Today marks three years since I moved back to the U.S. from Japan. That spring and summer of 2009 was a really difficult adjustment for me. Moving over to Japan was hard but moving back home was even harder.
When I first went to Japan I was nervous and lonely. Everything was new and foreign, but I had expected to have culture shock so I was mentally prepared. Mixed in with my frustrations was the excitement of exploring new places and meeting amazing people from around the world which helped balance things out. The wonderful expats I met were going through the same experiences and emotions as I was and they enriched my time in Japan while making me feel I wasn't alone.
Repatriation was a completely different story and the reverse culture shock hit me hard. After living in Japan for over a year I was used to my life over there. Upon returning to the U.S. I was quite disoriented and everything that was supposed to seem familiar seemed odd. On empty roads without the cues from other cars driving I would find myself on the left side of the road. I was used to everything and everyone being tightly packed together in Japan and back in Ann Arbor the open spaces seemed strange and the relative scarcity of people made me feel like I was moving through a ghost town. In Japan when people were talking in Japanese I could only understand them if I was concentrating on listening. In the U.S. with everyone speaking English I could understand passing conversations again and it felt surreal, like I was reading people's minds. I felt like a foreigner in my home culture which was really unnerving and I was completely unprepared for it.
At work I was off balance readjusting to American business culture. In Japan I was used to music playing at exactly noon and again at exactly one o'clock to signal the start and end of lunch. No one gets up from their desk before the music and everyone is sure to be back in their seat before it plays again. The music was so ingrained in me that back in the U.S. I would not realize it was lunchtime and look up from my work at 12:15 to see an empty office. To add to my confusion I came back to a new group with a new boss and my company had built and moved to a new location while I was gone. I didn't know where anything was and didn't know my way around anymore. Nothing was familiar.
In my personal life not only had I changed as a person since I went away, but the world I left behind had also changed in my absence. My best friend had moved back to California and the guy I was dating before I left and I had broken up while I was in Japan. Several other of my Ann Arbor friends had also moved away or had started families and didn't have much free time available anymore. The guy that I started dating at the end of my time in Japan came to visit me, but the literal ocean between us made things really hard and we broke up not too long after. My ex-husband married a former friend of mine that summer and although the divorce had been two years prior and I had healed and moved on, hearing the news reopened some old wounds. I felt completely lost and alone.
I was in a bad place and craved the company of my good friends so I spent many of my weekends visiting my friends around the country. I hadn't seen any of them since I had come back on my home leave the previous October and it was great to spend time with them and be around people who knew me well and loved me. As wonderful as it was seeing all these special people in my life, it meant that by not being around Ann Arbor I wasn't doing anything to rebuild my life here and I needed to do something about it.
Even though I just wanted to lay in bed and read (my typical escape when I can't deal with the world) I started making myself get out of the house and do things that I enjoyed, even though it was by myself. I wandered around the Art Fairs and the other festivals that close down Main Street in the summer. I walked up to Washtenaw Dairy for ice cream cones that I would eat while sitting on the rocker of my front porch. I renewed my membership to the Michigan Theater and went to the movies, eating big vats of popcorn and listening to the Wurlitzer organ before the show. I brought my books to Sweetwater's Coffee & Tea and hung out there to read. My friendship with Trisha (who I met in Japan and also moved back to Southeast Michigan) evolved to fit U.S. life after we repatriated and was something I relied on to help me cope since she knew first hand the difficulties of moving home. Slowly, I got to know some new people at work and I made some new local friends. In time, I fell in love with my life in Ann Arbor again, just as I had fallen in love with my life in Japan.
Living in Japan taught me a lot about myself, but in some ways moving home taught me even more. I was lucky to be able to live overseas and am even luckier to have such a wonderful place to call home in the U.S. Change is always hard and on more than one occasion I have lamented the fact that several times in my life due to moving and other personal circumstances I've had to start over. Looking back, however, these "restarts," including moving back to the U.S., have given me the gift of forcing me to reevaluate who and what I want to be. From each of these transition periods in my life I decided which things from my experiences I wanted to keep and what I should let go. It has made me a better person and for that I am grateful.