Kyoto is home to the largest concentration of UNESCO world heritage sites in Japan. This one city is a treasure trove of temples, shrines, and old palaces. You can walk in any direction and within 5 minutes you will bump into either a small Shinto shrine or a soccer-field sized Buddhist temple. Aside from the historical landmarks and visual smorgasbord on offer, I would have to say that our most memorable experience was where we spent the night – in an old, traditionally built Japanese house that I reserved on Airbnb.
Modernity collided peacefully with past twice that day. The first occurred when we took the Shinkansen train lightening speeds over to this majestic, classically Japanese city. The second was when we (finally) found this anachronism we were to call home for the next couple days.
After about 24 hours of domestic and international flying, Jake (my cousin) and I arrived in Narita Airport just before everything closed. Luckily the high you get from descending into a city of lights such as Tokyo gave us the boost we needed to start figuring out how to secure our JR rail passes, exchange money at a bank, and catch the last NEX train to the city. Groggy and half awake, we dragged ourselves threw the turnstiles and into the first of many trains we would ride.
In a flash we arrived in downtown Tokyo. A little video game chime alerted us to the fact that we had made it to the Shinjuku district. But by the time we got off the train we had realized our first setback – Jake’s cell phone had grown legs and went missing… With the jet lag, eyeing our bags, and countless other things to keep track of, it wasn’t hard to imagine that something was going to go wrong at our first destination. We chalked the loss up to bad luck and carried on. Continue reading Tokyo by Night – Cousins in Japan
2015 is the year I returned to Asia for a brief visit. After leaving China in 2013, and getting myself fairly settled in the Boston area, I felt the need to reconnect with my Asian roots! Although I’ve loved being home and getting re-acclimated, a piece of my previous life was missing… the unexpected adventures, the quirky misunderstandings, and the unbelievable cuisine that you find anywhere in East Asia. So, from April 8-22 I ventured back into the wild – this time it was Japan.
My cousin Jake and I have always talked about backpacking and cycling parts of Japan and that’s exactly what we’ve done. Today I start a series of posts about this trip through Japan from the foot of Mt. Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. (I’ll get to how badass this place is soon). We’ve taken wrong turns (and very right turns!) across this majestic land, but the one thing that has remained consistent is the friendliness and generosity of the Japanese people. They are without a doubt the masters of hospitality.
In the following posts I’ll take you on a journey across this mysterious and majestic archipelago – where the sun rises first every morning and the stars sparkle brightly every night. We started in Tokyo where the neon lights, funky costumes, and glorious Edo past is still visible. Then we’ll walk among the artifacts of previous realms in Kyoto and dance with deer in Japan’s ancient capital of Nara. After that, we’ll visit Japan’s oldest surviving castle in Himeji where the “white heron” was finished being renovated only 2 weeks before we got there! We’ll sip on fine whiskies at the Yamazaki distillery before taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Hiroshima. We’ll step upon ground once too radiated by an atomic bomb for anyone to visit and see the horror of those times through the Peace museum. Not far from there we voyage to Miyajima to visit the most frequently photographed landmark – the great floating Torri. And that’s just the first half of our trip!
Readers of AL.ME know that I recently repatriated from a long visit to China (8 years or so:). And coming back to your home country after being away for so long is a lot like getting over an ex. You were with that boyfriend or girlfriend for 5+ years, but now that it’s over you are dreading the recovery period… In my case, I’m getting over a country and a way of living. What is that unscientific equation? I think it’s…getting over him/her = total time together / 2. (So I’ve got another 4 years to go!)
But fresh off that separation anxiety you realize how much different your life becomes. Your eatin’, sleepin’, socializin’, shoppin’ are all very different but you just have to get used to it. This is the vaguely familiar, new normal for Repats. Now that you’re back you realize how food is more expensive but less healthy (unless you get the salad at a restaurant); everyday shopping is more expensive and there’s very little negotiating; socializing is a whole bunch of going Dutch events in which nobody owes anyone else anything; and health care feels like a scam every time you use it.
Now, to be fair, these frustrations are not as horrible as they first seem. Yes, American food is probably the result of immigrants neglecting their traditional food culture over generations, but there are still authentic restaurants I could go to. With a little strategic planning and flexible standards, shopping doesn’t have to be an exercise in getting screwed so often. Going out with friends, family, and coworkers could be a lot more enjoyable if I just concentrated on the now rather than the future. And going to a clinic or hospital… well, I don’t think I can rewire my brain to think that it’s acceptable the way it is…
What I’ve found is that my “problems” here not really problems – they’re first world problems. They are annoyances that, when combined with a lack of awareness, blow up into much bigger issues if I let them. And a big part of repatriating is finding a way to get through these sometimes difficult situations. Life still goes on. The sun still rises in the morning.
Chinese Twitter threads that I’ve seen discussing foreigners living in their country for extended periods ask: “Why do they [Westerners] stay here when they could live a developed country?” And the answer often looks like this: They are bored of Heaven and need a break from it!
Haha. Well, I wouldn’t call America heaven, but in the greater scheme of things life here is much better than it is for people in the developing world. And although I miss the good food, the warm friendships, the great markets, and the non-bankrupting health care options available there, I know coming back to the US was a great decision.
Author’s Note: I’m 100% supportive of strong family bonds and filial piety. The rest of this article is not intended as a slam against traditional expectations within a family, but it is intended to get Westerners thinking about “guanxi” differently.(Chinese readers and friends, please comment on this below.)
When I have a chat with friends, family, or even strangers about The Chinese Way of doing things, the conversation never fails to include the word “relationships.” But using guanxi to get things done is not all it may seem on the surface. It’s not just about friends helping friends… and when you’ve truly used guanxi to get something done you will likely feel different about that friendship afterward.
Up-rooting everything and moving back to the US was almost as big a change as the initial move out to Asia. And when you make a big move (new job pending) it’s important to keep costs down and stretch your savings. That’s when the Repat has to tap their network, find deals, and hack the systems that drain your interim funds.
Even though the rent is too damn high (!) you have to find a way to ease into an affordable lease. When I just got back to the US I stayed with family in Boston and NH for a few months. Then I subletted a place and moved on to a lease, all of which were never more than 20% of my income. When your income is low (or non-existent) you have to create some rules for yourself and make responsible choices. It’s that simple. Tap your networks, be a guest, and allow yourself to owe friends and family. You’ll have plenty of chances to be generous to them later. Continue reading Keeping Costs Down as a Repat
Before coming back to the US I only had two worries: 1) where was I gonna get awesome, authentic Chinese food?? 2) what happens if I get sick?
Since student loans are my shackles for the next few years (as long as I repay them like a baller…), any medical incident has the potential to reinforce them in cement. Even with insurance, I felt this pit in my stomach coming back because I knew there would always be a heavy co-pay… after the $2000 deductible, of course. And the cost of getting treated is anyone’s guess…
Luckily when I got back to the US (uninsured here at the time) I had no health issues. It was when I started working at my current company that I had a reason to go to urgent care and then to a local hospital. It was an ear infection that caused some hearing loss for about 4 weeks. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise…
It’s August and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of 9+ months back in America and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and the hidden challenges of my repat experience. Enjoy installment #4!
Speaking a foreign language everyday for 8 years is without a doubt a great way to build up that skill. You not only learn how to express yourself in a translated form, but you also experience social interactions in a whole new light. However, you will begin to find yourself behaving differently in your work and at home, with friends and your lover(s).
For years I’ve made specific comparisons between the way Chinese and Americans view and interact with the world around us. We have a lot more in common than we think, but the differences are noticeable. Here are a few changes that I’ve definitely noticed while I’ve been back in America the past year.
It’s July and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of half a year back in America and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and the hidden challenges of my repat experience. Enjoy installment #3!
I’ve gained a noticeable amount of weight since I got back and from the expected causes – America’s bread and butter issue. My identity has returned to being American, rather than a pseudo-Chinese or something else, and therefore find myself uncontrollably attracted to coffee and sandwich culture. Most mornings I’m drinking coffee with a bagel. Lunches are often sandwich-based, like a subway or a wrap. My dinners are becoming simpler, although I do attempt to make Asian dishes on occasion (toufu, pan-fried cabbage, spicy shrimp salad, etc.). Work keeps my entire weekdays busy and I normally cook for one, which makes convenient meals and snacking much more common.
As for dining out, I find that every meal is either pizza, hamburgers, or a steak. Just the other day I had dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, and father. I happily pushed down a plate of mac and cheese with pulled pork drizzled on it. My only vegetable that night – a fried pickle with ranch dressing.
This is not meant to be an attack on American faire, or on the food choices of my loved ones. After all, no one forced me to order the mac ‘n cheese. It was my choice, I know. But now that I’ve been here for a solid half year and slid into new habits, I can’t help but observe these changes in the way I eat. I probably would ignore it a bit longer if my pants were buttoning up properly… Half of the pants I wore in China are too tight now. *ugh* Continue reading Repatriating from China – Food & Dining