Of all the questions, why is the biggest. I wish I could answer this concisely but the chances aren’t good.
In essence we are doing this because we believe it is exactly the right thing for our family, right now. Nick and I know that our lives changed direction as a result of the years we spent living in Japan; our beliefs and understanding of the world were fundamentally altered by that brief experience. Japan is a unique place and whilst it is culturally very different from the Western society we grew up in, many aspects of life there are in fact very similar. We didn’t just enjoy living there, we loved it.
Personally, I found being so obviously “foreign” a liberating experience. In the South of England where we live, social norms and expectations can be suffocating – I am guilty of caring too much about what others think or expect, and the constant worry about negative judgement is exhausting. I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone and I admire those with the balls to say, “sod it, this is what I really think.” Living in Japan was like starting again, conscious that I wouldn’t even be aware of half of the social faux pas I unwittingly perpetrated, it was easier to assume that others could see that I was doing my best. My grasp of the language was weak and there was no risk of being able to detect a disapproving tone or sarcastic comment in the way that I feel besieged by them in England, so I simply carried on like an indulged child and it was a gloriously happy state. It meant that I could relax and be myself, and as I was still only in my late twenties at the time, I was still working out who that was.
Was it really Japan that did that for me, or was it maturity in general? All I know is that within a few years of being back home again I am overly concerned with toeing the line and keeping up with everyone else. The pace is so hectic that I can no longer be sure why I’m doing most of the things that take up all the time. It’s easy to get into the cycle of earning and spending, consuming and discarding without ever checking that we are happy in the present moment. I seemed to be constantly working towards some nebulous concept of happiness that probably resembled my parents’ utopian idea of retirement but as each year goes by, the less certain I feel that I’ll even make it that far. I don’t mean to be morbid but the older I get, the closer I feel the tragedy of loss and the more I reflect that we must not take life for granted. It’s become clichéd; Facebook riddled with reminders that life is short; that we must seize the day; don’t sweat the small stuff; “live now” we are told so often that the message is no longer audible.
On one level, it’s as simple as: We love spending time with each other and with our kids and we want to enjoy more of it. Conscious that our eldest is almost 10 and that in another 10 years he could be on his way to living independently; we want to make the most of our time with all the boys while we still have the chance.
But it goes deeper than just wanting to do more of what makes us happy. I really value the education that I have had and how, even after three children, I can occasionally summon the energy to think for myself. Living in Japan taught me to question some of things I always took for granted. I am fascinated by how cultural norms so often influence our beliefs and behaviours in a way that can sometimes prevent us asking why?
We’ve grown up with the belief that formal education is vital to success, that it is one of the greatest advantages of living in a wealthy society. It goes against those instincts to start to think – why? Is it possible that we might be able to help our children engage in an education so richly rewarding that the things they learn help them succeed in life in other ways? Might they learn the true meaning of compassion and love and purpose and ultimately happiness through extended travel, or am I being arrogant? I don’t know. A year though, a year where we leave the door open to come back if it feels right for us, that doesn’t seem like too big a gamble.
Sometimes it feels like a bigger gamble not to go.