For Better, For Worse: Ways I’ve Improved Thanks to My Time in Japan


Great success – Diego has, in fact, noticed that I am the New and Improved E with Increased Sudsing Action! Not only did he high-five me several times on Cleaning Sunday, but I even overheard him telling his girlfriend on the phone that I am “earning [my] keep.” This pleases me greatly; I did so hope that he would notice. It was important to me that he would. After all, I didn’t go away for 27 months to a country thousands of miles away just to have everyone exclaim, “You haven’t changed a bit!”

It’s a metamorphosis fantasy – time away will somehow transform us. We will leave as rough and ugly caterpillars and return as brilliant butterflies. While we are growing up, summer vacation is our best chance to reinvent ourselves. “Calm, cool, and collected” was my summer mantra between my Sophomore and Junior years; it was wildly unsuccessful. In adulthood, we return from vacations itching for our coworkers to notice our tan or our newfound inner peace. We meet with exes after years apart hoping they notice that we’ve lost the baby fat. How will we be different after returning from this wild experiment that is life abroad? Will we be more cultured? Will we be more interesting? Or will we be the obnoxious former expat who begins every sentence with, “When I lived in Prague ….”?

I moved to Japan because my life in New York wasn’t working. My career was nowhere. My love life was nowhere. My literary dreams were dead. I was 26 years old and while I had great friends, a wonderful family and was living in a fabulous city, I couldn’t seem to make things work. I knew I had to change.

You know the rest; 27 months of molestation at the hands of Japanese children and I’ve been scared straight. I return loaded with creative inspiration, an exciting new career track and my love life is light years away from where it used to be. But living in Japan didn’t just help whip those two important areas of my life in shape. I feel I’ve improved in other ways as well.

Thanks to my time in Japan, I am a better person today in the realms of:

  • Tardiness
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Cleanliness
  • Knowledge
  • Confidence
  • Self-Reliance
  • Gratitude

I’ve already examined my improved approach to Cleanliness. Tardiness is perhaps the second most obvious area in which I’ve improved. I, the chronically late one. Fast forward 27 months and my friends are now surprised to find me waiting for them when they arrive for our dates. All Japan; Japanese punctuality is no urban myth. The few times I was late for work, I was required to fill out a form stating the reasons. How late was I? No more than two minutes. It goes even further: at my company, teachers who were habitually late to school were given poorer yearly evaluations – leading to no raise – and were sometimes coerced to quit. The silver lining, of course, is that things happen when they’re supposed to happen. And trains? Ah, trains – they almost always come when they’re supposed to come. Should a sarariman have the gall to jump in front of the Rapid Express and make you tardy, the station attendant will personally hand you a ticket stating what time your train arrived – all so you don’t have to fill out an apology form for your boss and get docked pay.

The MTA makes me crazy these days – and not because of the fare hikes. I’ve grown accustomed to being able to count on my subways, to time my trips uptown to the minute. I loved the flashing electronic announcements that the train was about to respectfully approach. I loved the train attendants waving people through with their white-gloved hands. I don’t love sticking my neck out into a dark subway tunnel to see if the stupid 6 train has seen fit to come on down just yet. But while I would once blame my tardiness on the train, I now leave 20 minutes early. Tardiness is a frame of mind, folks. And when it all comes down to it, it’s about respect for others.

Thoughtfulness: The Japanese like to think of society’s needs before their own. The downside of this concept is that it tends to lead to conformity. The upside is that people pull together to make things easier for each other. A common stereotype complaint about foreigners in Japan is that we simply don’t do this. We (supposedly) sprawl our (obviously) fat selves all over the empty train seats. We (supposedly) wear too much perfume. We (supposedly) speak too loudly. We (do) have the nerve to answer our phones in a crowd. We (also) eat in public, spraying crumbs and grease everywhere. There were many, many times while I lived in Japan that I grew angry with these edicts. Why couldn’t I eat in public? I wasn’t allowed to eat at work either and I was starving! And what, really, was the problem with answering my phone on the train? I had to tell my friend I was going to be 2 minutes late!

It’s nice to be home where I can have a knish on the train without fear of giving an obachan a heart attack. But it was also nice to know that my train rides would be quiet and relatively free of trash. Thoughtfulness towards others. I’m more careful now to make sure I’m not blocking anyone’s seat with my bags; it’s a crowded train. I’ll wait until I’m off the bus to return a call; no one wants to hear me complain about the MTA. I try to keep my voice low in public and have also stopped mugging little old ladies. Some New Yorkers might say that I’ve lost my charm. But I feel better about myself for it.

Confidence: I suppose my increased confidence in certain things might be due in part to the inevitable maturation process, but my new confidence about my writing and acceptance of my small size are definitely a product of my time in Japan. At 4’11”, I’m below average height in America but things were especially rough when I was a child – before puberty helped lessen the disparity between myself and my peers. When I was 8 years old, our pediatrician told my parents to take me to a specialist to figure out why I wasn’t growing as fast as regular kids my age. Too young to understand what these trips to Shands Hospital meant, I assumed I was abnormal. In the 7th grade, some of the “normal-sized” girls in my class told me I was a freak and that boys would never like me because boys only wanted “real women.” I believed them for years. Even when I became an adult and had more than enough proof that “real men” were attracted to me, the doubt lingered. “Fat Days” never applied to me; instead, I had “Short Days.” I loathed the word “petite” – it sounded like a condescending euphemism for something unbearably ugly. I must admit that part of the attraction to moving to Japan was that I might blend in a little better. That naive hope makes me laugh a little now but I will say this; unlike a lot of foreigners living in Japan, I never cared that my face stood out in a sea of Japanese people. I only cared that for the first time in my life, I was “average height.”And that finally helped me get over it, even when I came home and was below average once again.

I’ve stopped glancing at myself in store mirrors to see how I measure up to my “normal-size” friends. The truth is, many of them are very close to my height; they only seemed so much taller because of my insecurity. I wear flats a lot these days and my formerly high heel-tortured feet love it.

Gratitude: While I was living in Japan, I experienced many wonderful new things. New friendships, new sights, new sounds, new foods, loads of inspiration for the first time in years. But being so far away from what’s familiar can make you a lot more grateful for what you had. I never knew how great it was to understand everything that was said to me, nor did I realize how much I cherished the small moments with my friends; learning what they had for lunch, admiring their new shoes, hearing how annoyed they were with their bosses. A lot of people complain about Facebook because they’re uninterested in “useless information” like what coffee their sister likes. Not me. When you don’t see your loved ones for months or even years at a stretch, these are the things you miss. These are the things that make you feel like you’re actively part of someone’s life. Back home in my beloved city, I’m far more eager to take advantage of the things I used to take for granted. Walks through Central Park. Free summertime events. East Village yoga classes. Happy hours. Farmer’s Market. My friends’ rants about how Gossip Girl glorifies a reprehensibly warped view of youth; the gorgeousness of your teens combined with the confidence of your 30’s. I’ve really, really missed it all so. It’s going to be a wonderful summer.

Knowledge: This goes without saying, but living in a foreign culture gives you inside access to a totally different world. Different issues. Different celebrities. In America, women don’t want to date a junkie. In Japan, women don’t want to date a first-born son. Paris Hilton = The Kana Sisters, G.W. Bush = Taro Aso, Doris Day = Takeshita Keiko. When you live in Japan, you might pop over to Beijing for an international weekend getaway. You don’t discuss politics. You congratulate each other on a job well done instead of wishing each other a nice day. If you’re not married, you probably live at home. The Ainu are your Native Americans. You might feel guilty about what your ancestors did to the Koreans. Springtime means drinking beer under the cherry blossom trees, summer means barley tea and nagashi soumen, fall means sanma and maple leaves, winter means bowls of hot, steaming nabe and dozing under the kotatsu. You don’t conjugate the noun to create a plural, but you conjugate the number itself. Your vowel sounds go: a i u e o. You point at your nose to signify yourself. You cross your forearms to signify, “No!”ย  These are all things I never knew before I moved to Japan. I’m so very glad that I learned them now.

And finally, Self-Reliance: It’s challenging to move to a country where you don’t speak or read the language. I had no idea how complicated Japanese can be to learn for native English speakers. Many foreigners move to Japan and only make the merest efforts to learn the language; a couple of stock phrases here, a lot of helpful Japanese friends there. I couldn’t do that; I needed to do things myself. The first year was rough but passing Level 4 of the JLPT gave me confidence. By the time I left Japan, I had passed Level 3. I was discussing my phone plan with my phone company. I was complaining to the post office that my mail wasn’t arriving. I was chatting with my students’ mothers. I was making bank transfers. By myself. I never knew I had it in me, but I’m guessing my bank clerk is relieved that I did.

I still talk far too much, and have probably irritated a few friends by now with my “In Japan ….” stories. I still get tense far too easily. I’m still a nervous wreck in social situations. I still burst capillaries if I sense the slightest whiff of disrespect. I’m now even more terrified of having children. My newfound grip on cleanliness is tenuous; I fear it may snap. But life is a process; if I were perfect, I’d have nothing left to learn. And I never want to stop learning. I never want to stop changing. I never want to stop improving. I may not be a butterfly quite yet, but I like to think the lovely spots on my baby-weak wings are forming nicely.

How did you improve from your time abroad?

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. japanisdoomed says:

    This is a really heart warming post ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad you’re getting something mental out of living in Japan ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. pepper says:

    i think you should pick the habit of mugging little old ladies back up.

  3. Cara says:

    This was nice ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Brandon says:

    From a male perspective, I always get asked by women first: what is my job; second: how old am I; third: what is my blood type; fourth: can I visit you in the US? The blood type thing was a big weird one, but I’m used to being asked now, and usually means they are seriously considering dating you… this all within a few minutes of meeting. lol

    I have a different perspective on self reliance though too, as I have only learned a few standard phrases and have befriended many people, and have still managed pretty well by myself on most days. But there is a lot to be said to how appreciative Japanese people are when you know even a few simple phrases. Most of my conversations with people who do not speak English are very animated and descriptive with hand gestures… it’s as if we’re all deaf and still able to communicate. I have also come to realize how hard it is to explain some American slang terms that we just take for granted.

    And lastly, I have talked politics, but only with good friends. We have had deep and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about WWII and the Hiroshima bombings, as well as George Bush and Obama. They love Obama here… and sometimes, for reasons still unknown to me, people will chant “Yes We Can” in weird situations.

    I love Japan and all it’s oddness. Everyday is an adventure. =)

  5. himawari says:

    First time reader, and I just have to say that I really enjoyed this post ๐Ÿ˜€ I’m still living in Japan (going on almost 3 years, but not all at once), and a lot of this hit home for me. Especially the Gratitude part. There are a lot of things at home that you take for granted and living abroad for a long period of time makes you realize that. Thanks for a wonderful post ^^

  6. santookie says:

    I love reading your posts. It rocks. I learn so much. I used to dream of what you did. Running off and learning in a foreign land, especially Japan. It’s great that you came back with so many precious memories.

  7. Jill says:

    Have you watched the movie Ramen Girl …. thats what happened to her – went to Japan – learnt a lot about herself – not the best acting but nevertheless easy to understand script …. sort of 21st girl version of the Karate Kid!!!!

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