Expats: We Always Go Home

February 23, 2012

South African A330-200

Disclaimer: Based on initial impressions, I realized I really should have been much more specific when referring to “expats”. In this scenario, I’m certainly not referring to the zainichi and those with Japanese citizenship, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t considering foreigners with permanent residency. In any case, this is mainly targeted at those 20-somethings who come to Japan and Korea with nothing but a university degree.

I had the chance to catch up on some of my Korea expat YouTube subscriptions recently and I came across a rather grounded one by CharlyCheer. In it, she discusses not having her TALK contract renewed and being forced to return to the US. Her experience reminded me of several similar announcements across the Korean and Japanese YouTube and blogosphere:

– BusanKevin, a Canadian who started teaching in Korea and eventually moved to Japan, got married, and had a son, has stated his intention to eventually return “home”.

– Chris in South Korea, who is NOT leaving, did still write an interesting article on how new arrivals should behave. He began it with “While coming to Korea is never seen as a permanent thing…”

– The author of Good and Bad Japan, which is now back up and running, wrote his thoughts in a new eBook, but I’ll come back to that.

– Sean Smith’s article for Groove Korea titled “Why my family and I must leave Korea” is pretty self explanatory.

I know plenty of expats who make lives for themselves abroad, getting jobs outside of teaching English, finding a significant other, pursuing their passions in Asia. Granted, it’s rare I run into a 70+ man with a Japanese family who has spent and is going to spend the rest of his living days outside his home country, but we’re not likely to socialize in the same circles. Even considering this, I think the experiences of a long-term expat like Kevin and a recently arrived one like Charly present evidence of a pretty solid theory: we always go home.

Despite my frustration back in my Japan days about others constantly assuming I would eventually leave “their” country and go back to my wily US ways, I have to say, having seen and heard everything in Korea, Japan, and the states the last six years, they were right to say so.

When I made the decision to leave Japan, I initially assumed it was an unique one: feeling like an outsider; no opportunity for advancement in society or at work; longing for the familiarity of home. Of course, it was rather ignorant of me to believe thus; nearly all one- or two-year expats go through the same motions. We’re young, immature (at least in terms of living abroad, sometimes just in general) and seeking adventure, not a life. But Japan intrigues us, grips us, entices us to stay a second, third, maybe even forth year. And then reality sets in:

1. The bitterness comes, and it’s difficult to erase without throwing in the towel.

2. We want to see more, do more, get outside the bubble.

3. Perhaps most important is the question posed by those left behind: “Ok, you’re enjoying teaching; that’s great. What are you going to do when you come home?

When we come home. Not if. WHEN.

There’s a cutoff point in any expatriate’s experience abroad when he or she knows this is no longer a gap year, but a life. For some, it comes when he marries a local. Others, buying property or simply letting the years teaching get away from them, i.e. no thought into looking for other work, just renewing contracts. I used to think that these lifers would spend the rest of their days in Japan or Korea. Now, having heard from so many long-termers… I’m not so sure. It seems like the breaking point for these expats is just simply further down the road than most of us can handle. I could be wrong; it might be due to raising kids, securing a job back home, or tending to family left behind.

In any case, for most of us (I include myself in this group) who let the years abroad get away, we simply forget how difficult it is going back. A gap year seems like a great idea fresh out of a college, and it is. But three? Five? Would you still want to be teaching English at the same eikaiwa when you’re 33? 45? What if you think that’s what you want, only to get tired and try to go back?

I arrived home full of optimism but without any real plan about how I would find a job. I wasn’t worried, though. I had previously been a lawyer and although I knew I didn’t want to get back into that field of work, my intelligence and personality would somehow see me all right. Of that I was misguidedly cocksure.

The girl at the recruitment agency looked at my C.V. and said she could get me some temp work in a call centre. I laughed and said, ‘Right. No, seriously, what have you got?’ and she looked rather grim and said, ‘That’s where we could place you. Probably. The thing is, if you really don’t want back into law, you’re not actually qualified for much. I mean, if you don’t know what you want, we can hardly help you.’ And then she explained that they weren’t careers advisors but rather that companies were their clients and they found people to fill the vacancies they had. ‘i.e.,’ she said, ‘we find people for companies, rather than companies for people.’

‘So…,’ I said.

‘Call centre,’ she replied.

For reasons of pride I knocked back this opportunity, a decision that seemed a tad hasty when I found myself accepting a job in an all-night cafe whose primary perk was an ill-fitting t-shirt which failed to conceal my pre-middle-aged spread. That was bad enough, but I also had to work with lots of students who felt sorry for me having this as my real job.

The pay was less than four pounds an hour. I could feel people looking at me and hear their internal voices saying, ‘Oh look at that poor soul. What a shame! He’s a fat, bald man and he works in an all-night café.’ Worse, was that within two weeks I had suffered the ignominy of serving both a girl I’d gone through university with, who was in having coffee with her mum, and then a girlfriend from my school days.

The girl from university greeted me warmly but she was smirking more than smiling when she asked what I was up to these days. It was difficult to see how I could pretend I wasn’t working in a café serving her coffee. The ex-girlfriend was too polite to ask if this was all I had amounted to, but even with my stomach sucked in as far as it would go it was clear she wasn’t in any way ruing the day she let me get away!
Lifer – How to be a bald middle-aged eikaiwa teacher in Japan

The author goes on, but sufficed to say, that situation doesn’t really figure into expat brains when we first make the decision to live abroad. The job market is tough everywhere, and giving up a year, especially one right out of university when you’re supposed to be laying the foundation for your career, can often result in the above… or worse.

So am I recommending you just don’t go abroad in the first place? Not at all. I think a year or two is one of the best decisions you’ll ever make, even more so if you’ve already gathered some experience in your field and are considering a new company or a slightly different path in life. But fresh out of college graduates, just keep in mind: teaching English is not a resume builder by any estimation. I know, you’ve been reading articles about how travel can be used on your resume, and while this is true to some extent, long-term travel only hurts you when it comes time to find your place back in your home country. Your worldview may be widened, your personality may be humbled, but you shouldn’t ever have to live in your parent’s basement while things come together on the job front. Just one man’s opinion.

6 Responses to Expats: We Always Go Home

  1. goodandbadjapan on February 23, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I pretty much agree with you, as far as teaching English concerned. That is, if you are not planning on it being a career then there seems little point on spending more than two or three years doing it (unless it is a way of living in the country to build language skills which will serve you in the job you do want to do). I have no regrets about coming back to Japan, and am sure I will be here until I retire. But there’s the thing that perhaps backs up your theory – until I retire. I still find it hard to imagine myself in my seventies and living here. Part-time, perhaps, but full-time, I’m not so sure. Probably won’t go ‘home’, though – more likely to France or Spain!

  2. Hiko on February 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Interesting article and comment by Goodandbad Japan. And thanks for the Twitter exchange (with my apologies…).

    First up, yes, disclaimer is definitely necessary here, because while indeed, you are good at being consistent with using the term “expat”, a lot of readers will mistakenly think it is meant to apply to all “foreigners”. To be clear, I think I am safe to understand that among the 2 million foreigners in Japan, we are talking about the 30-40,000 OECD country citizens here, and within that those who are here on a time limited basis. To me, the difference between being an Expat and an Immigrant is the plan to leave. A lot of people come to Japan starting out as planning to be immigrants, but after the many ups and downs people go through living here, make the mental switch along the way to becoming expats before leaving, usually within 3-5 years. By definition, I think Expats usually arrive in a country as adults, and lack sufficient language/culture skills to live in Japan without any kind of support as an ordinary Japanese would, although many come here with the sincere intent to overcome those issues, and indeed, some succeed.

    But granted, this group of western expats that this seems to be aimed at still makes up what feels like 90% of the westerners in Japan (ie, who are not immigrants or permanent residents), so it’s still a fair presumption applied to that group. What I take a secondary issue with is the presumption that English teaching and other low level part time work is the backbone of expat life in Japan. Again, this is probably fair to say on a majority basis, but there are of course many different types of expats, including foreign technical financial and legal professionals, as well out out of country expats working in the many foreign companies in Japan, who usually have very different experiences of Japan as an expat to the English teacher examples sited here (who indeed can come to Japan and succeed at being here for advancement). There are also some people who take education as a professional vocation, and take their work seriously as part of building a professional career, and even starting businesses for established life here. I know that these kinds of people often find the unattached uncommitted journeyman English teachers to be annoying and embarrassing to be associated with. Certainly, it’s not really fair to lump all English teachers together like that.

    Interesting point about retirement raised by you and GoodandbadJapan. I don’t think location of retirement necessarily disqualifies someone from being seen as a permanent resident or serious migrant. My criteria for retirement for now are basically somewhere warm with ocean, good medical care, and good Internet. Could be Okinawa, could be Singapore, could be Thailand, could be Queensland. I don’t think planning to retire somewhere different to where I plan to spend my working life makes me an expat. It may make me an expat retiree one day – but I don’t think its reasonable to make retirement a factor in consideration of whether you are an expat, unless you are within 10 years of retiring.

    So in terms of who I think this blog is for – I think it is good and reasonable thoughts and advice for people with a similar experience – part time or non-career working, 1-5 year western residents of Japan. However, I think the apparent presumptions of all westerners here falling into that category will be grating on the minority of westerners in Japan who are genuine immigrants living deeper lives here long term, and it’s not really good for people about to go to Japan, in that even if they end up as expats, coming to Japan with the intent to try to be an immigrant and to learn as much as possible is still the right attitude to bring, and all encouragement to such people to succeed. I think there are too many people that dredge up the old “foreigners will never be accepted in Japan, you shouldn’t try” on their way out, that generates a lot of the friction that can exist with new arrivals. It’s a life phase thing. I think people planning to come to Japan should know that the experience of living in Japan, even as an expat, can be broader than what is described here. But it’s a pretty reasonable account for the experience it is based on, that a lot of other similarly experienced people I think will find wisdom in.


  3. goodandbadjapan on February 23, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Excellent points by Hikosaemon. Completely agree that people need to realise that teaching as a professional vocation is possible here and not everybody is doing it to fund a holiday. Despite the (tongue-in-cheek) title of my blog-book, I don’t think long term teaching is just for losers and people who ‘forgot to go home’. It can be a career which is rewarding and which can provide a stable and reasonable income. Some long-term teachers are sort of ‘lost’, though. I think I was once, but I’m glad I have stuck it out! One other thing, I wonder if by the time we are in our sixties and seventies we will see a lot more older (western) gaijin living in Japan as their home. I suspect we might. I get the impression that even in my time here the average age of English teachers has crept up. I have no stats for that, just a feeling based on observation.

  4. Chris in South Korea on February 24, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for the link to a recent post. Most people do end up going home because the question is ‘WHEN’, not necessarily ‘WHY’? They feel their run at Korea is up, and as such it’s time to move on, without necessarily knowing where you’re going and what you’ll do next.

    Korea works as a holding pattern, but the people that stick around a foreign country (such as myself and quite a few other long-timers) have another thing going as well. One long-timer is married to a local and a university professor. Another long-timer (and fellow blogger) is married with a kid, and in graduate school. I’m working on my third book, keeping up the blog, and otherwise enjoying traveling around Korea.

    Not every expat goes home – in fact, sometimes the foreign country feels more like home than the country where they were born.

  5. Turner on February 25, 2012 at 3:07 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Hikosaemon was right in his initial comments, as I tend to use hyperbole a lot to get my point across. Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake to assume I’m referring to all foreigners, just as it would to believe this only applies to teachers. While I was a teacher in Japan, and we’re all aware there are a massive number of one-, two-, and three-year teachers due to visa restrictions, I still stand by this theory, especially after hearing from Kevin and vloggers like Jason at MyArgonauts. I don’t dispute that plenty of expats stay beyond the time most of those on teaching contracts do at the prospect of building a family and finding other employment.

    However, I just don’t see it lasting for the long run… Chris, are you going to be in Korea for the rest of your life? I know that’s an impossible question to answer, but if there are any lingering thoughts, I’d really like to know about them.

  6. Andrea on February 25, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    This is an interesting phenomenon that we’ve noticed amongst friends that go abroad. Being from two different countries originally, though, I wonder which one my husband and I would choose to go back to in the long run. I want New York but he probably wants Perth in the end. Time will tell!

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