Why I’m Leaving Germany

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When it was time for me to leave Japan, I knew it right away. Seeing how my colleagues acted so casually in the aftermath of the tsunami made me start piling up all the reasons why Japan made me unhappy. How I could never fit in. How I had terrible loneliness. How I started acting out when people were ignorant about non-Japanese people and culture.

Now, in Germany, it’s not taken a tsunami to shift me out of love with my life here, but I know for sure that it is time for me to leave. I often think I’m crazy, since I have a job I feel passionate about, and I live a very good life here in Germany. But there are two main reasons why I feel I cannot go on here without becoming very unhappy.

1. Communication.

Tonight I was in the food section of a department store with a friend when an elderly lady fell back and crashed to the floor, knocking her head on a freezer as she went down. Blood was pouring from her head. A man and a woman nearby jumped to help her, and I did too. I helped the lady to her feet then was listening as the woman was explaining to the lady that there was blood coming from her head. I stood around helpless, wondering what to do, what to say. The lady needed to sit down, and the woman spoke with a member of staff but I didn’t quite catch anything about getting her somewhere to sit. I said awkwardly to the woman “there are sitting places over there” but the woman looked at me as if I was a nuisance and turned away from me. In the end, I could do nothing. So I paid up and left.

Even though Frankfurt is an international city, where 99.9% of people speak English, I feel isolated. My German is coming along well and I understand quite a bit these days, but I would need to study German a lot more before I was in a place where it would take away my isolation. In Japan, I wasn’t isolated by a language barrier – but I’d been studying it since I was 16.

I want to be in a place where I can make small talk with someone nearby. Or help someone in the street. Or be able to live with people who don’t have to put any extra effort into speaking with me because they speak in English anyway. Although I have more English-speaking friends here than I know what to do with, the fact that my go-to language isn’t the same as the majority of those around me makes me feel very limited in my world.

2. Information.

I’m in a supermarket in Germany and I pick up a can of soup. I judge it by its price, the design, the ingredients list. That’s it.

Take that same situation in Britain and I have a lot more information to hand – perhaps I’ve seen an advert about the soup, perhaps I saw a review for it in a magazine, perhaps I remember eating this soup at uni and remember whether I liked it or not.

I feel that here in Germany – and, indeed, as an expat in many places – it can feel like such a one dimensional life. It’s almost like being a child, with no prior knowledge on the things around you. This goes beyond a language barrier, it’s an informational barrier. Of course, one could learn more about the things around them – watch the tv adverts, talk about things with locals. In Japan I can’t read the words “ajino moto” or “biku camera” without singing the jingles, and simple information like that made me feel more at home there. But it’s totally different when you’re back at home in your own country and you are holding an item that takes you on a trip down a million memory lanes, sparking recognition in your brain. I want to go back to living around things that I know well, not things that are new and unknown.

Though I look around at the amazing people and the amazing life I have here and feel sad to be leaving it all behind, I get a pang of excitement inside me when I think of being able to live back in the UK again. I’ve been away for so long it’s like a foreign country to me now and I’m even excited at the prospect of experiencing reverse culture shock. There’s nothing like living abroad for understanding your own country and culture, but I feel that when I return and see everything with fresh eyes, I’ll be able to understand what it is to be British more than ever before.

And then I can start writing a whole new chapter in my life.

Gratitude in Japan

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For some reason, I happened to be reading through an old blog of mine that I used to write when I was in Japan. I started to read a few posts from there and couldn’t even remember writing them, but they were like portals back to my Japanese life.

I’ve found one post that I particularly liked. After almost 2.5 years out of Japan, this is a particularly nice post to look back upon and think about the cultural differences I encountered.

Here is my post, from 10th March 2011 (the day before the tsunami):

In the past week, I’ve had two events that have made me understand Japanese culture just that little bit more than I did before. The first was graduation. Of course, I had graduation last year too, but as it was my first, I was in awe of everything and so wasn’t able to catch a few things. The second, was the wedding of two Japanese friends.

As with any formal event in the Japanese school calendar, such as sports day or the culture festival, the students spent a long long time practicing for the graduation ceremony. Looking back to last year, I wonder why on earth they would want to spend so much time on what is, actually, standing then sitting then standing and singing, then sitting, then standing, then walking, getting some papers, taking them with two hands then tucking them under your left arm, then walking, standing, sitting, standing and listening to enough speeches to make your ears bleed. Some time in the week before graduation, I was stood in a classroom of graduating students, with about 10 minutes before class started. I like to try to speak to the kids in this time; just by being there with nothing to do gives the kids some free time when they can- and often do- talk to me about whatever they like. I saw that the class before was science, and so asked a girl what she had studied in it. “Oh, we didn’t do much science”, she said. “We were writing letters.” Letters? In a science lesson? I asked if it was some kind of project to save rain-forests or – heaven forbid- stop whaling. But she told me that they had been writing letters of thanks to their parents, for helping them and pushing them throughout their junior high school life.

What an interesting custom. In a country where parents (read: mothers) spend hours every day planning their child’s schedule with evening classes to get them ahead, make sure they do homework, buy them piles of books to help them.. it would be common place to take a step back and thank the parents. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever thanked my mum and dad.. well, of course things are different in England. Education is much more left to teachers. There is no cram school, though I did take (at the expense of my parents) extra French class to make sure I actually passed the A Level. But they did work hard to make sure I did my homework, and mum used to read over my essays (she is very good with words, is my mum). In days before wikipedia, dad was always getting me to use his wonderful collection of encyclopedias to help. But I never said thank you. I think even after graduating university, when the key speaker (Brain May wooo!) had told us that we needed to thank our parents for their funding and support, did I not thank them. So I thought it was wonderful that my kids were made to sit down and think about how they had come be where they are today.

And then the weekend before the graduation ceremony, at my friends’ wedding, I saw another custom of expressing gratitude.. but I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m sure I’ll do a separate post about it, but basically it was the wedding of my friend Mi-chan, a guy who I met a year ago. It was a mock Western wedding (I’ll explain why it’s “mock” in the wedding post…) but there were still a lot of things that were very Japanese. One of those things was, during the lunch (the days events were: wedding ceremony, lunch with speeches, after party that was pretty much exactly like the lunch but with more people and no posh food) the bride stood up next to the groom, who was holding a microphone and some tissues near her face, and read out a letter to her dad. As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this was to make everyone in the room cry. The parents (all 4 of them) had to stand in a line at the back and cry, but not before the bride herself started crying. So most of the speech was her sobbing things like “I’m sorry …. mrrrhhhhh…. for always …. mhhhrrrrrr… being … mrrrrhhhhhh… so … selfish .. mrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh!” into the microphone while the groom mopped her damp face.

Now, I don’t disagree that the father should be thanked and congratulated for bringing up a girl who is able to snag a good husband. A lot of his hard earned yen probably went to paying for the wedding too. But.. in front of everyone, and using something that should be a private little act of gratitude to manipulate the emotions of all the guests… I guess I don’t see the point of it. What’s more, it’s always the father. I’m pretty sure the mother worked just as hard, if not harder since it her job to bring up the children in Japanese society.

I think it’s really great that gratitude is a big part of Japanese culture. I wish we took the time out to say thank you to people too. Though we have the culture of sending thank you cards, people of my generation usually only use them to say thank you for a gift (even now I only get round to them when I have my mum breathing down my neck and nagging me endlessly about them.) Perhaps I should take notice and make the effort more often.

Thoughts on Racism

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I have half a dozen posts half written in my drafts but a link on Facebook has fired me up to write about something else completely. A Japanese friend posted a Japanese news link about the town I lived in, Ise. In Ise there’s a traditional shopping street with lots of traditional street food and crafts for sale. It leads up to Naiku, a very holy shrine that’s absolutely gorgeous and the main pulling point for the city. The king of that traditional shopping street is the “Akafuku” rice cake shop. Rice that has been hammered into little blobs are covered in red azuki beans and sold in little wooden boxes. Once a month they sell special edition cakes that we used to get up at 5am and queue for 2 hours to buy.

This was all part of the charm of the place I consider to be my home town. I spent just two years there, but I loved it with all my heart. It’s a gorgeous place, and the locals are so welcoming. Some days I completely forgot that I was different from most of the people I saw around me.

But the owners of that cake shop, the shop that dominates that whole street, think that Ise would be a lot better off without foreigners there. The former head of the company, Mr Hamada, was recently at a conference in Tsu and said such things as “with foreigners here, it’s just not right… Ise is the soul of Japan, so it should be a place that makes Japanese people happy. It’s not there for foreigners”.

I…just…

What?!

On one hand, this isn’t surprising at all as this douche (whoops did I say that?!) is 79 years old and old people tend to be more racist than the norm, no matter which country you’re in. On the other hand, the people of Ise, people of all ages, were really supportive of myself and the other non-Japanese in the town. After all, there were only a handful of us there and it was very rare that you’d get a non-Japanese tourist in the town. It was the kind of place where, if I saw another non-Japanese person, I’d narrow my eyes and demand to know who they were and why they were in “our town”.

I’d say that outright dumb racism like this is pretty rare in Japan (unless it’s against Chinese or Korean people in which case you’d be swimming in it there). I’d even say that outright dumb racism is more visible in the UK; just today I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 and even though I knew that every day he picks a stupid racist topic, I still was shocked when he had a whole section which could be labelled as “OH NO don’t let the Romanians in they’ll take all our jobs and we’ll die!” It was really ridiculous – and even though people were phoning in saying that Polish people in the UK do the jobs Brits don’t want to do and that Romanians don’t want to go to the UK (they’ve been able to come to Germany for ages and there’s not a problem here), Jeremy was still spouting out loads of racist crap.

I can’t imagine what life as a foreigner (or even a non-white person) must be like in Britain. But I guess I have a little idea from living in Japan, as it was eventually the racism that got to me and made me want to leave. There was nothing telling me to go home (I was there, after all, on the taxpayer’s dime teaching their kids) but there were people who refused to sit next to me on the train, women who held their handbags a bit tighter when they saw me, colleagues who spoke to me like I had some kind of mental problem when I can understand Japanese perfectly fine.

On top of that you have all the innocent bits of racism “oh, can you use chopsticks?” “you can’t probably eat this because your stomach is foreign”, “look mum! That person’s nose is so tall!!”

I could sit here and type about all the different kinds of racism that happen in Japan and in Britain until the cows come home. The fact is that I really wonder if there will ever be a day when humans will be seen as humans and not a threat or a hinderance or dumb just because of the skin they’re in. What’s great about the JET Programme is that it puts people like myself in little towns like Ise and forces people like Mr Hamada to come face to face with people from other countries. It’s so much easier to hate on a certain kind of person when you’ve never met a person like that before. The world is getting smaller and so many people are living abroad that I hope that one day people are less afraid of people they’re not familiar with and that we can all live with a heck of a lot less racism.

I’d like to end with a letter one of my students wrote to me when I left Japan. She was in the 1st grade so started school in the April and I left in the July to start my new life in Frankfurt. I hope people like Mr Hamada and Jeremy Vine become “able to like” foreigners as well soon, too.

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“Thank you for the past three months. Of course, my best memory of you will be the fun games you did with us in class, and also when you passed by me in the hall. I was always really happy when you spoke to me and smiled at me. I wasn’t too keen on foreigners before. But because of the classes with you I’m able to like them now. It was only 3 short months but thank you so much!”

Things I Wish People Had Told Me About Studying Abroad

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The other day I read quite a nice article on “Things I Wish People Told Me While Studying Abroad“. A lot of what that website posts is pretty brain draining but it was a nice article and I thought I’d throw my 5p into the pot as well.

In 2007/08 I studied at a girls’ university in Nagoya, Japan. Coming from a class of mainly boys, it was a parallel universe for me, and that’s not even factoring that it’s a Christian university! Nevertheless, it was possibly the best year of my life so far.

So, now that you have my exchange student backstory, here is my list!

1. Do your research.

There are certain things that you may not be able to get in the place you’re going to study in. For example, the Japanese don’t sweat so much and so deodorant isn’t so common. So, if you are going to live there for a while, you should take enough to last you through. It’s always better to do some research so you end up taking with you the right things, even if it means you sound a little silly; I can’t remember how many times I’ve been asked if they have tampons in Japan (the answer is yes – they do. And yes, they ‘fit’ western women, too. They’re just a little expensive.)

2. Shun your countryfolk.

This is going to be controversial.

When I went to Japan, I went there wanting to learn as much Japanese as humanly possible. In my uni course it was common for our weekly test scores to be read out loud to us all by the teacher, and I wanted to come back and be at the top of the class so I’d never feel the embarrassment of having low scores again.

In my class in Liverpool, I was pretty much the only girl, and so I was sent by myself to the girls’ university, while everyone else was paired off and sent away. It was hard because at times I felt real pangs of loneliness, but it was awesome at the same time because I made friends mainly with people who weren’t from English speaking countries. When I visited my classmates in Fukuoka at the end of October I saw that they had a great community of English and American people to enjoy Japan with. It seemed really nice and friendly, and that was great, but I was kind of glad that at my university my friendship circle were Korean, Thai and Japanese people, and that I was forced to speak only in Japanese with them.

If you are studying abroad to learn a language, I highly recommend being stuck up and shunning people who are also native in English. You won’t be popular, you will be looked down upon by others, but you will make that language your default language and improve at a much higher rate.

Living in Germany and trying to learn German now, I really wish I could have a situation like I did back in Japan.

3. Do all the things.

Being an exchange student is very different to being a working expat. As a working expat, and as an adult, not only do I work full time but there’s all this horrid grown-up stuff like life admin. Taxes, student loan forms, papers for this and signatures needed for that…it’s all a massive faff. And all this faff and all this work means that it’s hard to just enjoy all the things your adoptive home has to offer. Lots of people I know go off at the weekends to various German places but I never get round to doing that.

As an exchange student, nothing much is expected from you. You have a few hours’ classes a day, maybe a part time job to keep the beer money flowing, but that’s it. I did SO much in that one year in Nagoya. It was awesome, and I recommend that anyone going to study abroad just does ALL the things. Not only all the touristy things, but also regular things like going to the hairdressers, eating the local speciality, eating the craziest food you can find, perhaps even dating a local. Make a bucket list and tick all the things off. They all make for amazing stories.

4. Culture shock IS going to happen.

I talk about culture shock in a lot more detail in this other post I wrote about living abroad in general, but it still applies to studying abroad as well. It’s good to keep in mind that you will have days when you feel really negative towards the country, and days when you just can’t get your head around why something is done a certain way there when it’s so much better/different back home. It’s completely ok to be like this – it doesn’t make you racist or a bad person. It’s simply the process you go through when spending time abroad.

5. Don’t forget to take a slice of home with you.

Life as an exchange student is probably the first time living abroad for many people. It can be a very challenging experience, though it’s one I wish more people would go through. It depends on the person, but it’s usually a good idea to take with you things that remind you of home. I have a stash of photos of my friends from school and of my family that I take with me and pin on my bedroom wall wherever I am in the world. It’s also a good idea to take with you some comfort food with you like your favourite chocolate or cookies, and save it for a day when you wish you were back home. Music is also a good idea as well – I never really listened to UB40 or Fairground Attraction until I lived abroad; now I listen to them when I miss my family because that’s the music my mum listens to.

There is probably lots and lots more advice for exchange students out there, so please get in the comments if you have something that I missed! And just in case you have no extra advice to add – when/if you live abroad, do you prefer to go out of your way in making friends with the locals? Or do you prefer to surround yourself with people from your home country?

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