Monday, February 4, 2013

My life transformed in Japan

Feb 03, 2013

By Fiona Chan

Two months ago, I quit my banking job, packed up my life in Singapore and moved to Japan.

I was joining my husband, who had relocated there in September to study for a master's degree - and, let's face it, fulfil a lifelong dream of living in the country that had invented the Transformers.

The Straits Times was kind enough to offer me work based in Japan and the move was straightforward enough. So I was surprised by how much explaining I had to do.

First, I had to inform my banking bosses that I was leaving. Lifelong investment bankers both, they command my highest respect but had some trouble grasping concepts such as "voluntary resignation" and "spending time with spouse". Combining the two notions appeared to cause them physical pain.

"But why are you really leaving?" asked one. "Is it the work? Is it the pay? Is it the hours? We can't change any of that but we're always happy to talk about it! For, like, five minutes though, because I have a call at 3pm."

"Why do you even need a husband?" added the other. "You spend every day and every night in the office anyway. We can be your husbands! Wait - that came out wrong."

Then I had to tell my friends that yes, I was moving to Japan, but no, they could not visit me in Tokyo.

Friend: "So, can we come visit you in Tokyo for our holiday next month?"

Me: "No, I already told you, I'm not going to be in Tokyo for the first few months."

Friend: "Oh sorry, Osaka right? Or Kyoto?"

Me: "No and no."

Friend: "Sorry, where exactly again ah?"

Me: "Fukuoka."

Friend: "How to spell?"

Me: "FUK-U-"

Friend: "Okay okay fine, don't want to say just don't say, jeez."

Friend: "So, can you come visit us in Tokyo for our holiday next month?"

But the people who needed the most explanations, as it turned out, were the Japanese themselves.

At the immigration office, my attempt to apply for a spouse visa was greeted with the polite puzzled looks and patient furrowed brows that are the hallmark of Japanese bureaucracy.

"What is your purpose to be in Japan?" an officer asked me in painstaking English.

"I join my husband," I replied, gesturing helpfully at the appropriate points to "myself" and "husband".

"Ah, so you will not work?" he asked, nodding.

"No, I will be working as a journalist," I returned, nodding also.

The brows furrowed again. "But then you need journalist visa?" He started to gather an alarming number of forms.

"Er... no," I quickly said, trying not to sound like a suspicious undercover reporter posing as the wife of a student to enter the country. "I write for a Singapore newspaper. But from Japan. But paid in Singapore. But based in Japan. But writing about the world. But I'm really just here to join my husband."

The officer looked confused. I couldn't blame him. Fortunately, my husband saved the day by breaking into a fluent Japanese explanation of the situation.

The officer's brow cleared. "Ah, so," he said. Then he scribbled on the form and slid it over to me, beaming.

"Purpose of stay: Dependant," I read. "Wow. But I'll be earning some money..." - the brow started furrowing again - "Okay, sure, whatever works." Within half an hour, my visa was ready.

It was the same story at the global bank in Fukuoka where I opened an account. Polite confusion, Japanese explanation, enlightenment, a form slid across for my approval.

"Housewife," I read. "Wow. But I'm working as a - okay, never mind. Wow."

That was when it dawned on me that maybe the person I was really doing all the explaining to was - myself. Why had I, a workaholic city girl, left my comfort zone in Singapore for a place no one could remember, let alone pronounce?

Sure, I would be swopping 16-hour workdays for a better work-life balance, but who needs that much sleep anyway? Did I do the right thing in giving up my Blackberry for Hello Kitty?

Outside the bank, my husband slung his arm around me. "So, we have the whole day free!" he said cheerily. "What do you want to do?"

And just like that, I remembered why moving to Japan had seemed like such an obvious, rational thing to do. My husband hadn't asked me to give up my job and my life in Singapore to join him, just like he hadn't complained (much) when I used to come home at 3am and head straight to lovingly embrace my pillow.

If that was his way of showing support, this would be mine. It wasn't even that big a deal - I knew friends who had moved further away, to more dangerous countries, to be with their spouses.

I turned to my husband and made the ultimate sacrifice.

"Let's go to that Transformers toy shop," I said, and smiled.

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