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Dublin: 7 °C Sunday 21 December, 2014

Column: My life as an ex-pat and the joy of finally coming home

At the height of the recession, thousands of Irish people found employment and new lives abroad. Now, many are returning to Ireland, especially as the economy starts to get back on its feet, Matthew Jones writes.

Matthew Jones

I HAVE BEEN living and working in Japan since 2012. I came here as part of the JET Programme (Japan Exchange and Teaching), which hires college graduates to work in Japan as English teachers. Many of these JETs end up seeking permanent residence here.

I however, recently made the decision to end my contract, and head home. While there are many reasons why I decided to return home, the icing on the cake was something that happened last month. I was chatting with my parents for our weekly skype catch-up. During the conversation, my eldest brother and his wife dropped by with some great news: Their first child is on the way, and by the end of the year, I would be ‘Uncle Mattie’.

Ex-Pats and the pressure to stay

While I have made the decision to return to my old life, I understand how it can be hard for other ex-pats to do the same. When you start a new life somewhere, you develop new friendships, relationships, and obligations. You grow accustomed to your job, and the stability of a regular paycheck. It can be hard to give those up.

As such, it can be very easy to say: ‘just one more year’, thinking that not only will you be financially secure, but the economy back home will have recovered even more. Ex-pats, for the most part, left the country in order to gain some stability and security, so throwing yourself back into the great unknown is not always the most appealing of prospects, so that ‘one more year’ decision can keep happening.

My father often says that I should stay here for as long as possible, that earning money and professional experience is important. I, like many, think differently, because the life of an ex-pat is also a difficult, often lonely life.

Life as an ex-pat can grow thin

Living in Japan has been a very strange experience. A largely homogenous country, there are very few foreign nationals living here, and those that do, are very visibly foreign. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when walking down the street, I often attract stares; people point you out to their friends and say ‘gaijin’ (foreigner).

The language and cultural barrier, too, poses difficulty. As Japan is a very deferential country, typical Irish bluntness has no place here. It is a society where pointing your finger at somebody is a threat, and raising your head in a greeting (instead of bowing) is a dire insult. This is an issue faced by many ex-pats, where the knowledge that they are in an alien culture, with not a cup of tea in sight, can create feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Recent news in Europe has been, rightly, focused on the Crimean Peninsula, but there are diplomatic issues in the east too. Japan is currently locked in a territorial dispute with China, Korea and Russia over the ownership of different Island groups.

These issues are part of increasingly nationalistic views in Japan. Now, I’m not the kind of person to get down on somebody else’s national pride. That said, it does make you feel a little unwelcome when there are political slogans saying ‘Let’s take back Japan’, or groups of people driving around in black vans, calling through loud speakers for all foreign people to leave the country. Thankfully, these opinions, however vocal, are in the minority.

The recession is coming to an end

These reasons may seem compelling enough, but the real reason that myself and other ex-pats are able to return to Ireland is simple: the worst of the recession is behind us, and we can now return to the workforce, with the skills and experience we have gained while abroad.

Ireland has been hailed as a model state in the Eurozone. From an outsider’s perspective, announcements of job creation and more encouraging news about the economy are becoming more and more common. The country’s GDP is expected to grow by over twice the Eurozone average in the next year, the numbers of jobless are decreasing and there are more opportunities to put our skills to use.

Many of us left the country to avoid having to go on the dole, with the economy slowly grinding back into gear, we are looking forward to coming home, leaving the push/pull life of an ex-pat behind, and contributing to the country that raised us.

Matthew is a freelance journalist, magazine editor and English teacher. He has recently started a blog, talking about his experiences in Japan, and the difficulties of leaving for more familiar shores. You can read his blog here.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

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