The freedom of a foreign life
In my previous article I described how I am, thanks to my upbringing in Japan, a Third Culture Kid – a child who was brought up in a different country to that of their birth. There are more and more of us in this increasingly globalising world, and I wonder if other TCKs, like me, find it hard to answer any questions about whether we love or hate the two countries we semi-belong to. For me, Japan and the UK are just a part of my life, like brushing my teeth. I tried to escape the influence of Japan on my career once or twice, but it didn’t work, both because it is the subject that I am most passionate about, and also because, frankly, it is this expertise that people are most willing to pay me for.
A more interesting question is what leads people who are not TCKs to choose to settle in another country. My parents and I stayed in Japan for five years initially. Then, when I was eighteen, they decided to move back to Japan again, to Hiroshima and then Tokyo, staying for a total of twenty years. If you were to ask my mother what caused them to leave the UK again, she would probably half jokingly say “British Rail”. At that time the trains were even more unreliable than they are now and my mother was commuting every day to London to quite a high powered job, chairing various meetings, so if she was late, the meetings did not happen. She became ill, and the stress of the daily commute was making it worse.
Japan is, of course, a country where things work – trains run on time and people are punctual, reliable and polite. This is a big attraction for many of the foreigners who choose to live there permanently and they get a terrible shock when they return to their home country where things don’t work, people are rude and the streets are littered. After a long time away you feel like a foreigner in your home country. My parents actually look like foreigners in the UK now – they are too well dressed!
I know Japanese people who have lived abroad for a long time no longer feel like they belong in Japan. But I do find it puzzling that they chose to live in the UK, with its terrible customer service, bad weather and unreliable transport system. Some Japanese acquaintances have said that they like the freedom and tolerance they find in the UK. I would argue that this is not unique to the UK – anyone living in a foreign country can feel liberated by being out of the reach of the expectations and judgements of their society of birth. Believe it or not, foreigners living in Japan feel that way too.
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