You know a good idea when it hits you. If it’s a truly great idea, you should feel a multitude of emotions. Fear mixed with excitement, anxiety mixed with relief. There will probably be some physical signs, a quickening of the pulse, an intake of breath. And, of course, a rush of euphoria, that great “a-ha!” moment. If you’re ready for it, and have the courage, then it’s time to grab the idea and follow it.
These musings aren’t wholly my own; what is truly original thought, anyhow? Elizabeth Gilbert writes similarly in Big Magic, her “self help” book which is a must-read for creative types. Luckily, I happen to be re-reading that book right now, which is how I knew to be ready for the idea.
It all started with a really bad day.
I hadn’t slept well, which is not a great way to begin any day, but a truly terrible way to begin a bad one. I had a Zoom appointment with my good friend/financial planner, who is such a good friend that she is gifting me free financial planning sessions. Getting my finances in order was one of my main goals of 2021, but the fact that she is in Philadelphia on east coast time necessitated a 7:30 a.m. meeting. 7:30 might as well be the dawn of all time as far as I am concerned; it’s pretty damn early. The meeting started well, I told her about how some situations had changed and developed since our last session, and then the conversation switched to my budget. I shared with her the budget I’d created and she took a look, did some math and delivered the bad news:
“Your problem isn’t overspending: it’s under-earning. This budget is bare bones for your income. It’s no wonder you can’t pay debt or save at this rate.”
Perhaps this sounds like good news, but I felt overwhelmed. A spending problem sounds easy to fix; stop spending! But how the hell do I earn more money? I’ve spent the last year crawling back from unemployment. Trying to earn more sounded daunting. And the fact of the matter is, I’ve probably under-earned and lived month-to-month my entire life. How do you break a cycle that is so deeply engrained?
As I dried my frustration tears and we ended our meeting, my phone lit up with a text message. I glanced at it in passing. It was from my boyfriend, a development in my life so recent that I’d only just started calling him that. “Bad news. I might have to leave Japan earlier than expected.” My heart stopped. I got off the Zoom meeting with my friend and called him immediately.
“What’s going on?” I asked him. He replied that it had to do with his green card.
“Oh. You should go then.”
Back in December, I had started dating an architect. Although he was from Beirut and worked in Tokyo, he also was a US green card holder (oh, the intricacies of international living!) So when he said that he had to leave due to his green card, it was obvious. You don’t wanna fuck with US Immigration.
In the beginning, I had had a passing thought that clearly this couldn’t become serious, because at some point one or both of us would leave Tokyo, he to go to the US and me to go somewhere else that wasn’t the US. But we had a strong, instant connection, and he was by far the most interesting person I had met, so I figured there was no harm to keep seeing him. What I didn’t expect was that he would also be open, communicative, and kind, and treat me the best I’ve ever been treated. By the end of April, what I had intended to be simply the next in the lineup of my casual dalliances had developed into a real relationship. We were referring to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, had met most of each other’s friends, and had even taken our first trip together. I still was pretty sure I knew how it would end, but thought I had another year or two before we got to that point.
But nothing is as stable as you think it is, is it?
After spending the rest of the day alternating between crying and distracting myself with work, I sent out a distress text to my core friend group, my ride or dies back in Los Angeles. Blessedly, one of them answered my SOS and called me immediately. After listening empathetically to my romantic woes, she turned her attention to my financial ones.
“Tell me what level of revulsion you have about this idea,” she began slowly. “But what if you just came back and moved in with your parents to save money?”
Surprisingly, I felt no revulsion. A lot of other feelings came up, a mixture of fear, excitement, anxiety, relief. My pulse quickened. My breath caught in my throat. I knew instantly that it was a good idea.
To clarify, the part about moving back in with my parents – that part wasn’t a good idea. That part was terrible. My parents are actually in the process of building their retirement dream home in a 55+ community in Camarillo, California; no way could I live there with them. But the other part, the part about going back to the US and saving money? That part was pretty alright.
To those that know me and longtime readers of this blog, this probably sounds like a complete 180. I have always talked about not wanting to return to the US for a while and of my complicated relationship with LA. Just a few months ago, I was committed to staying in Japan for at least another year or two. So this might seem out of left field.
But also, my relationship with Japan is not easy, either. I never planned on staying here for nearly five years, in a country that’s never felt like home and where I still suck at the language. Then last year during the pandemic, when the world outside Japan transformed into a post-apocalyptic universe overnight, staying seemed like the only option. I could no longer think about the future, think about “what’s next?” I couldn’t see the woods for the charred ashes that surrounded me.
Really, the best way to answer “what’s next?” is to just leave, to finally escape this Japan tunnel vision I’m currently trapped in, rest, regroup, be with my people, and hopefully save some money. And so, after thinking about it nonstop and talking about it with family and friends, I’ve decided it’s time. The Japan chapter of my life will come to an end.
I’m starting to make my plans, but everything is still rather up in the air. Later this year, I will return to LA for what I’m calling a “short long-term stay” of perhaps 1-2 years to regroup and plan the next adventure. While I would under no circumstances have wanted to go back to California last year, things are so much better now, and I will be able to get vaccinated (don’t even get me started on how slow that shit is going in Japan!) and actually spend some quality time with the people I hold dear. Last year was such a hard year to be away; I don’t know if I adequately acknowledged how much I missed my family and friends so to be able to be with them again is truly a blessing. I’ve even got a place to stay already, with my former bandmate and dear friend who has graciously agreed to let me occupy the spare room of his sweet LA apartment.
“When” is a bit of a harder question. On the advice of the same friend who suggested I come back, I’m applying for some teaching positions at private schools in the Los Angeles area. I honestly have no idea what my chances are, but if I got one of these jobs it would be an August start date, which would necessitate me coming back in July. Otherwise, my lease is up in October, so I’m looking at flying sometime between July and October.
From the minute I made this decision, a large part of my brain has checked out of Japan and is eager to make plans and move on. But I’m trying to temper this notion with the other part of my brain, the part that cautions that I have no idea when or if I’ll return, so I need to enjoy every minute left, maybe even do a bit more travel and soak up all of my remaining time with my friends here.
Honestly, if I left tomorrow, I would have no regrets. My time in Japan has been incredible and I’ve been able to see and do so many things. If I stay until my lease is up, it would be purely for the wonderful group of friends I’ve met along the way. Leaving them is going to be so hard. But that’s the thing about expat life; eventually, everyone leaves. It just happens to be my turn.
In the space of an instant, I went from having no options and not being able to see the woods from the trees to having what feels like countless future paths and possibilities. I see now that going back home is not the step back I always feared, but a valid and valuable opportunity. From there, there are so many things I could do, so many places I could go next.
Maybe it’s so obvious you’ve already figured it out, but it was my sister that pointed out to me that back in the US, I can meet up with my beau again. He’s currently on the east coast, and I’ll be on the other side of the country, so there are details that need to be worked out, but strangely, it doesn’t feel insurmountable. I’ve gone from famously proclaiming that I “don’t do long distance” to being willing to try to see it through and work it out. It feels like a strange twist of fate. He’s even willing to try to come out to Los Angeles to be with me, if circumstances allow. In my previous relationship, I was the one who always made the sacrifices and moved for the other person, so to have someone else willing to finally do it for me feels nothing short of remarkable and frankly, what I deserve (did I mention he treats me the best I’ve ever been treated?)
There’s obviously a lot of things still up in the air, and everyday is a new thought or emotion, but also there’s a lot of hope. I’m going to need that hope to buoy me through the next few months as I bid goodbye to my life here and ready myself for the reverse culture shock of life in the US after five years abroad.
From hopeless to hopeful: that is the magic of a good idea.
Safe and happy travels,