From Our Readers

The Fantasy of Living Abroad

Before I moved to Japan I had never been out of the United States. In fact, for most of our marriage my husband and I lived on the least-exotic military base you could possibly imagine. Surrounded by fast food, gas stations advertising payday loans and car dealerships touting zero credit checks, life was virtually devoid of cultural stimulation, unless you counted the local strip club’s Cinco de Mayo guacamole wrestling.

Finally, after almost five years in this wasteland, my husband got orders for Japan. I was ecstatic. As I packed our home into a storage unit (pack it, store it, burn it, I don’t care just get me the hell out of here), I felt certain that this was going to be a life-changing experience on par with Lost in Translation or Eat Pray Love. I was going to go to museums, learn the language and meet new people. I would walk everywhere, become fluent in Japanese and eat nothing but fresh fish and local vegetables. Gwyneth Paltrow would come to me for advice on how to be thin, beautiful and healthy and I would give it to her. After three years abroad I would return to the states a new woman, filled with the confidence of someone who knows her true calling in life. Yes, this move was going to change everything.

And at first it really was idyllic. We got a house a few feet from the sea, I snorkeled for the first time in my life and everything was new and exciting; until it wasn’t. A month after we arrived my husband left for training and the rain season began. One particularly bad day I got stuck in a downpour while walking home from the store. As I juggled my bulging bags and cursed my luck I watched an old Japanese woman in a trucker hat cross the street on her bike, seemingly unfazed by the torrents of water hitting us both in the face. I started to slip on the slick pavement and as I steadied myself I squinted to read the woman’s hat. There, emblazoned in red block letters: ASSHOLE. And suddenly, that’s exactly what I felt like.

I moved here full of unrealistic expectations and hopes for what awaited me. I pinned all my dissatisfaction on a place, only to discover that a world away the feeling remained because it was within, not around me. Letting go of the fantasy life I had promised myself was a bitter pill to swallow but ultimately freed me from living in a state of suspended animation. I had somehow become an observer of my own life, waiting in the wings for better things to come.

Living abroad is what you make of it: A new setting, a new experience and perhaps a new perspective, but the same you. Whether you’re singing karaoke with Bill Murray, meditating with monks, watching the sun rise over the China Sea or standing in the checkout of a Piggly Wiggly, wherever you go, there you are. So be happy being you.

Michele is a military wife living in Japan with her husband and two children. Her hobbies include stepping on Legos, reading smutty YA romance and looking pensive on Instagram. You can read more from Michele via her Facebook, Twitter or blog.

Featured Image via Shutterstock

  • Melissa Sternenberg

    Hahaha! How funny, it sounds like we both moved to Japan in similar seasons. I didn’t live on a military base (wow was it a reverse culture-shock when I first stepped on to one!!), but my first year in Tokyo I broke my ankle. In addition, it took me at least 10 trips to the store to realize that I can’t buy all my groceries at a time, since I didn’t have a car.

    As a Texan, the idea of having to consider rainfall while traveling was a concept I never got the hang of.

  • Vanessa Buttino

    Great post! Uncanny timing too because I’ve been seriously contemplating moving from Toronto to London (England) lately. I try to visit the UK every year and every time I’m there, I feel ‘at home.’ More so than I actually feel when I’m at home in Toronto.

  • Lindsey Buma

    This article is absolutely correct. It is 100% what you make of it! I moved to England for two years and I enjoyed every moment of it.

    Sure, there were things that went wrong… Like the time I learned that steak and kidney pies weren’t joking and actually contained kidney. (I don’t know what I expected.)

    There were even things that wen’t horribly wrong… Like the time I became violently ill for a week from eating at a place that later was shut down because they found dogs in their freezer…

    There were things I just couldn’t get over… Like the fact they don’t rinse the soap off their dishes, leading me to sneak into the kitchen at night and rewash whatever had been used that night.

    Despite the nightmarish things that happened and the annoying nuances, I loved my trip to England. I woke up early in the mornings to collect the goodies the milkman had left. I would take brisk walks over to the ruins of a nearby castle to watch the sun cast it’s shadow across the ground. I would scurry into town on market day and buy fresh eggs and meat from local farmers. I would gaze in awe at the contrast of brilliant green fields agains the grey skies. I savored every moment of my trip because I knew someday they would only be memories.

  • Jamie Hull

    This is so very true. As an American living in Sweden, I’ve seen so many people arrive here with no understanding of what they’re in for. Sweden isn’t even a *hard* place to move to (in my opinion) because it’s so comparatively Western. But still, they show up and think they’ll be able to land a job easily with no Swedish in a field they’re not particularly experienced at, find a beautiful apartment easily, and make a bunch of friends. Starting fresh anywhere isn’t like that — you’ve got to target jobs that you’re uniquely good at, assume you won’t find a decent place (terrible housing market here at the moment) and recognize that Swedes are pretty anti-social at first glance. It takes time and work, but most of all, a good attitude.

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