Living abroad: between gratitude and overwhelm

I’m coming up on 2 years since I moved to Japan (March 2019, to be exact). The vibrant photos and humorous anecdotes on your timeline make living abroad look exciting, and it certainly is. However, it’s not all adventure. It’s also monotony, frustration, and confusion. Living in Japan (or more broadly, living abroad) often finds me teetering between gratitude and overwhelm. Two areas in particular come to mind:

*Note*: Overwhelm is not to be confused with annoyance. If I were focusing on annoyances, this list would be longer. An annoyance (such as Japan’s overuse of plastic or unmotivated university students) is unpleasant but not to the point where I feel mentally exhausted. Of course, annoyance can lead to overwhelm but…semantics.

Japanese ability

Gratitude: Help is available to me, but I’ve been able to set up a good amount of my life here on my own with the Japanese I currently know. Immersion, in the sense of making an active effort to venture out of my English bubble and use (on occasion forcefully) Japanese, has given me ample opportunities to use and improve my Japanese. Becoming the de facto interpreter when I’m the most conversant in a group of people also helps this.

Overwhelm: The more Japanese I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Long letters or manuals, technical details for medical appointments, phone calls that go beyond basic details, words I already know that are spoken too quickly, and even some words written in katakana confound me. I avoid promotional calls from my electric company because I just don’t understand enough to be able to make an informed decision, and the person on the other line clearly doesn’t have the patience to wait for me to figure it out or attempt to look up what they’re saying.

Being a black person in Japan

Gratitude: Providing Japanese people I encounter with an opportunity to actually talk to a black person, who really is like any other person. Countering inaccurate media portrayals with authentic perspective for my students. Using experiences of feeling “othered” and turning that into lessons to expand the thinking of those willing to listen. I don’t speak for all black people, but understand that many people here think I do, so I’m mindful of the message I send when I show up. People who are genuinely interested in getting to know me, who have welcomed me, who have complimented me, who don’t see my obvious difference as a big deal.

Overwhelm: Being stared at daily, sometimes in overly obvious ways. On rare occasions, being feared (not just by kids, but adults too). Little comments on perfectly normal things I’m doing (example: in 2020, a masked Japanese person wonders aloud why I am wearing a mask). Stupid and/or borderline racist comments that attempt (and fail) to provoke me or interrupt my peace. The assumption that I must be African, as if there’s only one kind of American.

Nope, no need to justify

I thought about adding, “It’s not that I’m complaining but…” or “This is not a slight against Japan…”, but then I realized how self-defeating that would be. Of course I am grateful for the opportunity to not only live in Japan after wanting to for a long time, but also not doing so by settling. However, living abroad has its challenges and it’s okay to talk about them. Also, Japan, like any country is not perfect. You can be frustrated with the way certain things are in a country but still be fine with living there.

One thought on “Living abroad: between gratitude and overwhelm

  1. The small stuff we let bothers us. But we live and we learn. At the end of the day those things are not that important .. love your post


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