Why Did You Leave?

People ask me this question and likely think they’re doing me a favor. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I suspect most people believe that the easiest question for them to come up with is also the easiest question for me to answer. The transitive power of inquiry or something like that.

The real question they’re asking is “Why did you decide to upend your life and start over from scratch?”

Much more difficult to answer.

To be fair, I’ve asked a similar question of the many people I’ve known who’ve also left Japan. “Why are you leaving?” It’s a common experience when you’re living abroad. People enter your life and the bond is strong due to the fact you’re both outsiders. Eventually, people leave. Not all, but many. I remember how impressed I was whenever I met someone who’d lived there for more than five years. The general consensus at the time was five years was the point of no return. A signpost signaling your last chance to escape. A lot of people heeded the warning and left before then. Many waited until much later or not at all.

For me it took nine years.

That’s not to say I gave myself any kind of ultimatum. Nine is just the number of years it took. When I left the US in 2007 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still don’t. I had a degree in English that I had barely scraped together from the remnants of a failed Chemistry career. The Great Recession happened right after I left and Japan seemed like a good place to wait it out. Nine years later I woke up and realized nothing much had changed. It’s not a fun thought.

Tokyo is an amazing city. Safe, fantastic food, best public transit in the world, top notch art and nightlife. Living there is truly a joy. For a time. Nothing comes without drawbacks and living in Tokyo is expensive. I’ve recently discovered that many cities in the US are even more expensive, which comes as a shock. Still, if I had been better off financially I probably would have never left. Admitting that makes me sound so mercenary, going wherever the coin is best.

There’s a difference between greed and wanting stability.

I wasn’t able to care about anything other than “am I going to have enough money to make it this month”. That’s draining. Had I stuck it out another year I might have been able to get to that point of financial comfort. Things seemed to be heading in a positive direction. Not quite fast enough but it didn’t seem impossible.

So why did I give up only a little bit from the finish line? That’s trickier to explain. The metaphor I’ve come up with for the foreigner experience Japan is this.

Imagine a snow globe.

Inside it’s quite pretty and interesting when you shake things up. If you’re inside the globe though, there’s an invisible wall surrounding you. There’s only so far that you can go in any direction. Some people build themselves a bigger globe or a prettier village on the inside but there will always be this hidden limitation on everything you do. If I’m being honest that was what wore on me the most. Another friend of mine who left years ahead of me said something along the lines of he was tired of “being treated like an unwelcome guest.”

The dark secret of living in Japan is, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “house guests are like fish, after three days they begin to smell.” It’s hard to shake a similar feeling from Japan in general if you are a foreigner. It’s just the Japanese are too polite to grab you off the street and kick your ass out the door.

Like we do now in America.

Don’t get me wrong, just like everywhere in the world, the Japanese on a person to person basis are fantastic. I made many lifelong friends while over there that would’ve done anything to help me out. I would do the same in return. It’s just the pervasive feeling of not belonging that wore me down. I thought I might have better opportunities back in America, a completely non-unique thought.

Little did I know that I might be worthless to just about any employer since I haven’t participated in the economy for nearly a decade. Yes, I swear those companies on my resume exist. Yes, that’s a real phone number. No, I don’t have two years of office experience, I was a teacher. How hard can it be though?