When it was time for me to leave Japan, I knew it right away. Seeing how my colleagues acted so casually in the aftermath of the tsunami made me start piling up all the reasons why Japan made me unhappy. How I could never fit in. How I had terrible loneliness. How I started acting out when people were ignorant about non-Japanese people and culture.
Now, in Germany, it’s not taken a tsunami to shift me out of love with my life here, but I know for sure that it is time for me to leave. I often think I’m crazy, since I have a job I feel passionate about, and I live a very good life here in Germany. But there are two main reasons why I feel I cannot go on here without becoming very unhappy.
Tonight I was in the food section of a department store with a friend when an elderly lady fell back and crashed to the floor, knocking her head on a freezer as she went down. Blood was pouring from her head. A man and a woman nearby jumped to help her, and I did too. I helped the lady to her feet then was listening as the woman was explaining to the lady that there was blood coming from her head. I stood around helpless, wondering what to do, what to say. The lady needed to sit down, and the woman spoke with a member of staff but I didn’t quite catch anything about getting her somewhere to sit. I said awkwardly to the woman “there are sitting places over there” but the woman looked at me as if I was a nuisance and turned away from me. In the end, I could do nothing. So I paid up and left.
Even though Frankfurt is an international city, where 99.9% of people speak English, I feel isolated. My German is coming along well and I understand quite a bit these days, but I would need to study German a lot more before I was in a place where it would take away my isolation. In Japan, I wasn’t isolated by a language barrier – but I’d been studying it since I was 16.
I want to be in a place where I can make small talk with someone nearby. Or help someone in the street. Or be able to live with people who don’t have to put any extra effort into speaking with me because they speak in English anyway. Although I have more English-speaking friends here than I know what to do with, the fact that my go-to language isn’t the same as the majority of those around me makes me feel very limited in my world.
I’m in a supermarket in Germany and I pick up a can of soup. I judge it by its price, the design, the ingredients list. That’s it.
Take that same situation in Britain and I have a lot more information to hand – perhaps I’ve seen an advert about the soup, perhaps I saw a review for it in a magazine, perhaps I remember eating this soup at uni and remember whether I liked it or not.
I feel that here in Germany – and, indeed, as an expat in many places – it can feel like such a one dimensional life. It’s almost like being a child, with no prior knowledge on the things around you. This goes beyond a language barrier, it’s an informational barrier. Of course, one could learn more about the things around them – watch the tv adverts, talk about things with locals. In Japan I can’t read the words “ajino moto” or “biku camera” without singing the jingles, and simple information like that made me feel more at home there. But it’s totally different when you’re back at home in your own country and you are holding an item that takes you on a trip down a million memory lanes, sparking recognition in your brain. I want to go back to living around things that I know well, not things that are new and unknown.
Though I look around at the amazing people and the amazing life I have here and feel sad to be leaving it all behind, I get a pang of excitement inside me when I think of being able to live back in the UK again. I’ve been away for so long it’s like a foreign country to me now and I’m even excited at the prospect of experiencing reverse culture shock. There’s nothing like living abroad for understanding your own country and culture, but I feel that when I return and see everything with fresh eyes, I’ll be able to understand what it is to be British more than ever before.
And then I can start writing a whole new chapter in my life.