This post has been milling about my mind for a while but particularly this month as today approached. I am sure it will not be worded as well as it could be but you will have to forgive me, you will see why below. There are many wonderful things about being an ex-pat, though perhaps I should say “mobile ex-pat” to distinguish we who live in a new country for a year or two (or three) from those “immigrant ex-pats” who have made a permanent home in one particular country. Most obviously, the opportunity to experience living in a country for at least a full cycle of seasons and celebrations, rather than being restricted to a week or two as a tourist, is extraordinary. Even if one only learns a little about the local culture, we learn things about ourselves and our home countries (and our relationship with our home countries) that we could not have done had we stayed home. But one of the things which I have appreciated the most was something that, in all my reading and intellectual preparation, I did not expect: the friendships you make with other ex-pats.
Even the most self-sufficient person who moves to a new city and culture (and, as we discovered in Sydney, that need not be in another country) needs a support network in a similar way that we do when we have a child or experience a massive life change like divorce. Most people forge their close, lasting friendships in the fires of the playground or Uni lecture halls (or the avoidance thereof) and so it’s understandable that those living where they grew up have little need to seek out new friendships – whatever the language barrier. It makes sense, then, that the first and possibly majority of friends that you make when you arrive in a country will be other ex-pats who either have been or are going through the same process. Those who have been here a while remember what it is like to be in the position of needing help for things which seem so basic they are almost childish and so they look out for newbies and, even if it is the first and only conversation you will ever have, share their advice generously. Obviously, if you find you have something other than “how to live in..” in common then you have the makings of a lovely friendship but if not, well that’s cool, too, the advice is almost always obligation free!
So, why so friendly? Well, some of it is possibly down to the fact that anyone willing to move their whole life to another country is likely not to be too much of a shrinking violet but it is also because mobile ex-pats can’t just settle into one group because, well, people are always leaving.
And that’s the down side.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will remember that we were part of a group of 176 ICTs of not-quite-anonymous-car-manufacturing-concern who arrived in the same week. A day or two after we arrived, around thirty of us were taken to Immigration to apply for our re-entry permits en masse. After the wait for our number in order to line up and submit our forms we then scattered ourselves around the waiting room chairs to wait for our number in order to line up and receive our permits. Superman saw R playing with his DS and asked about it and the boys chatted for a bit and then A told R (this is silly they deserve silly anonymity names like everyone else so lets call them Caesar and Augusta 😀 ) So, Augusta told Caesar that she was going to get a drink at the konbini and, well brought up as she is, asked us if we would like anything while she was there. Now, I am usually painfully shy socially and so my first response was to say “Oh thanks, I’m fine” and then it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be like that here so I quickly added “but I’ll keep you company” and jumped up and went with her before I could notice what I was doing and freeze in fear. Augusta will be surprised at this (I think) but that was actually kind of nerve-racking for me, such a simple thing I know but I was incredibly nervous! We discussed drinks a little (she didn’t drink coffee, just like Superman) and made our purchases and by the time we returned to our seats we were chatting away. A few minutes after that we had exchanged phone numbers (and Augusta had taken our photos to use as our IDs on her swish phone.)
A couple of weeks later, NZ K had invited us to the quiz at Red Rock and we invited them to join us and the (very successful) ANZUS Alliance was born. In the next weeks dinner parties were had; plans were made to go out together with our matching DSLRs; decisions to stay indoors with the aircon till Summer was over were supported; Rock Band and Wii were played; mutually loved films were watched and favourite TV shows were swapped and fallen in love with. When the heat was over, we began venturing out together, happily spending hours together in the car driving to and from Meiji Mura, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama where we spent a wonderful weekend together staying in a traditional Gassho inn. In February we found we were at Yuki Matsuri at the same time and spent two lovely days exploring Sapporo, where they helped us build our first snowman (outside the brewery, where else!), and blowing glass in Otaru. Just last Sunday, to celebrate Augusta’s birthday, they took us to karaoke (my first time) and actually managed to get me not just to sing one song in front of them (painfully shy, remember, I don’t sing without at least 80 people to hide within) but to belt out “Love Shack” and “Whip it!” with utter glee!
It was in October in Takayama that Superman and I tentatively suggested we spend the inn’s post-curfew hours playing one of the board games we’d brought along. We bashfully gave them a choice and they leapt upon our favourite BECAUSE it looked so complicated and had so many pieces that it took an hour to set it up following the very specific rules. Truly, this geeky couple had found their geeky match! Many, many more afternoons, evenings and wee hours were wiled away playing Arkham Horror (we have the setup down to 15 minutes with out need to refer to the rules!)
To say that the last year wouldn’t have been the same without them is understatement in the extreme. I’m sure we’d have been fine if we hadn’t met them but we wouldn’t have had so much FUN and I know I wouldn’t have gotten through some of the down times without Augusta on the other end of the phone. We seem to let off steam the same way, we both enjoy some good, solid venting but all the while knowing and laughing at how whiney we are being and so never sinking into that “isn’t Japan stEWpid!” thing that so many ex-pats so easily do (thinking about it, that is a character trait of each of the close friends I’ve made here.)
Augusta leaves today. She has missed her family even more than she expected and is returning to an exciting new adventure and so I am happy for her and wish her all the luck and love in the world but I will miss her terribly, as I will miss Caesar when he follows in a month (with all the moving work done for him in advance, lucky bugger!) We will still Twitter and Flickr and email and Skype, they will have somewhere to crash wherever we happen to be living whenever they can make a trip, whether it be in a year or ten years from now, and we know vice versa applies. Still, it’s sad.
Thank you for everything, guys, don’t you go getting lost in time and space on us!