“WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK?”
That’s the question I get almost every time I talk to a friend back home in the United States. The question is often padded on either side with warm remarks like, “I miss you” or “Life just isn’t the same without you.” While I share these sentiments, sometimes quite deeply, I no longer have an answer to their question.
Before I moved abroad, up until the month before I made my decision, I firmly told my friends and family, “Oh, I have no desire to live in a foreign country. My husband can move all over the world for his PhD research if he has to, but my life is in the US.” And I meant it.
But then I made the surprising decision to move to Tokyo with my husband. I saw Japan as a grand adventure that I needed to take advantage of while I could. In my head, I thought I’d go to Japan, create some memories that would sustain me when I’m old and boring, and that would be that. Just a quick detour, then on with normal life.
My decision surprised nearly everyone I knew. “Wanderlust” was not a word that came to mind when describing me. “Homebody” maybe, “food-motivated” certainly, but not “wanderlust”. People had a lot of questions.
“But, you don’t speak Japanese?”
“Yes, but I can learn. I think.”
“But what will you do while your husband is working and researching?”
“A lot of the same things I do here. We’re not always together in the US (thank God). I already work from home, I’ll just do it with more of a time difference. Plus I’ll be 12 hours ahead of most of my deadlines!”
“Won’t you be lonely?”
“Probably sometimes. But I’m lonely in the US sometimes. But we all know I’m kind of a loner anyway, if anything I think I’ll have to learn how to deal with more people — of both the Japanese and expat variety.”
But without fail, every conversation pre-Japan ended with my saying, “It’s only for a year. There’s NO WAY I’m staying longer than that. I’ve got things to do back home.”
A dear friend and mentor once said to me, “Life happens.” No matter how many times I think about this sentiment, think about what it means to my life, I’m always caught a little off guard by the truth those two little words carry.
A funny thing happened in Japan: Life happened.
Yes, at first everything — from going to the market to going to the Onsen (bath house) — was an adventure. There was a quality of curiosity and excitement in my life I had never felt before. I kept waiting for routine to take over, for Japan to lose its luster, to feel those pangs of homesickness. It didn’t happen.
While there were times I missed the people in the US whom I shared a history with, I did not miss home.
Slowly, Japan had crept into my heart. Reality mingled with adventure and resulted in a life more vibrant than I had ever imagined for myself.
“But you’re not really living in reality,” people would say. “That’s why you like life abroad so much.”
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say this a million times: Reality is when you’re paying rent.
That may be an oversimplification, but life was not and is not perfect abroad. I still worry about deadlines, and money, and health, and my cat, but I’m lucky enough to live in a place that, for me, is not defined by those worries. Such a life can happen anywhere for a person, it just so happens that it took moving to Asia for it to happen for me.
Towards the end of my time in Tokyo, talking to some of my friends back home became more difficult. A diehard people pleaser, I wanted to say to them, “Oh yeah, I’m definitely planning on going back to the US soon. Time for real life!” That’s what some people wanted to hear.
But just thinking about that felt like a betrayal, a lie not only to my loved ones, but to myself as well. The truth was, I wasn’t making any real plans to move back to the US, I wanted to stay abroad.
My husband and I had to leave Japan because our visas expired as did his research grants. But instead of going back to the US, we decided to move to Hong Kong. I had work opportunities there — dream work opportunities — plus, Hong Kong is my birthplace (I immigrated when I was very young) and I had alway hoped to return.
The move felt right for us, more than right, it felt like progress; like our lives were happening. America will always be my home, but Japan and Hong Kong have my heart.
The announcement of our move to Hong Kong from Japan was mostly met with support. My parents were thrilled, some friends gleefully made plans to visit. However, not everyone was so happy.
Talking to one of my oldest, dearest friends on Skype one day from Japan, I noticed she was quieter than usual, her responses a little choked. When I asked her what was wrong, she softly said:
“It’s really hard for me to be happy for you. I want to support you, really I do, but I miss you so much, it’s hard for me to mean it. I want you to be happy, but why can’t you be happy in the US with all the people who love you? First Japan now Hong Kong? You said you didn’t want to live abroad, what changed? What happened to you?”
I will defend my dear friend’s choice to say this to me to the death. Few friends will ever be this honest. I know it hurt her to say this to me, but I will be eternally grateful that she did. I know she said it out of love.
So to my dear friend, to all the people back home who I’m so fortunate to having missing me and wondering about me, I have this to say:
Life happened. The detour became the path. I know it’s sometimes hard to understand that living abroad is real life for me. The life you see in the snapshots I post online are the highlights, but there a million moments between those shots that make a complete picture — a complete life. My life largely exists between the pictures.
I won’t insult you by saying that you think I live “on vacation” because I know you don’t think that. But I do think it’s difficult to understand that my life is not so different than yours. Yes the language may not be the same, and the money looks different, but you work hard everyday to advance your life and so do I. I’ve simply chosen to advance my life in a place that is a bit removed from your realm of understanding. I feel the same way about North Dakota (no shade on North Dakota).
So when you ask me when I’m going to return to reality, I find the question odd, because I’m already there. When did I leave? I often think that we expect “reality” to be dull, even disappointing. At this point in my life, my reality is far from such things.
My reality is that I work very hard to make my life abroad a happy, satisfying one. Just like you do at home.
So what happened to me? What changed? The expectations for my life did.
When presented with a life that challenged, even frightened me, I had two choices. I could either say, “Thank you, this was nice, I’ll tuck it away in my memory book” or I could hold on tight and see how far I could go. I chose the latter.
I admit, as much as I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be at this point in my life, I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in a few years. But that is the trajectory of my life right now, and I am embrace it.
All I ask, friends and loved ones, is that you do too. My life abroad is not an intermission before the rest of my life resumes. This is how my life is happening.