At the beginning of 2009, I moved from San Francisco to Tokyo. I was 24, and I had some fairly idealistic motivations to go: boredom with my job! a long-distance relationship! an interest in photography! The first two reasons exhausted themselves pretty quickly, although the third one has kept me here until today. No matter what reasons you have, though, I think it’s worth living outside of the U.S. for some time if you can make it happen. Here are a few reasons why:
You don’t have to keep up with American political news. A couple of months ago, I overheard some American dudes (proper adults) talking heatedly about the election in a restaurant here, and it reminded me how much saner I’ve been living outside the 24 hour news cycle. Of course you’ll keep up with what’s happening back home, but it is a definite luxury to avoid the blow-by-blow of America’s maddening political squabbles.
Food. Let’s be honest, this ranks high.I was lucky, early on in my time here, to make a friend who became my ramen sensei, as it were. He showed me how to hold the spoon, the order to eat things, regional broth differences, and so on. I never went really deep into the (pretty bro-ish) ramen culture, but he helped me understand some essential ramen characteristics. Of course, the only really practical application of such knowledge is to wow your friends when you go home–or, perhaps, bore them friends to death by complaining about how much better [your regional food] is back “home.” Don’t even try to talk to me about whatever ramen is all the rage in New York these days!
“Life experience.” Walking around a far-flung part of Tokyo with my ramen-loving friend, we walked into a very local-looking bar–there are no proper “dives” here, but I guess this would come pretty close. It’s the kind of place with one tiny counter, and a “master” working behind the counter, serving a bunch of regulars. The “master” of this place, a hard-bitten Osaka native, chatted us up, and eventually it came out that he had a baseball team. I said that I’d played baseball before, and he said, “well, do you want to play?” I was trying to think it over, but he shot back, “yes or no?” I said yes, and this year is my third on the team, as the only foreigner in our adult league where the average age is probably about 45. We play our games along the side of a river outside of Tokyo, nobody takes it very seriously, but it’s been a fun experience for me, and seems like the kind of story that (if there is any justice in this world) my progeny will hand down through the generations. The point is: don’t hold back, and throw yourself into life abroad.
Feeling stupid. The flip side of throwing yourself into this new culture is that you’ll inevitably be left feeling like a complete idiot. I mean something on the order of catching yourself thinking, “wait, which of these bathroom doors says ‘men’ and which says ‘women,’ because I can’t read either one…” I guess this might not be as severe if you’re living in some other Western country, but even so, I’m sure there are at least a few things that will make you feel like you are the dumbest person on earth. This, too, is a good thing: you should be so lucky to get humbled like this.
Appreciating home. Aww. Maybe one of the best parts of living away from America is realizing how good it can be. Distance, heart growing fonder and all that. I still sometimes wake up with a craving for a bagel and a meaningful, meaningless conversation with a cashier. This delusion will sometimes keep you in a perpetual state of lionizing the U.S.–at least until you come home and turn on the news, I guess.
Americans and Japanese alike tend to ask: “so, how long will you be in Japan?” The answer, at this point, goes something like: “I don’t know exactly, at least a couple more years–but not forever!” As much as I’ve settled in to Japan, I really can’t see myself spending the rest of my life here. Someday I’ll go back to America, at which point I’m sure I’ll feel some reverse culture shock. Still, the experience of life abroad will greatly outweigh the minor trauma of coming home. Probably.
Dan Abbe lives in Tokyo and writes about photography. http://mcvmcv.net