Life on the “Other Side,” the “Single Story,” and the Continuous Art of Letting Go

“But you lived here for 39 years before Japan… I don’t really understand why it feels so strange to be back?”

Those words from my well-meaning boyfriend a few months ago have stuck with me. He’s been incredibly patient and understanding with my slow adjustment, but as those who have lived elsewhere who come back home know, it’s something you can’t quite put into words. Everything has just… changed.

One of the reasons I came home was that my Dad was sick (later, we would learn of his diagnosis of molecular-level lymphoma). I watched my hero shrivel from a  healthy 195 lbs to a tiny 147 lbs in the course of just a few months. On one fateful day that will forever be burned in my memory, when he came to Denver to have lunch with me during my CELTA teacher course last June, I thought I witnessed him die right in front of me. He had what looked like two seizures. After the second one, as I frantically yelled at him and shook him, his dead eyes staring at the table, it felt like those few seconds were hours before he came-to and blinked his eyes, disoriented. It turned out because he wasn’t eating and drinking properly, he was severely dehydrated and had fainted. But in those few moments, I thought a huge part of my whole world had ended.

He’s now recovering from his sixth and last bout of chemo, and his diagnosis is cancer-free. It’s been a stressful homecoming, and this has been really hard on my whole family. And somewhere among the busyness, and the hospitals, and the tense phone calls, and the studying, and the new love relationship, and being the best I could be at my new job, I lost sight of the fact that I survived probably one of the most difficult times of my life — survived not by thinking of me or taking care of myself and considering I was suffering from reverse culture shock, but by putting one foot in front of the other, looking outward to help my loved ones the best I could, and taking each day as they came. I earned my CELTA certification through this. I landed a great job. I beat the odds. I survived. And so did he.

Things are better now. I’ve (mostly) adjusted.

I have this new ESL teaching job I love where I continue to help people from around the world reach their English goals. One of the shining moments was when I was given the role of lead teacher for a cool series of courses we teach for au pair here in Denver who need English credit for their visas. I teach American culture, literature, and film on Saturdays. This course has helped me get acclimated back into my home country. And the best thing: I get to continue what I love here. I feel so very fortunate that I can not only do that, but I can do it in a supportive, positive, encouraging environment — something I didn’t really get from my employers in work-worn Japan (that’s probably a whole other blog post).

For my current American Literature course, we’ve been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, and then returns home after more than a decade. My young au pair students and I can all relate to this experience. But what really resonated with me was Adichie’s TEDTalk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” that we watched in last Saturday’s class as part of my lesson. A single story can be about a country, a group of people, or one individual. It’s those stereotypes and assumptions we’ve built up over time and rolled into one story. This single story doesn’t allow much compassion, understanding, or curiosity. We stay stuck. And we see this in so many areas of our lives.

Now, for all my moving on…  there was one place in my life of which I was struggling to let go until today: a long-time friend who blindsided me shortly after I returned, which deeply hurt me. I thought I was coming home to our former comfortable and close friendship, but this person had convinced herself that my two-dimensional characterization on Facebook while in Japan was the whole of who I was. But worse, she brought into the situation one of my best friends who had passed away while I was in Japan as an excuse… or reason — that she wouldn’t have reunited with me after a parting of the ways a few years back if it hadn’t been for this mutual friend encouraging her. This became her single story. She came off as a blend of uncertain, defensive, condescending and, probably somewhere deep down in there, I think there was the real shit that she wouldn’t allow to surface; it was safer for her to run away.

I now see that everything that happened wasn’t reality from either side. Her single story wasn’t the real issue. Her own ghosts and haunts were. My single story about her being a despicable person that I held up until this very morning was just my way to justify the unjustifiable. And, more importantly, I think it was a way to avoid mourning the loss of my friend who passed, which still cuts very deeply — especially returning to a home that she was always a part of but now she’s not. My pain had less to do with the false friend blind-siding me than the true friend I lost who couldn’t defend herself or be a part of the discussion. It wasn’t fair. Cancer isn’t fair. Death isn’t fair.

But this morning, it hit me all at once: my beautiful friend I lost — who felt all her friends’ emotions deeply —  would have been so sad knowing that I was holding onto this hurt and anger and pain. She’d want me to let it go and move on and be happy. Because she didn’t get that chance. And it’s my responsibility to do so for her.

It’s really strange and devastating being back here without her. So many memories of our friendship linger in the corners, the crevices, the alleys, the dance floors, the streets, the mountains, the mutual friends who remain. But for her, I’m letting all this pain and anger go today. For her, I will throw away my single stories as soon as I’m aware of them. For her, I will strive to be better.

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

The next time you catch yourself falling for a single story, stop, find your curiosity, and start asking questions — even if they’re only directed toward yourself. You might be surprised at what you find and how freeing it is. I was.

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Alice Down the Rabbit Hole

culture-shockSwwooooooosh!  That’s the sound of me slipping down my new rabbit hole. Hmmmm. It’s a familiar one this time, but the disorientation here is even worse than what I felt in the one I came from. What’s the deal?

Reverse culture shock. That’s the deal.

Here are some typical symptoms of this phenomenon, according to this  great blog I found about it for students returning from study abroad programs:

…feelings of restlessness or rootlessness; feelings of isolation, depression or boredom; questions about your identity and values; ‘reverse homesickness’ or nostalgia for the lifestyle or people of the other country; an inability to describe your experiences abroad in a way that can really express them; difficulty or confusion when using your native language; a sense of being an observer instead of a participant in your own culture; negative or critical feelings towards the culture/values of your home country; a desire to return abroad; a more individualistic attitude than you previously had; or difficulty making use of your new knowledge/skills.

I was vaguely aware of this kind of thing before my return home. But I was so excited to go back, I figured it wouldn’t affect me. And for about a month, I was right. I reveled in American food and EATING ALL THE THINGS. Nom nom nom. I got reacquainted with old friends whom I missed for years. I spent some quality time with my family. I had a friend-turned-beau I knew before I left for Japan with whom I happily reunited. I went on long walks in my old neighborhood, just letting the beauty and familiarity pour over me. After that first week back, I focused almost all of my attention on passing the CELTA (certificate for teaching ESL) for the next month, which would be my ticket to almost anywhere in the world in the future. I even said a few disparaging things about my former host country among the many good things I mentioned, which may be true to me — but in hindsight, it was probably more posturing to avoid the actual loss I felt.

After a time, little anxieties starting to creep into my awareness. But I ignored them. Then last night, they seemed to all explode in the form of a teenager-like attack on previously mentioned beau. He wasn’t completely innocent, but I was truly awful. I didn’t recognize myself. I haven’t blown up like that in years. I knew after an explosion like that, there was definitely something wrong.

“It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much.” Alone, crying on the couch last night. And it finally hit me what was going on. I was experiencing all the symptoms mentioned above and just not acknowledging them until it was too late. And I didn’t give myself enough time alone when I got back to readjust. Like with most things in my life, I jumped in with both feet. Fire in the hole!

Healing in Others

loving peopel

Earlier today, I had a brunch date with one of my most beloved friends I hadn’t seen since my visit home in December 2014. I was crying all morning and was tempted to cancel. But I knew the last thing I needed was to isolate myself. So, I went. And he gave me one of his patented warm, all-encompassing hugs. And he listened. And I was able to come to some decisions about what to do to move forward.

I posted about my depression on Facebook. Almost instantly, I had several friends and family members lend some comforting words and good advice.

I reached out to my Tokushima tribe and caught them up about my life and what was going on. I told them I missed them. They offered their own brand of comfort, as well.

My best friend called me tonight, and we hashed out some of my concerns and hurts.

There’s lots of advice out there for getting through reverse culture shock, but in my experience, the number one thing to do is DON’T ISOLATE YOURSELF. I feel better tonight just sharing my feelings today with people I love and trust to always be there for me.

Going Forward

Admittedly, I’m still feeling some pangs of sadness tonight. But I’m not one to sit in self-pity for long. I went for a jog. I joined some international and Japan Meetup groups. I’m going to check into ESL volunteer work at one of the local colleges. I’m heading to my hometown tomorrow to support my LGBTQ brothers and sisters for their Pride weekend. I watched a webinar tonight with advice for how to grow your blog.

If you’re also feeling the pangs of homesickness for a place you left behind, it’s okay. You’re not alone. Reach out to your loved ones and start making some plans where you are now.

This, too, shall pass, and the sun will shine again tomorrow.

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My China Travel Nightmare (Or, There’s No Place Like Home)

Dear Blogosphere — I’m back in the good ole US of A for a bit, and on this day, the 4th of July and my country’s birthday, I’d like to give a big shout out to my country-people — you’re big, loud, friendly (mostly), driven, opinionated, eat a lot, and I love you. No regrets moving back.

I would do the world of ESL a disservice if I didn’t tell you about my horrific experience traveling back to the states. First off, most of you are probably a lot smarter than I and would not have bought a plane ticket that took you east through China for two layovers before going west back to the USA. But this is what I did, because as a now-unemployed English teacher, I was desperate to save as much money as I could.

But take note: WHEN TRAVELING INTERNATIONALLY, DON’T SPARE ANY EXPENSE ON THE PLANE RIDE. Did you get that? Write it down. Seriously. Very very very important, as you will see as you read on….

So, here’s a “brief” synopsis of what happened — keep in mind that airline staff in Zhengzhou Airport were 98% rude, dismissive assholes on top of all this who didn’t speak English, with three who stood out who were my angels. Now, I’m not an ugly American who thinks that people from non-native-English-speaking countries should speak English; however, I do have an expectation that an INTERNATIONAL airport at least make some basic English a minimum requirement. Please. For the love of God.

Also, dodgy internet access, and China blocked everything but email — at least I was able to keep in contact with my mom and dad, as well as my boyfriend who was picking me up from the airport, this way, but there were at times agonizingly worrisome hours of no contact for them. Panic for me was always buried just under the surface. And, last but not least, I did all this WITH NO COFFEE. Ok, here we go, deep breath:

I missed a connection in Zhengzhou because my flight was a little delayed (the airline blamed me), and then the nightmare began. Went from counter to counter to counter about six times and about 45 minutes before finally bursting into hopeless tears at the info desk, so they called a wonderful man who spoke enough English to help me. Upon learning that the airport wouldn’t accept international credit cards (!!!) and had no money exchange counter, this man paid with his own credit card, and I reimbursed him in American dollars. So yeah, my next huge mistake was assuming the airport would take my credit card, because Pu Dong in Shanghai did when I traveled to Bangkok the year before, so I didn’t get any Chinese money in Osaka. But that was Shanghai, a relatively civilized city. Zhengzhou may as well be Timbuktu.

This angel-man then personally escorted me through the priority lines, and I got a lift via one of those taxi cart things to my gate. So, I had a new flight, but it got delayed several hours due to storms, then cancelled. Because I had no Chinese money and couldn’t use my credit card, in addition to operating on two hours of sleep, was also weak with hunger, surviving on one Soy Joy bar.

After waiting for my second angel employed by the airport to be finished with 100 Chinese people screaming at her for something she couldn’t help, my third airport angel and she sat with me, trying to get me a new flight. No luck, so they said to just show up to the ticket desk early the next morning. At about 3:00 am local time and barely able to put one foot in front of another at that point, I was finally shuttled to a hotel stay where I slipped into three hours of death-like sleep. Was awoken by airline staff at 7:00 am helping me throw things in my bags to get back to airport; scarfed down strange Chinese food for breakfast from hotel but was grateful for the food. Got ticket for new flight, but then it was delayed for two hours. Never. Ending. Nightmare.


Thank you, Shutterstock lady, for giving a perfect visual representation of my WTF face The. Entire. Time.

Finally got to Hangzhou, original destination, to find out there were no international flights until the next Monday (would have been helpful for Zhengzhou airport staff to tell me this to put it politely. %#*}€$%#*!!!!! to not). Hangzhou info desk lady suggested an hour train to Pu Dong Airport in Shanghai. Holy shit. Was able to get Chinese money at this airport, and then off I went.


With visions of being sentenced to hard labor camps in China because I overstayed my transit visa starting to roll around in my mind, dragged 75 lbs or so of luggage to train station via taxi. Train station was nuts. Nothing in English. Waited in huge lines to get ticket. 20 minutes to catch train, started awkwardly running to the gate with all my luggage. On the way, met my fourth travel angel, a westerner who lived in Shanghai, who helped me get to my gate and explained I needed a taxi from Shanghai train station to the airport. Took bullet train to Shanghai, still dragging 75 lbs of luggage. No seat on train, so stood for an hour.

Saw China countryside through the train window, with scenery reminiscent of a dystopian nightmare: depressed, muddy farmland interspersed with clusters of tall, nondescript, cold company buildings and decrepit houses. China boasts of being a first-world country… perhaps this is true in the big cities, but it’s a third-world country outside those cities. I was stunned.

Got a taxi for an hour to Pu Dong airport and slept the whole way. Finally at the airport, I bought a new ticket to LA via China Eastern Airlines — but the lady got my name wrong so I had to get reissued a ticket. Took 15 more minutes. Seriously, at this point I just figured I’d get stuck in China forever. But hallelujah! With a mere three hours to spare on my 24-hour transit visa, the flight was on time, and I got to LA on schedule. I wept uncontrollable tears of joy when I first saw California out the window.

And one shining light in the darkness: all bags arrived intact! Also that I had travel insurance and can hopefully get reimbursed. I’m still waiting to find out.

But once in LA, there were no direct flights to Denver. I mentally and physically couldn’t handle anymore, so I bought a direct flight to Denver online for the next day and got a hotel. My first meal back was a big breakfast at IHOP, where I ate all the things.

When I finally checked in for my final flight home, as some kind of poetic INjustice, it was delayed one hour. Sigh. Travel, am I right?

I told my family I think all this happened so I wouldn’t compare the USA to Japan but to the horribleness of China instead so I wouldn’t have such a shock. I mean, you know it’s bad when you get to the Los Angeles Airport and marvel at how polite and helpful everyone is! 😂

In one of my upcoming posts, I’ll tell you all about my super awesome CELTA teaching certification course I took in Denver one week after my arrival. No rest for the wicked, eh?

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Colleen Come Lately

My vote is YES.

“I swear my life has just been a series of being late to things,” I apologetically texted at my friend as I flew out the door yesterday.

I’m well aware of this particular flaw. I figure it’s mostly due to the astonishing ability I’ve had of tuning out whenever my very organized mother tried to teach me how to get my life together. Where is that shirt I wanted to wear? Where did I put my phone? Where the hell is my mascara? Why the bloody hell was it under the bed? DAMN IT, I’M LATE AGAIN!

(After 40-some-odd years of failing to kick these bad habits, however, I’ve decided to embrace them and call them, um, just part of my charm.)

So…  upon running out the door late for the umpteenth time yesterday, I started thinking about this pattern in my life…  and about how maybe I was even too late for my journey for teaching and traveling. I sometimes gaze upon my younger counterparts with a sense of nostalgia and longing to go back just a few years so I could be here in Japan at a younger age. Always running late. I got married (and subsequently divorced) in my 30s. I became a professional dancer in my late 30s.  I quit my corporate job and headed overseas in my 40s.

But you know what? George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” I think she’s onto something. I truly believe everything happens just as it should. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ready for it at a younger age. Maybe you’re ready for it — whatever “it” is — just at the right time.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about learning an instrument. OK, shamisen was a bit of a disaster, but hey, I think in my late 40s I’ll become a professional ukulele player. What do you think? 😉

Keep on dreamin’, kids.

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Cross-dressing devils — wait a minute…

Makizushi for Setsubun, the eve of spring, according to the Japanese lunar calendar. Osakans started a tradition of eating this maki sushi with special ingredients (I spotted shrimp, tuna, salmon, squid, and cucumber) facing in the direction chosen each year for good luck in health, money, etc. This year was north-north-west. One must eat the whole thing in one sitting and stay silent. 

Hope I did it right. Could use some luck this year! (Note: opted for the 1/4 size, as the normal size could choke a horse!)

I got mine at my corner Circle K, which I find awesome. 😀

For more about Setsubun traditions, including cross-dressing and children throwing soybeans at devils, check out this link: 

Happy Eve of Spring!  ✌🏻

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2016 in Review

Here we are. Another year come and gone. 

And the trope that 2016 was a terrible year has gained such traction in the “Intarwebs,” it’s very difficult to resist its allure. Let’s sweep an entire year away and project greatness on the next year, right? Ugh. No. 

Yes, some bad stuff happened in 2016 — and especially for me in my love life (more on that later) — but a lot of good stuff happened, too. I traveled to Okinawa, Tokyo twice, and Kobe and Osaka multiple times. I got better at and more settled in my teaching, and I gained another year of experience to take forward with me. I solidified friendships with my group in Tokushima and made some new friends, as well as started Japanese lessons. I’ve cultivated a solid base of private language students to supplement my income. I also found a buyer for my Denver condo. Life was pretty good to me. 

Life was not very good to me in 2016 when it came to men. I had been single awhile, and I actually enjoyed it. But I started the new year hopeful about a budding relationship, and then watched it crash and burn by May. From then on, I decided I would try to make better choices and build healthier boundaries, and hold out for a real emotional investment. But what came instead was a series of starts and stops that gave me some serious emotional whiplash. I mean it actually became completely absurd  — and if I ever get a book published about my life here, be sure to read the “Night of Ghosts of Boyfriends Past” chapter for a good representation of this. And then commence in laughing your ass off. I did (eventually). 

I believe in living in the questions to manifest your dreams into reality. I’ve seen this happen for me endless times in my professional life. But over the past year, the more I asked the questions, “what else is possible?” or “what would it take for ______?” for my love life, the universe seemed to deal me progressively harder sucker punches to the gut. The last one squeeeeeeaking in on New Year’s Eve day, even, with a man for whom I’d dared to get my hopes up telling me the most he could offer me at the end of the day was friends with bennies. PUNCH!! Oof.

And, see, I’m a pretty cool chick according to lots of people whose opinions I respect 😉 … so what the heck was happening here? 

I really didn’t want to start the new year off with one last big stomach punch; however, if I try to see a lesson in this, it’s that I think I just need to give up. I don’t mean this in a self-pitying way, but in a “letting go” kind of way. I’m not going to ask the questions about my love life anymore. I’m just going to ask the questions. I’ve got a lot I need to think about accomplishing this year, and I’ve decided to put these goals as a priority. These days committment and emotional investment seem to be a thing of the past where sexual window shopping has taken the lead. Sorry, that’s just not my kind of fun, and I’m not willing to redefine “emotional investment” to suit the times just for a couple of warm nights. I’m out. 

I started 2017 with kisses from two of my best girl friends. If this means I’ll be lucky in friendship again this year, I’ll definitely take it. No exhausting window shopping there. 

So, hey, 2017: what else is possible FOR MY LIFE? What would it take to meet my goals? 

I’m ready, willing, and have my stomach armor firmly in place. Bring it.

Happy New Year from Tokushima!

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Three-Year Japaniversary! 

That’s right! It’s now been three years (and two days) since I shoved my entire life into a 5’x5′ storage unit, two suitcases, and a few boxes, and started a new life in The Land of the Rising Sun. 

I’ve accomplished much in three years, including: changing jobs, learning some Japanese, traveling to multiple top destinations in Japan, making awesome friends, navigating intercultural dating, renewing my visa for three more years, ridding my balcony of disgusting pigeons and their nests, experiencing immense personal growth, and so many little things day in and day out. It has been a dream come true and everything I ever hoped for!

I decided to record a video to mark the occasion, with my Top Five Ways to Survive Living Abroad. This is ugly, dirty, and unedited — because I was too impatient with a stupid Apple Store that wouldn’t properly download a video-editing app. So slap in some ear-buds and enjoy the 13-minute joy ride. My Top Five are also briefly listed below.

The Redhead’s Top Five Ways to Survive Living Abroad 

  1. Know and love yourself. 
  2. Study the culture.
  3. Learn the language. 
  4. Constantly look for growth opportunities. 
  5. Make friends.

Watch the video for more in-depth discussion of these points. (DO IT!!)

Thank you, everyone, for accompanying me on this crazy journey! Here’s to three more years (at least?)!! Let’s go!

Humming the Indiana Jones theme in Iya, Tokushima.

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