Gaikokujin Abroad (or Things I Learned from Living Overseas)

I love Cracked, but it’s also a black hole of all productivity. I can’t just read one article. One article, turns into five, which turns into twenty, which ultimately results in a whole evening wasted reading sarcastic humor. Never the less, I came across this article: 6 Reasons Why Your Plans to Live Abroad Might Not Work. Surprisingly, the article’s fairly spot-on to a certain degree. And it made me reflect on my own time as an expat.

Rather than go point / counter point with the article, I think it’s best if I summarize my experience and call it issues that impacted me the most. Being the globe trotter I am, I’ve visited my fair share of countries. But for the sake of brevity (somewhat), I’ll just focus on where I spent the bulk of my time: Japan & Australia. However, I will make reference to incidents from other places.

Living overseas was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Playing in pick-up rugby games, going to my first obon festival, stumbling in the streets of Akihabara, lounging around the Gold Coast, taking dip in to a real onsen I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. But if there’s one thing I always tell people: My time living abroad has given me a much better appreciation for America.

When visiting another country, tourists tend to wear rose-colored glasses. You take the good with the bad and move on. You’re just there for a short time anyway. But when you actually try to weave yourself into the infrastructure of that economy; then it’s a whole different ball game. You’re no longer the affable, jolly American. You’re now the obnoxious, arrogant prick who poses a threat to their jobs (and women). And if you’re like me, you got another thing to consider: having dark skin!

Japan
Ahhh, where do I even begin? Let me give you the trimmed down, Wikipedia version. I spent roughly two years in Japan teaching English mostly. My whole intention for Japan was into improve my fluency so that I could parlay that experience into a “real job”. That obviously didn’t happen. Let me break it down for you. There are three types of people who teach English:

     

  • The World Traveler: These people are more concerned with seeing the world. And this is one of the cheapest ways to do. And some actually come because they love the work. I have many friends who’ve become established & respected instructors in foreign universities. So it’s not a total cop-out sometimes.
  • The Mid-Life Crisis / Retired guy: These are the Lester Burnham’s of the world truly living out the whole American Beauty experience. I worked with one fellow who was a top level exec at IBM for 25 years. He just decided he had enough of it and quit on the spot. He started teaching across the globe that year and couldn’t be happier.
  • The Washout: These are essentially the people who couldn’t hack into back in the real world. As harsh as it sounds, it’s entirely too true. They lack any valuable skills that can be applied to the general work force. The jock with the debilitating injury that ended his scholarship, the liberal hippy white chick who think she can change the world’s negative perception of Americans through one person at a time, or the English jerk-off who just wants to nail as many Asian women as he can. Sadly, the English teaching pool is comprised mostly of these kind of people. Hell, even I was one of these people. Come on, what kind of job would I ever get with a degree in philosophy / communications, seriously?! But I digress.


It took a good couple of months to adjust to life in Japan. But once I opened myself up to experience (going to dinners with Japanese friends, studying language groups, visiting quirky little town, going to live shows, etc.), it was akin to drinking water from a fire hose. In many ways, it accelerated the crashing culture shock I endured much later. For a homogeneous society, the Japanese are a curious, yet insular set of people. Curious in the sense, that wasn’t uncommon for people to come touch my hair, or have a gang of kids come pull my pants leg up to see what kind of shoes I was wearing, etc. Yet insular, in the sense, they can sometime become skittish if you approach them. But once they learn you are somewhat fluent, their whole demeanor usually changes and the wall goes up.

Now, I could have fallen into the usual expat lifestyle only associating with other English speakers. But what would be the point of that? To be honest, I found talking to a group of expats a bit more socially awkward than with my Japanese colleagues. It was easier talking to them since our meetings were on a common basis (speaking Japanese and learning more about Japan). In the expat crowd, you have to consider different cultural, racial, and sometimes generational factors. Besides, many of the expat gatherings were just huge gripe fests about their frustrations of living in the society. One guy lived there 10 YEARS and could not speak a lick of Japanese. And had the nerve to wonder why he had such a difficult time getting around. It’s for reasons like this I avoided expat havens like Roppongi and certain spots in Shibuya & Harajuku. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly natural to be drawn to these circles since. It’s one thing to maintain with your own cultural identity; but completely isolating yourself within those circles defeats the purpose of the experience. However, I’ve also seen the inverse occur as well. These people completely assimilate to Japanese culture under the false sense they belong there. To me it’s all about finding a balance that works for you. And that’s what I did….or so I thought.

Culture Shock
After my first year, my Japanese was fairly conversational. And my social etiquette game was on point. Remember that fire hose metaphor I used earlier? Sometimes you reach a bursting point. I was watching the Japanese Movie “Trick” and suddenly halfway into it. Everything went from Japanese to sounding like gibberish. This was so disorienting that I had to leave the movie before it ended. The next thing I remember is just breaking out into tear right in the middle of Hachiko Square. My poor little brain must have hit maximum capacity and couldn’t handle anymore. Everyone who’s been abroad for an extended period of time goes through it. Some handle it better than others. Me? No so much. After that little episode, I had to take some personal time for myself before I could even go back outside again.

It was also during this time, I changed jobs.Not only was I just teaching classes, but I was learning about managing head count, P&L’s, coordinating marketing campaigns, etc. I enjoyed that aspect of the job more than the teaching. Thus, the seed of business was planted. After a few months, I had my share of the teaching business and was dead set on going back to school to pursue my master’s. One adventure chapters ends and another was about to begin. This time, in Australia.

Quick tips
Before we go there, let me provide you with some helpful tips should you ever visit the Land of the Rising Sun. This should help you not look look like a total, obnoxious tool.

     

  • Learn a few phrases: Even though you can get around Tokyo speaking only English. Your experience may be a bit richer if you learn a few courteous phrases, and questions.
  • Don’t sip your soup!: I don’t care what Lonely Planet tells you. It’s incredibly rude to sip your soup like an uncultured clod.
  • If you want to share food, use to the opposite end of your chopsticks: Sharing food is usually reserved for good friends, but sometimes it happens in more social gatherings. Should you find yourself in this position. Turn you chopsticks around using the opposite ends to grab food. No one wants your mouth ridden ridden germs all in their plate.
  • You’re NOT Japanese! You’ll NEVER be accepted and will always be a gaijin!: This is aimed more toward the otaku, yellow fever nerds whom are obsessed with everything Japanese. No matter how much anime you watch, how many immersion classes you endure, or even marry into a Japanese family. You will never be fully accepted. Koreans who’ve live in Japan for generations are regularly discriminated against. Hell, even American born Japanese are looked down upon with a bit of disdain. So why in the hell do you think they’ll take a lily-white foreigner into their fold? Once you learn to accept this fact, it will make your experience that much easier and better.

Australia
After my experience in Japan, transitioning to Australia wasn’t all that bad. In many ways, Australia is pretty much a mirror image of America just set a few years behind. That’s not to say it didn’t come with it’s own set of quirks. Bats fly out in the open, hang from light post, etc. Don’t believe me? Look here. If you ask for a lemonade; you’ll get a glass of sprite. Voting is compulsory. BBQ there is nothing like BBQ in the states. Tipping is not expected but it’s greatly appreciated for exceptional service and so on. But that’s just scratching the surface. My biggest issue with Australia came in the form of its social dynamic.

Race (a.k.a. The whole being black thing)
My race was never really an issue on contention when I was in Japan. If anything, I would say many of the incidents I experienced were spurred by sheer ignorance on their part. For example, people changing seats if I sat next or too close to them on the train or arcade. Or constant inquiries about if I was a rapper or basketball player, etc. But in some cases, it can work in your favor. For some reason there’s this weird, exotic fetishism with black men ( especially African-Americans) I’ve noticed across the globe. Take it for what you will, but it does occur ever once and awhile. In any case, I’ve come to understand the mentality to a certain extent. Japan’s an isolated nation. And their relations with African-Americans (and Africans in general) is extremely limited and based hugely upon media perception. So I can understand the level of ignorance I’ve encountered or the hesitancy to engage in conversations.

For all our flaws as Americans, we are one of the few nations in the world that is willing to be completely self-critical about ourselves, full-frontal warts and all. You won’t find that kind of bluntness down under. Australians are incredibly kind people, but you sometime have to treat your interactions with kid gloves. Case in point, don’t ever bring up the topic of the Stolen Generations. Most (white) Australians are incredibly reluctant to discuss the long lasting social & cultural damage it caused and the remaining fallout from it. Any attempt to do so is usually met with an indignant rant about how Australia is not a racist society anymore, talks about moving on to an egalitarian nation and whatnot. Which is strange considering my whole time in school I did not encounter one ingenious student the entire time. I did see more than a few living in poverty or on the street. And that’s not even scratching the surface of numerous other recent examples I could pull out the hat. Now I wouldn’t mind this hush-hush etiquette if it was a blanket policy and not so hypocritical. But Aussie humor can be very racist. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard words like, “nigger, Abo, Gin jockey, coon, wog, etc.” thrown around in conversations. Now, I won’t lie. Given my perverted and dark sense of humor, I find a lot of inappropriate things funny. Jokes are jokes to a certain point. It wouldn’t bother me so much if their prevailing attitude and perspective on race wasn’t so naive and blindly insensitive. You’d think given the history and how they shockingly mimic problems from the U.K. and the U.S. they would know better….not so much.

That beetle-minded mentality has caused me a lot of personal anguish courtesy of Queensland astute, police force. While I was in school, I worked in a nightclub as a “glassy”. A glassy is responsible for picking up empty glasses, cleaning up shit & vomit, delivering drinks, changing kegs, and all other kinds sexy, custodial work. Naturally, I worked late hours. And sure enough, my trips home were peppered with random stops by the local bill. the most humiliating incident actually occurred right outside my apartment where I was subject to a thorough pat down and search of my belongings. Never in all my experience with the police in America have I felt so violated as I did that day.

Racial double standards and frustrations aside, I really did love my time in Australia and had an awesome time. The educational pursuit was superb, and it was added benefit to study with such a wide range of people from various countries and socio-economic / career backgrounds. Met some great people and contrary to popular belief, some of the food was pretty awesome ( and no, kangaroo meat does NOT taste like chicken). Plus, Aussies are pretty grounded, down-to-earth people, at least the folks in Brissy (Brisbane) are. They have a real (U.S.) mid-western vibe to which I can relate. If I couldn’t live here in Seattle, Australia is actually one of the few places I could see myself residing. I really look forward to day I can go back to visit (or possibly relocate).

Quick tips
Again, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind should you make a trip to the Land Down Under.

     

  • Don’t ask for a Foster’s: Just don’t even bother. They don’t even stock the damn stuff. No one drinks it, nor should they. Unless your goal is to look like a ultra prick, just don’t ask. Take a Stella or whatever is on tap. In fact….
  • Don’t attempt to use Aussie slang or make lame Crocodille Dundee references: Again, doing this will make you come off an incredible douche-bag. Not to mention, you’ll most likely use many of terms and slang in the wrong context anyhow. Just stick yo your dumb, American vernacular and enjoy the trip.
  • Guys, play a game of Rugby: Take off your training bra and play a real game of rugby. Sure, it’s not a gentlemen’s game like Cricket, but it really is badass. Having 10-15 guys come at you full speed with no pads will really help you understand how much of a pussified American Football is in comparison. I knew guys that played pick-up game with broken toes, twisted fingers, and other insane injuries. Now that’s gangsta’.
  • Plan your visit around the October – December time frame: Our season are flipped. Summer here is winter there and vice versa. Do keep in mind however that, this also falls in line with their school year. So you’ll have to contend with lots of kids on their summer break.

The Return
Fast forward to a mild winter day in the middle of December 2005. After being abroad for roughly five years, I finally stepped back onto America soil. But I’ve never fully integrated back into American society. Many of my mannerisms, vocabulary, food preferences, perspective on certain topics, etc. have obviously been influenced based upon my time abroad. I still cling onto these things and I’m perfectly fine with that; it’s just a part of who I am now.

Closing Out
I know I’ve thrown a crap load of information at you. And honestly, it doesn’t even scrap the tip of the iceberg of what I wanted to say. I could write a ton more posts on the racial dynamics alone. But this will do for now. That said, I’ll try to sum it up as best as possible.

I love travelling, meeting new people, trying new ethnic foods, etc. I really try to embody a cosmopolitan lifestyle. I never understood how people grow up their whole life in one city. I can understand having roots to your hometown but never venturing outside your hometown is a concept I can’t jive with. The world is so much bigger than your own sandbox. Go out and be part of it! But I do love America. It is easily one best countries in the world, flaws and all. And I say that without any ethnocentric bias. Too many times have I heard some American rant about how their lives would be better if they’ve lived in XXXX. Many times, they’ve never visited the place or it’s based on some mini vacation they’ve become infatuated with. Not the slightest clue about how the the rest of the world really works or lucky they are to live here. At the end of the day though, you gotta follow your heart & pick to your poison. Just keep in mind, you’ll face a whole host of new problems, especially if you’re of a darker persuasion. Not to mention, the process for relocating is a lengthy & expensive process. And even if you manage to get through all that, is it really worth it? Unless you’re living under some dick-ish military regime or stuck in a long distance relationship, are things really that bad in your country that you need to move and start over again? But hey, what do I know? I’m just another dumb American.

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