As if being reborn and able to see the world through the eyes of a child again, the first few months living in a new country is often termed the “honeymoon” period when even the mundane is new, fresh and exciting.
A trip to the convenience store is an expedition into a world of exotic cellophane-wrapped delights to savour. A ride on the metro is a mission to find your way through unexplored territory and unfamiliar cartography. A meal in a restaurant is a silent prayer for a picture menu or someone to offer guidance. An unexpected encounter with a stranger who goes out of their way to help is to feel welcome. A successful trip to a government office is to summit a mountain and look back down on your hard-won achievements with the smile of a masochist.
These are the moments I live for but they inevitably come at a cost…
I recently read the autobiography of John Nathan, a translator, film producer and academic who has written a very honest account of his remarkable life and career as one of the few foreigners who managed to penetrate Japanese culture and society further than most. He was the first American to be admitted as a student to the University of Tokyo, won an Emmy award, and translated novels by Yukio Mishima and Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe.
His courage in attempting to do things that were (and still are) considered inaccessible to non-Japanese was extremely admirable but, after 45 years of being immersed in Japan, the book, unfortunately, ends on a rather bittersweet note:
I was feeling what I had felt then: the loneliness of the outsider. It was as if I were once again the stranger I had been when I began my Japan adventure, an alien looking through a window at a life that wasn’t mine.John Nathan
It’s a theme I have touched on before and become well acquainted with over the past five years; the fact is that no matter how hard you try to integrate, as a ‘foreigner’ in Asia, you will always be considered an outsider. This gives me pause for thought – not about whether I should be here, but how best to approach life here.
A friend recently commented to me that the aim of living in a foreign country isn’t so much to become a local per se as it is to augment our own understanding of the human condition. I can’t help but still feel that it leaves us somewhere in-between cultures. I have a UK passport but I’m not sure I could really call myself 100% British anymore.
I long to travel other roads which will lead me to a place I can finally call home.John Nathan
For all the logistical challenges of moving abroad, perhaps it’s the emotional challenges that present the biggest hurdle. In the end, this comes down to learning how to feel comfortable in our own skin and surroundings – a trick that requires a lot of confidence to pull off.