Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stressed expats need, but oft sidestep real help: therapist | The Japan Times

Stressed expats need, but oft sidestep real help: therapist | The Japan Times

Moving to Japan often sounds cool.  If you're like me, you've had a lifelong fascination with Japan so living there seems the ideal way to explore the culture firsthand.  Or else you're fresh out of college and spending a year teaching English in Japan looks like a fun way to make some money, meet some friends and experience a little living-- the kind of stuff you can talk about when you get back to Australia, Canada, the UK or even the little ol' United States.  There are also people just passing through for business reasons, or military deployment.  Out of all of these people, a few from each batch really settle in and become lifers.  Ex-pats.  They build lives here in Japan and have little need or desire to move back to their original countries.

Whatever your motivation for coming here, you have to be aware that Japan-- while cool and awesome and even boring and banal-- can be a hard place to adjust to.  I've been here on and off for ten years, I have a full-time job with benefits and, best of all, a wonderful wife.  I've carved out my own little niche here, and I'm happy with it and how my life is going.  And yet even I run into things I just don't like, or freak me out.  Taibatsu, for example.  People working long hours out of obligation (although there are probably a lot of people who work those endless days because they just love doing it).  Kids in cram schools until 10pm then doping off at regular school the next day, with "sleeping" as their heart's desire and hobby.  To live here you have to learn to roll with this stuff and understand the way things happen back home isn't necessarily the "correct" way and everything else just weird variations of real life but rather the correct way for people to do things here.

People make their accommodation to life here in different ways.  Ex-pats clump together, which is only natural for people sharing an experience and the common bond of nationality or cultural background.  And language.  Don't discount the importance of being able to speak English at your natural speaking speed and with your full vocabulary.  In my city, there's a very active ex-pat social scene where a lot of people know each other and throw barbecues and have meet-ups.  But they also get involved in their Japanese communities, engaging with their neighbors, joining in festivals.  A group here organizes beach clean-ups.  Some people completely immerse themselves in Japan, pursuing traditional arts, learning hundreds of kanji and taking proficiency tests.

For me, the adjustment deal involved hitting Tokyo alone as often as possible and learning the fashion and musical groups.  I'm kind of a "half-in/half-out" person, very independent, resistant to schedules and calendar dates marked with ink.  I don't take naturally to groups and I'm happiest reading or creating art or just puttering around with a blog or editing a little movie.  Or watching movies, since I'm a cinema buff.  I observe life around me and I'm content most of the time.  But some of my best times have been just doing things spontaneously, just walking into a restaurant I've never tried before, or getting totally lost in Shibuya or Ikebukuro.  Finding myself in a surging mass of bodies at a rock show in some tiny, out-of-the-way venue, having gotten there on my own.  Walking with a friend down an alley in Kyoto on a miserably wet and cold October day and accepting the gift of umbrellas from a kind stranger in a car.  Deciding with my wife on the spur of the moment to rent a boat and cruise around Lake Hamana on a choppy day.

When you come-- and if you're interested in doing so, I highly recommend it, especially if you've read this blog post this far hoping for a little epiphany on the matter-- you have to find your own way.  I certainly don't recommend you isolate yourself, which is very easy to do if you're a little afraid.  Japan rewards those who try, those who go out and look for things.  But above all, if you find yourself down or angry a lot of the time, don't hold it in.  Seek professional help.  I even did that at one point, a few months of phone therapy with a very empathetic therapist.

It's completely okay to feel stressed.  It's not a sign you're doing things wrong here, just a sign you're human like everyone else.  A lot of people are stressed.  Hang in there, seek out what you need here and enjoy yourself.  Not everyone gets to move overseas.  You're really a very lucky person.

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