Six Lessons I’ve Learnt Living Abroad: Part 1

My current job as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET programme is coming to an end this July. As it is only May, July is still a few months away. Still, I had to make the decision on whether I would recontact for 2019 in December 2017, so leaving our home in Shimonoseki has been on my mind for some time.

So now we know we will both leave Shimonoseki, the inevitable questions have started; ‘what next?’ What indeed! There are no answers yet, but we are both continuing to explore things that matter to us. To help understand exactly what this means for me, I have been reading a lot of books to help me escape the cage of my own questioning mind. I know exactly what I want to do, it is just the road to that is complicated, full of boulders, and I am lacking a map. At least I have an idea…

Part of this reading (19 books and counting in 2018…) has included reading other people’s blogs on what is important to them. I recently stumbled across Tiny Buddha, and read this article on lessons learnt from living abroad. Whilst this blog is pretty deep at times, and it is clear the author had enough money to simply give it all up and move abroad / travel / explore (something a lot of us don’t have), it has still motivated me. I am now motivated to write my own version, so please enjoy a little bit of Lorrie reflections below.

I have decided to write these as an installment of six, because after writing the first one, I realised I have a lot to say on the matter…Surprise that is.

Six Things I have Learnt Living Abroad: Part 1

  1. It is really tough to move abroad, especially when you don’t speak the language of your new home.

It is tough, but still totally worth it.

I knew moving to Japan wasn’t going to be easy. Why would it be? We were leaving our home comforts and moving 6,000 miles away to a new home we knew little about. We didn’t even speak the same language as those in our new home. What we didn’t realise, was just how tough it would be. It isn’t like travelling, where, to a certain extent, you can blow with the breeze and have few real responsibilities. Suddenly, we were dealing with visas, taxes, immigration systems we couldn’t fathom or understand, and a whole world of new cultural traditions and language to try to come to terms with. It. Is. Tough.

I have two perfect examples that illustrates the mayhem of making this move, the first is day one in my new apartment. It was 35 degrees. I was hot, bothered and jet lagged. I was dropped off at my apartment and told that someone would come round and connect my electricity in a day or so. I was told not to use it as it was currently connected to a very expensive rate, and would cost a fortune, and may cause problems for my new employer. This meant my first day and night was without air-con, without a fridge, without lights…it was hot, my apartment was dirty, I was attacked by a cockroach (not related but paints a nice picture of the fun I had), and it stank of the cigarette smoke from it’s previous tenant. The walls were also a dark and depressing grey. It wasn’t the exciting first night in my new home I had hoped for. I was also without my husband, and likely to be for at least three weeks as he didn’t yet have his visa.

After two days of living like this (and crying myself to sleep both nights) I plucked up the courage to ask my employer when I would be able to use the electricity. My new supervisor looked at me like I was insane. “What? You have electricity” she said. “Yes I know” I replied, “but I was told on my first day that someone would come round to connect my account and that at the moment it was on a tariff that was very very very high.” “Haha, no, that was a mistake. You can use it now”, she laughed…this was tough because I had been living a few days in the heat of hell and as  it turned out, I hadn’t needed to. It was tough because I partly blamed myself for not asking sooner, and being too scared of a difficult conversation. It was tough because I came face to face with my very first (of literally thousands) experience of those people around me that are supposed to support me, having literally no idea what it is like to move abroad, where the language and culture is all totally new. I also experienced, again not for the first time, what it was like to be laughed at for making what was perceived to be a simple mistake. This laughter wasn’t intended unkindly at all, but it showed me how important it is to try to see things from someone else’s perspective. Try not to laugh at other’s mistakes, at least not if they look like a hot sweaty mess at the time.

The second example is a more recent one, and it is an experience Dan has mainly had to deal with. In order for him to pay his taxes, we both need our social security numbers (called My Number), which we were given when we arrived in Japan. In Japan, you can also get these printed on a card called your My Number Card. Most people don’t need this card, but we were told we did need it, in order for his taxes to be filed. We first applied for the card on the internet and were told it would take 3-4 months to be processed. This was fine, as we had that time. Four months later, Dan calls to ask about our cards, to be told that our applications had been cancelled due to ‘error’. Now this is pretty weird because we both applied for the cards at different times. What. A. Coincidence. It seemed that the Hayman’s were both an error…

Then came the phone calls that tested the patience of my most patient husband. First, we were told that our My Number Cards had been cancelled which meant that our My Numbers had also been cancelled and we needed new social security details. This seemed pretty odd to me, because that is like saying in the UK your national insurance number has been cancelled. I am pretty sure that only happens on death…so, we challenged this and were told we had to attend an appointment at a local council office to start the application again. Dan attends, and is told that our My Numbers are not valid, and we need to start again, getting new social security numbers and new cards. Which he does. We are told it will take 3-4 weeks for our new My Number Cards to be ready for collection.

Four weeks later, Dan calls the office again. This time we are told that our My Numbers were not cancelled, but the cards were due to ‘error’. Our actual social security details remain the same as the piece of paper we were sent just after we moved to Japan. Dan checks with the tax people, who now tell him he doesn’t need the My Number Card after all, just the actual number, which is the one we have had all along. Confused? We were. We were then told that the cards are in the system being processed still and it would be 3-4 weeks before they were ready. We mentioned we have already been told this four weeks ago, and along comes much confusion, paper shuffling, and call waiting at the council office, who eventually tell us to just wait for a letter in the next few days, and then bring this in to the office we had called.

Two days pass and we receive letters in the post to tell us to come and collect our My Number Cards. Hurrah, they are ready…off Dan goes to the office. On arrival, he is told he needs and appointment. News to us. He is booked in and when he finally gets in, he is told the cards are at a different office in Shimonoseki. Why, Dan very polity enquires, when I was told to come back to this office? Oh this office is where you can make an appointment for the other office to collect the card. At this point, probably with steam coming out of his ears, Dan gets on another bus to travel to the other office. He is booked in again and it takes 45 minutes of filling out paper work, having more photos of himself taken, to finally FINALLY get his card. They refuse to give him mine even though he has my passport and we share a name, so now I have the privilege of going through the same appointment system to collect mine.

This was really tough. It required us to be patient with, and accept, a system we did not understand. It showed us the true lengths of Japanese bureaucracy. It took us on a journey into the workings of a Japanese council office, which is not something we wish to do again. More than this though, it was tough because it took away any power of control we had over a situation where we needed a clear outcome. We found ourselves at the mercy of people who spoke broken English to match our broken Japanese (usual life here), but who displayed limited kindness to helping us resolve a very confusing problem. Kindness of others has been so integral when making our life here a success. Without other people helping us get by, we lose hope. In this case, it was really just down to the dogged determination and endless patience of my wonderful husband that resolved the problem, as we were both simply an ‘error’ to those in that council office.

Still, we also learnt more about personal strength and the depths of our determination. Don’t lose your cool, keep trying, and hopefully you will come out of the other end with that much needed My Number Card and electricity account! Or whatever it is you are seeking…both of these stories illustrate in different ways how tough it can be to move abroad. Even simple things, everyday things, suddenly become confusing and you end up needing others to help you through it. Sometimes the people that you ask for help from have their own things going on which means they don’t help you as much as you may really need. At times like these we sit down and / or go for a walk, breath, try to laugh if possible, and then head back into it with a slightly clearer mind. So, part 1 of things we have learnt moving abroad it that it is really tough, and kindness and seeing things from other people’s perspectives is so important.

Spoiler: if we could go back to before we moved to Japan with the hindsight of part 1, it is tough, we would still have moved here a thousand times over. After all, it really has been the best time, and brought us closer together, and more appreciative of this little thing we call life. Blerg.

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