically takes 2 months of being an expat for your loneliness to peak and then 6 months before people start to think they could live in the location long term. I wonder if the stints home maximize the loneliness and keep farther from ever feeling more at home?

    1. The back and forth is probably a blessing and a curse! I am on my second 8 month stretch in Japan, then will go home for 3.5 months before I come back for 8 more. I can definitely tell this is not one of the places I could be long term but I do learn to lvoe certain things more and more as time passes.

  6. I’m not sure how I missed this blog. I have never been this alone. The other expats on my project (guys) have their spouses. The ones that don’t go out galavanting (no thanks). I actually spent 2 full days never talking to a single person. God bless blogging and facebook or I would be truly alone. 6 weeks left! We are tough.

    1. I’m sure it’s SO hard for you in that specific situation, being away from your husband this long would be the worst. We did two months this past summer and it was about all I could take! Six weeks is nothing! You’ve got this! I’m sure you have a full itinerary and you’ll be home before you know it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s