Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bridges in Japan

Image courtesy of Vanessa Pike-Russell

My good friend Spatch (names withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) recently announced she is leaving our company to move to Japan and teach English for a year. My first reaction when she broke the news was "OMFG THAT'S SO COOL." My second reaction was "I'm so proud of you."

It will come as no surprise that I'm a strong advocate of leaving one's home (town, state, country) to experience another culture through full immersion. When Spatch told me about embarking on the adventure of her life, I went on and on about what a great time she will have and how exciting the next year will be and how she will grow and learn so much. Naturally that led me to think about all of the ways I've grown and changed and matured since moving to London, and I decided to devote a blog post to giving young Spatch some words of wisdom for her journey. Fellow expats, feel free to leave comments on your own experiences and any advice you have and I will of course pass them along to her. She is also starting her own blog, so you can follow her travels with me. (Link is coming!)

To preface the object lessons below, I just want to point out that this is what I've learned over the course of all my travels and personal choices over a lot of years. Many of them are based on the last fifteen months in London, but this isn't the first time I threw myself out of my comfort zone. So this list is actually the working sum of a young lifetime of varied and challenging experiences.

1. Everything you know is not true.

Remember that moment in life when a something made you rethink everything you thought was true and constant? Mine was when I realized the Rolling Stones were good - and my dad had always said they were overrated. My personal frame of reference shifted and I discovered that I could have my own opinions, and they didn't have to be the same as anyone elses. Apply that thought to culture, and it means just because you live in a culture where roasted potatoes belong with meat doesn't mean that other cultures don't think potatoes belong with spinach. Or that potatoes don't belong at all. Or what-have-you. The point is, your frame of reference is shaped by your cultural environment, and a different cultural environment will give another person a completely different "normal". So be open to it, and not judgmental. You might learn something.

2. Try it - you might like it!

This is the corollary to number one. There's no point in putting one's self into a new place, with new customs, and stubbornly refusing to embrace them. You may think something is gross, but to someone else it's a delicacy. Okay, you might not like eel (or think you hate it) but guess what - that's a staple Japanese fish - so try it. Once. You don't have to like it. I guess that's rich coming from me who has yet to step foot into a Cockney eel and pie shop, but I promise if I ever do I'll try it. Promise. You do the same, Spatch.

3. Self-humility never hurt anyone.

Again, linked to the first two, but with more of an understanding of geopolitical history. Those of us in the West have a tendency to examine and ultimately denigrate "others" - non-whites, non-Europeans, non-non-non. But no one culture is superior than another. Approach a new culture, and it's customs, with an understanding of history and an acknowledgment that you have no idea how that history is interpreted by that culture's people. Americans are pretty bad at this; we think we're great while having approximately 300 years of history under our belts, and we assume everyone else shares our self-opinion. Be aware that as a Westerner, people may not think that the Empire was so grand, and be open to the discussion. Again, you might learn something.

4. Don't be ashamed to photograph everything.

A less deep one. Create a visual record of your adventures; you'll treasure it forever. But don't forget to also just look at things without the camera lens. Experience it all before recording it.

5. You are a creating a better version of yourself.

I'm serious about this. The time a person spends outside of his or her home culture truly allows their real self to emerge. It's really scary, but also really fantastic. No one from home is there to judge your behavior or emotions, and you're not limited by cultural mores like you once were, and the end result it a more polished and more insightful human being. Be excited to meet yourself at the end.

6. No one will really understand, and that's okay.

The end is scary to think about, because you're still at the beginning! And the end is probably undefined; who knows what will happen over the course of the next year, who you will meet, what you will do, how your life will change. But throughout the process and at the end, you will struggle to help your friends and family at home understand what you experienced. They will read your blog, see your pictures, and Skype with you, but they'll never truly know what your time abroad was like. That's okay too. Just be prepared for it - for your little perfect secret.

7. You'll keep learning things for a long time to come.

Even after the end, you'll be walking through life and you'll realize that things you did and learned while in Japan continue to reverberate. Things will "click" long after you leave Japan, and you'll make connections that weren't apparent at the time. I think that's one of the really wonderful parts about doing what you're doing; you are storing up wisdom to draw from way into your future. Like a bank!

8. No expectations.

Don't do it. Everything that happens from the moment your plane touches down will be that much sweeter. Besides, you have no idea what to expect anyway. Be open to it all.

9. Keep a journal – it's not nerdy.

Just like #4. You'll look back in a decade and read it and remember everything like it was yesterday. You will also learn more, and understand your adventure more deeply, through the process of writing it down. Your blog will definitely help.

10. Remember where you came from.

Finally, Spatchula, be proud of yourself, your family, your home, your country. Living abroad helped me rediscover the wonder of America, and I trust that living in Japan will do the same for you and Britain. You'll appreciate where you came from that much more for having left it.

It's worth pointing out that Spatch is going to a country and immersing herself in a culture that is completely different than anything I've ever had the pleasure to encounter; so while my reflections will invariably resonate with her, she will come away from her adventure with her own nuanced view on what I've shared. I look forward to visiting her in Japan next year and getting her take on it all over some green tea and sake. Adiosu, Spatch!

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