Bridging two worlds: Identity crisis of a returned expat

Canberra-born, and raised by migrant parents, life took Teresa Sadkowsky to Japan for 6.5 years, where she lived for fresh sashimi, scuba diving, and cooking with her adoptive grandma.  Now back home, Teresa is gradually readjusting to her old / new life in Australia.

belonging - image - Teresa

Growing up in Australia with grandparents from Italy, Poland and Russia instilled in me a strong love for different cultures, languages and peoples.  Multiculturalism was at the centre of my identity, and from a young age I was very eager to embrace other cultures, food (especially food), and music.  I had a strong desire to become more connected to my cultural roots, but this wasn’t easy for me as the only links to these roots were my grandparents and relatives who lived overseas.  My curiosity about different cultures inspired me to learn Italian throughout school and university, and to travel there.  However, my dream of living in Italy took a sharp turn one day when some unexpected events took me to Japan on a high school trip.  Japan was so vastly different to Australia; so welcoming, so new and exciting.  I got the feeling that I needed to stay there longer in order to really know it and be a part of it.  Following this trip, I nurtured a strong ambition to live in Japan one day, so I put all my energies at university into learning the language and absorbing everything I could about the country and culture.  My personal challenge was to adjust to life there, and transition seamlessly from life in Australia to life in Japan.

When I did eventually move to Japan – first for a year of exchange, then on a 5-and-a-half-year stint on a remote island group called the Oki Islands – it felt right.  I was fulfilling my dream.  At the end of my year of exchange, a respected Japanese teacher of mine commented that she was sure I would be a perfect fit for Japan.  I took it as a huge compliment and a sign of my success at fitting in in a country quite different to my own.  After that year of exchange, and also when I moved back to Japan again a couple of years later, many Japanese people commented on how “Japanese” I seemed.  Perhaps this was because I didn’t fit the stereotype of the foreigner who is mainly interested in Japanese anime culture, or because I had made a big effort to learn the language and cultural values.  I realised later on that these commenters often had quite narrow experiences of other cultures and were trying to rationalise my ability to adjust to life in Japan by presuming my inherent “Japanese-ness”.  After a while, these kinds of comments began to irritate me, because I still felt sure of my “Australian-ness”.  Since when did fitting in in Japan mean I was any less Australian?

The seed of worry had been planted, and soon I began to wonder whether I had thrown away my Australian-ness in favour of Japanese-ness.  I even met other foreigners who told me that I didn’t seem Australian.  Either my accent wasn’t strong enough, or I didn’t fit into their stereotyped idea of an Australian (which I was okay with, but it still made me wonder).  Before long, this new anxiety manifested itself in a creeping sense that I was no longer at home, at home.  I was out of touch with a lot of the things that people talked about in Australia: politics, music, pop culture, tv, and increasingly, cars, houses and babies.  Most significantly for me, I struggled to express what my life in Japan was really like to those who had never lived there.  We didn’t have the same assumed cultural knowledge, the same daily routines, the same frustrations, the same experiences.  In Japan, I had lived on a stunning remote island, where I developed a clear identity as Island Girl, the Australian living on the island.  On weekends I went swimming, scuba diving, hiking, camping, running, cooked with my adoptive Japanese grandma, and learned about local ways of life.  Over the five and a half years I was there, I felt secure.  I was accepted by the local community and I was actively contributing to society there.  Most importantly, I knew who I was.  On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how to identify myself in Australia, except as the way people described me: “She lives in Japan”.

Beneath surface layers of practical reasoning, a growing sense that if I stayed in Japan longer I would lose my connection to my home country, friends and family propelled me to make the move back.  It was now or never.  And so I made the decision, and moved back to Australia.

As I had anticipated, moving back home was confusing.  Thoughts of reverse culture shock and maladjustment swirled around in my head and I often felt unsure of my future path.  The sure sense of who I was in Japan had been dislodged and I found it difficult to bridge the seemingly massive gorge I felt had opened up between my former and present lives.  Over there, I had been successful.  I had a job I loved, friends and great pastimes.  But over here, I had to start from scratch.

My initial path to re-adjustment was to throw myself into life in Australia and forget my life in Japan.  Just as I didn’t want the fact that I had lived in Japan to define me, I didn’t want my language skills and experiences living there to be the only thing that I could use professionally in Australia.  But in reality, the time I had spent overseas was a huge part of my adult life.  It was where I developed many of my personal and professional abilities and interests.  It was a big part of me, and without it, there wasn’t that much to talk about.

So finally, I caved and went for an interview for a job where I could use Japanese.  I breathed a sigh of relief when they asked me to talk a bit about myself in Japanese.  I almost babbled, because I felt all the language I hadn’t used in several months flooding out.  I’d missed this level of comfort and familiarity.

In the end, I got the job, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed – a new job where I didn’t have to throw my former life away.  It helped me realise that I could still live in Australia, use the experience I gained in Japan, and bond with people who knew Japan or were Japanese, and it didn’t mean I had to stay there forever either.  Maybe I didn’t have to choose between Japan and Australia.  Maybe I could somehow maintain my connection to Island Girl, and allow her to come with me on my journey.

Since then, I have moved on to another job in a different area altogether, and I feel a lot more at ease with the steps I have taken toward the next part of my life.  Instead of feeling like I’ve had to rip out a chapter of my life, I now feel like I’m writing the next one, in which I can maintain my connection to Japan whilst exploring new places.  I learned that life after living overseas can be challenging both personally and professionally, but also that my experiences there didn’t need to hold me back here.  Those five and a half years in Japan will always be a part of me, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be back.

© Teresa Sadkowsky, 2018