On Being An Expat In Light Of The Recent National Tragedy

(This was us voting for Obama in 2012 in Nagoya. Look how happy we were.)

I am actually in shock. There are those of you who warned me. Just as I was warned with the Gore/Bush election. I just did not consider it a possibility.

There are those of you who are telling me how lucky I am and asking how they can get out of the States. So I thought I would give a little background about how we came to be expats in the first place.

My first presidential election was in 2000. Gore v. Bush. It seemed illogical that Bush would win, seeing as he violated what I thought were the values of most Americans. I am obviously very ignorant about the values of most Americans.

Then came 9/11. And the supposed war on terror that they told us was justified (though we knew better) and then turned out was not justified but we were still supposed to go along with it because to do otherwise was unpatriotic. I had bumper stickers from the local hippy shop in Jacksonville on my car. Peace is Possible. Another American for Peace. You know the ones. I might have even had that one with the picture of Einstein and the quote you could only read if you were right up on my bumper. My car was egged regularly and suffered multiple broken windows from rocks.

Then I got pregnant with my eldest son when I was 23. I had hopped around from major to major and had finally settled on anthropology when I discovered Sebastian had plans to join this realm. I was pregnant, driving back from Gainesville, when Bush’s speech declaring war on Iraq aired on the radio. I gave birth a few months later and with motherhood came an overwhelming desire to raise my little fellow elsewhere, some place where people would not consider breastfeeding profane, where I wouldn’t have to wait for almost two hours for the police to respond to an emergency call. I noticed a poster for a teaching exchange program in Japan on the wall next to my children’s literature class. I applied almost as a lark, knowing nothing of Japan (my anthropology department was more focused on southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa). Somehow, I got into the program and found myself, a month after graduation, employed as an English teacher at a high school in Nara.

Part of my work involved visiting the local elementary schools. I loved the elementary schools. In America, standardised testing and the NCLB act was just taking hold but Japanese elementary schools seemed so wholesome, so focused on the child, so opposite of what was happening back home. Even though Sebastian was only a one year-old at the time, I thought that I would like to see him go to a Japanese elementary school.

Then tragedy struck. A second grader from the elementary school where I frequently visited was kidnapped, tortured, then killed. It was a sad event by any means but I did not realise how desensitised I was to such terrible acts of violence until I saw how everyone in not only my community and town but the entire nation was affected by this girl’s tragic end. Before then, schools had no gates, no security cameras. Then across the nation, monitored gates were installed almost overnight. Children who had previously walked to school freely were organised into groups led by adults from the community to guide them safely to, and for the younger students, from school everyday. This reaction is part of the reason I live in Japan. Because it was the right reaction.

Shortly after that, Katrina happened. The way that it was mishandled was in glaringly stark contrast to how I had seen Japanese citizens deal with a disaster. It broke my heart.

I returned to America for the birth of my second son. We struggled to find employment and felt the first wave of the financial meltdown crash against our ideas for life in America. We saw what was coming and decided to return with our two young boys to Japan, where it was safe and we could enjoy standard benefits like health insurance and a steady paycheque. That was June of 2008.

We did try for a third time in 2013 and found an even more dismal economy (part-time/adjunct employment, low wages, high cost of living) and a worrisome educational system for the kids, who had doubled since 2008. Within the first few weeks of returning to my childhood home, a group of heavily armed (we’re talking AR15s) police officers charged onto our property in the pursuit of someone and almost killed our dog right in front of the kids. Every day there was reports of murders and kidnappings on the regional news. A girl doing her homework killed by a stray bullet that came through the wall of her house. Another girl kidnapped and killed from Wal-Mart, on the very first day we were back. If we went shopping at Wal-Mart, my kids (the very sensitive people that they are) would cry when we passed the giant missing kids poster. On my commute between the university and community college where I taught, I saw terrible traffic accidents on almost a daily basis. I almost died in one myself when a semi-truck jack-knifed in front of me on a highway going 90 mph. I could not continue to live in a place where I was putting my kids at risk when I knew there was someplace better for them.
So we returned to Japan.

Even so, back when Bernie Sanders was rising as a possible president, when his ideas for America mirrored my own and surpassed them, we were really thinking about moving back. Because the idea of America is such a beautiful one. The idea of liberty and freedom and the pursuit of happiness. And you will know that you are an American because those words, even just the idea of them, make you feel strong and optimistic. It is that idea that has attracted so many people to the country, a place where you can start over and be whatever you want to be. It is the idea that soldiers defend and patriots rally around. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between an idea and the application of the idea.
And when you have lived in a country where the application of the idea is already in place, where there are no concealed handguns, no police shootings, no Donald Trumps, it is hard to subject your kids to a place where the idea is still just an idea.

We are lucky to be in Japan. The lifestyle suits us and it is what we know. I am more qualified to work here than in the States. And we are rather nomadic by nature so moving around is not difficult for us. We also don’t have many family ties or other anchors weighing us down. It is not easy, being an expat, and it is not all adventure. It is really mundane most of the time because we are raising four kids through the Japanese school system. We are members of five different PTAs. And my salary is pretty much the same as it has been forever. But, we are comfortable and have those benefits that drew us here. All the same, it is not the life for everyone. And, as you can see if you made it this far, it was not a decision made from one catastrophic election. And it is a decision that we struggle with all the time. Because that idea, that promise of America is just so intoxicating that we can’t help but hope that it is the reality, even when we know better.

So for all of you who say you want to leave the country, my advice is this: if you have made it through the past few decades without leaving, you are pretty committed to the place. You are tougher than us. Which is good because with what we are facing as a collective, we are going to need some tough folks.


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