Living in Japan – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I recently wrote a ‘good, bad, ugly’ article about writing, and thought I could do the same regarding my time spent living in a foreign country. After all, there’s probably good, bad, and ugly points about almost everything in life. Plus, it’s a fun format to write in (so it’s a win-win for both writer and reader). If you’ve ever considered moving to a foreign country to live and work, have already experienced such a move, or are currently living in a foreign land, these are some of the things that you might expect to happen or have already happened to you.

Small disclaimer: these experiences come from my time spent living in Japan. I’m sure that experiences will differ for those living in other countries, especially if they have a shared language and/or a diverse population. Please take these points with a grain of salt as well, as every situation is different.

The Good

Moving to another country can be an amazing experience that you’re sure to remember for the rest of your life. If you plan on staying in the country you move to – like I am – then you’ll find plenty of great reasons why you made the right decision to uproot yourself and start a new life elsewhere. There’s tons of great things about moving away from your home, but I’ll just list a few I’ve found while living in Japan for brevity’s sake.

New Experiences

You’ve moved to this strange, wonderful new land and are beyond pumped. It’s your chance to do all the cool things you’ve learned about through media! For Japan, that means that sushi, anime, kimonos, shrines, temples, and more are all eagerly awaiting you! Not only that, but even the most menial daily tasks are now new and invigorated through the lens of living in another country! Sorting your trash, filling out paperwork in another language, and noting the price differences for clothes, food, electronics, and luxury items has become oh so exciting and amazing! Well, for the first couple weeks at least.

Feeling Like A Celebrity

There’s no denying it – you stick out like a sore thumb. Yet, that’s only brought you good things! People will stare, sure, but many of them also wave or make an effort to communicate with you! Small children point at you, but you know it’s out of curiosity and not rudeness. You smile and wave at them to show them not to be scared of the friendly foreigner, and the parents smile back at you in thanks. If you’re in a smaller town, the residents all know about you and talk to each other about you curiously. You’re famous for just being you!

Making Friends From Around The Globe

Sure, you want to make friends with the natives, but you also realize you need to ground yourself. Such a feat has never been easier thanks to the expat communities! Now instead of just learning about the culture and customs of the country you’ve moved to, you can learn about people from around the world and get an ever greater experience! Plus, you can reminisce about life back home with others from your native country to stave off that dreaded homesickness! Those in the expat community are also an invaluable source of information in regards to settling into your new home, and can help you along the way. Hopefully you can do the same one day.

Cultural Learning And Teaching

Reading a book or watching a documentary isn’t the same as actually being present to experience another country’s culture and customs. You get to walk through shrines, pray at temples, enjoy the local cuisine, and interact with natives. Even more exciting is that you get to share your own culture and customs in return, thus enriching the lives of yourself and others all in one fell swoop! You’ve become an ambassador of your people, and are making a positive impact on your host country’s mindset in regard to foreigners. Life seems pretty grand so far living in a foreign land!

The Bad

So you’re enjoying your celebrity status, culture exchanges, new friends, and new experiences. Yet, there are still a few things that try to taint your lovely time in a foreign land. They’re brushed off or solved easily enough, but you still can’t help but feel a minor annoyance every time you come across one of these situations. You didn’t expect to have to overcome some of these hurdles, and as such they’ve thrown you for a loop. It’s all good though, as the bad points aren’t awful enough to ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve by living your life to the fullest. Or so you hope.

Language Barriers

At first you enjoyed trying to use hand gestures and what few words you knew from the country’s native tongue to communicate, but at times you just feel overwhelmed with how little you really know. You spend ten minutes ordering your meal at a fast food restaurant simply because you can’t get across the fact that you don’t want a certain condiment. It’s taken you thirty minutes to get a new bank card because the teller has tried to explain to you – unsuccessfully – that you need to come back with the proper documentation (which you actually have with you but are failing to convey). Even if you completely understand the language and have been speaking, reading, and writing it for many years, the default assumption most people have of foreigners is that they’re illiterate and only speak English. It gets frustrating at times, but you remind yourself that it’s just another part of the expat experience and move on.

Common Stereotypes

No matter where you come from, there are dozens of stereotypes about your country of origin that will come into play more often than you think. The questions come from a good place, as natives are simply curious to know more about you and your people. That doesn’t help you to not get annoyed when you’re getting told (not asked, told) that you do something a certain way because you’re from a certain country when the statement is completely wrong. You’ll also be forever congratulated on doing simple tasks that natives assume other countries don’t do, like using different utensils, writing in a different language, speaking in a different language, or having knowledge about a different country’s customs.

Repeated Questions

“Do you do (insert common activity) in your country?” “Do you know about (insert common thing)?” “Do you like (food that is commonly found around the world but originated in that country)?” “Can you eat (same food from above)?” Yes, we get it; people will forever be curious about you because you’re a foreigner living in another country. Unfortunately, because of the media and common stereotypes, natives will forever ask these questions because they honestly just don’t know the answers. What seems ridiculously obvious to you is a revelation for some people. Being a foreigner means learning the discipline of patience when being asked seemingly obvious questions.

Crushed Expectations

So you find a full diaper tossed in the grocery store parking lot. You saw a news report about someone robbing a local bank at gun point. A child was abducted from their neighborhood in broad daylight. Someone talked intermittently throughout a movie in a packed cinema theatre. You were pushed and shoved for being too slow getting off the train. Everything you learned about the country you moved to is crushed a little bit more every time you hear or see something that points to the contrary of your expectations. Sure, your expectations may be crushed a tad, but you remind yourself that you likely crush expectations every time you counter a ‘fact’ or question from natives about your home country.

The Ugly

The bad points weren’t so bad, were they? For the most part, they’re completely livable. You can learn to joke about the questions you hear all the time, or give those that ask the question an in-depth answer that leads to a much more interesting conversation. You can learn to look past some of the discrepancies and remember that no country is perfect. You can also try to figure out other ways to communicate for when you just don’t have the right words you want to say. In the end, though, there are some things certain people just can’t live with, and it ultimately becomes a factor in why they choose to leave the country or stay and become jaded.

Feeling Like A Caged Animal

Remember when you used to relish the fact that you were basically a local celebrity? Well, that was fun for the first few months. Now you want nothing more than to just go about your daily business without people trying to get a language and culture exchange from you when you’re clearly busy or not interested. After a long day of work, the last thing you want to do while standing in the grocery store trying to buy something to cook for dinner is try and look interested for fifteen straight minutes while someone tries to practice the 17 words of English they know on you in an attempt to start a conversation. You’re on display 24/7, and although people are taking an interest in you, it’s not because of your shining personality or amazing qualities – you just look different. You don’t matter to them in the long run, but the oddity of seeing or speaking to you does.

Restrictions For Foreigners

If you’re planning on staying long-term, you’re going to need a place to stay, a car (if you’re living somewhere outside a major city), a better bank account, a line of credit, and so on. These things would be quite simple to get in your own country, but now you’re barred from it all unless a native – or a company you pay for – can vouch for you. Even if you’ve got a friend or coworker who’s willing to put their own reputation (and in some cases bank account) on the line to help you out, many companies still turn you away because you’re a foreigner and they’ve had too many bad experiences. It’s hard for many companies to trust any foreigner, as there’s literally nothing tying them to the country. The number of times that foreigners have simply up and left the country while leaving behind their debt is too high to count, and has made it that much more difficult to secure long-term living necessities. In the end, you just have to get used to it taking much, much longer when searching for cars, housing, or banks.

Learn Fast Or Suffer

The longer you stay, the more of the native language you should know. Even if you came to the country after studying the language, learning from a book or class and using the language in everyday situations is much different. Remember that car, apartment, or bank account you were chasing after? If you don’t have the language skills and don’t know anyone who can help you out, those things are just a pipe dream. For many, the thought of trying to study in whatever free time is available after a full work day and daily chores seems impossible. Yet, it’s absolutely necessary to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can to make your life easier and hopefully expand your job prospects for the future.

Losing Yourself

You’re tired of being a foreigner. You’re tired of never being able to fit in. Are you a foreigner, or just an outsider? Even if you get the magical paper that changes you from expat to citizen, you’ll still never be accepted – at least not upon first glance. For many, this leads to a self-destructive circular way of thinking: hating expats for being too foreign, but hating natives for not accepting a person who is clearly foreign but legally a citizen. In the end, you just start to hate everyone and everything, and your jaded attitude is almost impossible to overcome to find happiness unless you learn to let it go.

The Future

Well, that last section got a bit dark. Fear not, for only a small percentage of expats living abroad actually make it to that last part. If you keep an open mind and reasonable expectations, it’s unlikely you’ll turn into a jaded expat that’s filled with rage and hate. It’s also important to take the good with the bad, and to remember that your experiences are what you make of them. The more you let something bother you, the more it will. By remembering to stay positive and always try your best to better yourself, you’ll have a more enriching experience that will keep you hopeful and happy.

Have you had any good, bad, or ugly experiences while working in a foreign country? What were the best/worst parts of your experience? Let us know in the comments below! Let’s get a discussion going, yeah?

Happy reading, writing, working, and living!

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