Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why I've Been Here So Long

I'm frequently asked why I've been here so long. Most people ask out of simple curiosity but others do so feeling I have to justify being here, particularly since I'm not a raging Japanophile. In the former case, the question is rather reasonable and I will do my best to answer it in a way which makes sense though I'm not sure it's an easy thing to make clear since it requires one to abandon an existing mindset.

Let me begin by setting up a hypothetical situation. Let's say you grew up in a small rural area in someplace like Ohio. There aren't any decent jobs and there isn't much to do and there are few opportunities to stretch the range of your experience so you decide to move to someplace like Texas. You go to Texas and it's fine but there are some things there which you're not especially keen on like the weather and the red state attributes. You also find that you can't really get ahead because things keep bogging you down financially and your job, while adequate, is rather boring. Finally, you come across a situation in Seattle which really appeals to you and decide to go there.

When you get to Seattle, you find out it rains a lot but you like your job and what you can do there. You find you can be comfortable without having a two-income situation so you get to spend much more time with your spouse than when you could in Texas where you both had to work full-time. You like the people around you in general and live in a safe place in an apartment which may not be as big as you like but is actually as much as you really need and the rent is not ridiculous for your income level. You can also save quite well compared to how you'd be doing in Texas or Ohio and, while a lot of the people you know are in debt, you are able to build a decent nest egg. There's only one problem. People keep asking you why you continue to live in Seattle and have an expectation that you should move back home.

The translation key:
Ohio = Pennsylvania (an equation that is easy to accept)
Texas = California (one that is harder to accept)
Seattle = Tokyo (perhaps the hardest to accept)

The bottom line isn't "why remain in Japan so long" but "why not?" There's an underlying notion that one goes to a foreign country with a goal in mind and then the natural thing to do is achieve that goal and go home as if there is something at home which is better or loftier than what is here. This is a reasonable notion but it doesn't always apply to everyone. I'm not sure that my life would be better back home than it is here. In fact, given what I read about outsourcing in the U.S., I'm not entirely convinced it may not be worse.

Initially, I did have a plan to come for a limited duration and leave but I found a job which I really liked and stayed at for 12 years until health problems forced me to leave. To be honest, I stayed at that job far longer than I should have and started to hate being in Japan and itching to leave. Since I quit, the itch has diminished quite a lot so I'm not sure if the problem was stagnation or the problem was Japan but I'm pretty sure there was a lot of the former going on.

I think I'd feel more strongly compelled to go home if I had a support base (emotionally, physically or financially) waiting for me but I don't. I had sufficient issues with my mother that going back to my family wouldn't be good for either of us (though I love my mother, we are oil and water temperamentally). All of my friends have scattered across the United States. There's not only no or little hope of being in contact with them should I return but no real reason to feel I'd integrate well with them as their lives are now. In fact, there is every reason to believe I couldn't get along with them at all given that a lot of them have changed personality-wise (as have I). My best friend from back home now has a Christian rock group and talks about how the bible was the greatest book ever written and I'm a believer in reincarnation who essentially embraces the writings of Jane Roberts and Seth. He's also got 3 kids and I'm one of those people who really can't get on with children. How do you think we'd get on nowadays?

As for jobs, while I feel that my experience writing, laying out, and doing graphics for textbooks would qualify me for an acceptable job somewhere, I've read that the print publishing industry is dying because of the Internet and jobs in "typesetting" are being sent to India with greater frequency. The field isn't exactly clamoring for the return of one more person to come work in it.

A very long time ago, I realized that it doesn't matter where you settle yourself on the planet so long as it satisfies you in some way and allows you to continue to grow as a person (that is, psychologically). For now, this is the place. It won't be forever but it's good for now and I'm not going to pack up and go because of arbitrary notions that I have to have a "good reason" to stay.


Joanna said...

I have a question though... if or when you come back to the States are you worried that you wouldn't be prepared for a retirement or something of that nature? I would think the older you get it would be harder to get settled back into a newer environment...

Frankly, I see no problems with living in Japan... the only problem would be if you decide to come back after so many years abroad... logisitically speaking...

Actually, I'm betting you'll experience culture shock in reverse if you came back here...

Androo said...

I don't think it's weird to settle where you find happiness, but I'm willing to bet most people can't get their heads around the idea that the place an average non-japanophile would find it is in Japan. I think part of it is ignorance, part is fear of change, and part is lack of imagination.

Let's be honest, we've got it pretty sweet State-side in terms of basic needs and even if you're not in an ideal situation, you can carve out a nice little rut for yourself. Problems arise when you want something beyond basic and while it's true every country has its problems, some people are willing to trade things like cheap gas and English speaking neighbors for things like a more progressive government or better public transport infrastructure, or whatever.

I think it's fantastic that you and your husband have found your place, your HOME for these past years. I'm actually a bit jealous, but I'll figure it out. Stay as long as you want! :)

tornados28 said...

Good enough answer.

Shari said...

Joanna: Yes, I am concerned to some extent but my husband and I are saving money. We also don't expect to retire per se but rather to work as long as we can. I do realize that, the older I get, the harder it'll be to re-integrate but I'm not sure that going back now would change that as opposed to going back later. And I'm certain we'd experience reverse culture shock. ;-)

Of course, the bottom line right now is that I'm not healthy enough to go home and work full-time anyway. Even if I was itching to go, it'd be imprudent to go back in this state, particularly with no socialized medical system to fall back on. U.S. employers aren't exactly keen on providing health care in general and I'm not sure I could pass an insurance qualification exam right now.

Androo: I'm often torn about how life could be back home. As I mentioned, if I had a support system to go back to (a place where I could "hang out" rent-free for an indefinite time while I explored options), I'd probably be more inclined to return right away but that's not something that I can do.

Also, I get mixed reviews of life in the States. Some people are doing fine. Others are having lots of trouble. There's a lot of pessimism though about the job market and that's a major concern for me as I doubt it'll be getting much better as time goes by.

Frankly, I don't want to go back and find myself stuck in some drudgery work which allows my husband and I to barely make our bills on a combined income.

If all else fails when we return, I want us to be in a position financially such that we can both go back to school and get higher degrees if we can't find work. We're not so far from that now (depending on where we live since non-state resident tuition is double that of state residents) but I'm still not ready.

tornados28: Thanks. :-)

Anonymous said...

I know that feeling very well. I've lived for about 15 years State-side in the same area. Right now I just want to move somewhere else for a change. I'm glad you found that good old feeling after you quit your job. I'm still searching for that feeling I've had when I moved to a new place. You know like when you feel the possibilities are endless and everyday something new will happen.

Maybe Im just getting old... sigh -Andy

headbang8 said...


You're right about the situation in the 'States. Many people are doing very well, but the ranks of those living paycheck to shrinking paycheck grows every day.

I, too, was born in the USA (Pittsburgh, so not far from Ohio, either) and spent most of my adult life outside the USA. I returned to take a job in NYC and suffered it for three years until I felt I would melt of despair.

Aggression, tension, and fear seems to dog Americans. They're right to feel that way. Public services are so dysfunctional that one needs a very, very large income to shield yourself against ever needing them.

I had so-called luxury medical insurance in the USA from a highly beneficent employer. It was still expensive, and getting a claim out of them was like pulling teeth. Many quite large bills were denied for long enough that I just gave up and ate it. Funnily, the easiest claims were the ones that involved buying drugs. Hmmm...

Further, my (Japanese) partner couldn't get a US visa. Here in Europe, it's a simple matter to register a domestic partnership, and our most basic human need is met; to be with the one you love.

It is actually easier to live daily life in Japan or Europe, than in the USA. Cities work, people co-operate, systems perform as they should, and financial catastrophe doesn't swoop down with every medical bill.

I have to disagree with Andrew. People have got it pretty sweet stateside for NON-basic needs, the cheap credit, the junk food, the services provided by the black economy. But the basic things--secure shelter, medical care, affordable education, nutritious food, public transport--just ain't there.

You are wise to live in Japan.

sarah said...

An interesting post. I do think that people back home (particularly those who have never spent any meaningful length of time abroad) have the mindset that living somewhere else is "adventurous" but that there "ain't no place like home." If someone has never lived abroad, it's quite easy to think this way. When I visit Canada, I'm taken aback at how health care has gone down the tubes, customer service is laughable and the idea of a timetable for anything is an artifact from somewhere back in the '50s. Every visit "home" serves to reinforce that Japan is more of a home to me than Canada. Japan simply has more to offer (and at the top of the list is a sense of safety). "Be here now" is one of my favourite mantras, a George Harrison gem, and I use it often when well-meaning friends from Canada ask "When are you coming home?" I'm here now. Thanks for a thought provoking blog entry!

All the best,