Update on life in Japan.

I recently wrote an essay for mater mea, the online publication that has featured me to talk about my move to Tokyo. They reached out and asked for a follow up on our life here in Tokyo. It took me a long time to write this, because I was so occupied with adjusting and dealing with things, that I wasn’t able to reflect on all that has happened. That was part of it. The other part was it has taken me this long to actually sit and be still long enough to reflect. I’ve been moving so much and in such an emotional whirlwind, that I hadn’t allowed myself the space to just be still. Partly because I was afraid of what would happen.

So, one day I sat down and wrote this piece. It was published last month, but I wanted to post it here for you, who have been on this journey with me.

***

When I made the decision to move to abroad with my son, I was completely unprepared. Sure I was aware of the culture shock, the challenges I would endure with jet lag and sleep deprivation. I even expected that I would go through extreme withdrawal from Chick-Fil-A. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how moving to this new country would forever alter my relationship with my son.

After being a single mother in the United States for years, being a single mother abroad is an entirely different ball game. You become proficient at making things happen and figuring things out on your own because you have no real choice. But here, not knowing a lick of Japanese, having zero knowledge of the area or the way things work, I was forced to rely on other people to help me with things I was accustomed to doing on my own. I had to learn how to ask for help, and that was hard for me and my ever-so-posturing ego. Being here made me realize that it was okay to do so because I can’t do everything by myself, no matter how much my pride gets in the way.

I’m going to be honest: the last six months have been somewhat of a struggle. I didn’t handle the stress well and it was challenging for both of us to adapt. Because neither of us was ready for what adjusting to Tokyo meant, our relationship took a hit.

To give a little context, Chris went to a progressive school when we lived in Philadelphia. It was a very relaxed environment that nurtured him as an individual and actively sought his feedback to structure his education. The school was pretty aligned to how I have been educating him since birth, so it worked for us both. When we moved to Tokyo, I enrolled him at the school that had a relationship with the school that I would be working. I researched what I could about this school from afar, but it was basically the tuition discount and close proximity that got the vote. But what I didn’t take into account was how the school would fit into our personal pedagogy.

In hindsight, the school couldn’t have been more on the opposite end of the educational spectrum. They were a traditional catholic school, enforced a uniform policy, and had a rigid schedule and homework policy. Some of Chris’ challenges at the school were keeping up with the pace of homework and testing (of which neither of us was a fan), adjusting to wearing a uniform daily, and the school had an issue with his locs. Attempting to abide by the school policy, I braided his hair back to keep it as “neat and kempt” as his then eight-year-old self could maintain on a weekly basis, but it became increasingly clear that there was a personal issue.

In addition to adjusting to this, Chris was showing signs of stress very early on. He was chewing incessantly on anything he could get his hands on, he was wetting the bed, and he was irritable and would basically freak out if anything changed in our schedule without notice. This was challenging – to understand the needs of my child had changed drastically. I’m not so sure I was ready for that. Chris was extremely stressed out, and it took a long time for us to learn how to communicate effectively again and for me to find a way to support him.

After the first week of school, I scheduled a meeting with his teacher to inform her of his challenges and see if we could work collaboratively on a solution. A distressed mother, seeking the help of a fellow parent, I found none. Instead, she took that opportunity to let me know how my child wasn’t measuring up to the “room full of Asians”, as she referred to them. Discussing with me all the educational challenges that I was already aware of, and informed her prior to his arrival, but failed to discuss interventions or solutions. Frustrated, I sought help from the assistant principal and, later, the principal – all with no avail.

After my fifth meeting with the school, it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t going to get anywhere and began to feel helpless and frustrated. Despite my appeals, they insisted that he was happy at school and that there was nothing to help, although I saw another child at home. I knew it was just Chris putting on a mask and keeping it together while at school, but then falling apart at home. It wasn’t until I saw how it was beginning to have an effect on his identity that I decided we needed another school.

During a conversation, I asked Chris how he felt about living in Japan. He told me that he liked it here, but he felt that his school wanted to change him. He went on to say that he was okay with the uniform and even how they learn in the school, but he was slowly beginning to feel that the individuality that was celebrated at his previous school was discouraged at this new one. This translated to his eight-year-old brain that he wasn’t liked and accepted for who he is. And as the person who has spent the majority of his life making sure he has a positive self-image despite the messages society sends, this was devastating to hear. I had to make a change.

After months of trial and error, we are on an upswing. I had to transfer him to a new school that could support him better with this transition. The commute to school is longer for him, but he is so much happier and lighter. On the way home from picking him up on his first day, I noticed he was so much more energetic and talkative. It was then I realized that no matter how resilient they can be, no child should have to carry a weight like that. Nor should any of us for that matter.

In all this, I’m learning to change the way I communicate with him. I’m learning to be more patient and remember to breathe when I feel things are out of my control. We are both realizing that this is hard for the both of us, but in Tokyo, we are all we got. So we’re working on being kinder with one another.

Despite the challenges we faced initially, I don’t regret my decision at all. I have realized that moving here, at this stage in his development, was the best decision that I could have made for us. He is living the childhood I always wanted for him. There is a sense of safety in Tokyo that doesn’t exist in the States. We feel no sense of caution when walking home at night or when taking public transit. We don’t flinch or hold our breath when encountering law enforcement. We don’t experience any aggression from the citizens here (maybe the occasional staring contest, but I always win). He has a supportive environment at his school now, and he is freer than he has been in a very long time. As a bonus, because of our location, we can explore Asia significantly cheaper than we could back home. Right now, I am content.

Sure, it is possible that by living here, he is experiencing a false sense of the reality that we may have to face if we go back to the United States. When he is a man, he may never know how to interact with police officers in a way that doesn’t make him seem intimidating or threatening (I don’t know anyone in the States who knows how to do this, actually). He may never learn to keep his hands in plain sight at all times and learn the phrase “If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” I do take all of this into consideration. But you know what? I’m okay with that. Because my only focus as a mother right now is to create an environment where my son can be exactly who he should be at nine years old: a child. And I couldn’t care less on what continent that happens.

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6 Comments

  1. Wow how brave of you to move yourself and son to Toyko. Toyko is actually on my visionboard/bucketlst so its amazing you live there. You made a wonderful choice by changing school because whether here or in American its one things about structure but its another to try to tear down a child’s identity when they are getting clear of who they are, especially in a room full of Asian (that was racist).

    I think as a single black mom in America it is rough and not very uplifting in the state…its almost like the Scarlet letter is worn here but moving to Toyko with give you and your son a different perspective look on life. Also don’t worry about your son returning to the states and being fearful of the police or how to “act”. Your son will be well traveled and I am sure educated so he will know how to respond to the police in a respectable manner, and I am sure he wont wear or drive a car that will typecast him…and even if he does…he will be educated and smart to just be kind to the officers to not get hurt.

    I dont have a son but when I do and if I live in the state I will tell him to fear NO MAN on earth. I dont care what the news say. This is not why we are here…I know there are terrible things going on with black people (especially black men and the police force) but that shouldnt be a thing we should keep being paranoid about. Your son will be fine in Toyko, in America or anywhere because you gave him the gift of culture and diversity!

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    1. Thank you so much! We are learning and growing through all of this.

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  2. I just came across your blog and it’s really great. I moved to Japan (Okinawa) just over a year ago and although my son is only 4 right now, i’m starting to try to decide what to do when it comes to schools. He’s at a bilingual childcare right now which is fantastic and he loves, but the decision will be whether to put him into a Japanese school or one of the international schools (expensive and they are all highly religious – which I am not).

    It’s great reading about your challenges and life, and it sounds like you’re settling into life in Tokyo!

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    1. Thank you so much, Rachel! International schools are expensive, but I found one that wasn’t deeply religious. I’m not sure about Okinawa, but in Tokyo there were some that don’t have any religious affiliation. I hope you find what works for you and your family. I also hope to make it to Okinawa soon. I hear it is beautiful there!

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  3. What an interesting life! We had an opportunity to move to Japan when I was a teenager (compliments of the Army) but my dad choose Germany again (not that I’m complaining). My husband grew up there and loved it. I’d love to travel there. I’ve heard nothing but great things from people who live(d) there!

    Also, I was born in Philly too. Germantown. Such a small world 🙂

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    1. It is a small world! Japan is really great. Challenges aside, I’m really glad we moved here.

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