5 lessons learned from a year living in a foreign country

Today was my final day in Japan. By the time you read this, I would have probably already landed in Hong Kong, ready for my next adventure. It’s been almost a year of culture shock, ups and downs, exploring, learning, having fun and so much more. I’m grateful for how much I’ve discovered about myself, other people and about hard work, kindness and life itself. It’s hard to whittle down an entire life experience into a few lessons, but I’ll try my best. However, almost everything I learned doesn’t only apply to living in another country – but can also apply to anything you want to do.

1. Enjoy the honeymoon.

When you first arrive in a foreign country, everything is like a dream. You’re whisked here and there, taken to admire the cultural diversity, eat great food and talk to people who are always nice to you because they want to make a good impression. At the same time as being in a daze, your senses are on high alert and you notice every little thing that’s different from your country around you. It’s easy to get out of bed early in the morning even though you can hardly sleep all night from the anticipation of what the next day would bring.

But’s it’s not until you stay for at least a couple of weeks that you get a feel for what it’s really like. The transition from regular ‘tourist’ to ‘resident’ is like turning the heat of the bathwater up (yes, you can do this in Japanese baths) – you don’t notice it until it burns you. It’s not always necessarily bad, but eventually you start to accept that there are things that are different that are good, and then there are things that are different and not so good, but that’s okay, because that’s the way things are – like a best friend who have their own flaws but will always be there to comfort you in your time of need. Whenever you start something new, you’re likely to experience a these kinds of emotions. It’s easy to do things when you feel like doing them, but the real test of character comes when you challenge yourself to work on the marriage even when the honeymoon period is over.

2. Nothing compares to real life.

In the vain hope of reducing the chances of making cultural blunders, I read prolifically before I came to Japan – phrasebooks, history books, guidebooks, culture books, even cookbooks. Heck, I spent a year learning so much about Japan that I was basically eating, breathing and dreaming it. But when I got here, most of the things I’d learned either a) flew right out of my head (especially the language), b) were incorrect or c) never came up. I still haven’t had the chance to demonstrate that I memorised the names and locations of all 47 prefectures in Japan.

I’ve learned that you can read/watch/study all you want about something, but still not get a taste of how it really is until you get there. The same applies for anything from sushi-rolling to mountain-climbing to clearing out your closet. Sometimes it’s because people manage to make excuses to not do it, and sometimes it’s because people think they can substitute reading books and blog posts for the real thing, but nothing compares to really throwing yourself out there.

3. Jumping in the deep end is the quickest way to learn to swim.

On that note, I learned more Japanese and about Japanese people in a month than I did in an entire year of studying. There’s always going to be people who hide from actually doing amazing stuff because they’re too busy staying in their comfort zone. There’s really no method to learn quite like knowing that your life depends on it. After doing this year abroad, I’ve even realized that it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that you can gain daily-life fluency of almost any language (ie. making friends, working, ordering, going out etc) within a year or two of living in that country… which can add up to a whopping 2-3 languages in about a 5 year span! (Of course, one has to keep in mind the diminishing returns of trying to gain that last 5-10% of fluency). It all depends on how willing you are to swallow your pride, stick your neck out and make mistakes. I’ll be making my way to Hong Kong next. I haven’t decided how long I’ll stay there, but I’ll be interested to see how much Cantonese I can learn in that time…

4. You won’t get a good view just looking through the keyhole.

When I went to visit Tokyo, I felt kind of sorry for all the tourists that went there. Tokyo is a great city, and I had a fun time, but if it was all the exposure people got of Japan, and the only thing they could have based their impression on, I felt kind of bad for them. No offence if you’ve visited Tokyo, but Japan has so much more to offer than shopping and nightlife (living there is a different matter however!) In most other things, only doing it for a short while doesn’t mean you know what it’s like. You can’t just blitz through 5 countries in 10 days and expect to have gotten to know the people and culture. In the same way, only going for a run about once a month and deciding you hate it or having only read and analysed classical literature in school and deciding you don’t like reading in general is illogical. I’ve seen people start and quit things quicker than I can forget how to conjugate verbs, and it’s such a shame because people are definitely missing out on some amazing things that they might have been really good at too. Yes, you have to start somewhere, but you should also give it a fighting chance. Stick to it, persist, and you’ll never know, you might find someone, something or somewhere you’ll come to love.

5. Nobody lives in the same world as each other.

When you move to another country, your entire world changes. Things you thought ‘just are’ no longer apply. Not everybody thinks like you do, or does things the way you’ve always done it. Even rules or social practices you thought were blatantly obvious can be turned upside down. Yes, Japan isn’t a land of angels and rainbows, but I’ll miss living in a country where you don’t have to worry about leaving your bag on a park bench, or walking at home at night or even locking up your bike. I’ll miss living in a country that doesn’t tip because good service should be part of the experience and buses and trains actually run to the minute promised on the time table. I’ll even miss having to take my shoes off every time I enter the house, even if it’s annoying when I’ve forgotten my keys and I’m running late. Every thing that happens, good or bad, is part of the experience of living in a foreign country – that’s what makes it ‘foreign’. But as each of these little things occur you feel your mind begin to open up a little more and as you get used to it, you think of it less as as a foreign country, and more like a country… and eventually it becomes a home. rss twitter

  • http://www.longbeachblogger.com/ mike crosby

    Thank you Jessica. I’m not a traveler, but I enjoyed your post. My wife is Cuban, and even though I live in LA, my spanish language skills are lacking. I think if I was alone somewhere in Latin America, with no ex pats, I would be forced out of my comfort zone, and take on the language with more gusto.

    I enjoyed your post too but was surprised to find your writing void of the disasters Japan has recently gone through. I’m sorry, you’ve probably written before about it, but I RSS many blogs and may have missed it.

    Thanks for writing and one piece of advice that I’ll remember is “just jump in the deep end”. I get the feeling I’m going to end up being a traveler.

    • http://minimalstudent.com Jessica

      Hello Mike,

      Thanks for your comment! Your’re absolutely right about your Spanish skills jumping through the roof if you went somewhere in Latin America alone. And avoiding/balancing time you spend with ex-pats is definitely the key – in certain circles like mine that was a skill in and of itself! If you don’t have any other choice, you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish :)

      I wrote a post about Japan’s recent disaster back closer to the time it happened: bit.ly/ms5jpn. It was pretty bad back then but Japan has been recovering so well that I didn’t feel I needed to say much more about it when I left.

      Thanks again for commenting, hope to hear from you again!

  • http://caraclegg.wordpress.com/ Cara

    I’ve been reading for a while, but this is my first time commenting :) Really enjoyed this post. I’m actually on a similar path as yourself – studying Japanese at uni in the UK, and currently coming to the end of my year abroad in Japan! And also, an aspiring minimalist. So I’ve been enjoying your blog greatly, as I can often relate to the posts. I’ll probably be commenting regularly from now on!

    • http://minimalstudent.com Jessica

      Hello Cara, nice to hear from you. Oh my goodness, it sounds like we have a lot on common! Best of luck in your studies, if you have any questions, just email me :) Let me know how you get on!

  • http://lamodequivole.blogspot.com Sara

    this was really interesting. I grew up as an expat and only last year went to live in New York. I’ve travelled a lot around Asia and Europe but I only get the culture shock in LA for some reason

    - lamodequivole.blogspot.com

  • Siddartha67

    you are just too cool! great perspectives!! thanx for sharing!

  • Bush

    I have been living abroad for many years now and couldn’t agree more with your perspective!