The One Thing I Wasn't Prepared For When I Moved To Japan
Words: Elmeka Henderson
An incident at her son's new school in Japan highlighted the difficulties that come with being a single parent abroad for this mom.
When I made the decision to move abroad to Japan with my son Chris, I was completely unprepared. Sure, I was aware of the culture shock and 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 was not 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, I can tell you that being a single mother abroad is an entirely different ball game. As a single mom, you become proficient at figuring things out on your own and making things happen 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 five months have been somewhat of a struggle. I didn't handle the stress well and it was challenging for the 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. 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 that 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.
This is hard for the both of us, but in Tokyo, we are all we got.
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; he was irritable and would freak out if anything changed in our schedule without notice. Understanding that the needs of my child had changed so drastically was challenging. 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. 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. Chris’ teacher brought up all of the educational challenges that I was already aware of— and informed her of prior to his arrival—but she failed to discuss any 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. I 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 8-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 now on an upswing. I transferred 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 more happier and lighter. On the way home from picking him up on his first day, I noticed he was 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 remembering 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. He may never learn to keep his hands in plain sight at all time 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 9 years old: a child. And I couldn't care less on what continent that happens.