Scooter vs Japan

Living in a Foreign Country | January 12, 2016

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This is something that’s been on my mind for several years. I’m a Canadian, which means (after I moved out of the boonies) I’ve met and worked with a lot of people from other countries. I am also an ex-patriot, someone living in another country, so I can see this from both sides.

Growing up and as an adult, I’m always hearing complaints about foreigners coming to Canada and then not being Canadian enough. They speak their own language, hang out with their own people, and practice their own culture. And man, do Canadians like to complain about this. Damn those foreign devils for coming into our country and not adjusting.

Except…

I’ve lived in Japan twice and do the exact same things.

And I call people out on this all the time.

Moving is hard

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A lot of us know how hard moving can be. You need to pack up everything you own, take care of a large number of annoying details, and perhaps even living in two places at once or nowhere at all. Moving can be really hard, even if you are prepared for it.

Now try moving to a new country, especially one which shares little in common with your home. Imagine for a moment that everything you know is now wrong. If you’ve moved to somewhere with a different climate, how you handle the seasons is now wrong. If you move somewhere that doesn’t have chain restaurants, you aren’t going to know where a good place to eat is. And now you need to relearn how to live all over again. Sure, you still know some things, but you will be faced with a situation where little of your prior experience is of much help.

This is what it’s like living in another country that is different from your own (heck, this is what it’s like traveling across Canada). The simplest things can be the hardest, like where can you buy milk or how do you pay your electrical bill. It’s like being a small child again, relying on others to help you and teach you everything, except you are old enough not to appreciate it. It can be so frustrating to not know what is happening around you and not know how to do the simplest things. And it’s made even worse if you don’t speak the language.

Languages are Hard

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This is the worst feeling ever. Trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language can be the most emotionally damaging thing you will ever have to do. Take all that stuff I said about not understanding simple things and multiply it by 10.

And no, I don’t mean how frustrating it is to speak to someone who doesn’t speak English. I mean how frustrating it is for that person who is trying to speak English. Trying to ask the simplest question or say the easiest words can be really upsetting if you aren’t familiar with the language you are trying to speak, but it’s even worse when you know the language and still can’t do it.

I really don’t think a lot of people move to another country without thinking about it. Most people coming to Canada by choice probably do actually know some English, but their skills and practice with it are often quite small. It can be really upsetting to be trying your hardest to speak in another language, only to be talked to like you are mentally retarded. It’s a huge demotivator to have spent time learning a language, only to be unable to use it. All the time, and maybe money, feels like it was for nothing.

Speaking another language all the time is also mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Try running slowly in place right now, or holding your arm straight out. Easy enough. Now do that for 12 straight hours. Not so easy anymore. Worse, you can only understand this if you have studied a second language. Speaking another language requires your to be constantly on, listening and watching for every cue, constantly thinking in the second language to try and figure out what to say, and trying to figure out how to explain something or dodge a word you don’t understand. This is exhausting. And if someone catches you off guard or when you’re worn out already, it can make the whole process drag its feet. So you find people who speak your language so that you can be understood.

Finding a Community is Hard

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That’s why foreigners hang out with other foreigners. Having a shared experience, having a similar culture, sharing the same experience of being in a new country, and speaking the same language means you automatically can have a support network. These other people can empathize with you since they have been through what you are going through or will go through it.

It’s not that foreigners are hanging out with their own community because they refuse to adjust; it’s because they haven’t yet or can’t adjust. It’s not that they refuse to be Canadian, but rather that they don’t know how. But in a community with people of the same nationality or culture and with the same language, you can have an adult conversation with someone and get support from those who understand what you are going though.

This is What My Days are Like

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This is what every day is like for me living in Japan. I have spent half my life studying the language and have been here before, yet I still feel like I’m four years old. No matter how much I learn about Japan, there is always some other rules, some other expectation that I haven’t learned yet. And no matter how much Japanese I know, there is always something being said that I don’t understand.

Like I said, the simplest things can be the hardest. I don’t know for certain if I can buy deodorant in my town. I couldn’t figure out where to buy bed sheets. I drove several towns over once to buy hand soap, because I just couldn’t figure out where to buy it locally. I needed someone to show me how to turn my lights on in my apartment. I need someone with me almost every time I go to the bank. It’s awful, and that’s just the cultural upbringing part of things.

Linguistically, I barely get by sometimes. I still have trouble when I go to a fast food restaurant and they ask me if I am staying or going. I got into a car accident, and started texting my English speaking friends because I didn’t have the slightest idea how to explain anything that happened. Literally, any single word necessary to explain a car crash except for “police” and “driver’s licence;” I just didn’t know any of the vocabulary or grammar needed to explain this.

And since it is so hard to have anything more than a 2 minute conversation with someone, I spend a lot of time around other foreigners, doing foreign things and cooking foreign meals. I’m not hanging around with foreigners because I am withdrawing from Japan, but because I can’t function as a Japanese person 100% of the time and need the supports of those who share my experience.

Whenever I bring this up with people (usually those complaining about those damn stupid foreigners they have to deal with), they always try to backpedal, saying that it’s different with me because I was a student, or am working in a specific occupation. But it really isn’t different. Me speaking English, even to people who don’t speak it back, and hanging out with white people all the time is no different than a Chinese or Portuguese person speaking their native language and spending time with other Chinese or Portuguese friends. There’s a huge double standard that somehow makes it ok for me to do it, but not ok when someone does it in Canada. My situation is really no different than any expat, and I’m a government employee to boot.

Change is Hard

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Next time you meet someone from another country, don’t groan and get pissed off because their English sucks. And don’t speak loudly and slowly; none of that helps and it really just makes them feel like a piece of shit.

The next time your meet someone from another country, be calm and patient. You might need to explain things three or four times to get around missing grammar and vocabulary. You might need to say something wrong, more complex, or completely unintuitive to explain something, since they may not understand the word you think is simple. If they don’t know what something means, being an asshole about it isn’t going to help.

Try not to criticize people for spending time with their own community instead of your people. They’re probably doing it because they don’t know anyone else or know what to do. Instead, invite them to something you are doing. Even if they are quiet, they probably appreciate seeing something new or just being a part of a normal activity. Offer to help, offer to show them things and take them places, no matter how basic they are. Just like how you might tour around a visiting family member, someone from another country would appreciate knowing where things are and seeing new things.

Remember that everything you know about living in a particular area was probably learn since birth. I remember a story in university about someone who came to a western country and stood on top of the toilet instead of sitting, since that’s what was done in their country and they didn’t understand how to use it differently. Try and imagine how embarrassing it is to not even know how to use the bathroom. The simplest things you know may not be universal across the world, so you can’t take for granted that everyone is going to know how everything in your country works.

Remember that someone from a foreign country is in fact from a foreign country, and that you should be open-minded and helpful where possible. It can be an absolutely overwhelming experience, and they probably appreciate it. I know I do.

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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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