The Quality of the Life We Choose

February 3, 2020

I recently had a Skype interview with a travel company based in Kyoto looking for a non-typical foreign employee – that is, someone who was willing to commit to at least three years rather than leaving after one, as is often the case for English teachers and recruiters in Japan. Naturally, this prompted a few questions exploring my state of mind, including them asking me what was it about life in Japan that appealed to me the most.

“There’s no comparison. In Japan, I can have a greater quality of life with an ‘ordinary job’, whereas in the US, it’s a struggle just to survive with one or even two jobs. Not to mention things in Japan like healthcare, the lack of violence…”

I have to admit, though my answer was given within the intention of trying to “seal the deal”, when I reflected on it later that week, I couldn’t help but appreciate just how honest my subconscious was being with me. I would have said almost anything to get the job to at least give me the option of accepting or turning it down later, but my words made me take a hard look at what I would be returning to in the US, and made me realize just how privileged I am.

For one, I can actually choose my quality of life, at least to a greater extent than most. Think about how remarkable that is. I have the choice to return to the United States and struggle for a better life, or stay in Japan and enjoy the one I’ve got. Not that either doesn’t come with its pros and cons, but to have the choice is truly amazing. It’s not even binary: as a US passport holder, I have access to most of the world.

There’s a reason that despite the rise of hate crimes, gun violence, and income inequality in the United States, it still remains a beacon for many in developing countries looking to escape. It’s not that the people applying for visa lotteries are unaware of these issues – and many do find that life may actually be better at home – but to be able to have the choice of trying to sort out a life in America is especially empowering.

It’s particularly ironic for me to take up a counterposition to this, by considering returning to the US as too financially challenging to enjoy properly and a life in Japan as comfortable, but unstimulating. Some might call it spoiled. I can’t really argue with that view, but once the bar is set at a certain level, we just want more out of life.

As for me, it’s been a comfortable three years in a spacious apartment with natural light. I enjoy coming in from work, plopping my backpack down on my chair, and cooking dinner with a full selection of spices. I love being able to go into Tokyo on the weekends and participating in comedy events and hopefully making friends along the way.

But, of course, I want more. I’m too far from Tokyo and the costs for the train add up. People who want to meet are more spontaneous and don’t take kindly to me needing a few hours’ notice to do anything. My job pays well enough to cover my food and rent, but not much in the way of international travel or anything fancy. Not to mention the fact I am a completely interchangeable part at work, capable of being replaced without any major disruption to the school or office.

I made my first choice: I gave notice for this job back in November, after spending a few weeks traveling in Indonesia and Australia. I had forgotten what the world was like outside Japan.

Now it’s time for my second one. I harbor no illusions about being on an eternal vacation for the rest of my life, but I would hope that whatever path I choose would lead me to something more. Something more than creature comforts and fleeting friendships. Something more than working to live. Something more than counting the days and even the years passing and having me ask “is this all there is?”

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