This week marks six months since we left the United States and moved to Japan. It is strange to realize that I have been an expat for 6 months already. 6 months feels like an eternity, but also like it went by in the blink of an eye.
Before moving here – during all of the planning, packing, and goodbye-ing – I spent very little time thinking about what it would mean for us to finally step onto that plane – to leave behind our life, our family, our dog, and everything we were familiar with. I spent approximately 0% of my time thinking about the fact that walking through that airplane door would actually change the trajectory of my life and the lives of my immediate family members.
Instead of thinking about the magnitude of stepping onto the airplane, I focused on the details: the passports, the tickets, the visas, the packing, the hotel reservations, etc. I distracted myself with those details so that I wouldn’t think about the rest.
The First Weeks as an Expat
Like any move, the first weeks were all about checking off the most necessary of tasks. We found a place to live, we enrolled our preteen daughter in school, we bought cell phones, we picked out furniture, and we navigated our new city’s transportation system. Those tasks acted as a nice little distraction from the big stuff. There’s no time to question whether or not you’ve made a huge mistake when there is an apartment to furnish!
We spent our first month living in a hotel, another distraction. Hotel living certainly wasn’t terrible; it was a most welcome distraction that came with English-speaking staff, executive lounge access, endless food and champagne, and laundry service. This wasn’t our new life, it was too comfortable. It was the in-between of our previous life and our new one. But when you uproot your life and transport your family to the opposite side of the globe you learn to cling to any comfort you can get. Especially in the form of laundry service. And champagne.
In reality, I needed the distractions in those early days. After those first few weeks – filled with travel, jet lag, and mini-tantrums – the magnitude of this change would start to creep in.
We are expats.
We are living in Japan.
The distractions were fading away, and the discomfort came roaring in to fill the void. The struggles came in many forms…like not being able to read labels at the grocery store.
…and not understanding that the person at the checkout is asking you if you need a bag, so you just say in your terrible Japanese that you don’t understand (because you definitely do know how to say that) while trying to look repentant.
…and having to play a game of charades in order to buy tickets to a baseball game.
If I had to choose to share just one thing I have learned during my first six months as an expat it would be this: that discomfort is necessary. In fact, I would argue that it is actually good for you. It has been my experience that living life in a near-constant state of discomfort tends to cause a person to get used to it. And when you start to feel okay with feeling uncomfortable, you begin to take risks. When you spend your days doing things that scare you, you actually end up doing some pretty amazing things.
And perhaps the best part is that once you are so used to your life being uncomfortable, then you actually take notice when things start to become a little bit comfortable again. The day you don’t shed any tears in the grocery store is a momentous occasion. You notice the first time you are able to ask the train attendant if the train you’re about to get on is actually going where you need to go, and the first time you leave the house and return without getting lost is cause for celebration. I have found that spending my days being grateful for the things that seemed insignificant before is actually leading me to become a happier, more grateful person.
The First 6 Months Will Make or Break You
I have heard that how a person handles the first six months of an expat posting will make or break the overall experience for them, their spouse and/or their family members, and their coworkers.
Many companies, my husband’s included, will send their overseas employees home for visits each year…but not before that six month mark. The belief is that if you go back “home” before that six month mark there is a pretty good chance that you may not come back. I had read about it and knew that was the case, but I never really understood it until coming here.
It Hasn’t Always Been Easy (and it Still Isn’t)
I will admit that there have been a few times when, if someone had slipped a one-way ticket to the US under my door, I would have been on the next train to the airport. But I am extremely glad that that didn’t happen. Because getting on that Japan-bound plane a second time when I knew what was waiting for me on the other side would have been more than I could handle. I also wouldn’t have known that it would get better than those early days and weeks if I hadn’t gone through it and come out (mostly) unscathed. I wouldn’t have known that I could be okay with being uncomfortable. And I certainly wouldn’t have known how amazing it feels to be comfortable again.
So here we are. Six months in. Life is becoming more comfortable each day, and in turn, we are feeling more grateful than ever before. We’re feeling (mostly) settled in our Japanese apartment; eating our Japanese food from the neighborhood market; paying our Japanese bills with Japanese yen; learning this new language — some of us more quickly than others.
The homesickness comes and goes, and the culture shock is a real bitch sometimes. But I couldn’t be happier with where we are at this moment.
Here in Japan.