About this “Loving Anywhere” Business…

I want to write my honest thoughts about some things I have encountered here in Korea after living in Japan for a total of 3+ years. I am in a somewhat unique situation, so I haven’t found that many people who can relate to me or share my sentiments. These are all things I’ve gathered through my own personal experience, so (obviously) not everyone will agree with me, but nonetheless I’d like to share them.

When I first went to Japan as a high school student, I lived with a family for about 2 months. It was the first time I’d ever been on a plane by myself, let alone visit another country. I had only been out of the U.S. once to go on a trip to Ireland with my dad. So everything was so strange and different, and I was overwhelmed by the newness of it all. My host family was great, and so were all of my Japanese language teachers. I bonded with a lot of the other students on my program, and I met a lot of Japanese people.

My first thoughts were that Japan was so clean and that the people were so nice, and I loved it immediately. I went back again in high school before going to Kyoto for a year during college. After that, I thought the JET program would be a great way for me to get back to the country I always hated leaving.

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However, my rose-colored glasses fell off somewhere along the way, and working in Japan showed me a whole new side of things. In Kyoto, when I was a student, I had so many friends and I worked on a lot of plays with my theatre group (as the only foreigner). I was really excited about going to a new place and making friends all over again while on JET, and I fantasized about all the cool things I would do.

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First of all, although at the beginning of our first JET year we all got along okay, as time went by, cliques began to form, and I felt really left out. My predecessor had warned me that she had been lonely living so far away from the other JET participants, but I chalked it up to her not being able to speak much Japanese and brushed it off. It got to me, though, and a few months into my first year, I was really depressed. My mom even encouraged me to quit because I was so upset all the time. Work was hard, and during the day I either felt misunderstood, invisible, or like I had a sign taped to my forehead that said “ALIEN SPECIES”.

I spoke Japanese well, I knew all about the culture, I had lived in the former capital of Japan! But I still had very few friends, and my job was stressful and confusing. The JETs all went out to do fun things together but I never felt included. I decided to make friends with my teachers, and did for a while until I learned that they would be leaving. My favorite teachers were always leaving, so it got to a point where I didn’t want to try building a relationship with the new ones.

I made friends in other prefectures, though, and made a point to go visit all of them. I even went to Hong Kong with one of my best JET friends for Christmas and New Year’s, and we had a great time. I was even ready to be back in Japan afterwards, but it didn’t last. I made a few friends who lived closer to me, but we could only hang out on the weekends, so my weekdays were dull and disheartening. After being laughed at and insulted all day at middle school, I’d go home and try to eat something that wasn’t too much work so I could collapse and try to distract myself from thinking about work.

My second year on JET was a little easier, and a lot harder at the same time. I met Junkyu on a train to Nagasaki to visit my friends, and a few weeks later, we were talking on the phone for hours every night. Talking turned into a long distance relationship, which only made my reasons for staying in Japan at a mind-numbing job decrease. As the year went on, I got more and more anxious to leave, and I got more and more annoyed at Japanese culture. Even as a member of a kyudo club, I felt like I was the token foreigner, always having to explain myself and my culture, so I didn’t feel able to blend in and just learn a new hobby.

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I would visit Korea for a week to visit Junkyu, and we would have an amazing time sight-seeing, eating, and hanging out with friends. Then I would go back to my old, tattered apartment, and count down the days until I would see him again. The job, the long-distance, and the frustrations of being a foreign woman alone in a rigid society was too much to handle. But then I started to stress about moving to Korea and getting married, and I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision.

And then I moved to South Korea. Junkyu and I started decorating our apartment. We visited Seoul and Ulsan and went to the beach. We pet sheep and rode horses and bought an oven so I could (FINALLY) bake cookies in my own home. It was a little tough figuring out how to live with someone I had only seen for week-long stints, but it was so much more comfortable than going home alone to an empty apartment after a demeaning work day.

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I found a job I was sure I would love, and then I didn’t. I worked long hours, had coworkers who were incredibly insulting and volatile, and I (again) felt like a placeholder, not a real teacher. My contract finally ended, and I decided I had had enough, so I quit.

We focused on getting married, and we had an amazing wedding with friends and family. We got a cat and started growing our own food. Now I feel so much better than when I lived in Japan. I feel more independent, more able to do what I want. At first, it took a lot of getting used to, and I wasn’t sure I would ever know my way around, but now I’m a pro.

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In my mind, working in Japan was a huge hurdle I had to overcome before I could get to a better place, but it was once my life’s dream to be a JET. I used to think I would live in Japan forever, but after only two years of working there, I quickly decided to get out.

Now, in Korea, I automatically compare everything to how I felt in Japan, and everything seems so much better to me. I feel like people are more genuine and open, and less afraid of me. I feel less like an idiot and more competent and capable. Things are a lot more convenient (not having to pay cash for everything, being able to order delivery at midnight from almost anywhere, being able to put my clothes in a dryer rather than hang them outside) and I am not even bothered by most things that other expats here complain about.

Japan is a lot cleaner by comparison. People do wait in lines with more patience and less shoving. People are quieter and don’t bother each other. Everyone who works in customer service smiles and looks extremely happy to serve you (unless you are a white person who is with another Asian person who can’t speak Japanese… then they just get confused and this happens).

But in Korea, even though it’s not as clean and people aren’t as patient or “polite”, I still prefer it here. I can meet people and not have them ask me nonstop questions asking whether or not I can eat rice. At work, I don’t feel like a foreigner, I feel like a teacher. Sure, I still experience some annoyances in Korea, but to a much lesser degree.

Perhaps it’s because I am married to a Korean man. That does come with a lot of perks. But even when I am out alone, I feel less judged and less concerned about being seen a certain way. Japanese society made me feel stifled, to the point that I wouldn’t even dare walking outside with sweatpants on. Korea, in many ways, feels much more liberal.

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Despite that, there are so many people in Korea who tell me they visited Japan and like it much better. They say the food is better, the people are nicer, and it’s cleaner. They ask me for recommendations on where to go in Japan, but it’s hard for me as a former resident to give them tourist advice. I wasn’t a tourist. I avoided most tourist places and opted to be a regular at my favorite places. I can see their point, but I disagree with them that Japan is all sunshine and no rain. Once you live anywhere long enough, you can understand both the positives and negatives. Where you like the most depends simply on what your deal breakers are.

Whenever I meet someone here in Korea (where I plan on living long term) it’s hard to talk to them about Japan. The conversations are always about how great Japan is compared to Korea, and when I don’t agree with them, the exchange usually fizzles out. It’s similar to when Koreans tell me they want to visit America and they tell me how great it seems.

It’s all about perspective. That’s kind of what my blog title, Learning to Love Anywhere, is about. I was someone who learned to love Japan with everything I had. Then, suddenly, my world was turned upside down and I found myself falling for Korea. Who knows where we will end up, but for now I’m not too worried. Anywhere is good for me as long as I’m with my husband. As a team, we can find joy anywhere.

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7 thoughts to “About this “Loving Anywhere” Business…”

  1. Wow, Japan sounds very, very lonely and painful. 🙁

    I always interpreted the title of your blog as “Learning to Love Someone No Matter Where You Are,” rather than “Learning to Love Living Anywhere.” Oops.

    1. Haha your interpretation is fine! ^^ I kind of meant it both ways, but I remember hearing someone say, “The people I’ve met who can live anywhere seem to do better (than the people who only like a certain place).” I wanted myself to remember that in case I ended up disliking Korea. Japan is lonely for a lot of people, so having my friends was crucial. I still really miss the friends I have there, but many of them tell me they want to leave and come to Korea XD

  2. I also thought that “learning to love living anywhere” was also in regard to a man… haha.

    Anyway, I completely agree with you. I had the EXACT same experience as you. I studied abroad in Japan and thought it was the best place ever, thinking it would be the place I want to spend the rest of my life… until JET. I was also unable to make friends with the local JETs and I found it difficult to find Japanese friends who liked me as Mary, and not me as “that foreigner.” It was a very lonely 2 years, but it made me so, so, so much stronger. I grew so much in those two years, without it I wouldn’t be who I am.

    I think working in Japan in a Japanese work environment SUCKS. Living in Japan is great, but working there is an entirely different story. I also think that if I lived in a bigger city (Hiroshima/Kyoto/Osaka, etc…) it would have been TOTALLY different and maybe life would have been better. I knew a JET in ishikawa who was so miserable, but now she lives in Tokyo, has been there for 4 years and is happy as a clam. I think inaka life is too lonely and isolated as a foreigner.

    After Japan I moved to China, and even though it was dirty and everyone was rude I preferred it there because, like Korea, people were more open and easygoing. The social pressure in Japan (with all the unspoken rules and whatnot) is extremely burdensome, which I think drives some people to the edge.

    That said, I heard Korean work culture is actually worse than Japan. I dated a Korean guy in Japan who said, “I moved to Japan because I don’t have to work as much here”… which is saying a lot, considering Japan already works way too much. Korean kids also seem really stressed out going to school for 12+ hours a day. BUT.. I haven’t lived there, just heard stories. I do agree with you, though, Korean people are more open and it’s easier to befriend people there.

    I think I would like to try living in Japan again, but in a bigger city and, if possible, with a foreign company. I think those factors together would make Japan a really nice place to be.

    Again, love your post! We have so much in common! Where were you placed in JET btw? I was in Niigata!

    1. Well, the title can mean both. I just wanted to get off my chest the notion that I was telling myself – that I could be happy anywhere. I totally agree with you – I lived close to the city center of Fukuoka but my town was a lot smaller. We barely had any restaurants, and I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. The weekends were so much fun because I got out of my city, dressed up, and went to cool places. But working culture really beat me down. I guess it made me stronger, as well. I learned how to do a lot of things on my own, and I pushed myself pretty hard.

      Korean work culture is similar, but there are a few meaningful differences (to me anyway). In Japan, no one wants to hear your real opinion. They want you to just shut up and do what you are asked, even if no one told you how to do it before. In Korea, at both of my work places, I felt as though they actually needed my opinion and my real effort. Koreans go to school so many hours because their country rose out of the ashes and they are trying to catch up with the rest of the world. I don’t agree with the stressful school environment, but parents also don’t take much personal responsibility for their kids. Even my kindergarten students go to bed at 1am sometimes, because that’s when the parents sleep. I will definitely have to think about what I want our future kids to do for school, but Koreans accept a lot of it as normal. My husband started his own company with two other men, so they work even more, trying to get it off the ground.

      I grinned the whole time I read your comment, haha. When I posted it, I wondered how you would think of it, since you had a similar experience. I agree that the rules and the pressure in Japan is what got to me.

      I was placed in Fukuoka Prefecture, on the west coast, about an hours drive from the main city. I have some friends who are from Niigata!

  3. Hello – I agree with you about viewing places differently based on perspectives and experiences. While I have not lived in Japan (only studied abroad there) I do believe that a number of elements can influence/change your first impressions of a place, people, or culture after personal experience. For me that has happened in every country I have visited – more so for Japan, Korea, and Brazil where I stayed for the longest periods.

    Since you live in Korea now I think you may meet a lot of people (old and young) who haven’t traveled yet and have dream countries that they’d like to visit. For many Koreans – Europe, Australia, South East Asia countries, China, and Japan are at the top of their list. Many of my Korean friends usually speak highly of Japan from their travel experiences, and many who haven’t been there dream of going. Its sad that you can’t really talk with some people you’ve met in Korea about Japan due to differing perspectives about the country. But, I don’t think you shouldn’t talk about it at all. Actually, some people might like to hear a fresh take about a country that would like to visit – such as Japan. In a sense I wish I had received some advice about a few countries I have visited before actually going.

    But, perspectives and experiences are learned first hand, so whatever someone might think about a country (like Japan or even Korea) they need to visit, live, or travel there to really find out.

    I hope that you will enjoy your new life in Korea.

    1. I see what you’re saying, but what I meant was, a lot of people tell me, “Oh, you lived in Japan? I might move there… I’m sick of Korea” and my response is usually, “Well I was frustrated living there…” but they don’t really want to hear it. They usually rebuke my comments with, “Yeah, but that stuff happens here too.” We have different experiences, so it’s hard for them to see my point of view. I’m sure some people would like to hear about my experiences, but it’s hard meeting people who have no idea what I’ve gone through. I tell them I lived in Japan and they say, “Cool! I want to go there.” But to me, the experience was so deep and complicated, that I feel unable to explain it further, and they don’t seem to want to know more. I agree you have to visit and live in a place before you truly know if you will like it. So far I really love Korea.

    2. Sabine, all I have to say is: work in japan for 2 years in Japan and then let me know what you think. Working in japan and traveling in japan are two totally, totally different things. Studying abroad in japan is also different. You don’t see the real side of japan until you’re working at a Japanese company/school.

      Also, same goes for Korea. I’ve never lived there but I hear horror stories where people are grossly underpaid and they sleep at the company 3 days a week because they have so much work to do, or because they cannot leave before their superior. http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/23/asia/south-korea-work-culture/

      I’ve worked both as an English teacher and employee in Japan, and even the stark contrast between these two jobs is baffling. Life as an English teacher was “easier” since I was treated like “the foreigner” and wasn’t bound to the same rules as the Japanese staff (for example, I could go home at 5 pm without reprimand), yet at the same time I was not given the same responsibility or privileges as japanese satff, which was frustrating. As an employee, however, I had to abide by Japanese work culture and often worked overtime and was subject to the same scrutiny the Japanese staff faced. I was often criticized about my Keigo, being 1 minute late to work, even for not using the correct honorific (了解です instead of 了解しました).

      Anyway, my point is, studying/traveling and working in Japan are 2 totally, totally different things. I also didn’t realize the loneliness until I worked there. it ain’t pretty.

      But for travel? I rave to all of my friends about japan and say its the best place ever. If they tell me they want to work or study japanese? I usually tell them to exercise caution.

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