Take the post office, for instance. One of my very first experiences here was receiving an “undeliverable” notice for certified mail from our bank. I was in a panic – it was late on a Friday afternoon and we needed the papers before the weekend, but I didn’t have a clue what to do. After some anxious running around and incredibly generous help from complete strangers on the street, I eventually found myself at the ward post office retrieving my mail. By the way, did you know that the distribution centers for the Japanese post office are open 24 hours? I couldn’t believe it. In fact, I took a picture of the sign because I knew you wouldn’t believe it, either. I love this country. Fast forward to August, when I again received a notice that I hadn’t been home to accept a package delivery. No sweat. You just go to the website on the back of the form, wade your way through the Japanese, and select a time when you would like to have your package redelivered. No joke, the postman will get back on his little red scooter and bring your package back to your apartment at 9pm on the same day. Or whatever time slot you select. Yep, I’m in love. Since we no longer have a kitchen, we are “forced” to eat out during our time in the hotel (okay, maybe expat limbo isn’t that bad). In December, this was a pretty daunting task. We were limited to places with picture menus – but even then, it was always a risk because you were never quite sure what you were actually ordering (case-in-point, the time we mistakenly got stir-fried chicken organs). This time around, we have a list of restaurants to visit before we leave, most of which are recommendations from the many friends that we have made this year. Like, for example, the sushi restaurant where your order is delivered on a little shinkansen train that drives to your table from the kitchen. You don’t just stumble on places like that. Later this week we have a going-away party at an izakaya where you order food with a magic pen… just tap the items in the menu, tap the quantity, tap “send”, and the dishes magically appear a few minutes later. Is it wrong to enjoy the ordering process as much as (or more than) the actual eating? Nah, not in Japan. Of all the surprises that we’ve encountered while abroad, the most unexpected has been the many friendships that we’ve developed this year. I thought we would feel more isolated – partly because of not having kids as an excuse to meet other families, but also because the Japanese have a reputation for being very polite but not terribly open. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t the case for us at all. We were enthusiastically welcomed into a community of friends that share a common interest in learning foreign languages and cultures, so of course we fit right in. While it may have been a little awkward initially to sing and dance to foreign folk songs in a room of complete strangers (okay, very awkward!), it soon turned into a room of close friends. We both agree that this truly made our experience here worthwhile, since we had a chance to connect with others and to transform our position from short-time visitors to actual community members. I guess doing something like that requires a good stretch of the comfort zone. How many of you can say that you have done the Hokey Pokey in foreign country? Exactly.
New friends of course aren’t just limited to locals. Being an expat is such a unique experience that there are certain things that only other expats can understand. Such as the time that I broke down in tears in the grocery store. It’s tough to explain that to someone who hasn’t gone through this experience (did I really just admit that to the entire internet?). On the other hand, it’s a real blessing to be able to have coffee with a friend who can relate and doesn’t think you’re a complete nut. Or at least doesn’t admit to thinking you’re a nut.
I’m sad to think about all that we’re leaving behind in Japan. It was a real surprise when we learned that our time here was shortened – good for the company that the project was finished ahead of schedule, but unfortunate that we had to condense our experience by a few months. Japan has definitely become our second home. I realized this last week when we were headed home from our vacation in Thailand. Previously, returning from trips has made me feel homesick because our Nagoya apartment isn’t actually “home”. This time, though, I was missing Japan so badly that I couldn’t wait for the plane to touch down in Tokyo. When the chaos and craziness of Tokyo has the nostalgia of “home”, you know you’ve begun to settle in here.