#009 When People Think They Know Who You Are (Travel - 3)
An Interview with a Global Citizen
As soon as I started this series on how travel and relocation add meaning to our lives, I knew I’d have to do some interviews. I don’t know everything (I know you’re shocked), and everyone has a point of view worth sharing. I did an interview with my brother, Joe Vickers. He has lived in multiple countries, and I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say.
Amy: Tell us about the places you’ve lived.
Joe: In 2006, I went to Japan. I was only going to go for a year, but I ended up staying three and a half years. I went to Istanbul in 2010, and again, I’d only planned on staying for a short time, but I ended up staying for seven years.
In 2013, I started dating [the person who’d later become my wife] long distance. She was living in London at the time. She moved to Istanbul in 2014, and we got married in Prague in 2016. We moved to Berlin for about a year and a half, and then we moved to London in the Spring of 2019.
Amy: Why did you make your first move?
Joe: It was time for a change in my life. I’d just finished university, and I wanted to go to the next stage. If you stay in one place for too long, people think they know who you are. You have to behave a certain way to relate to them, and that can feel kind of limiting.
When you go somewhere new, you get to discover new things about yourself, because you have to redefine how you relate to your environment.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking that deeply at the time. I was studying both English and Japanese in university, so moving to Japan to teach English was a pretty obvious first step. I think a lot of people are looking for change at that age—early to mid-20s.
Amy: What kind of role have relationships played in where you’ve lived?
Joe: When you live abroad, you leave behind all of your friends and family. So, you either make new friends who become your family, or you don’t. If you don’t, you go back home.
I was really fortunate in Nagoya, [Japan] especially. The foreigner community was really close, and we got to know everyone really well. Quite a few of the friends I made there continued to be my friends after I moved. I originally met [the person who’d later become my wife] in Japan, but we were both seeing different people then.
Also, one of my best friends in Nagoya moved to Istanbul, where I moved next. After I moved [to Istanbul], my friendship with him got even closer.
Being in Istanbul for so long, I developed a lot of really close connections there. We built our own family. We got together at Christmas, and we celebrated our birthdays together. They all came to my wedding.
I think it’s become clear, especially after the pandemic, that life isn’t about things. It’s about people. Your home and your life are built around the people you see every day. It doesn’t matter where you’re living if you have really strong relationships. If you have people that support you, it feels like home.
Amy: How has living in those places added meaning to your life?
Joe: I think there’s something on the surface level... there’s an automatic benefit of expanding your mind by seeing different cultures. I couldn’t move to Japan and walk around talking to people the same way I talked to people at university because they’d have no idea. They’d think I was crazy, and this doesn’t just go for Japanese people, but also the other English teachers from England, Australia, Canada, etc. It forces you to open your mind to build relationships with them.
I understood the concept of different cultures, but until I went to these other places and interacted with them, it didn’t click for me that people really lived different lives from my own.
I also learned to appreciate how people are similar. People might have different senses of humor, have different religions, eat different foods, live under different types of government, but everyone values family and looking after themselves.
Everyone around the world is just trying to get by, regardless if they’re Japanese, Turkish, European, or African.
Amy: Which place added the most meaning to your life and how?
Joe: They each had their own meaning.
Japan was unique in that I’d been studying Japanese and we have this other dynamic. It was important for me at the time to reconnect with our Japanese family. I studied Japanese all the time in Japan, so I could communicate better with our family. To me, I was in part looking for a connection with our mom’s side of the family. There were always a lot of question marks because of our mom’s disability. I was looking to connect more with her and her past, so that was unique and special.
Turkey was a place I never planned on going. I was very ignorant of what Turkish culture was. It was rewarding to get a sense of what it’s like to live in Europe. Living in a 98% Muslim culture was a really amazing experience.
Berlin is one of the best cities in the world.
London has been good, but there’s been a pandemic, so I haven’t experienced it as much I would’ve liked to.
Amy: Do you feel like you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in Japan?
Joe: There’s a cultural barrier, so I felt like no matter how much Japanese I learned that there was always going to be a wall that’d prevent me from getting really close. Maybe I’m thinking like a westerner, thinking that there’s some goal of closeness to achieve. Maybe I achieved it by just having spent time with our family. I haven’t been tempted to move back, but I have been tempted to go visit.
Amy: Why do you say it was amazing to have lived in a place that was 98% Muslim?
Joe: It was enriching to experience different cultures. It was definitely politically relevant at the time. I was there when ISIS was big and there was a war in Syria.
It gave me perspective because I heard a lot of people saying things about Muslims [on social media], and they had no experience with them.
Every culture has its own major religion. Whether you’re religious or not, the dominant religion influences everything. For example, America is very Puritan. You see it in how America deals with crime. It’s all about punishment. It’s not about helping people.
I got a flavor of what it’s like to be Muslim. Most of them were sweet and very kind, and for a city the size of Istanbul, it feels very safe—safer than many major cities around the world.
Amy: If you hadn’t moved, what kind of life do you think you’d be living, right now?
Joe: It’s hard to say. If you look at our family, we’ve all been restless or transient. We’ve all lived in different places and traveled around quite a lot. I imagine that even if I was in the US, I probably would’ve lived in different places and tried out different things.
I think I read once, or somebody told me, that there’s only one path. Things happen the way they do because there’s only one way for things to happen.
Or maybe I’d be president or rich and famous. I don’t know. I did interview for a corporate job right out of university, but it wasn’t very me. I did a terrible job at the interview, so I think it was fate.
Very early on in my Japanese studies, right before a Japanese lecture, my phone rang and it was Michiko, our mom’s sister. I was able to have a very simple conversation with her. If I hadn’t been studying Japanese, I wouldn’t have been able to interact with her, at all. She was calling about something legal related to our mom, but that initial conversation laid the groundwork for my life in Japan.
Amy: Is there anything else you want to add about travel, relocation, and meaning?
Joe: We’ve been living in a time when it’s never been easier or safer to travel. Covid has kind of messed it all up, but even people who aren’t making that much money can still easily go anywhere.
It’s not hard to go to another country no matter where you are. It’s entirely affordable. I think everyone should go and experience someplace different if they haven’t.
If you get the chance, it’s nice to live somewhere, even if it’s for as little as a month. Everywhere you go, people are nice, even if you don’t speak the language. You can go most places in the world and people will help you.
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The thing I enjoyed most this week was the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” by Nathan Englander. It appeared in The New Yorker on December 4, 2011.