Why do people travel? It’s an easy enough question to answer. For new experiences, to expand their horizons, to meet new people. But what about the expat question: Why do people choose to live in a foreign country? Of course I can’t answer for everybody, but after speaking to a number of friends it seems there may be common threads which bind all expats together.
Escape is often a big factor. Whether that means escaping the everyday mundane life of their hometown or getting away from something or someone, many expats long for a fresh start in a new country.
Then there’s the opportunity factor. I was speaking to a long-term expat friend the other night who said there is nothing in his home country for him apart from family. He then went on to explain that here in Japan he is special. Here he can be someone and do things he doesn’t believe would be possible in his country of birth.
I understand what he means. People are amused by our normal, but very foreign behavior and the things we do that would ordinarily be insignificant in our home country are highly praised. This includes things like singing in a band or writing a blog. Of course, attempts to master chopsticks or to speak a few words of Japanese are seen as evidence that we are attempting to make this our ‘home’ and so we are praised even further. Then of course there is the fact that we are sometimes given opportunities simply because we are foreigners. Case in point: my Native English friend who became an acting sensation overnight just for being himself. On the flip-side though, many expats comment on the fact that sometimes they feel more like something in a zoo or a performing circus animal than a person.
All this talk got me wondering about my own situation. Apart from my mum and my cats, I have no desire to return to Australia. I once told her I never really felt I belonged there. I felt like a fish out of water. When I was living there all I wanted to do was be somewhere else. Somewhere in Asia specifically, because that’s where my heart has always been. The other day I was asked when I was coming back to Australia and the person didn’t specify whether they meant for a holiday or to live. Either way I told them I had no plans at all to do anything of the sort. To me, it seems that they think this is just another holiday, albeit an extended one but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here I am making my own life, living on my own two feet and immersing myself in a culture I deeply admire and respect.
A close Japanese friend of mine asked me last week if I saw Japan as a sort of dream, just a place to fill-in time while I waited for something ‘better’ to come along. As someone who works in a café, she meets lots of foreigners, mostly tourists who are there only temporarily, but she had to wonder for those who live here; do we really consider Japan ‘home?’ I looked at her and said that for the first time in my life I feel I belong. I feel as though despite all my excuses for not wanting to come back earlier (I was first here nine years ago), I have accepted that this is where I should be. It has taken many years, but it finally happened and it was worth the wait.
I suppose as expats we exist in a state of limbo, so to speak. We don’t belong or don’t identify with our home country, yet we will never really be fully accepted and integrated into our new and chosen society either. We always exist just on the edge. This isn’t the fault of anyone or anything; it’s just the way it is Even if we learn to speak the language, we weren’t born here, we can never fully understand what it means to be a native. Despite this, we thrive and forge our own lives, our own communities and we survive. Living in a foreign country can be a daily challenge, yet most expats would agree that the rewards far outweigh the hardships and perhaps this is why we choose to do it.