Tips for living abroad as an LGBTQ
People always tell me that I have a lot of valid insight about travel, being “out”, and just life in general. And I think they’re right.
My “strong insight” about living abroad comes from experiencing the lows and highs and living to tell… luckily, for your benefit.
If you’re like me [gay, out, and flamboyantly fabulous], not looking to compress yourself in order to fit in, then yes, my insight could be of some value to you before you embark on a long study or work excursion abroad.
It will be helpful in encouraging you to reflect, set attainable goals, and forget about trying to “fit in.”
First, consider some of the cultural challenges which could cause conflict, and do your research on where you’re going; for example, in rural Japan even straight Americans have to somewhat “compress” in order to “fit in” with society, so don’t blame not fitting in completely on your sexuality.
Having studied abroad in both Sydney and Cape Town, and then working in Japan (JET Program) for two years, my advice for LGBTQs looking to embark on such a journey hails from a compilation of all these cultures.
First order of advice: GO. Step outside of your comfort zone and take advantage of a chance to live far, far away from your circle of family & friends.
Studying abroad should be a graduation requirement for all the learning you can do just from being alone in an unfamiliar place! However, note that stepping outside of your comfort zone does mean being uncomfortable at times.
This is a good thing!
You know how hard it can be to befriend people that don’t accept you, and you definitely know how homophobic jerks can be thinking that JUST because you’re gay you’re into them. Well guess what, study abroad in Asia (Japan) is totally for you because their culture is so emotionless that they just assume you’re “really American” i.e. as extroverted as a mega-church pastor (the black ones) before they ever consider you’re GAY!
Although i found many Japanese gays hiding in the closet, a double-layered closet which makes it really hard to date outside of Tokyo and Osaka, it was a serious breath of fresh air. So many people (whether they were just blind or Asian-polite) didn’t express distain for me being gay.
I was never called a derogatory gay slur in public during my whole stay in Japan. WOW!
Still, living abroad and facing these challenges head-on can also make you better appreciate the amazing experiences that oftentimes reconfirm why you made the trip to begin with.
Noa-san, one of my close friends I made while in Japan, bonded with me the day we met. We had very similar senses of humor, and he became my buddy quickly at a time where I really wanted a strong male friend. When we had what I felt was our first “heart-to-heart” I told him I was gay, and he reacted in a way that shocked me: he told me (in broken English/Japanese) that I was his first foreigner [gay] friend that he felt he truly bonded with, and that I was special to him because meeting me had broken down all the stereotypes he had about foreigners.
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If you know anything about Japanese men, such a heartfelt discussion is a rare occurrence. And, ironically enough, this scene took place during our weekly trip to the onsen (traditional public baths where you bathe together in your birthday suits), so it couldn’t have been at a stranger location! I took away two things from this warm talk: one – the Japanese do not typically use the same indicators as Americans do to assume someone is gay; and two, deep connections with other Japanese men (especially those who know I’m gay) would be rare, so if I focused on securing the few that I had then my experience here would be worth much more.
In some cases, Japan was gay heaven for me. When it comes to making friends with men, you can shop together (and they actually know fashion), get your nails done, and even enjoy a “spa day” at the local baths without being subjected to feeling or being labeled gay for doing what might be considered effeminate here in the states. Japan has some serious issues with homosexuality, but what we would call metro-sexuality is an “accepted” thing, whether they know it or not.
My co-workers, however, never stopped asking me “do you have girlfriend?” at work events. Even after two years, regardless of the language barrier, I never really knew if they picked up on the fact that I was gay. Whether you’re going to study in Japan or anywhere else abroad, it’s important to research set goals and start small. Don’t try to make a large number of [local] friends rather then focus on gaining a few really strong relationships. And DO NOT FALL IN LOVE abroad, unless it’s someone who isn’t afraid to talk [hypothetically] about a future with you.
If only it were that easy, girl I know, but trust me if you meet a guy abroad who doesn’t even have a passport yet…you’re in for a real slog. I say all this because once you come home, shit hits you harder any pamphlet prepares you for [culture-shock is a real thing], so maintaining long distance friendships/a relationship is hard work on top of everything else you will have going on.
Since we [LGBTQ] have an additional worry when we embark on such blind journeys, I’ve complied a list of tips that I think is helpful for you. These key points are food for thought for compiling your own “going abroad list.”
A photo posted by IAMMYLife_ChazA (@iammylife_chaz) on
1. People only make a big deal about your “differences” when you give them the opportunity to. Always put yourself on equal ground so it’s easy to see it’s them who have the problem.
2. Don’t demand acceptance from everyone. Not everywhere is “America”, and sometimes just being American (in Asia especially) associates you with bizarre stereotypes about who we are. Break this by just being you and showing people the true power in individuality. Don’t take it as a condemnation of your character if they just have no interest in you being gay, you’re much more than your sexuality.
3. Don’t debate things with people because they don’t see things your way. Save yourself the energy and pick your battles. You’re only abroad for so long, and have a lot to enjoy!
4. Expect to be offended…more then once. Build a thick skin for it so you don’t take everything to heart, and rather realize the difference in cultures. In Asia people said all types of messed up shit to me, and eventually it just rolled off of my back. Even when it does strike a nerve, think about the culture of that place and why they may think the way they do before you respond.
5. IF you get into a relationship that IS the lucky part… Remember you met this person when you’re more then likely homesick, battling culture-shock, or dealing with the side-effects of the two. Be smart, realize your vulnerabilities, and think about how different things will be when you return to your home country with that person, before getting serious.
6. Be sure to be aware of how long you’re actually going away for. During a conference in Tokyo, one of the keynote speakers, a JET alum who married a Japanese and continued her career/life in Japan, told us her way of realistically thinking about living abroad was to double count for the time you’re gone with the time you missed at home, since both worlds don’t stop.
If you study abroad for one year, you’re actually gone for two years; the year you’re abroad (and all you experienced), plus the year you’ve missed at home (and all the experiences that took place among friends/family without you). This is good for reflection, helpful in dealing with reverser culture shock and avoiding feeling overwhelmed when you get back and all your friends have “new lives” that you’re not necessarily a part of anymore.
In reading these now all I can think of is, “if I’d known then what I know now” I wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes I did. However, those errors have molded me to be sharp, insightful, and confident today.
Don’t be afraid to be naïve, vulnerable, and take risks as long as long you learn from the mistakes.
I went to Australia thinking I’d be “in the closet”, but I effectively “came out” within my first week of being in the country. We didn’t even have paper towels for our apartment yet, and I had already told everyone that I was gay. It was liberating because no one cared.
It’s here where it is truly all about perspective. I think growing up in US, I was so concerned about what people thought about me and how differently they’d view me upon knowing I was gay. However, I never felt more like myself when I was in a foreign land; when you’re literally thousands of miles away from all you know, all you have is your true self.
That’s a surprise about being abroad you don’t learn from the pamphlets: getting to know yourself through testing your independence.
I believe the potential for personal growth and independence you gain while living and working abroad can help define who you are in a broader context. I tell people all the time, the growth I experienced living in Hitachi-city, Ibaraki-prefecture, Japan could not have happened anywhere else, even when I felt like throwing in the towel after having a mini meltdown over not being able to find 2% milk in the local grocer.
If you can make it abroad (especially in Asia), you can make it anywhere! Remember to take everything with an open mind, heart, and, of course, a damn good sense of humor.
Follow Chaz @IAMMYLIFE.org
Hi, I'm Chaz. I'm a UofR alum and am originally from Connecticut. My life has been a variety of adversities and global experiences that have inspired me to write, work creativity, and mentor delicate populations on the power of telling your story. I love the arts because I believe it changes lives. I am a contributor in the book For Colored Boys, an LGBTQ anthology dedicated to young minority men, and my own online organization, IAMMYLIFE.org, a site dedicated to the use of personal experiences as a guide to embracing the entirety of your being, struggles and all.
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