In less than one month we leave for Japan – almost exactly fifteen years from the day we left. So much has changed. The person I was then – a 23 year-old, recently married, college grad who was just beginning a career (in the end, a rather short-lived career) as a teacher – is both intimately connected with and very, very distantly related to the person I am now.
Japan will be the first foreign country I’ve ever called home and then returned to, to call home again. And like those before and after shots of people who’ve lost a hundred pounds or gotten complete make-overs, I have this sense of all of the emotions and thoughts and assumptions wrapped up in my first time there running parallel to what my experience will be like this time.
For the most part I’ve been ecstatic about our return. Our time in Japan was a good one. Not without its challenges, but good nonetheless. Living in Japan was the first significant opportunity I had to learn to let go of what I thought to be true and accept a different, subtler truth that comes from recognizing for the first time that we all live completely from our own perspective. Of course that journey’s ongoing and has been paved with ups and downs, but without a doubt one of my biggest personal mantras was born out of my time in Japan –
The minute you’re certain you know, you stop knowing anything at all.
So there’s this strange dynamic to going back this time. Having lived in Japan before, I know so much more about what it’s going to be like. That’s comforting. But I also recognize that the key to survival is recognizing that my assumptions and beliefs must be filed away for reference, not written out like a game plan for my survival. Things will be different. I’m different. This has seemed a bit daunting – knowing what it’s going to be like and simultaneously remembering that things will have changed. However, I’ve recently come to the realization that this filing and sorting of past experiences is something most expats (myself included) do all the time.
I can most easily relate this to what it’s like to go home. In the course of our international adventures, I’ve come and gone home from Austin countless times. In the early years, it would upset me that it wasn’t the same, that I wasn’t the same, that things felt different and that for all the ways I felt perfectly at home, there were all these ways in which I could never feel the same sense of belonging again.
However, with time, I’ve learned to see and then file my assumptions and beliefs away. I don’t ignore them, but I don’t live by them either. I can pull them out, check their validity, wonder about their reality, but I don’t have to use them as my only guide. Keeping my eyes and heart wide open without needing anything to be a certain way, seems to work much better for me. I can’t say it is always easy…but there’s no question it makes me feel happier, more at peace and more satisfied with whatever actually unfolds before me.
I think this is one of the biggest keys to living more mindfully as an expat. When we develop the ability to know that things may not always turn out the way we expect them to and when we learn to recognize that our past experiences provide us with only part of the insight we need to understand our current situation, we can more fully settle into a place of curiosity and contentment. From that place, we’re more open to appreciating what we may find upon landing in a new home- regardless of whether or not we’ve been there before.
Japan will be like this I think. It will be both somewhere I know and somewhere completely unfamiliar. My mental file will help me make sense of things when I need it to, but some of the aspects of Japanese culture and language that I most remember will likely turn out to be irrelevant this time around. In fact, even some aspects of my own personality will fit (or not fit) differently than they did before.
So, with just a couple of weeks to go, I’m comforted about returning to a place that holds so many memories and excited to know that there will still be so much learning left to do. And then there’s sushi…so, you know, how complicated can it all really be?
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