Coming Back to Japan as a 30-Something Expat

March 25, 2017

Although I definitely believe coming back to Japan is the right decision for me at this stage in my life, there are many negative preconceptions I’m fighting against. As a 24-year-old fresh out of university, going to teach English abroad was a more acceptable choice; when you’re younger, that’s what you do. Family and friends generally don’t push back as much about “wasting your life” (though some will). You’re out for adventure, and have many years to do so.

However, as a 30-something returning to Japan, the situation is completely different. It’s not quite as bad for those who have been in the country for 10+ years and are fighting stereotypes like: they’re incapable of doing anything but teaching English; for men, they can’t “handle a western woman”. I’ve definitely been the butt of ridicule from younger teachers in Thailand, even when I was just visiting there on vacation at 30.

Frankly, this idea that teaching English in Japan is no better than a fallback position really annoys me. Of course, there are plenty of expats who fit the profile of having no ambition other than to work at a minimum-wage eikaiwa and marry the first person who gives them any attention at all, but there are plenty of foreign residents in Japan who have worked hard to get where they are: Kevin O’Shea, a Canadian who has taught in Japan and South Korea for years to support his wife and children; Baye McNeil, a teacher who started blogging and eventually became an accomplished author and public speaker. The list goes on.

There is a bit of fear around my return, and sadly, it’s all about perception in the expat community. I don’t want to be seen as that guy who returns to Japan because he can’t cut the mustard back home. I don’t want my age to be that much of a deterrent when it comes to socializing and dating in a foreign country. I know these things are all in my head, but they’re sure to come up from time to time, and I need to be aware of how I’ll feel.

My blogs on AEON are still some of the top search results for teaching English in Japan, so I have established a bit of a name for myself there. Who knows, maybe I’ll come across someone at the company who read them and wants to sit down for coffee. I keep looking for examples of teachers who have returned after years: a British man now married and running his own school; fictional characters like Dave from Little in Japan; Jason, who first taught in the JET Program and moved on to a university position.

Where will I end up after a year? In a relationship? Searching for a publisher for my finished book? Out of debt? In deeper debt? Lonelier than I’ve ever been?

I can’t say. No one can. All I can guarantee is that I don’t want to just stay afloat stateside. Like every time I’ve accepted an opportunity abroad, it’s not so much the work that is driving me to leave the US; rather, the options speak to me. I can’t learn more Japanese if I’m comfortable speaking English in the US. I can’t try different foods if I’m so set in my routine I can buy anything I want at any given time, yet I choose the safe option more often than not.

I fully understand I’ll probably be too drained to do everything on my list: explore Japan, write my book, continue writing freelance articles, teach, commute by bicycle, soak in hot springs once a week, read books, watch current movies and TV, meet new friends, cook delicious dinners… but when I’m abroad and in the thick of it, I’m more efficient than when my basic needs are handled and I struggle to find a reason to do more.

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