Inspired by this blog post, I decided to reflect upon my own life ever since I embarked on this journey to Japan. It started off as a journey. A journey towards my dream, but in the blink of an eye, this journey has become my life itself. Whether it was unprecedented or not, it does not matter anymore, because it has become a reality. As the life of every individual is unique, I cannot decipher or interpret your life. All I can do is to explain my own, and hopefully some parts overlap with yours.
The following paragraph accurately describes the feeling almost every “foreigner” has to deal with. I felt shudders running down my spine as I read these words over and over again.
“The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.”
In the early stages, a common topic among us foreigners is “how long have you been in Japan?”, as if it is a challenge to see who has been here for a longer time, thus a sempai. As time passes by, this invisible pride dissolves into thin air. It becomes a sympathetic question of “how long have you been away from home?”- a question that evokes empathy among us who share a similar story. After all, unless you were born in Japan, you probably grew up in a country that is of a stark contrast from Japan, a society that does not speak Japanese nor follow the Japanese formalities.
Because Japan is so different from any other country, this barrier between a Japanese and a non-Japanese has in fact created an ephemeral bond between any two foreigners. Of course there are many foreigners who have somewhat overcome this barrier, but sometimes, there is this dilemma of whether you really want to overcome this barrier and discard who you really were.
Many foreigners came to Japan as students, and then stayed on after graduation. I am one of them. As students, we have this immunity against social pressures. Japanese formalities are not enforced on us, and neither are we expected to follow them. Of course we are encouraged to- when in Rome, do what the Romans do. After all, we have a bunch of foreigner friends (with varying levels of Japanese proficiency and willingness to comply to local norms) with us to break all the rules we can.
However as you graduate and have your immunity taken away, suddenly you are all naked, vulnerable to the social pressure and stigma that you have heard a long time ago. All your foreigner friends have gone or stayed, depending on how willing they are to get accustomed to the society. In fact, even some Japanese find difficulties getting used to a working life, let alone foreigners.
Working life means that from now on, you have to speak keigo, a language almost non-existent in the past 23 years of your life. Working life means you are now at the bottom of the social ladder, the last specimen in the food chain and every action is controlled by your superior.
Ironically, just as the world seems doomed when you step into your new company in a black suit, it dawns upon you all of a sudden: Wait, I’m not Japanese…
All the pride you had about being in Japan for a long time, all the coolness about living away from your country disappear. Perhaps for the first time, you want to be a gaijin, because this brand is starting to give you privileges. Of course, at this point in time, we can choose to brave the storm and take the step forward to join your Japanese peers, or take a step back and be treated differently.
Ironically, regardless your choice, your brand never really disappears- not that it is a good or bad thing.
After all, all the rumours about the slavery of Japanese salaryman are not totally true, because…
1. It might not apply to you.
2. You have the choice to avoid it.
3. If you come from a developed Asian country, you probably would have a similar experience if you work back at home anyway.
Living away from home (the definition of home slowly becomes ambiguous now) is never easy, because you get stuck between two of yourselves. One longing to start a new life in this new environment, and the other nostalgic about the past.