Leslie Wier wanted to come to Japan ever since I was a kid. She’s been in Hiroshima City for almost four years, working as an English teacher with the JET program and completing a graduate degree.
What’s it like there?
Hiroshima City is amazing. I absolutely love it. I couldn’t have gotten luckier with my placement. I live a 5-minute walk from downtown.
When I told people that I was coming to Hiroshima, they’d ask how people there feel about Americans. The people here have no ill will towards Americans. Actually, they love Americans, which is surprising considering the atomic bomb and the atrocities that happened.
When America experienced something similar on 9/11, our immediate response was revenge. Here, the immediate response was peace. There was no overall thought of revenge or retaliation. For the past 72 years, there has been an overall message of peace here.
I think it’s because the atomic bomb was so devastating for so very many people, the impact was so large that they don’t want anyone else to ever go through that. It may also be because Japanese culture is very focused on the collective, whereas American culture is more individualistic.
Is there still radiation there from the atomic bomb?
No. The radiation started to diminish very quickly afterwards. Things started growing here much faster than they expected.
So Japan is super expensive, right?
Not really! Many people think Japan and they think Tokyo, where the cost of living is ridiculously expensive. But here in Hiroshima, it’s very, very manageable.
My rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in the middle of the city is $600/month. All of my monthly bills — rent, phone, internet, gas, water, everything — come to less than $1000, even in the winter. My building is pretty old, but it’s still quite nice. A newer building would be more expensive. And if you live in the country would be less expensive.
If you buy local food, it’s affordable. Even eating out is pretty cheap. Some things, like fruit, are really expensive in Japan. Melons (my favorite fruit) are stupid expensive.
The JET salary is plenty. I just paid off my car back home, and I’m paying off my credit card. I know people who have come over with JET as families of four or five people. They lived on just the JET salary. They had to save and make sacrifices, but they made it work.
Do you speak Japanese?
At this point, I know enough to get by. I’m not fluent, but I can do easy conversations.
I took two years of Japanese in college, but then I went seven years not speaking any. You don’t need to know any Japanese to work with JET. And they do offer a long- distance course that you can take before you come to Japan. But I didn’t like it, so I studied on my own.
The language barrier is a challenge sometimes. I can do day-to-day stuff, no problem. I’ve been able to find an English-speaking dentist and chiropractor. I did have some health issues that required me to find a specialist who spoke English. My supervisor was a great help, but it was still pretty traumatic.
What are some of your other challenges?
The biggest issue is it’s really difficult to make deeper connections.
I’ve had a few Japanese friends that spoke English but we didn’t become really close. Most of my friends have been other foreigners. The expat community is pretty small. So you end up spending time with people who you might not have if you were home.
A friend of mine who I took Japanese with in college lived here for four years before I got here. He was able to introduce me to a lot of people. So I did have a circle of support for quite a while.
But expats are always coming and going. You get close to someone, and then a year or two later they’re out again. That makes it hard to form and maintain really deep close relationships. That’s one of the primary reasons why I’m going back to the States at the end of the summer.
When you keep having to say goodbye to people that you’ve gotten close to, it becomes emotionally taxing. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t have the energy to go out and try to form those relationships. Now I’m starting to focus more on my relationships back home.
Have you been able to travel around?
Yes, I’ve been to Osaka and Kyoto, and to the other prefectures around Hiroshima prefecture. I went to the island of Yakushima, which is home to one of the last virgin forests in the world. I did some of the most amazing hiking that I’ve ever experienced, surrounded by trees that are 7000 years old. I’ve also traveled to Seoul and to Bali.
In Japan, a teacher’s schedule is year round! We even work through the kids’ breaks! Teachers here are civil servants; the jobs are very, very stable and they pay year round. We have lots of national holidays and I get like 18 days of vacation a year.
What have you learned about being happy while being abroad?
I’ve been making an effort to really get to know the culture, learning traditional Japanese practices like ikebana flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and koto. Immersing myself in the culture has really made the experience more meaningful.
Self-care has been incredibly important during my time here. You’ve got to prioritize taking care of yourself mentally, physically and emotionally. For a while I didn’t do it. I can see the difference in my level of happiness between then and now. I work out regularly. And I see a therapist twice a month, even though it’s very stigmatized in Japan.
Coming to Japan meant having to relearn how to be a functioning adult all over again. I had to learn how to do my laundry, how to buy food. I started eating healthier because I couldn’t read the labels; for a while, all I bought was produce!
You have no idea what you’re doing but you’re doing it anyway. That’s when you come to the realization that you can do pretty much anything.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be leaving Japan in August. I’m hoping to relocate to California; I’m applying for jobs there. I’m nervous because I’ve never been to the west coast, and I know it’s really expensive.
I’m working on starting my own business offering career coaching and consulting for educators in cross-cultural contexts. For a while, I wanted to focus on becoming location independent. But I’m concerned about health insurance, given the U.S. political climate. So I decided it makes more sense to find full-time work while I’m transitioning. If I don’t get a job right away, I’ll start with teaching English online.
Ideally, I’ll be able to go between California and Florida (where my parents will be retiring). I’d like to have a home base in Florida, maybe go to Panama for 2 months and do something there in terms of teaching/education.
I’d love to go to Iraq; my stepfather is from there, so part of my family is from there. I’d like to go to Israel, but if I have that on my passport, it’s going to be hard to get into some other middle eastern countries. I want to study Spanish, and I’ve never been to South America. So probably South America will be my next focus.
Advice to women who are considering moving abroad on their own?
Do it! I think a lot of people don’t take the step because they are afraid they can’t do it. But the reality is, we deal with change all of the time. Big changes, small changes — they’re a part of life and we have to learn how to deal with them in order to survive.
I had a great job working in international student advising, but for a good two years I wasn’t growing. And I wasn’t doing anything new outside of work because I was also finishing grad school. I was comfortable and complacent, and I hate the feeling of complacency. It’s usually when I notice a lack of personal growth that I’m led to seek change.
At the heart of it, I saw moving abroad as just another kind of change, an opportunity for growth that wasn’t much different from other transitions I’ve been through in my life. I think as soon as I was able to confidently adopt a mindset of being able to tackle change head on, even though it was scary as hell, that’s when I was ready.
But I was still afraid before I left. I was afraid of losing the people that were close to me. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. And I did it anyway. And it was not easy, but it was the best decision that I’ve ever made.
Two things I would say if you’re thinking about moving abroad:
- Don’t have any expectations. Don’t expect anything in terms of the culture. Of course you should prepare yourself as much as you can and learn about the culture beforehand, but know that there’s still going to be so much more to it than that.
- Give yourself the opportunity to succeed. Too many people don’t do it because they’re afraid. The fact is you are going to lose something. And you may lose people in the process of living abroad. But it’s also entirely possible that you’re going to lose people if you stay home.
Would you rather regret never having done it or would you rather take the chance?