One of the most difficult things about working in Japan is the loneliness.
Despite the many press conferences, the articles that need to be dealt with, and the ecstasy felt from discovering new Japanese words, I felt a sense of loneliness and detachment that was not altogether enjoyable.
It may be because I am a sentimental woman, but there was the sadness of being away from my colleagues, the uneasiness from being away from my former job, the fear of losing contact with my personal connections -- many of which I had painstakingly molded -- and most of all, the constant angst of being away from your loved ones.
At times, these negative and hollow feelings eclipse the positive aspects of living and working abroad.
However, there are other times when you realize that this may be how life may turn out to be once all the hassle is over. Once the kids have grown up and moved out, once you no longer have a crushing, daily job to tend to, once the mortgage has been paid off -- sort of -- once your days are no longer of bursting with chores, life can become kind of bleak.
When I was an editor, I used to look at my calendar and dream about what it would be like to have just a couple of lunches to myself in a week. Or just even one. And I used to be ecstatic when that happened because that meant I finally had some time to give my brain a rest, especially since going home was usually another kind of a chore since I had a 7-year-old boy who was waiting to spend some quality time with mommy.
Looking back, those were crazy but happy times. A time that I would cherish for a long while to come. It was only after I really did have some time on my hands that I realized how fortunate I was to be able to have somewhere to go every day, a place that needs you every day, surrounded by familiar people. The sense of belonging was bigger than I expected, and losing it was quite a shock, it seems.
But looking back once again, I realize that what I jokingly call the “dark age” of my life spent in Tokyo was actually a sort of retirement practice. I had a glimpse of what will be in the years to come. When suddenly I no longer have somewhere to go every day, people to booze with and whine about life's so many trials.
It’s so obvious, but I realized I would need a hobby. And I want something, someone to love other than my child after he turns old enough to become independent. Money is a must for taking care of basic creature comforts, and then some. I would also have to cultivate or maintain relationships that will be worth taking into old age. In the job area, I wouldn't want another real occupation, but some type of activity that would keep me fulfilled and feel happy that I am still alive, breathing, and surrounded by people who I chose to be with.
Last but certainly not least, I realized it really was all in my mind. And that self-perception is the only real mirror of my being. Once that is balanced and relatively healthy, while someone may feel the occasional pangs of what they lost -- youth, rank, wealth, among others -- the coming future would not be one filled with long, empty days that seem to be a slow countdown to death.
Even now, the climbing number of elderly Koreans living alone is increasingly becoming a social problem, and the demons they fight with include poverty and depression.
Following Mexico, Koreans worked the longest hours in the OECD last year. I believe this is partly because we choose to spend our time in the office, on the job, at places where we feel fulfilled or needed. This is not something bad at all, and actually is a very necessary part of life. To work toward your full potential and give it all you’ve got.
But that period of your life has all too short an expiry date. And once that happens, you better be prepared not just physically and materialistically, but also mentally, to accept it with grace. I don’t worry too much, though. Because with the life expectancy we have now, it seems like we will have a long time to practice retirement.
By Kim Ji-hyun