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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

10 Reasons Why I Am Leaving Japan

I’m going to take a break from my Vietnam and Cambodia posts to write an entry that I think is pretty important to my life as it stands now. The last few months have been an emotional rollercoaster for me and it has led me to do a lot of self-reflection, which has led me to make a pretty huge decision for my life.

I’m leaving Japan.

For the last four years (nearly) I have lived in Japan. I have spent all of my “adult” life here. I came here when I was 22, fresh out of college, and still not really sure who I was. I’m 26 now, and I feel as if I have just been playing house, in a sense, rather than really making a life for myself.

It’s been a difficult thing to deal with, I have people on both sides of my life giving me very mixed reactions and I have had to explain many, many times why I have decided to leave. A lot of people have considered it sudden, but anyone who has really talked to me about how I feel living in Japan will know that the unhappiness and displeasure with my life here has been for roughly the last year, I was just too scared to really do anything about it.

Just to clarify, I’ve not been unhappy with Japan, but rather the way in which I live my life here. I think it would be a good idea to write out my top ten reasons for leaving Japan, starting with the least important to the most in an attempt to make people understand why I’m leaving, and maybe help some people who may want to live in Japan (or overseas in general) as to what they can expect from long-term expatriate life.

10. Pizza

This may not seem like a good reason to leave a country, but bear with me. I love pizza. It’s the best food, and I ate it multiple times a week in college. Which may explain my weight-gain/weight-loss in my 21st and 22nd years… Anyway, pizza makes me happy. I like the ease or ordering a pizza, I love how cheap it is. It’s the perfect food.

More specifically I like the New York, thin, lightly sauced, meaty topped, wonderful pizzas. I like the huge slices that you can get at places around Florida, I like the random toppings. It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I realized how different pizza in America is compared to the rest of the world.

Japan does have Pizza Hut all over the place in most larger cities. They deliver, they have online ordering, it’s much the same as the American counterpart. But… it’s insanely expensive. As in a basic small cheese pizza will cost you close to $20. However, they only have two size options (medium and large) and the medium is personal pan sized and the large is smaller than an American medium. Here’s some examples of their pizza for you to look at.

Needless to say I never order it. I’ve only had it twice. In four years. It’s this lack of American comfort food in general that has influenced my desire to not be here. I enjoy Japanese food, don’t get me wrong, but I like my American staples much better.

9. I want a pet.

I spend my free time looking at shelters online and seeing what dogs they want, picturing my life with this lovable pet, and crying over their sad little faces. Growing up I always had a dog, and my childhood dog actually passed away while I was over here. I just like having a little companion around. It’s something I have always wanted. Cat? Dog? Either is okay with me at this point.

Having a pet in Japan is definitely possible, and I have plenty of friends with cats (none with dogs). The only issue is that your options for housing once you get a pet goes down considerably, and most places that will allow a cat won’t allow dogs, and I want a dog more than a cat at the moment. Not to mention I don’t really want to put my pet through the stress over moving back overseas. So the days and weeks pass and I look longingly at all my friends with pets and I just want one. It will be one of the first things I do when I have a place of my own.

8. I like cooking.

Japanese cuisine is very different from how I was raised. For starters ovens aren’t really a thing here (along with dishwashers and clothes dryers and air conditioning and the list goes on and on). While I have a pretty decent microwave/convection oven it is really limited and doesn’t really retain heat very well, so cooking takes forever. Imagine a step up from an Easy Bake.

Ingredients are also hard to come by, Japan is a small country and nearly all their food is imported, so things get expensive. I enjoy cooking shows and looking at recipes, and more often than not I have to adjust recipes to suit Japanese availability or just not be able to make things. It’s difficult. Not to mention the cost of fruit (8 strawberries for $10! An apple for nearly $2!) or the cost of meat (a small pork tenderloin is gonna be over $10 and half a pound of ground beef is over $6) has limited me to using mainly chicken breasts and ground pork. I’ve mentioned before about my weird food anxiety that I’ve nearly bested since moving here, and I feel like I can’t really explore my new food options like I want to.

Don’t even get me started on cheese. That can have its own post.

7. “Basic” things are really difficult.

So I have an upstairs neighbor who a horrible human being. I’ve never seen or met this person, but I know that they are. You want to know how I know that they are this devil-span? For the last nine months I’ve been woken up nearly weekly (usually during the weekdays) after midnight by the sounds of their washing machine. If I were in America I would have called my apartment company after the first night and filed a complaint. I would have gotten the police involved when it didn’t stop. I know how to handle these things in America because, well, in college I’ve had it done to me.

In Japan, though, I don’t really know what to do. Let me correct that, I know what to do but I don’t really know how to do it. When you live in a country that has a completely different language from you, you realize that communication is difficult (oh hey blog name!) most of the time. And making a phone call in a different language really, really sucks. I don’t even like making phone calls in English.

Anyways, I struggled for a long time as to what to do, suffering for a few months, then a few months of it not happening, and then when it started up again I got so fed up I asked a friend to help me out, he called for me and they called everyone on the fifth floor and sent letters to the entire building telling them to stop. Which didn’t work (hence the evil part of this person, because they clearly don’t care) and led to me asking a different person for help. This week it happened again (because they are evil) and I found myself too shamed to ask for help again. I’m 26 years old, I should be able to handle this easily. So all day I planned what I would say, hoping that since they had been called twice about the issue it would be easy enough to get my point across. Sadly, I called and the woman on the phone had no idea what I was saying. After struggling for five minutes to get her to understand, all while trying not to cry out of frustration (and exhaustion) I snapped and broke down into tears, hanging up the phone and spending the next ten minutes hating how I can’t even do simple things. And this is a daily struggle, really.

6. Money

This is a huge issue, and I could really spend ages talking about all the issues I have with money in Japan. The biggest issue is that I don’t really have much. When I first moved to Japan and National Health Insurance and city taxes were near zero, I was able to save plenty. But once you get a full year of pay in Japan be prepared (if you’re not a JET) to lose close to 30% of your income to these two things. Yep, that’s a 3 and a 0 before that percent sign.

I have a second job, which means two days a week I work until 8pm when I have to be up at 5:45 every day. If my neighbor decides to do laundry at 1am on a Monday (like this week) I spend most of my week exhausted. Now, Japan is known for its insane working hours and I would venture to guess that the majority of Japanese workers are usually working 8am-8pm like I am, but I’m not Japanese and I refuse to live like this just to have money.

Then, things are really, really expensive. If you ignore the food issue that I mentioned there are still plenty of things that are expensive. Japan has an outrageous import tax on leather (why???) and so anything that’s imported with even a tiny bit of leather has a huge price increase (most backpacks, shoes, purses, jackets, etc.). Then there’s makeup. I don’t know why makeup in Japan is so insanely expensive, but a Maybelline lipstick costs about $15. That’s like buying a Mac lipstick back in America (which are $30 at least here). And Japanese brands aren’t any cheaper, so it’s not an importing tax issue. It’s just a Japan-has-expensive-makeup issue.

5. I am not Japan Size

This kind of goes along with number 6 in the sense that it’s really difficult for me to find anything “extra” to get myself. Now, I realize that I am not average size even in America, but I’ve never had an issue back in the States when it comes to clothes shopping. And yes, Japanese women are much smaller than I am in general. In Japanese stores, though, there is just a very limited variety of sizes available. Usually all you’ll find is a small, medium, and large option which is like a 0, 4 and 8 (US women).

I’m basically one size too big for anything here. Granted I’m roughly six feet tall so I can’t really blame them. But it just really stinks when I want to buy a sweater or a skirt or pants or anything, really. Don’t even get me started on shoes. If you have feet larger than an 8 you’re out of luck.

4. Job options are very limited.

Japan is the land of the Salaryman, a husband who goes to work in a black suit and tie and works endless hours and comes home to his stay-at-home-wife and kids half-drunk at 9pm every night of the week. This isn’t a 100% fact but my 8:30pm subway rides say that it’s definitely more common than not. I don’t want this life, at all. I want a job and a career and a family. I don’t want a barely there husband while I raise our kids alone. I don’t want to work so much and not have time for my friends or family.

Not to mention, women in Japan are still very much behind as far as fair treatment is concerned in a lot of aspects of equal rights, even when compared to America which hasn’t even had a female President yet (please let this happen, US!!). When I go into the principal’s office at my schools you’ll see over a dozen pictures of all the past principals. I’ve seen a woman up there maybe three times. Out of 15 schools. That’s hundreds of principals and only THREE have been women.

Add in the fact that I am a foreigner and my options are even more limited. I just don’t have a lot of choices where work is concerned, it’s basically teach English unless I have fantastic Japanese (which I don’t – see crying in my apartment after trying to make a bloody phonecall).

3. My family.

Now we’re getting into the meat of why I am leaving. My family has had a rough year, maybe even couple of years. I’ve missed out on weddings and births and deaths while I have been here. The former two are the hardest for me, mainly because the deaths have been of more distant relatives, but it’s still loss all the same. I’m reminded that my family won’t be around forever, and if something were to happen to an immediate family member while I was here, I’d never forgive myself.

My family needs me, and I am tired of being that distant relative off in college or overseas. I want to be more present. At least for a little bit (since I’ll likely move to the West Coast, sorry Mom!).

2. There’s no real reason for me to stay

When you add in the lack of job opportunities, the fact that I can’t fit into clothes, that I can’t get my favorite things, that having a pet is difficult, I am faced with the fact that I have no reason to stay. I have friends here, and I love them to death and I consider myself so lucky to have the great community that I have, but… they will always be there. They’ll always be a reason to stay. And it’s sadly not good enough. I need more than that.

I’ve given up on finding love here, that’s a bit more personal and I really don’t want to open that can of worms yet (in short, I don’t think Japanese guys take me seriously, and the type of foreign guys that usually come to Japan only want a Japanese girl). And I want that. Maybe not now, but someday, and I don’t think I am going to find it here in Sapporo, or Japan in general.

And finally, the last reason, which is the biggest reason of all:

1. I never planned to be here forever.

When I moved to Japan I expected to be here no more than two years. But things happened and I ended up staying longer. I would have honestly left earlier, I think, if not for a couple of factors which, until recently, made me want to stay. But I’ve always known, deep down, that Japan wasn’t going to be my forever home.

I love Japan a lot, it is a second home to me, but it is second. I don’t want to raise my children without my parents being in the same country. I don’t want to miss out on all of my cousins’ life moments. I want to be able to go home for Christmas. These things are just too difficult in Japan and I always knew they would be.

It’s never been a matter of “if I leave Japan” but “when”. And Japan has honestly done nothing to make me feel like it wants me here long-term. The Japanese people will never accept me as Japan, even if I live here longer than I did the States (because once I were to hit 45 that would be the case) and I have taught too many mixed-raced children to want that life for my kids.

So, Japan isn’t the place for me. I don’t want to assimilate into the country, and I don’t want to be stared at because I just so happen to be having a cup of coffee in public or be buying groceries. I don’t want the first thing someone says to me to be, “welcome to Japan!” when I’ve been here for years. I don’t want servers to look stressed when a table of foreigners (who all speak Japanese) sits down and wants to order. I’m tired of being “gaijin” and I just want to be “Kaley”. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The never ending cries of car horns and the random bawking of the street chickens had only just begun by the time I awoke in the early hours of the morning on March twenty-sixth. It was an exciting day, probably the day I really looked forward to the most out of all of them on this two week trip. I was finally going to get to Ha Long Bay, a place I had seen in travel shows and on various travel websites across the internet. A place that I couldn't experience anywhere else, a natural formation found no where else in the world.

I'm unsure, really, where I first learned of Ha Long Bay. For years I have dreamed of sailing through it's limestone karsts, thousands of them emerging from the water like some strange mythical beings. Perhaps it was a post on Reddit that brought it to my attention, or maybe some sort of documentary features natural wonders of the world. All I know is that is has been near the top of my list of "must-see" places in the world, along with Angkor Wat (check!) and Machu Picchu.

It was honestly one of the main reasons I had come to Vietnam, let along Hanoi. And I didn't mind having to wake up with the sun in order to see it.

I had a long day ahead of me, the drive out to Ha Long Bay would be at least four hours, as Hanoi isn't that close to the coast and highways aren't really a "thing" in Vietnam yet. I had debated for months if a day trip would be enough, and looking back I would say that it was definitely worth it. There were a number of other packages you could choose from outside of the day trip that me and my friend eventually decided on, ranging from two days and one night to over a week. I honestly can't see more than two days out there being worthwhile, Our one day trip was around $60, if I am remembering correctly, and the multi-day trips are all $100 plus dollars.

We were picked up right on time and our tour guide was a young, energetic Vietnamese man. After a brief trip around the city to pick up our fellow cruisemates we were on our way to the Bay. The guide we had was very knowledgeable and seemed to really enjoy what he was doing, and I believe that in this sort of situation the tour guide can make or break the experience. I learned a lot about Vietnamese culture, about the four sacred animals (turtle, dragon, phoenix, and "unicorn") as well as the meaning behind some common Vietnamese city names.

Four hours in a small bus isn't ideal by any stretch of the word, and midway through I thought my bladder was going to burst, but just when I started eyeing my water bottle as a source of relief we pulled into the definition of a"tourist trap". I am from Orlando, Florida, mind you, and I have never seen a place fit the image of a "trap for tourists" more than the rest stop we were brought to both to and from Ha Long Bay. Inside is dozen of women creating these (amazing) woven pictures, along with other gimmicky souvenirs. You have to walk the entire length of the building, coming out the other side to a newly cleaned and gassed up bus 30 minutes later.

I consider myself lucky with the group that I had for the tour. The people traveling with us to Ha Long Bay were so nice and I met one of the most interesting families, a married couple with two children (plus the daughter's boyfriend) who have lived all over the world thanks to the mother's job. The father was especially interesting to talk to, having so many insights into the world he has traveled. As someone who hopes to continue her worldly adventures into her middle years of life, it was inspiring to see a married couple able to do that, along with their very well adapted and well rounded children. The son, an early teen that was currently on remote schooling while they lived in Kuala Lumpur, spent almost the entire ride talking about Lord Of The Flies with his newly college-aged sister.

At roughly midday we arrived at the port of Ha Long city, the area surrounding the harbor was showing definite signs of development. The hopes of making Ha Long Bay a standalone destination for vacation rather than a day trip from Hanoi were everywhere you looked; a newly opened movie theater, resorts under construction, billboards in English. The docks were busy and full of life, the boats varying in size and color, all with one goal in common - get as many tourists around the bay as possible. It was a bustling center and I found myself wondering off to test out my camera.

It didn't take long for us to get our tickets and board a tiny, tiny little boat that was to ferry us to the larger day cruiser we would have lunch and explore the bay on. Apparently the boat was too big to fit into a docking station so we had to brave the slightly choppy sea in a slightly sketchy looking vessel. But thanks to good fortune we survived and I happily jumped onto the boat I would call home for the next few hours. Little did I know this was only the beginning of my boat parkour during this trip, I believe my trip to Tonle Sap completely removed any fear of boat hopping I once possessed.

As a related aside, I had a bit of anxiety when I booked this tour. I grew up on a small peninsula in the large peninsula of Florida. The small suburban city my parents live in resides in the middle of the lake so boats and jet skis are nothing  new to me. It wasn't until I visited the father of an ex-boyfriend and joined them for a day of deep sea fishing that I learned of my greatest weakness. As I sat on the floor of the fishing boat, hugging my knees to my chest and getting battered my rouge mahi-mahi while hoping the Divine Force Of The Universe would deliver me safely from this hell I was living in I learned that I get seasick. Not the, "hold one while I go feed the fishes" kind of seasick but the "I would give anything to vomit but sadly I cannot do anything but feel awful". Even Dramamine didn't do much to aide in the misery that is deepsea travel to my insides (I tried that months later when we visited again).

Due to this fact I was very, very nervous that I would spend my dream day huddle in a corner of the ship while my dreams little drifted by me. I love being on the water, I love swimming, I love boats, I love the ocean. My first memories are learning to swim and nothing is better that a sea breeze across my face. Our trip out into the bay was spent eating up some fantastically wonderful food, I didn't eat too much thank to the issue mentioned above (though it was more due to the fact that I didn't want to risk upsetting my stomach and less of the fact that I felt motion sick). The food really was fantastic, and we were given a lot of it. I was impressed.

Once we were done eating the group of us went to the top deck of the boat to view the first of the  karsts. The day was overcast and a lurid mist shrouded the bay, which actually gave it an otherworldly effect. While a blue sky would have been nice, the gray skies provided a nice ambiance I didn't mind.

We spent a while driving through dozens of the tiny islands, and I found myself overwhelmed by the fact that I Did It. I had made it here and I was in one of The Places. And in less than a week I would be in Angkor Wat. It was at this point that the fact of me being on this trip really sunk in, that I truly felt like I was Here Now.

After a few minutes of slowly making our way through the limestone formations we made it to a tiny floating village. For an extra few dollars we could either take a kayak trip around two of the larger karsts or have a local woman ferry us around the same area. Due to my laziness and my desire to take pictures I opted for the latter option. Also I am probably the least coordinated person that you have ever met. Regardless, the second scary boat hop happened of the day and I was situated on a handmade boat with some middle-aged Asians and a Vietnamese woman whose arms must be stronger than any of the guys I know.

The boat ride around the karsts was great, and it was awesome to get so close to the islands. We went through a few small tunnels and were even serenaded by some local woman's singing. I believe she was pregnant. And rowing a boat.

Afterwards we were ushered back onto the boat and then taken to a very large limestone island. After jumping onto one on of the same small ferry boats that took us from the docks we disembarked onto our final site in Ha Long Bay. A Giant Cavern Whose Name I Have Forgotten. At this point being on non-moving ground was very strange. But the cave was awesome and lit up by really colorful lighting. We made our way through it and our tour guide proved, again, that he was awesome and full of knowledge.

After we were all safely back on the boat we began to head back towards the harbor. Our time in Ha Long Bay was over and I was filled with a happiness that I can only feel while traveling, and it is a reason I will do it for as long as my body can manage. I also practiced my selfie game, since I seriously lack the ability to take a decent picture of myself in that fashion. I'm still not very good at it.

We arrived safely back at Ha Long City and piled into the minibus, I was equal parts tired and excited and the drive back to Hanoi went quicker than the drive to Ha Long Bay, and over 12 hours after we left the hostel in the morning we were back long after the sun had set.

All photos are taken by my and I hold all the rights to them. Please do not use them unless given permission to directly from me. Thanks!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam

I realize that it’s been over two months since I returned from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia and I have posted next to nothing about the experience on here. Sorry, life got in the way! But I really do want to record all the things that I felt and learned on the trip, so I’m writing it now! I’ve actually written a couple of entries over these last couple of months, but I’ve just never felt like posting them for a couple of reasons. So, I am going to break these entries into their respective cities/locations and hope for the best!

The first city that I visited was Hanoi, the northern capital of Vietnam. When I landed in the city it was well into the night and I took a prearranged taxi from the airport to the hostel I was staying at in the Old Quarter. Most of the ride was dark and uninspiring. I’d spent the better part of the day sitting in airports wishing layovers weren’t a real thing and direct flights were affordable, so by the time I had reached Hanoi with my friend I was completely Out Of It.

The more into the city we got, though, the more I began to notice that this place wasn’t like any city I have ever been in. The buildings were the first thing that really caught my eye, there are no big department stores like in Japan, no sprawling megacenters like America, just cramped, multi-story, thin things that looked as if they were pieced together by a child trying to make her own image of a city. The darkness held many of the details from me but I knew that this would be a place to explore. And I was excited!

We got to the hostel and had rooms on the first floor, something I will try to desperately avoid in the future as it’s so noisy. The hostel itself would prove to have its own “quirks” as the days rolled on and I can’t say I will ever recommend anyone to step foot near the place in the future. Let’s just say running water was a luxury in the building, and it wasn’t a Hanoi issue, but a “this hostel sucks” issue. Not to mention the random vomiting dorm mate sleeping above me. So relaxing!

Our first actual day of Hanoi was an early one, as would be a trend for most of the trip. We headed out to the Temple of Literature and then walked towards the One Pillar Pagoda, running into Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum along the way. I had no intention of really seeing that last one, but it was definitely like being in some weird movie with all of the flags of Communism everywhere. We also spent some time walking around the area that our hostel was in, the Old Quarter, which is just north of the main lake in town, Hoan Kiem. It was a mass of people and moving vehicles. I have never felt more alive and in danger of sudden death in my life. It was truly awesome.

Traffic rules aren’t really a thing in most of Indochina, it seems. While there were street lights telling cars when they should go and stop, most didn’t seem to even been turned on, and the rest weren’t followed. What we were left to contend with was a never ending stream of motorbikes and cars. The former outnumbering the later 20:1, easily. Once you got the hang of how things worked, walking around the tiny, narrow streets wasn’t nearly as dangerous as you would think just by stepping outside and seeing the swerving, honking death traps driving by.

The traffic actually doesn’t move that fast in the city, I don’t think most cars or motorbikes were going over 35 mph, and I would say most were well under that. The bikes would actually pay you some mind, going in front of you until you reach the halfway mark of the crosswalk and then going behind you. Basically, you just gotta walk like you own the place and everyone else will follow what you do. Running across the street isn’t very wise, as it’s more difficult for the bikes to predict where you’ll be, and randomly stopping will surely get you injured. Just walk at a normal pace, pretending you are not currently walking across an intersection that has dozens of moving vehicles coming at you full speed.

Most of our days were spent in a similar fashion, going to see various sites and eating local food. The weather wasn’t the best, as late March is the start of their rainy season, but compared to the heat we felt in the southern cities we went to, I would gladly take the overcast drizzle.

The city was just amazing to walk around. I feel like I could spend my entire like there and never see everything. There are so many stores, so many places to eat, so many people. It’s as if someone took an entire city and just squished it in their hands so that it was a fraction of the size it was before. Buildings have no space between them, sidewalks are covered in plastic tables and chairs that are designed for American children, and there is no such thing as silence due to the never-ending chorus of car horns.

There was just so much life and character to the city. It really felt like no city I had ever been before. It had its own personality and while I don’t think I could ever live there, I can definitely see myself going back. I would say the nightlife in Hanoi is great, but I never got to experience it, so that’s what I would like to do. It’s just hard to go out drinking with locals when you gotta share a bedroom with strangers and wake up at 6am to sit in a van for four hours one way on the way to one of your Bucket List destinations.

But probably the best thing I did in Hanoi was actually the thing I didn’t plan on doing, a food tour. When I booked my day trip to Ha Long Bay the woman suggested that we do this food tour as well, so I got it. It was awesome. I ate so many things I never would have dreamed to eat and I felt like I truly got to experience the real Hanoi. My host was great and if you’re ever in the city I really, really think you should go on one of them! I didn’t even have a hint at an upset stomach. For $22 I got to eat enough food to last me a week, and it was all amazing. The only thing I wish is that I would have done it for lunch instead of for dinner, because I definitely wasn’t hungry enough for all of the food!

Hanoi was the city I was most hesitant to visit, and the main reason I went there was because it was so close to Ha Long Bay, but I am so glad I did. It was the first stop of the trip, and my favorite city that we visited. I cannot recommend it enough!

All pictures were taken by me on the trip. I hold all of the rights and please do not use any of them without first asking me and giving me credit. Thanks!