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Journey to Japan 8: Redefining your Comfort Zone

Adjusting to life in a new country is undoubtedly tough - when it comes to finding your new comfort zone, how comfortable is too comfortable?

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After the excitement of those first few months begins to subside, you may find your mood and mindset starting to shift: the novelty of simply living day to day in a new place begins to wear off as it is no longer “new”, and you may find yourself settling into a new comfort zone.

For me, this felt a little frustrating at first – I had been thriving of the adrenaline of constantly trying new things and pushing myself, of meeting new people and exploring unknown territory. But now it had all become familiar: going to the city office or the bank was no longer a scary thing that I could later feel proud of doing, but just another chore.

Meeting new people sometimes felt stifling rather than gratifying

Meeting new people sometimes felt stifling rather than gratifying as I prepared to engage in the same small talk and be asked the same questions time and time again. I had also familiarised myself with how to get my hands on home comforts (as I type this, I have just finished a Domino’s pizza) and felt pretty unmotivated to get out there and give new things a try.

So, is it possible to find a balance between the exhilaration of being surrounded by “newness” and monotony of settling into a predictable day-to-day routine?

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Settling into a comfort zone is not really a bad thing – after all, if you want to live a happy life, be it at home or abroad, you’ll obviously desire some level of comfort; living in constant bewilderment can be exciting in the short term, but in the long term I imagine it would make daily life extremely stressful.

It’s nice to be able to go into a shop or restaurant and know what to say and what to expect, to take care of necessities like address registration with some degree of confidence and ease. And of course, it is a nice reassurance to know where to go for a quick fix of familiar comfort food, or to find friends with whom you can converse in your native tongue; these things are not bad at all in and of themselves – they only become a problem when you rely on them too heavily.

I found that as I made myself at home in my newly-defined comfort zone, I started to slip back into old habits – habits which I had been forced to break out of when I first arrived and thought I’d, thankfully, seen the back of. But apparently, old habits really do die hard. Laziness won out as, rather than cook or eat local food, I would simply order a pizza or subsist on an unhealthy combination snacks and energy drinks.

My shyness got the better of me as, rather than make an effort to meet local friends and use my imperfect Japanese, I would stick to socialising with other expats. I became more closed to other people in general – whereas in the past I would stop and chat to a random stranger who approached me in a park, I would now make an excuse to get away.

I found myself appreciating the little things less, and the excitement I had originally felt about my new life was slowly being eaten away and replaced with frustration; my comfort zone was becoming more of a rut, and the deeper I settled in to it, the harder it was to get out.

So how do you go about getting out? Sometimes I have to actively remind myself of how my life was before – of how much I wanted to do this, how much I wanted to be here. I remind myself that I had an idea and followed through with it, and that it was a privilege to be able to do so; I’ve come so far and I don’t want to belittle that by living the same life I led back home.

I don’t deprive myself of the kinds of comforts mentioned above, but I do try to be grateful for them rather than taking them for granted, and to make sure my happiness doesn’t depend on them exclusively. I’m trying to find new things that make me nervous, new ways to get that buzz of excitement I felt back at the very start, to challenge myself and be open to new things once again. I like to imagine the things, big and small, that I would miss if I had to leave tomorrow, and to fill myself with a sense of appreciation that for now I can enjoy them at my leisure.

I’m still, in the grand scheme of things, new to Japan – I have friends who have been here for five, ten years, some of them even longer. But that first year is undoubtedly one of great significance, and the process of finding your feet can be intense. I wonder if the process of adjustment ever truly ends – I’m still learning, changing and adapting with every day that passes. I don’t know how long I’ll be around for, how many “phases” I have yet to experience, but for now I’m simply trying to take each day as it comes, accept that there will be a few sticking points along the way, and enjoy this whole experience for what it is: my own.

The days are getting warmer in Tokyo, and summer is just around the corner – come back next time to read about my first Japanese summer and get some tips on how to cope with those long, sticky months!

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  • DaveTheLogician says:

    On three different occasions, I lived in Japan for a total of fifteen years and made countless business trips in between those three periods. As daunting as it may seem to newbies or short term ex-pats, my recommendation is to learn as much Japanese as quickly as possible (and USE it as often as possible). Why? It makes you far more independent and allows you to do and see things you would never have thought possible without a guide/translator. It makes your stay in Japan far more enjoyable. And DO NOT be afraid to make mistakes. You want to “practice?” Do what the Japanese high school and college students do, Go to tourist spots and engage conversation spontaneously. Most Japanese are eager to help you with your Japanese – but YOU should make the first move. They are not making fun of your poor Japanese. The reason students make good subjects to try your Japanese on is that they are also eager to improve their English. Make sure to learn, early, how to say your Japanese is very bad. Often, people learn how to ask questions correctly and many Japanese will make the assumption you can understand the answers you get. And, if you can, hire a tutor. Learn to read and write. I know, it isn’t easy but try. Once you begin to get the hang of it, you would be surprised how much easier Japanese is than English. And, when you make mistakes, they will be great stories later on. Trust me on this. I enjoyed my 15 years (and business trips) immensely. I do not regret a moment (mistakes and all). In the 1970s, I had 65 Japanese who worked for me but could only talk to six or seven. That was a bummer. One of the things I found helpful was to get interested in some aspect of Japanese culture you can make a hobby. You would be surprised how quickly you can begin to read, write and speak when you have a specific interest to concentrate on (mine was Sumo wrestling). I became the office “expert” in Sumo. Soon my employees were coming to me for information on Sumo. Ha, Ha. It was FUN. And that is the key. Make it FUN. Another good way to improve your Japanese is to offer to tutor students in English. They will help you with your Japanese, as well. I learned Cantonese by tutoring in English during lunch in exchange for Cantonese lessons after work (this was when I was living in Hong Kong in the 60s). Making it FUN makes it easier. Trust me.

  • TheonetrueLee says:

    I have been working and traveling in Asia for over 17 years and even lived in Taiwan for about 3.5 years. The one thing you figure out when you aren’t a tourist or a traveler is that no matter where you go life is pretty much the same and you settle into a routine. Not much different then moving to a new city in your own country. People are pretty much the same everywhere. Also some of my best experiences in Taiwan were ordering Dominos and going to Blockbuster (I’m old, forgive me) to get a video with my GF.

    BTW, really enjoy reading your articles and look forward to more.

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    I experienced the same problem, at some point it becomes a bit unmotivating to even talk to strangers, because sadly, random conversation is not something the Japanese are particularly excited about. It can make you feel like you’re walking in a ‘bubble’ – there’s a lot of people but there’s hardly any interaction.
    The way to break through that is really to find a group of people that you can meet regularly. I found that Osaka and Tokyo have a lot of opportunities for that. Groups are a really Japanese thing and if you can find a fun one, then it’ll help you get out of your bubble.

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