Last week, I had just finished doing the dishes and clearing the kitchen from dinner. My husband, home from work, was relaxing and watching Planet Earth. Our house was quiet, dusk was falling, and it was a satisfying end to the day.
At that moment, I pulled out my iPhone and googled expat boredom.
(I guess that's what we call being honest.)
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This post is a bit tricky to write, and I apologize in advance for any awkward phrasing or hippie-dippy "accept yourself" mantras. I rarely write about difficult times while I'm in them; it's too hard to do, and too simple to fall into a cycle of down and out. I much prefer to write on hard times after the fact, when the lessons and reasons and meaning of the whole ordeal become clear.
Warning: I'm still living in Japan, so said lessons are still, well, muddled.
This certainly doesn't mean that expat life is all hard stuff. There are parts of living abroad that are so good. The other night my husband and I went out to eat at our favorite hole-in-the-wall gyoza place. During dinner, he looked at me and said, "This is exactly what I wanted to be able to do when we moved here: walk into a tiny restaurant that has only a Japanese menu and be able to figure it out and enjoy myself."
We did it. We're still doing it.
Life as an expat wife (or 'trailing spouse,' or 'accompanying partner,' or whatever term du jour your HR department favors) has been challenging for me. On good days, it's been lots of moments of quiet reflection and keeping my heart and mind open to new opportunities.
On less good days, it's been moments of angst and future-tripping.
I've learned, though, to look at the at the big picture and realize that even when my days in Japan don't add up to bliss on the small scale, they are adding up to bliss on the big scale. I will be happy I lived in Japan, even if I'm not happy every moment that I'm in Japan. Even on the days I google expat boredom.
My life has sweet, happy moments. I volunteer, I tutor, I drink coffee and wine with friends. I picnic in the park during cherry blossom season, I tour sake breweries during distilling. I email and Skype with friends back home; I take "new guys" out to lunch. I make a skilled friend teach me how to bake, and I made BFFs with little old women at the gym who turn around and give me a thumbs up in Body Attack classes (or Ba-de At-ta-ku).
But as I enter my second year here, I can feel in itching at my soul. Coffee isn't enough for me. I miss my intense and crazy job back home. Some days, my activities aren't quite fulfilling.
I'm still here. I'm still doing this.
Back in Seattle, I used to practice yoga. This is comical because I am not a very flexible person -- literally. Unless I'm really warmed up, I can't even touch my toes.
During yoga class, I would try to get into poses that others found easy, and I'd be so jealous that their practice seemed effortless while mine seemed so labored. But my teachers wouldn't remark on this. They would just remind me to breathe: breathe and focus my energy into the areas that aren't as flexible, to the places that were stiff and uncomfortable.
They would say that it's okay to be uncomfortable; that pain and discomfort are not the same thing. Pain is your body's way of saying 'Stop!' Discomfort is your body's way of saying 'I'm growing (and this is hard, man)!"
Uncomfortableness about my life in Japan -- the slower days, the 'pause' in my career, the time away from friends and family, the rotating door of other expats -- this is not pain. This does not mean I shouldn't be here.
I think it just means I should breathe.
Reactions and responses to expat life, the exciting parts and the challenges, they are all over the board. Everyone responds differently. This is so okay.
Japan can be a land of arts and crafts (beautiful, traditional, thousands-of-years-old arts and crafts), and many women here participate. I quickly learned it was not for me and this only meant I have to find other activities that did work for me.
Don't fret if your friends all go for something and you're pretty 'meh' on the whole thing. That means, though, that you gotta find something else to make you happy. Your journey as an expat is deeply, deeply personal. Respect it.
Now then, since I love to talk about ma' self and giving advice, let's make a list. Yay!
My 10 Hard-Fought Lessons For Being a Expat Spouse:
1. No TV during the day. No internet in the afternoon. No Facebook for more than one round check-up in the morning (nooooooo stalking). No day drinking. Brush Your Teeth, you dirty hippie. Some friends have a no nap rule, some are okay to watch TV, some count yoga pants as getting dressed. Find what works (and doesn't work) for you, and stick to it.
2. Exercise. Every day. Hard. I call it Operation Wear Out, and it's critical for my mental health.
3. Get dressed, get coffee, get to doing things.
4. It's okay when doing things isn't always enough. Keep looking.
5. Be honest, but be positive.
6. Watch your expectations. I unknowingly had expectations about what my life would look like, what busy-ness would look like, what my friends would look like. Expectations are, in some ways, inevitable. Calling them out, realizing what we bring to the table, and letting them go by focusing on what is here and what is available is a better road to success.
7. You have to wait, sometimes, for the right thing to come along. This is hard, and this is okay.
8. Realize when life is asking you to be patient. Try not to call life a heinous bitch.
9. Make life yours. As best you can. With everything you can.
10. Live in your new country and appreciate everything it has to offer, BUT remember that sometimes a trip to the international store is just what the doctor ordered. Never doubt the power of a Cherry Coke and bag of pretzels. (Okay, okay, for me it's a can of Perrier Lime water and Nacho Cheese Doritos, but that manages to sound pretentious and trashy all at once. But it's the best. combination. ever.)
Sarah Shean grew up in Colorado, went to school in Washington State (go Zags!), and landed in Seattle, a city she now considers 'home.' While in Seattle, she weathered the US's largest bank failure (oh, WaMu!), made the switch from accounting to digital marketing, and married a great guy. Six months after saying 'We do!" Sarah and her husband moved to Nagoya, Japan for his job. It is Sarah's first expat assignment. When she's not writing, volunteering, or teaching English, she shops at the fish market, drinks way to much coffee, runs marathons, and has occasional moments of housewife angst.