Sharing the Expat Experience — Part 2

Swan on the outer moat at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

And now for the “she” perspective on the topic of “Sharing the Expat Experience“…

My husband is right in that the decision to accept an expat assignment should not be taken lightly and should be thoroughly discussed and considered. And we did just that prior to accepting. We had actually thought about doing this sort of assignment for several years — even while our children were still at home with us — but the right opportunity never came along until this job in Tokyo. And, we approached this job as an opportunity not just for “him” and his career, but as an opportunity for “us” as a couple and a family.

I believe we have grown closer as a couple through this experience. We have done a lot of traveling together, and seen a lot of places we would never have had the chance to see otherwise. We have lived in a culture and country very different from our own. And, we have always viewed this expat life as an adventure for us to experience together. But it is certainly not without difficulties and some sacrifice.

We both gave up — at least temporarily — our home, our cars, our pets (who are being well cared for by family members, I want to add.) My husband gave up his position at his company in ATL, and though they promise he will have a position to go back to, he has no guarantee of what that job will be. I gave up my job — permanently. When we go back, I will have to find another job.

He has a place here. A job to go to everyday, people to work with who he can interact with. People who depend on him and respect him for the job that he is doing. I have an apartment… lol. I do the household jobs… the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking, the shopping. I did those things back home as well, but here I have no outside job to go to (visa requirements make a job more difficult, and language is an added complication), and I don’t have a very large social circle. I have made friends with other expat spouses in the company, but we only see each other a few times per month.

The language differences can be isolating. I am learning Japanese, but I am still a long way from being effectively conversant. Aside from simple polite exchanges at the stores and restaurants — konnichiwa, ohayo, onegaishimasu, arigato gozaimasu — my interaction is limited. Even at the spouses’ luncheons, I am the only American, and one of few native English speakers.

I don’t say these things in complaint — far from it. But just to emphasize the difficulties attached to this kind of an assignment. And… maybe… to also suggest that it takes a certain type of personality to be able to do this. My husband and I are both introverts who don’t mind having a little bit of “alone time.” We do quite well spending time with each other, and don’t really need a large social circle. Just my opinion.

One of the other expat spouses I have met, lives most of the time at her home in Mumbai, and only comes a few times a year to visit her husband here in Tokyo. She told me last year that as soon as she retired from her job in India, she would move permanently to be with her husband. But since then, she has reconsidered. Though she has retired, she now says that she just can’t give up her social group and her friends in India. She says that she wouldn’t have anyone to talk to here. So, she and her husband will continue as a long-distance couple.

It certainly is a trade-off, and I understand her point of view completely. We all have to do what works best for ourselves and our relationships. Everyone is different. But for me — for us — it works better to be together. Even with occasional feelings of isolation. And even with that occasional two-week business trip when I must stay behind by myself… lol.

One of my new hobbies since coming to Japan is photography. Water photo on the moat at Imperial Palace, Tokyo.


Sharing the Expat experience

It’s the “he” part of the blog team, writing this entry from a hotel in London. My job provides me with the opportunity to travel, which was an important consideration in my decision to accept the expat assignment. I viewed the job as a chance for me – and my wife – to see parts of the world we probably wouldn’t otherwise see. Unfortunately, on this two-week business trip, my spouse wasn’t able to come along.

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Chinatown in London. Sightseeing isn’t much fun when on a business trip without my wife

I have found that there is a wide variation in how expats share their experience with spouses and family. In my company, we have a number of people from other countries who are assigned to Japan, typically for two to five years. Some, like me, share the assignment with a spouse. One colleague has included his children, who are learning about the world through international school and living in a foreign land.

Several colleagues, however, participate in their assignments while their spouse remains at home. Perhaps they didn’t want to uproot children from their schools, or the spouse has a job that couldn’t be abandoned, or the spouse just didn’t want to leave “home” for such a long time. For these colleagues, sharing the expat experience with their spouse consists primarily of video calls, and periodic visits.

For me, the “long distance” relationship was never an option. Had my spouse not been able to move to Japan with me, I would not have accepted the assignment. It has turned out to be an amazing opportunity to share our lives and our experiences. We’ve become closer as a couple, and the assignment has been a rewarding one for us both.

Anyone considering an expat assignment should think very carefully about what’s best for their personal relationships. For a spouse, life in Japan can be challenging. It is often not practical for a spouse to work, due to visa requirements. Being a spouse in a foreign land can be isolating, with language and cultural differences making social interactions more difficult. Although Tokyo has a large expat community, it isn’t always easy to make close or lasting relationships with other expats. Being a spouse in a foreign city can sometimes be a lonely experience.

The point, I think, is that being an expat couple is a complicated situation, and not one to be entered into without much thought and discussion. Our experience has been that the positives significantly outweigh the drawbacks.



Suddenly Springtime

The weather has turned warm here in Tokyo. From chilly 40’s and 50’s, we have jumped up into the warm and pleasant 70’s. Flowers are blooming and the trees are leafing out and turning green. In Japan, the quintessential symbol of springtime is Sakura. The Sakura — cherry trees — have been blooming for a couple of weeks now, and all the parks have been filled with people walking under the trees, stopping to take photos of the blossoms, and picnic-ing with friends and family under the beautiful trees. Hanami — hana meaning “flower,” and mi (verb, mimasu) meaning “to watch” — is one of the most anticipated and celebrated times of the year for the Japanese.  Sakura-themed products abound… from simple product packaging, to pink versions of foods and drinks.

Now, however, the trees are “snowing” flower petals all over the place, and the Japanese have a word for this too: Hanafubuki — again, hana meaning “flower,” and fubuki, meaning “snowstorm.” The petals pile up on the sidewalks and under the trees like pale pink snowdrifts, and they float along on the rivers and canals in large pink swirls. In Japanese Buddhist tradition, this cycle represents the ephemural, and impermanent nature of this beautiful life experience, and catching a falling petal is supposed to assure good fortune.

There are still plenty of the late blooming varieties of Sakura displaying their pretty petals, but Hanami Season 2018 is waning. The blossoms will all fall, and we will move on to other beautiful flowers and trees… next the azalea, then wisteria, hydrangea, and on and on until the colorful leaves fall next autumn. The lesson here? Maybe… that we cannot hold on to the beautiful things in life. They each have to be enjoyed in their moment.

Spring tulips in Hibiya Park.

And other springtime blooms…