Dealing with Loneliness Abroad (and at home)

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Living in Niigata, although very memorable, was sometimes extremely lonely

When living abroad, it’s very easy to feel alone and isolated. Living in a new environment, being surrounded by a new language and living in a place where you know no one—it’s something few people sign up for voluntarily.

When I moved to Japan, I underwent some of the loneliest months of my life. The Japanese countryside was the ultimate test to enduring loneliness.

Surprisingly, I also felt loneliness upon returning to the United States. Although the U.S. was my ‘home,’ most of my friends from high school and college had already moved to other states and cities. The combination of reverse culture shock and being in a new environment (Los Angeles) had me feel more alone than I had ever felt in Shanghai.

When these feelings of loneliness take hold of you and start infesting your conscious, you can feel the avalanche start to form. The avalanche of negative energy and self-pity.

Although I do fall prey to the avalanche on occasion, my years in Japan trained me to help combat the oncoming snowball.

Here are some things I do in the US (and did in Japan) that help me clear negative energy and overcome loneliness.

Go for a Jog

Good 'ol fashioned exercise

Good ‘ol fashioned exercise

Nothing clears my mind like a good run. There’s something about moving your legs and moving forward that manages to shake away all that negative energy in your brain. Not only does exercise naturally release more endorphins, it helps me to mentally arrange my thoughts and goals.

When I start running, rather than wallow in my own self-pity, I start thinking about how I can change my life.

Although it was really hard to do, I pulled myself away from the comforts of my Japanese apartment and jogged beside the river all the way to the gulf of the Sea of Japan—daily. It was on one of these jogs I hatched the “brilliant” idea of going to China and learning Mandarin.

Get a Hobby (preferably one that takes all of your concentration)

Slight improvement, but not really

Even after one year of lessons, my calligraphy sucked.  But man, did I enjoy it.

I am so thankful that I stepped out of my comfort zone and asked my Japanese mom for calligraphy lessons—which I ended up studying for three straight years. While it may be a ‘useless’ skill, nothing calms me more than sitting in seiza, holding a brush and writing Chinese characters for hours at a time.

Calligraphy (believe it or not) requires an enormous amount of concentration. I’m so focused on the strokes, the balance, the size, the style—that by the time I finish, I don’t even remember what I was sad about to begin with.

In America I have yet to purchase a calligraphy set; so, I signed up for yoga. Instead of cry alone in my apartment lamenting my lack of friends, I drag my ass to the gym and  attend yoga class every Monday. Yoga is another hobby that requires 100% concentration. Rather than think about how horrible my commute is or my lackluster lifestyle, I’m thinking about how to stay in half-moon without falling over.

Whether it’s knitting, ice-skating or playing chess—getting a hobby (that isn’t a TV marathon) will help clear your mind and make better decisions.

Cook

Mmm... Chinese cooking...

Mmm… Chinese cooking…

Cooking, believe it or not, is a therapeutic outlet for managing your emotions. I think as human beings, we’re happy to see the fruits of our labor—so seeing the results of our chopping, dicing frying, and boiling through the beauty of a finished meal makes us feel accomplished.

I don’t know about you, but after I pull off a successful dish l I’m pretty damn happy with myself.

I didn’t start taking an interest in cooking until I moved to Japan. With few friends and nothing but time, I decided to try my hand at Japanese cooking. Using this website (Japanese), I learned how to make Katsudon, Oyakodon, Okonomiyaki, Tonjiru, Kimchi Nabe, grilled fish, homemade miso soup and more.

Now, I cook every single day. And it’s the highlight and joy of my evening.

Indulge in Small Reminders of Home (or life abroad)

Nothing cures sadness like a frappucino...

Nothing cures sadness like a frappucino…

My village in Japan was so remote, it took three hours by express train to reach the nearest McDonalds and four hours to reach the nearest Starbucks. I literally lived in the middle of nowhere.

The first time I went to Starbucks after living in Japan, I was so overwhelmed by how much it reminded me of ‘home’ I almost cried in the shop. I hadn’t been to any western establishment for six months. Starbucks looked just like it did in the USA, and although the menu was in Japanese, it was still the same. It made me feel a little closer to home.

Even if friends or acquaintances surround us, being in a foreign environment can make us feel very much alone and isolated. Indulging in reminders of our lives ‘before’ can make all the difference.

And even though I’m back ‘home’ now, I really, really, really miss China.

I recently visited the Chinese market near my L.A. suburb. When I saw all the fruits and vegetables there, the same ones that I used to buy on my way home from work in Shanghai (such as dragonfruit and morning glory 空心菜), I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

That night I had some delicious, garlic stir-fried morning glory. And I felt even closer to a place that I once knew as home.

Socialize and Make Friends

Friends I sorely miss in Shanghai

Friends I sorely miss in Shanghai

Well, d’uh, you might be thinking…

…but actually, it’s easier said than done.

I put this last because making friends, and I’m talking about good friends you are happy to see and meet on a weekly basis, is not an easy thing. After university, it gradually becomes more difficult to befriend others. Finding a good friend, in my humble opinion, is a combination of effort and luck.

In Japan, I was the only person in my village over 20 and under 50. Aside from the local grandmas and grandpas, I was lacking in options when it came to finding friends. I really had no alternatives for meeting people, except going to other cities on the weekends to meet ex-pats and hopefully some locals.

Even in Los Angeles, a place where everyone speaks English and I should be able to make friends easily, I struggle. I try to attend meetups and other events online where I hope to encounter like-minded individuals; but even after six-months following my transplant from Shanghai, I still find myself very much alone.

Still, I wont give up. Pushing ourselves to go out and meet others, even when we feel like crap, is an essential—but difficult—part of overcoming loneliness.

Staying Strong

Going to cafes in Shanghai, alone, to write, read and reflect

Going to cafes in Shanghai, alone, to write, read and reflect

We all deal with loneliness at one point or another, but like the old saying goes: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

My two years in Japan, although horrifically lonely, made me an incredibly strong and independent person. Before Japan, I didn’t dare go into a restaurant and eat a meal alone—now, I don’t even think twice about it.  In fact, I now thoroughly enjoy reading a book, alone, in a cafe or in the comforts of my home.

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Did you encounter similar feelings of loneliness abroad or at home? Any other tips or experiences that could help me and other soon-to-be expats?

10 thoughts on “Dealing with Loneliness Abroad (and at home)

  1. Lani says:

    I think the feeling of loneliness and isolation go together when living abroad. When I first moved to Thailand, I certainly went through some sort of culture shock. This sounds silly considering I’m half-Thai and Chiang Mai is a very touristic city. But, at the time, I was in a college community and was deeply confused over what I was expected to do and where I was supposed to go and basically get the help that I needed for my visa. So, I spent the day crying into my pillow!

    It didn’t help that we lived by this horrible electrical monster thingy and had squatters outside our window.

    Then I moved to a smaller town and even though I see foreigners and have contact with folks from work, my life is different than when I had a lot of friends and felt popular and loved. So I guess that is why I say loneliness and isolation go together…we seem to feel isolated among people and therefore feel alone. It’s a surreal feeling and I loved all of your ideas. Super post 🙂

    • rubymary says:

      Ah, you’re also half! Did your mom teach you Thai?

      Going abroad, even if you ethnically belong to that country (whatever that means) is just plain stressful. Everything is flipped upside down and you don’t know left from right. Especially if you had to deal with visa stuff–that’s horrible! Can you imagine foreign exchange students at the DMV in the USA? Cause man, I’m American and I can barely keep my sanity there.

      I also went to Vietnam alone to ‘discover my roots’ and it was a truly humbling experience. I couldn’t speak Vietnamese whatsoever and I ended up drawing photos on a napkin to tell the driver where I needed to go (apparently church and the gesture for pray didn’t work). I was super embarrassed cause I was supposed to be Vietnamese, but it had me realize–in the end–I’m just a silly foreigner in this country.

      “we seem to feel isolated among people and therefore feel alone.” Very great quote, and very true indeed. It’s why many big cities–tokyo, new york, shanghai–can feel more alone than.. say, barstow, haha.

      • Lani says:

        😀 Well, now it’s my turn to be surprised. You look half-Asian or mixed, but since you never mentioned it I figured I was wrong. Did you ever talk about it in your blog? Please let me know so I can read it 🙂

        No, my mom never taught us Thai. So, I’ve had to learn it the hard way. It’s super ironic since I’ve been living here and I cannot even really communicate with my family. My Thai is functional, but my family’s Thai is “Northern” and so difficult to understand. I figure learning it is a life-long endeavour…maybe I shouldn’t be giving myself so much time. Hahhaaha.

        Yes, I often think about the immigrant experience when I’m dealing with the massive confusion that is visas and such. This is why kindness and help is so appreciated.

        Send me a link to that story of yours! 😉

        • rubymary says:

          Haha yes I did talk about it in my blog! (kind of). I’d really like to hear your story about being biracial as well, I think kids that grow up mixed always have interesting backgrounds. Read my story about being half-asian in China and Japan here!

          I heard Thai is pretty hard (like vietnamese, the pronunciation is just crazy!). I also heard the writing is way harder than it looks!

          Vietnamese has 9 tones. After learning Chinese, I think 4 tones is my limit, haha.

          • Lani says:

            Thai is challenging. Yes, we have 5 tones and also long and short sounds. For example, “jan” is moon, but “jaan” is plate. So, we have tones and it’s important to hold words out longer or they mean different things.

            Reading is even harder. Sanskrit and lots of crazy rules. I’m convinced reading was made deliberately difficult to keep the lower classes from reading and understanding their world around them.

            I’m looking forward to learning Chinese. I think after Thai, it will be easier! (famous last words)

  2. Elle says:

    I know exactly what you mean about moving back home. I have one friend left in the city, and she’s in grad school so I don’t exactly see her often. There’s still a bunch of people I know from high school – my boyfriend’s friend group – but they’re not my people. I’ve tried a few Meetups since the summer but haven’t connected with anyone in a deeper way. Haha, I’ve definitely been trying to find hobbies that take all of my concentration. Honestly, I get most of my social interaction fix from blogging, and I feel like that can get unhealthy. On the other hand, it’s where I’ve met the most people who are compatible with me.

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah my meetups have been flops as well. They were all cool people, but I didn’t really connect with any. One of the reasons I accepted my job was with the hope of meeting people, but that didn’t work either…

      Blogging is a really wonderful way to meet like-minded people and share intimate thoughts and opinions. Blogging is also a very time consuming hobby, surprisingly (aka takes concentration!). My cousin tried to start a blog just to make money off the amazon referral clicks and it bombed–she didn’t realize just how much of a commitment it was to run a blog. You really have to put blood, sweat and tears into it (and most of all love it, not just use it as a cash cow). I try my hardest with this blog, but sometimes it feels like my 2nd job in a way! (the job I actually enjoy, haha)

  3. andreiainasia says:

    Hi Ruby, I
    moved to HK and felt a bit lost and lonely… Im 34 and lived in France, Spain, Germany and the UK so I am actually used to moving abroad, different languages ( I speak 5 ) etc etc etc… but yes China is a whole different world and costums. So I was quite chocked a month ago when I realized I am not coping well at all with it.. just discovered your blog and I very much like your articles, you are talented. If you happen to pass by Hong Kong, lets go for a coffee 🙂 andreiacarpediem@hotmail.com
    Thank you for sharing your experiences, you are making the world a better place!

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