I have not updated this blog for two months now. So what’s my excuse? If you want to know the truth, it’s because life has not been all peaches and cream, and I have not had the motivation or will to write. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been out, doing fun things, seeing interesting places. But things have also come to a breaking point in terms of trying to adapt to life in Okinawa, and I have finally given up.
A lot of times on travel blogs, life seems so exciting and fun. Exploring and sightseeing, trying new food, meeting new people, learning languages. Yes all of these things are wonderful experiences but people often don’t mention the other side of life as a foreigner in a foreign land. Particularly in a place like Japan with huge cultural and language barriers.
To put it bluntly, despite what I feel are my best efforts, this past year in Okinawa has been possibly one of the hardest and worst of my life. And the most lonely. Perhaps living in the expat haven of Hong Kong for six years made me soft, or spoilt. Because in Hong Kong, life is so easy. A huge international community of like-minded people who like to hang out all the time and travel, locals who are not fussed about foreigners, and lots of support in English for your daily life.
But, things are different in Japan, and I just can’t do it anymore.
Half of the problem is my husband is still working in Hong Kong, so he’s just not here. I know there are lots of families who live separately and don’t mind, but I actually like my husband, and want him around.
The other half of the problem is that Japan is a difficult place for foreigners. Not that it should have come as a surprise to me; I knew that going in. But I suppose when you move somewhere, you take a leap of faith. Faith that you will meet some nice people, faith that after the initial adjustment that life will get easier and better. Unfortunately that has not happened here.
I had put my daughter in an international school, with the belief that it would help me to meet other parents in the area, perhaps other mixed families, people who could speak some English or had travelled or lived abroad. During school pick up I would be friendly, and speak to them — in Japanese!! — but the fact remains that Japanese are afraid of foreigners and very few have an interest in making foreign friends. They never said to me, hey do you want to come with us to the park after school? Do you want to meet up some time? Would you and your daughter like to come to our home to play? I kept trying and trying, but it just never happened, and I don’t know why. I’m a nice person, honestly! I don’t have a snaggle tooth, I’m not scary looking.
I had joined a language school, which did help me to learn a lot of Japanese really fast, but that didn’t help in terms of building a social life. I am 35 years old and a mother – everyone else is 18 year old and practically a kid themselves. So, that didn’t help.
The area where we live, close to Naha, has very few foreigners. And the areas that do have foreigners are all US military bases that are quite far up the island. So, that didn’t help either.
Sometimes days and days and days could go by when I would have literally nobody to talk to except for my 4-year-old child, which again, doesn’t really help because she could spend 30 minutes talking about planning a birthday party for her toy penguin. I’ve never experienced that before – days of solitude, and I hate it. I hate being alone.
When you move, you DO have to hold on and keep trying. But how long do you have to keep hanging on? And if you are somewhere and you are not happy, when you decide to give up, pack it in, and say, fuck it, I’m done?
Well I’m done. Fuck it. Okinawa is an incredibly beautiful, clean, safe place. But I don’t think I will ever feel at home here. And life is too short to be lonely and sad. What’s the point of living in a tropical paradise if the isolation feels like hell?
So last week, I made a trip back to Hong Kong, and stayed in the town we lived in just before we left. And it was wonderful. I felt the glow of meeting up with old friends and being welcomed back with open arms as though no time had passed at all. It took us forever to take a walk anywhere because we kept bumping into people and getting into long chats. Everywhere we went we saw old faces who were happy to see us again, who asked us if we needed help, if we needed somewhere to stay. We had plans with friends for every lunch and every dinner. At our favorite seafood restaurant, the granny who runs the place recognised us and came to give us a box of cookies. We couldn’t speak Cantonese to her, but it didn’t matter. After all this time struggling in Okinawa, being back in Hong Kong was like slipping on your favorite pair of pajamas. Comfortable and warm and safe.
“Just accept it,” my friend Laura said (she is also a Trini in Hong Kong). “Just accept that you are going to live and die in Hong Kong!”
Within days we managed to find an apartment to rent. So during the next two months, we will make the transition back to Hong Kong. My kid can go back to the same school she went to before. We’ll go to the same park and never be alone. There will always be people to lime with and talk to. And I will never take it for granted again.
The funny thing is, we spent years planning our escape from Hong Kong. Dreaming about life in this beautiful island of Okinawa. And now after one year, I’m heading back.
Do I ever learn from my mistakes? I feel like I sure have made a lot of them. Some the same mistake twice. I don’t even want to think about the dozen places we have lived, the different apartments we have rented. The things we tried and failed at. We were so sure we were moving away. I wasn’t counting on this happening.
I know when we move back to Hong Kong there will be days when the sky is a dark grey from the pollution and I will worry about my kid’s lungs. I know we will look around the small apartment and sigh, and think about the big home we left in Okinawa.
But, one very important life lesson that I have learnt over the past year is that material things do not provide happiness. In Hong Kong apartments are small and you have to downsize your life. You dream about having a ‘real home’, with lots of space. Here in Okinawa we have everything we thought we wanted or needed. We are a family of three yet we have four bedrooms, two cars, a storage room full of tents and camping equipment, boogie boards and golf clubs…. For goodness sake, we have a kids play space on our roof top! We have more space than we could ever use. Heck, we all sleep together in one room anyways. Why the hell do we need four bedrooms if nobody is in them?
So, stay tuned, because here we go again.
Chalk it up to experience, I suppose. What else can I do?
All you can do is live, and try, and learn from your experiences. Take risks. Learn about yourself. Learn about what you want and what you need out of life. Stay flexible. And also, know when to call it quits.