Recently, I blogged about the key steps that ALTs and other Japan residents can take to keep their house warm and safe in the often harsh winters of central and northern Japan. However, one area that is equally vulnerable but far less discussed during the cold, dark months here is your mental health.
For starters, beginning a new year in Japan — away from your family and loved ones — can be a dark time that is not so different from the stages of culture shock you may have gone through when first arriving.
You may be one of those lucky few who found a lot of local friends soon after you arrived here or you may have happily ensconced yourself in the English teacher bubble. For many new teachers to Japan, however, it’s not that simple — especially if you also have to contend with the often unsociable hours and long commutes that can come with eikaiwa (English conversation school) work.
Your first Christmas here and the blue weeks of January’s post-Christmas hangover, are also times when culture shock can hit hard.
To paraphrase something I once heard in a brilliant scene from a not-so-brilliant movie: “To you, Christmas may be the most important day of your year, but to the Japanese, it was Tuesday.” (That film was "Street Fighter: The Movie," for those who may be wondering about the source of this ancient wisdom… )
This seeming indifference — that a beloved annual cultural holiday is just an ordinary working day for many teachers — can further conspire to darken your mood and set a negative tone for the winter months. However, it’s important to remember as we all return to work for the new year, that this isn’t an intentional slight from your colleagues. Rather, they simply weren’t raised to place as much stock in this holiday period as you were.
In spite of this cultural disparity, with a positive attitude and a bit of courage to step outside your comfort zone, the long Japanese winter can be every bit as enjoyable as anything you will find back home.
Here are five tips to beat the winter blues and make the most of the new opportunities that come after a first holiday season and the cold, wintry months in a new country.
1. It's OK to not be OK
Perhaps the most important thing you can do in the first instance is accept that you are unhappy. There’s no weakness in feeling sad or lonely. More than a third of us will suffer from some form of depression in our lifetime. It’s not a mark of shame to be hidden. Rather, when you overcome it, it makes you stronger. The fact that you endured and came out the other side intact is a badge of honor you should be proud to wear.
I certainly am.
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