Friday, August 28, 2015

My life as a foreigner in Japan (so far)

Photo by the wonderful Vinci
It's almost been six whole years since I moved to Tokyo, and although it certainly hasn't been all nice and easy, I'm at a point where I'm quite comfortable living here. This city is a swirl of confusion, bittersweet memories, unexpected events that forced me to grow up. Countless firsts, countless new chances that gave me room to explore and find myself. Moments of excitement, moments of breathtaking happiness, moments of frustrating tears.

And through all that, I'm still here.

When I first stepped off the plane into this country, I was freshly graduated, headed into my first full-time job, not knowing what I should expect. Even if I think about it now, it feels mysterious to me that I came to Japan with such strong conviction, such absolute certainty that this was where I was meant to go at the time. My private journal entries from that time were filled with words of hope and confirmation. You can make it. You'll find your way. Don't give up.

The first two years were a grind of demanding and exhausting English teaching schedules, a whirlwind of live house performances and songwriting and releasing a mini-album. I felt hopeful that things were going in the right direction. The venue was filled at my solo Apple Store live just before the CD release. Listeners and supporters lined up to talk to me, gave me letters, gifts, kind words. I so loved talking to my listeners one on one, much more than talking awkwardly and nervously while on the stage.

Things weren't going well with the major record company that I'd signed an agreement with. I hadn't expected it to be like this, and I didn't have the core of strength to mold myself into the right person to handle it. I decided to separate myself and stop working with them. I took a break from music and took a long time to find myself again.

For the next two years, I worked as an OL in Japanese companies, experiencing everything from suits to sales calls to company visits to dealing with logistics and shipping containers. Translating, teaching English interview skills, timidly and terribly answering phone calls in Japanese. Going to lunch at 12 in the middle of a business district filled with other businesspeople who returned to their offices promptly at 1. Walking along the river, making documents at my computer but daydreaming about being outside.

I began to secretly harbor a dream again, this time related to photography. I began to plan blog posts and write and create. I emailed magazines, companies, model agencies, fellow creatives. Out of dozens of emails sent, I got maybe one reply. I fell down in discouragement, wallowed, got up again. The idea was growing in me, and it couldn't be stopped. Even if music hadn't worked out for me career-wise, I didn't want to give up halfway this time. I told myself that by my next birthday, I would be well-practiced and skilled enough to finally quit the office job. At the end of the work day, I excused myself exactly at 5:30 PM and ran to catch the train for test shoots I had scheduled. I set up shoot after shoot on the weekends, spent hours editing and studying other photographers and bloggers who inspired me, trying to figure out how I could get better. I was a woman obsessed. This time for sure, I told myself. Going freelance was my ultimate wish, and every new creative work added a new drop of golden belief and motivation in me.

Unexpected difficulties hit outside of work. Good friends came and went (no thanks to me dedicating every last bit of my focus and energy to what I aimed to achieve instead of hanging out or being kindly or fun). Realities came down to strike. Again, feelings of despair overwhelmed me, leaving me wondering if I really had any talent at all.

I couldn't have done it all by myself, and I didn't manage to quit at my next birthday, but a bit later - by the end of that year. Freelance was at first incredibly scary - an ocean of dark unknowns. Suddenly there wasn't a set monthly salary to rely on, but I still had to pay the bills and rent and taxes and national health insurance. Still had to buy food and pay for the train and clothes once in a while. It took me a while to get into the rhythm, find the right balance, build relationships and gain trust. Most of all, to prove that my work was worth something. That I could actually do a good job. I have been fortunate that many people gave me chances to prove I could do so.

It isn't a magical kind of wish fulfillment, a snap of fingers and everything changes. It's a long, arduous process involving undying dedication and somewhat insane obsession toward getting to where you want. Now, there are more new goals that I'm struggling toward, but it's a good kind of struggle. Painful and sweet. Kind of like gradually working out and building a muscle that started off as a pathetic nothing. (The latter might describe my actual muscles. I ought to exercise, I keep saying to myself.)

I'm now grateful every day that I can pay the rent, bills, and cover my expenses with my work in photography and narration. I'm grateful to every client, past collaborator, fellow photographer/model/creator, narration and voice talent agency staff, friends and family who encouraged me and believed I could... so many people. Countless people have given me chances and given me a reason to smile for an hour, or a day, or every day up to now. I made embarrassing mistakes along the way. I struggle and fall flat on my face and struggle up again. I still do.

And through all that, although there have been times when I've noticed my foreignness or felt imcompetent at some task because my Japanese isn't fluent enough (which is no one's fault but mine), etc... Never have I really felt a huge unfairness toward me for working as a foreigner in Japan. Actually, I feel that I have an advantage for being a native English speaker whose voice clients actually like and want for their projects. Also, for being an English-speaking photographer who can work smoothly with expat families, other foreigner models/actors/artists, or people vacationing in Tokyo. Day to day, I work with all different kinds of people. Japanese staff and clients, English-speaking staff and clients. People from all different countries, when it comes to photoshoots.

I guess my point is... it's not necessarily about being a foreigner or not (although sometimes it can be, if you decide to make it that way). I've moved around all my life - elementary school, middle school all the way across the country, a new high school in a different district, then college where none of my high school group of friends went. Being in Tokyo for six years... I can call that a small eternity. I think it's actually longer than I've been in any one city up to now. And I don't know what the future will bring, but right now, Tokyo is home. It has its faults like any other area of the world, but I love this place. I'm glad I'm here. And just like when I first arrived here, I have no doubt that my upcoming days in Tokyo will produce even more new and unimaginable answers to the goals I've set.

As long as I can, I plan to keep creating and keep trying to make my dreams happen. Because really, that's the point of life.
At least to me.