Guilt and Mental Illness on my Year Abroad

A month or so into my time in Japan, I felt lost. I was depressed and exhausted, wondering if there was something wrong with me for not enjoying life in the country of my dreams. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just fine.

Turns out, this is a common feeling that few people talk about.

Let’s start by clarifying some things. I suffer from major depression and generalised anxiety. This is a scary thing to admit online, where anyone could see it, but it’s better than letting my illness remain invisible. I’ve struggled with these disorders since I was 15, and 4 years later I’m doing better, but there are frequent downward spirals. I have some coping methods, a support network, and medication to help me. But it’s never enough, and I suspect depression will always remain the monster under my bed. That’s ok. But it does mean that dealing with everyday life is often harder for me than for others.

On top of being mentally ill, there is this thing people only recently started talking about: the Year Abroad Blues. Society insists going abroad is the best, happiest year of your life, despite the fact that there are as many different experiences as there are people moving abroad. Friends back home expect me to have endless stories about my adventures; it feels like a shame to talk about the sad stuff instead. There are so many ways a year abroad could go wrong, and it’s disorienting to be struggling when society tells you you’re supposed to be happy, you ungrateful fool.

In the first couple of months since arriving in Japan I struggled with some serious guilt, because back then I was especially unhappy. The truth is: moving abroad is difficult and exhausting, and it takes 1-3 months on average to adjust and start feeling stable again.

An interesting thing everyone notices when they move abroad is that they constantly feel tired and sleepy. I’m curious about this so I’ve asked dozens of international students at Kobe University, and pretty much all of them confirmed that they experience this. My foreign friend who is doing her doctorate in psychology here explained that one of the reasons this happens is that our brains have to put extra effort into processing information in a foreign language. 

This means that I have less energy to do everyday tasks than I did back home. Depression lurking in the background also steals some of my energy. So, for the first few months of being in Japan, I could barely stay awake through my classes. I still got dragged to awesome trips on the weekends, but I could barely enjoy them. I started avoiding time around people, and my grades slipped because I had no energy to study.

Another source of guilt this year is that I’m an introvert. I’m good at making close friends, and I’ve made some lovely international and Japanese ones here in Kobe. That’s all I need socially – people I already know, and who I can be sure I’ll have fun with. Some people around me recently made me feel guilty for not going to a bar every other night like they do, chatting with strangers. There’s nothing wrong with spending your year like that, but to me it sounds very unappealing – I get anxious when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know; I have to psyche myself up even just to go into town on my own. There is an assumption that going abroad is a constant hunt for new friends, and I wish people realised that this is not everybody’s idea of a good time.

Also, people don’t like admitting this either, but the thing is: Japan, or whatever other country you’ve always put onto a pedestal, is just not that great. For example, I was told that Tokyo is a crazy urban jungle wonderland. The reality is that it has some funny shops and cafes, but otherwise it’s hardly different from another megalopolis such as London.

Don’t get me wrong – I still like Japan. It’s a unique society with a mindset that’s very different from that of the West. I love Japanese art and history and I’m thrilled about being able to speak the language. Japanese people are sweet, and I enjoy the clean streets and great customer service. There are many voices out there sharing how fun and useful a year abroad can be. I just wanted to point out the other side of the coin: it’s not paradise. 

My everyday life here is actually more boring than back in Oxford. I have daily language classes that take up all morning, and most days also a lecture in the afternoon. Language classes are hardly exciting, and the lectures are not as interesting as back home. Waking up early means that I’m exhausted by the afternoon, and all I want is to get home, finish homework, eat, and sleep. The weekends are my only chance to catch up on sleep, so if I choose to travel instead, I might not enjoy it because I’m so tired. The only holidays I have this year already passed – one for New Year, and a long one for spring. I’ve done my share of awesome travel, and now I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. About 70% of my year abroad has been work and everyday routine. It’s not a year in paradise, and we should stop assuming that it should be non-stop fun, because that’s harmful. Once we get abroad and realise it’s not perfect, we feel guilty for not being constantly happy.

Some of my friends here are healthier and more outgoing than me. They tend to look down on my inability to do more than just attend classes, go out with friends, and occasionally travel. They have part-time jobs, they climb mountains for fun, they often go out at night. But I physically can’t do that! I know my body extremely well, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone countless times. The fact is: I struggle with doing a lot of things at once. I need a full night’s sleep or I will not comprehend what’s going on. I know this, but I still feel guilty for not being as active as other people. We should all remember that different bodies have different limits, and respect that.

Finally, I’m just ready to go home. As I said before, I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. Yes, it only matters that I pass this year, but even passing will take a lot of effort. After having my partner visit me I got a new wave of homesickness, and I crave being home, with my mum and my cat, where everything is just a bit simpler. I miss being able to read what’s written on the products in supermarkets. I miss being able to communicate with people without having to think hard of how to express myself. I miss not standing out in a crowd, and not being stared at. England has its problems, and as an immigrant child it took around 4 years for me to consider it home, but it’s my safe space now. Being in Japan feels too liminal and uncertain, a constant race to do and see new things, when sometimes all I want is to rest.

Of course, I’m not just gonna wallow in my misery for the last 3 months in Japan. I realise what a unique privilege I’m living, and that I will probably never get the chance to live in Japan again. I’m still certain that my year abroad in Japan was a great decision. I’ve had so much fun and I know there’s more to come. It has given me a lot of self-confidence and self-awareness. But I also went through hard times, and I feel like I would have struggled less if others around me were more open about their experiences.

I’ve read numerous articles about the infamous Year Abroad Blues, and I now know that plenty of others go through the same stuff I’m experiencing. It’s a shame that people are often scared to admit that they’re not having the time of their lives, because this reinforces the society’s assumption that the year abroad is one big merry-go-round. I think that should change, and that we should be more honest about feeling vulnerable and down. That way we can support each other in times of need, and help each other make the most of our time abroad!

 

Getting to know Kyoto

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Hello Kyoto

Now that I’ve spent 6 months in Japan, and travelled to various towns in Kansai and Kanto areas, I’m grateful that I live in Kobe. When I just arrived it felt small, especially as I’m used to living in London. There are many cafes and some places to have fun in Kobe, but the shopping is pretty bad and those who like clubs and bars often complain about the lack of those here. But Kobe is very cosy, and perfect as a home. If I want a big city, I can visit Tokyo. If I want to go out, I can go to Osaka. If I want cultural experiences, I can go to Kyoto. Nothing is too far away.

And Kyoto is the town I’ve changed my opinion the most about since October. From the start I knew I’m not a fan of Osaka or Tokyo, but I dreamed of living in Kyoto. However, Theo and I spent several days in a row commuting to and through Kyoto, and… it was a nightmare. The town remains beautiful and serene, but the transport system started grating on my nerves. And, well, the tourists. I can’t really complain because I’m a tourist myself, but Kyoto feels more like a museum and less like an actual town. In London and Tokyo tourists are less noticeable, lost in the crowds of the locals; but they really stand out in Kyoto.

So there. Kobe is wonderful, well-located, and peaceful. And Kyoto remains an amazing place to visit once in a while. Especially for dates.

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A heroic effort of putting up my hair

I fulfilled a life-long dream in Kyoto: I got to try on kimono!  I googled various kimono lending places in Kyoto and found the cheapest one; it was extremely busy when we arrived.  I rushed through picking kimono, a belt, and a bag, and then spent about 30 minutes getting it all on. I also spent some extra yen on getting my hair up in a fancy hairstyle. The assistants were amazed and horrified by my hair – most of their customers are Japanese, and Japanese hair is much easier to handle! Theo also put on kimono, but it was a little faster for him, though also complicated. Finally, we put on the infamous geta (traditional Japanese shoes) and wobbled out of the shop. We only had an hour before we had to take the kimono off, which was a real shame, as we spent most of it frantically taking photos. Still a magical experience though. The looks we got from strangers were funny – some smiled with approval, and some frowned at the silly foreigners appropriating Japanese clothing. Cultural appropriation is a sore topic and a grey area for me as a Japanologist, and deserves a separate blog post.

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Trying to keep up the rhythm…

That same day we went to a taiko drumming workshop. This was a particular delight for Theo, who is a talented drummer back in England. I had fun too! We shared the teacher with three other people, and the lesson was full of movement and rhythm. Theo now dreams of finding proper taiko lessons in the UK.

Another dream came true for me in Kyoto: attending tea ceremony. The kind we went to is designed as a workshop for foreign visitors who want to learn about it. Tea ceremony is not practised by Japanese people very often nowadays – it’s reserved for very special occasions. I have a Western friend who attended one in Japan, and she said it lasted 3 hours and was extremely formal. Our workshop was pretty relaxed and lasted 1 hour. The teacher explained the history and significance of tea ceremony, demonstrated how tea is brewed properly, and gave each of us a go at making our own cup of tea. The other guests brought young children, who decided real green tea tastes like spinach. Well, it is an acquired taste, but I rather liked it, and Theo was such a fan that he bought loads to bring home. Certainly one of the more interesting things I’ve done in Japan.

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Photos can’t do this place justice

At this point our time with Theo was running out, and we only got a little more Kyoto tourism in. We went up the Kyoto tower to get a great view of the sun setting over the city. It was far less impressive than the Skytree, but still romantic. The highlight was Fushimi Inari though. It’s one of the most famous temples in Japan, in particular known for the thousands of torii gates you can walk through. It was painfully crowded, but I imagine that if you visit early in the morning, the view gets truly surreal. The torii gate path leads up the foresty mountain, creating a real sense of magic.

And that was that. Kyoto left a strong, mostly positive impression. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport saying goodbye to my partner for another 4 months. It was extremely difficult, and right now I’m going through homesickness almost as bad as when I first arrived. Luckily for me, I’m surrounded by friends who are bursting with affection for Japan and ideas for what to do next, so my adventures here are not over just yet.

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Showing off our kimono on the streets of Kyoto

Returning to Hiroshima and Tokyo

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The Great Buddha in Kamakura

It’s been almost a week since my partner, Theo, returned home to England. We spent 4 intense weeks travelling around Japan, and it’s taking me some time to sort out all of the happy memories in my head. In the mean time, the new semester started at Kobe university, with new students and teachers, and… extra work. At least the fluffy sakura blossoms are helping me feel positive about coming back to my studies.

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Deer whisperer

Hiroshima is a bit far from Kobe and quite expensive to get to, but I knew I had to take Theo there, both for the history of the place and the beauty of Miyajima. It was harder to figure out the logistics without guidance this time, but I managed to get a decent deal, and so we took a bus there, which goes 4 hours one way, and costs about 8000 yen overall. Again – absolutely worth it. I picked a lovely flat to rent through AirBnb, so we had lots of space and comfort for a low price, which I learned really matters on a trip. I described how much I love Hiroshima in an earlier post, and my opinion hasn’t changed: it’s still a cosy town with tragic but inspiring history, and Miyajima was stunning even though we went before the sakura began blooming. I’ve been looking forward to cuddling some more deer and so has Theo, who turned out to be a real deer whisperer: they spent a good half an hour cuddling a particular deer who even put its head on Theo’s chest a few times. In addition to covering the things I saw last time I came, we went to the Hiroshima castle, which offers a great view of the city, and a small exhibition about the older history of Hiroshima.

It was a good call to do a lot of travelling at the beginning of our holiday, because we started getting tired about halfway through, and I caught a mean cold just before we left for Tokyo. Well, despite being surrounded by a fascinating new country, Theo and I agreed that there’s nothing better than lazy days spent together watching TV and cooking tasty food! 🙂

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Good old Tokyo skyline… with the infamous “golden turd”

Tokyo was just as big and confusing as I remembered. It remains a great place to visit and (I assume) terrible to actually live in. We started in a rather strange place: Kabukicho, which I did not visit on my last trip. It certainly made for a funny first impression on Theo: the crowd was younger and rowdier than anywhere else, quite unusually for Japan. Kabukicho is known for being a bit “seedy”, which was our impression too – the “girl bars” (where men go to be attended by young women) alone are an uncomfortable sight. We had a great time though. After gobbling up a vegan burger each, we headed for karaoke, which was so much better to do with Theo, as we know and love the same songs – with my other friends who listen to different music I just ended up falling asleep!

After that I got to do something I’ve been excited to explore for a long time now: looking for the infamous “love hotels”. They get funny media coverage in the West, which turned out to be completely exaggerated. These days love hotels look just like normal ones, and offer the same services; nothing like the outrageous theme park-like rooms you see in Western articles. The only difference is that they offer visit times of 3 hours, 5 hours, and a full night. Most Japanese couples use love hotels as a way to get some privacy, because they can’t afford to move away from the tiny flats they live in with their parents, though that is changing nowadays, so love hotels are on the decline. It was a fun and fairly normal experience, where we paid an average normal hotel price for a luxurious, huge room with a Jacuzzi! I think that it’s much cheaper than mainstream luxury hotels because many tourists feel shy about the label of a love hotel and so do not choose to stay in one. Well, I enjoyed the cheap-ish comfort, and I’m glad we explored the infamous Japanese phenomenon.

In contrast to the day before, we spent our second day in Tokyo in the Tokyo-Edo museum, which was as fun as last time. That day we discovered that the accommodation I booked through AirBnb was absolutely terrible, unfortunately. It was cheaper than a hostel and offered private rooms with locks, but was dirty and felt like a prison. Next time I will know to pay a bit more for a better stay. Even if it was just a place to sleep in, it did bring the mood of the trip down. It is noteworthy that this was the cheapest private room I could find in Tokyo, for only £18 per night, so we could afford the whole week.

It rained quite a lot while we were in Tokyo, which was annoying as we wanted to see temples and parks, and the sakura was beginning to bloom. We did manage one great rainy day though: shopping in Akihabara and its outrageous Don Quixote; a few turns at the games in the arcades and a cute purikura session; bowling in Tokyo Dome and dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant.

And we certainly made up for the rainy days: visiting Sensoji, walking around Ueno park, exploring my beloved Tokyo National museum, contrasting Meiji shrine with Harajuku, checking out the hipster vegan cafes around the city.

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One of the magical tiny temples

The best day might have been the one when we went to Kamakura, which is just over an hour by train from Tokyo, and is the ancient warrior capital of Japan. I’ve not been there before, so it was extra exciting. We spent a couple of hours hiking through the neatly laid out trails and cute tiny temples, finally getting to the giant Great Buddha statue. The best part was that you could go inside it – I’ve never seen a statue from the inside before! We finished the day with people watching on the windy beach. I’d say Kamakura is a must do on a trip to Tokyo.

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The view

I noticed that Tokyo was very foggy in the spring, in contrast to the crystal-clear views it offered in December. We decided not to bother with the Sky Tree this time, and took the free entry to the Metropolitan Building instead, which still offered a decent view of Tokyo. Definitely a thing to keep in mind – Japan offers the best views during the winter.

And that was about it for Tokyo. It was lots of fun, but also chaotic and tiring. We managed to miss our plane on the day of returning to Kobe, which was horrific as I’m the kind of person who is never late to anything, but I sorted it out and we even managed to make the most of hanging out in the airport waiting for our new flight. See, it’s all about who you’re travelling with: Theo and I balance each other out so that we’re organised but not stressed, and can make each other laugh in any situation. I definitely enjoyed travelling in Japan with my partner more than alone or with other people.

I’ll be back with a few more exciting stories from Theo’s visit to Japan. For now, I’ve got to get a start on those daily kanji tests that are just around the corner…

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We saw a tradition wedding at the Meiji shrine