Surviving a Move to Japan as a New Mom of Two {a Piri Sojourner}

8 Mar 2017

Their work schedules allowed them to be together as a family only a couple days a week.

They were college-educated and working full-time. Yet with a mortgage payment, student loans, and childcare, they still felt like they were living paycheck-to-paycheck. 

A job offer from Japan looked like the ticket out.

When my friend Jenny Bae and her husband Micke decided to move from Austin, Texas, to Sendai, Japan, it was an opportunity to start again.

A chance to realign their family life with their values.

I admired that.

That same spring of 2014, I was back in Jenny’s and my home state of Oregon, packing up for my own big move to Spain. I was marrying a Catalan, and starting my own life coaching business.

I also understood what it was to totally re-design a life.

Jenny and I met as teenagers at a Rotary Leadership Camp. We were both there on scholarship, as responsible, hard-working students. We were both from families who’d immigrated to the U.S. from Asia – mine from Japan, hers from Korea. Yet what we really bonded over was that we both wanted adventure in our lives.

So it wasn’t surprising that after almost 20 years of friendship, we both found ourselves on our biggest adventures yet.

What was surprising though was how hard our adventures turned out to be.

Moving abroad was so much more difficult than we expected.

It took me so much longer to settle in, navigate a foreign culture, learn a new language and start my business than I ever imagined possible. 

I often thought of Jenny. She was doing this with her newborn baby, Lovisa, and four-year-old son, Theo.

That was hardcore.

In January 2015, Jenny emailed me. Adjusting to life in Japan was still terrifically challenging, she wrote. She was interested in doing some coaching with me. 

As we worked together, my respect for Jenny and her family’s move only continued to grow. This is why I asked to share her story with you.

The Gamble

As a family, they wanted a change. 

Micke, who’s originally from Sweden, was unhappy in his job as a pilot. He was even considering leaving aviation. 

“The general public thinks that being a commercial pilot is a romantic, sexy job, but it actually really sucks,” laughs Jenny. “Especially if you have a family. Most pilots don’t live in the city where they’re based, so Micke was gone all the time.”

When Micke got a job offer from a regional Japanese airline, the couple had a big decision to make.

Micke would get a better salary and schedule. He’d be home more often. They’d be able to sell their house and pay off their student loans.

They would get to live abroad, something they’d dreamed of doing and that their student loans had prevented.

Yet it would mean that Jenny would have to quit her job as a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She was about to interview for a new role there that she considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

She was also pregnant with their second child.

If they accepted the job, Micke would go immediately into flight training in Japan. Jenny would have to handle the move by herself, pregnant. It was a huge job, but she felt up to the challenge.

They decided to go for it.

“Time was the biggest factor,” says Jenny, of their decision to move. “The way things were, Micke was home one to three days a week. Eighty percent of the time, I was basically a single parent working full-time. It wasn’t what we wanted for our relationship, or for our family.”

“The thing that kept coming up,” she continues, “is that when we get to the end of our lives, a job is not as important as our family. Thinking about that made it easier to make the decision to go to Japan. Micke would be home more, we’d have more vacation, and I’d have the luxury of staying at home with the baby.”

They realized too that if they didn’t take this opportunity, they’d always wonder “What if?”

In that case, “you kind of have to do it,” says Jenny.

The Adventure of Making It Happen

Getting to Japan was a survival story in itself.

Micke was tied up in flight training in Japan for seven months. During that time, Jenny was on her own with parenting Theo, packing and moving, and then giving birth to their healthy new baby girl, Lovisa.

“I was in survival mode,” says Jenny, recalling all the logistics of their move. “It had to be done. The difficulty was being alone. It was hard for Micke to see how hard it was for me. It was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.”

Micke calling in from Japan to meet his new daughter, Lovisa. Credit: Steffi K. Photography

The stress reached near traumatic levels when Jenny experienced complications a week after her delivery, which included a trip to the emergency room and a five-day hospital stay.  

The last straw was when Lovisa’s new birth certificate arrived with the wrong birthdate, stalling her passport and visa process.

All Jenny wanted was to be reunited with Micke.

On December 4, they landed at last in Tokyo, where Micke was eagerly waiting.

They had made it.

The Surprises in Store

There were many unexpected hurdles upon arriving to Japan.

First, there was the readjustment to living with Micke again after seven long months. “It was great to be reunited,” says Jenny, “but we were also aware that we had been separated. Plus, during that separation we’d had a kid. Surprise!” she says.

Sleepless nights with a newborn were especially difficult as Jenny tried recover from the move and her delivery, as well as adjust to a totally new culture.

On top of that, in Japan, Jenny could no longer read. There are more than 2,000 commonly used Japanese characters. They can take years to learn. “I was completely illiterate here,” Jenny says. “Menus, signs … everything was so foreign to me.”

This really slowed down her everyday tasks as a mom.

Grocery shopping especially took a lot of time. “I didn’t know what baby stuff to buy,” recalls Jenny. “The brand names were all foreign to me.”

Doctor’s visits were also nerve-wracking. Jenny had to sort out Lovisa’s baby vaccine process and address her own post-delivery concerns in a completely foreign healthcare system.

What if something were to happen to her in a totally foreign country? 

Another source of stress was the lack of a social network.

Jenny found she couldn’t simply turn to new Japanese friends for recommendations for needed services like daycare. Even if friends spoke English, they wouldn’t necessarily understand the type of daycare she sought for her daughter. Did her idea of daycare even exist in Japan?

What all this meant was that Jenny had to figure out things as basic and vital as what food to buy, how to call emergency services, and how to pass a seemingly capricious driving exam, practically all on her own.

Plus, without a viable daycare option, she had an even harder time giving herself a parenting break.  

“Without a doubt, I was the one in our family who struggled most that first year,” she recalls. “Micke had his job. Theo had school. Lovisa was a baby. But I was here, I’d left my career, I didn’t speak the language.” 

A family portrait at Lovisa’s first birthday, celebrated in Japan. Credit: Jon Vreuls

 The Turning Point

Micke was by far Jenny’s biggest support during that year. Already a hands-on dad, he took a couple extra vacation days a month so that he could give Jenny even more of a break.

Yet Jenny was still feeling immense stress. She wanted to quickly adjust to her new home (aided by learning Japanese), to be a good mom, and to make progress on returning to her career.

She thought life coaching might help, if she could make time for it.

This was a stretch. Lovisa still wasn’t sleeping regularly. Jenny was barely squeezing in a shower.

Yet Jenny and I ended up working together for nearly a year, with phone sessions that crossed a six-hour time difference.

“I did have trepidation about adding coaching to my plate,” recalls Jenny, “but it was the ideal time to have an outside person keeping me grounded during so many challenges.”

Jenny’s biggest initial challenge was to carve out more time for herself, even if it was only a few minutes a day. 

Focusing on a goal as small as taking daily parenting break was frustrating to Jenny at times. There was so much more she wanted to do. But it was the place to start. 

“In some of our conversations you’d ask if I had anything to celebrate or recognize,” she recalls. “That’s a really good question, because I have a tendency to focus on what I didn’t do. It’s good to remember the things that I did do. It’s not an all or nothing thing.”

The real turning point came when Jenny began to truly accept her circumstances as they were.

“Before coming to Japan, I had all these ideas of what I was going to do,” she remembers. “I would take six months off work, then dive into developing distance learning classes for students with visual impairments. I’d study Japanese all the time.

“When I was finally able to let that go, and be okay with not being able to speak Japanese and not working, that really helped.”

As Jenny eased up on herself, her stress levels dropped. She could be more present with her kids and enjoy their time more.

The experience shifted how Jenny now approaches her goals. “My goal-setting has changed in that it’s okay if I don’t accomplish it all,” she says. “I haven’t given up on things, instead, I’m more flexible about them.”

Evolving as a Family

Jenny, Micke, Theo and Lovisa and Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. Credit: Jenny Bae

It’s been a little over two years since Jenny and her family arrived in Japan.

“My Japanese is still weak,” Jenny is quick to admit as she reflects on her progress. Yet she does give herself credit for still working on it, and for making new friends who can help her practice.

She has embraced being a full-time mom and enjoyed seeing her kids grow.

Lovisa has become an energetic, independent toddler. She turned two last September.
Theo, age seven, has fully stepped into his new role as her protective older brother. Both are making headway in their own linguistic mashup of Swedish, English, and Japanese.

Last February, Jenny managed to launch a “Toddler School,” a weekly parent-child class in English with music, dance, early literacy activities and toddler yoga. In its first year, 15 parents and kids joined, and this year it continues to grow. “The kids love it, but the parents seem to like it even more,” says Jenny.

Best of all, Micke’s job has delivered on its promises. They’ve been able to pay off their student loans. Micke is home more often. He has regular days off and they can plan vacations as a family. “It’s a whole new world for us,” says Jenny.

They plan to remain in Japan, at least for the time being. “I’d be surprised if we were to stay more than 10 years,” says Jenny. “But we’re open to it.”

They don’t know where they will go after Japan. Since selling their house, there’s less pull to return to the United States.

“It does make me feel a little bit like we’re floating in the wind,” says Jenny. 

Plus, given the fact that Jenny is Korean-American and Micke is Swedish, the idea of having one “cultural home” doesn’t really fit them. They’re a multicultural family, maybe now more than ever. 

Jenny remembers the family’s arrival to Japan, and the confusion of navigating a new language and culture together. Theo’s reaction said it best: “I’m all mixed up!” he proclaimed.

Yet being “mixed up” is a positive thing, says Jenny. Experiencing and discussing their cultural differences in Japan has helped them grow stronger as a family.

That’s important, reflects Jenny, because ultimately “our home is our family.”

This article was written by a Piri Soujourner: Lisa Hoashi. 
Lisa Hoashi is a life coach and mother-to-be of her own multicultural, multilingual family. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Lisa quit her job in 2013 to take a sabbatical year, a decision that led her to love, a new career, and a farm home in Catalonia, Spain. Get Lisa’s practical tips for designing and living your own meaningful, creative life at

1 comment

  1. Love these story-based posts more and more. Also loved the more hopeful follow-up two years after the move. I wholeheartedly agree, moving internationally is a lot harder than you could ever imagine. Even if you do speak the language!


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