Ten years ago yesterday, I boarded a plane in Melbourne and flew away.
I wasn’t quite 22 and I was running, even if it was in a sensible, somewhat organized way. The year before, 2005, was not a good one. My grandfather died of cancer, my car was written off by a high school student who seemed to have more life experience than I did, I continued to fall disastrously hard for boys on the internet and get hurt, my 21st birthday was a non-event and, most humiliatingly of all, my orthodontist had temporarily put braces back on my teeth because he screwed up and I didn’t alert him to that as quickly as I should have. I had completed an honours thesis that had given me a badly needed purpose for the year, but it hadn’t earned the grade I’d been trying for and I didn’t know what to do with it.
I was unhappy, and I decided I had to do something about it.
While I was supposed to be working on the final draft of my thesis in September and October, I had started scouring job sites and finding my attention drifting to jobs overseas. Positions teaching English as a second language where minimal qualifications were required were littered throughout Asia. I was drawn to the ones in South Korea and Singapore, both developed countries were the money might be decent. I wanted to go somewhere interesting, yet not in the over-the-top, overdone way that Japan was (I don’t think I’ve ever informed any Japanese person, except maybe R, that I once thought their country was a bit over-the-top and overdone!) and safer than China.
I dithered over submitting my resume, though, and when I finally did, the only jobs available that I seemed qualified for were in Japan after all, so I just went with those. I figured Japan was safe, developed and still interesting. I didn’t have to go all sushi-loving anime freak, surely, and if Tokyo didn’t really grab me, numerous other places did. Kyoto! Osaka! Hiroshima!
A matter of weeks later, I had a job lined up as an ESL teacher… in the suburbs of Tokyo. I sighed, accepted it, and figured I could always visit the other places anyway or transfer.
So, it wasn’t quite throwing my life’s savings away and departing with a plane ticket and a backpack. I was required to have money, I had a job lined up and the company arranged housing for me. It was also supposed to only be for one year, after which I would presumably go back and pick up the life in Australia I had left behind. As dramatic life changes go, it was a relatively organized one.
I was still jumping in the deep end, though, even if I could expect to be physically and financially safe at the other end. It was the second time I had even been on a plane, and the first time I had travelled overseas. The seatbelt confused me terribly, I was in a middle seat because it never occurred to me to ask the belligerent young guy at the check-in counter for something else and I got painfully bad stomach cramps on the second leg of the journey. My ignorance went far beyond the flight, though – I was going to try living in Tokyo for 12 months (I stayed just shy of that, the first time) without any idea how to use chopsticks and knowing little more Japanese than how to count to ten and ask where the toilet was.
Yet, thinking back, I wouldn’t change that much about it. I was naive, and I could be obnoxious (hell, I probably still am), but time took care of at least some of it and I was doing my best to get an experience that might take care of the rest. All the major elements of that trip are still things I would happily leave as they are.
There are smaller things, though, that I would go back and tell myself if I could. Keep going to Japanese classes, even when you have painfully little time for them. Don’t lose your house key. Write down your new PIN somewhere because, although you won’t need to access your new bank account straight away, you will eventually and taking money out of your credit card isn’t fun. Be nice to your housemates. I won’t tell you what happened to them because I don’t think that will help you – just be nice to them, a couple of them will be friends you’ll still cherish 10 years later and remember, they didn’t choose you either. Be kind and patient with your family back home, get over MUDs for now and even if the company you’re going to work for doesn’t reward or even facilitate effort, do your best anyway.
To anyone who is reading this and might consider doing something like this, whether you’re as young as I was or much older? It is worth it, especially if you’re looking to shake up your life for some reason. All those annoying cliches are true – it will get you out of your comfort zone, give you new experiences, and broaden your mind. You can find yourself so many new memories and stories. Even if you hate it, it will make you appreciate home a lot more and who knows? You might end up there a lot longer than you could ever have imagined.