I have lived abroad for almost all my adult life. I’ve been living in Japan for over 20 years. But this year has been hard, it’s been really hard. And as I talk with other expat friends I realize that it’s not just me.
So I am writing this post but those who are also struggling and feeling the same way. And for those who have got friends who are living abroad and might not realize what’s going on. I’m not one for sharing my emotions freely, although I can get a bit ranty at times, so this wasn’t an easy post to write.
But hopefully out of all this something good will happen.
Forever the optimist!
So, a little backstory. The last time I went home, which is the UK, was for Christmas 2019. We had got a trip booked for June 2020. I was excited not only to see family and friends but also because I had a business training program as part of a mastermind that for the first time I could join in person. I was looking forward to meeting these business besties that I’ve been studying along with for the last few months.
And then you know the story, Covid happened and the flights got cancelled.
I don’t want this post to turn into a woe is me Covid post but the pandemic has played a big part in what has been happening over the last 12 months.
Japan was slow to close its borders and to act when the pandemic first happened. And then they went full in. We’ve had times when leaving the house, using public transport, leaving the prefecture travelling outside of the country, was restricted and occasionally impossible. Not so different to many places out there.
At one point, as a foreigner in the country, even though I am a permanent resident, I wasn’t able to leave Japan because I wouldn’t have been able to get back in. And just to make this perfectly clear, if I travelled with my half-Japanese son, he would have been allowed back in, no problem, but me, the foreigner, a hard no.
Then the government decided some foreigners, depending on their visa status were allowed to travel back. This has caused no end of issues including families being split apart for months, if not years. I’ve also lost count of the number of friends who weren’t able to travel back for funerals or to see a relative one last time. This shit is hard.
Fast forward to today and most people think that the borders are now open and everything is hunky-dory but that is far from the truth.
As I was given credit for my cancelled tickets I needed to re-book them before a specific date. I actually dropped lucky and had them booked before Putin declared war on Ukraine so I didn’t need to pay extra for my tickets. Anyone booking a week or two later had to pay considerably more.
I booked the flights for a summer trip to the UK for four weeks. Many people are surprised when I say I take 4 weeks off but I intentionally set up my business so that I could take a month off every year and it basically runs itself, I share how I do all this in the Wonder Mom Success Club. (cheeky plug!)
In the run-up to the trip, I was getting excited but also stressed due to the strict border controls coming back into Japan. Luckily they dropped the quarantine before we flew out so that was one worry off my mind.
At the time of writing Japan still requires a specific PCR test and certificate to show that you are negative for Covid before you can even get on the plane back to Japan. (The rules about this will change for triple-vaxed people on September 7, 2022).
Oh and they are not free, GBP 69 / $80 is what I paid for ours, other friends paid more around the $100 mark.
Despite what the news headlines say, Japan has not opened its borders yet. There are exceptions but basically, the only way tourists can get a visa to enter Japan is to book through a government-approved tourist agency. Independent tourists cannot enter Japan at the time of writing.
It is possible now to invite family but there is extra paperwork to get granted a visa for that. There is also a limit on the number of people entering Japan each day. They have slowly been changing the rules and opening up, but for most of us, this isn’t happening quickly enough.
Inside Japan virtually everybody is masked up, social distancing is still encouraged, and alcohol spray is provided at every shop and expected to be used. In many restaurants, you have to take your temperature before you are allowed into the restaurant and wear your mask except when actually eating. (side note, this is my experience in Saitama and Tokyo, it may well be different elsewhere)
When I got to the UK, I was surprised, and a bit shocked that no one knew what the situation was back in Japan. Even those that I am in regular contact with didn’t realize how repressive it is.
Simple things like meeting up with friends, going out for a drink or even having play dates for the kids have become a once-in-a-blue-moon event for us rather than a regular, normal occurrence.
So although I knew the Brits had thrown all the rules out of the window it was still quite a shock when we arrived. In fact, every time I left the house I was touching my face because something was wrong. The thing that was wrong with that is I haven’t got a mask on!
Honestly, socially there were a few signs that the pandemic had happened in the UK but generally, it was just like the good old days. (Doctors and hospital appointments aside).
It was so good to see friends and family in real life and to hug everyone, how I’ve missed hugs! Every single hug at me on the brink of tears.
We had a great time.
Travelling all around the country, catching up with lots of friends and family, meeting new family members, and eating all of the things. We did more in those 4 weeks, saw more people, and more activities, laughed, having fun than the whole time since the pandemic kicked off.
But it was also the most stressful trip I have ever taken.
And I am pretty well-travelled.
Knowing that we have to take a PCR test and test negative 72 hours before we could leave was always playing in the back of my mind. What if one of us tested positive? Where would we stay? We wouldn’t be able to stay with my mom because she is high risk.
And then on top of that, if one of us tested positive, we would have to rebook the flights and contact the school even though my son could do his work online he would be missing out on some of his schoolwork. And the rest of the crap that comes with it. What if just one of us is positive, does the other go back alone?
And then there were the apps you need to upload and submit documents to. And the nightmare stories of the app not accepting the documents or the airline rejecting something.
As a type A organizer, this kind of thing doesn’t play well in my head.
It wasn’t until 49 hours before our flight that I actually felt I could relax (that was the time the negative results came in and I had everything in the app).
Usually, by the end of a holiday, I’m ready to get back to my own bed. But this time, I really didn’t want to get on the plane. And I wasn’t the only one feeling this, my son was also reluctant to go back and also friends that were visiting the UK at the same time were saying the same thing.
It’s not just mask-wearing and having to take precautions when you go out. It’s more that you feel you drifting apart from friends and family. Those back home don’t understand what you’re going through, even if they had a period of lockdown it’s different when you’re in your own country.
And it’s also the social side of things here, it feels awkward and difficult trying to organize getting together with friends. So many times plans are made and then get abandoned because of a new wave, or new rules implemented or just because the anxiety is too much.
As a traveller, explorer, and freedom lover knowing that I couldn’t just get up and leave or go elsewhere has been really constricting. Being in a situation where you want to jump on a plane if somebody back homes falls sick but still not being able to do so or having the uncertainty of not being able to return it’s a major mindfuck.
Then throw in the ridiculous price hikes when it comes to plane tickets, the reduction in planes that are flying, and then let’s just add war into the mix. It’s making it really difficult for people to travel either way.
When you see friends and family back home sharing what they’ve been up to, festivals, parties, short-haul holidays, and hanging out with friends part of you genuinely feels happy for them because they all leading a normal life again and then part of you wants to pull away because it hurts too much.
Back when everybody was locked down and using the Internet to connect, it was actually easier because in some ways we were all in the same boat. But it’s like the rest of the world has moved on and we’re still in the bloody boat with a lolly stick for a paddle.
Now, this isn’t my usual type of post and I don’t have any worldly advice on how to handle all this.
Just know that if you are living abroad and in a similar situation maybe not in Japan but another country where Covid has still got a grip, know that you’re not alone. Find solace in expat/immigrant groups where similar people hang out. Reach out and talk to somebody because when you talk to someone sharing the same experience it helps to know you’re not alone.
And if you are reading this and you have friends or family that are living overseas that are in a similar situation reach out to them, check-in, and see how they’re doing. How they are REALLY doing? And maybe make an effort to hook up on zoom and do something fun together.
For me, I have a couple of friends I’ve been chatting with who have been going through the same thing, feeling the same feels, equally treading water whilst trying to hold it together for the family. And I also have my mastermind group SPARK where we meet once a week online and check in daily, they have unwittingly been my rock. Thank you, ladies!
Whilst writing this post it has inspired me to write one about the ups and downs of living abroad. Because it’s not all a bed of roses. If you are a trailing spouse or you moved and where you live is now anchored to where your husband or partner works (tied to their job situation) then I think we have a lot in common and there’s more that I want to say about this. So check back next week for the follow-up post.
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