My so-called Tokyo life: Living like a teenager in the world’s greatest city

Do you suffer from the following symptoms: precipitous mood swings, bouts of depression, uncontrollable laughter, feelings of invincibility, a gnawing fear that you’ll never fit in? If yes, you may be a teenager.

Or you may be an expat.

Many years ago I put teen angst and emotional chaos in my rear-view mirror, but since moving to Tokyo I’ve realized these emotions are closer than they appear.  I shouldn’t be surprised to feel like a teenager.  After all, I act like one.  I go to every party I’m invited to because I don’t want to feel left out; I constantly try to make new friends; and I don’t know how to talk to women (although this time I have an excuse).  And then there is uncertainty about the future.  Just as I felt that high school was a brief stop before I entered the “real world”, there is a sense of unreality about living on the opposite side of the world from my “real home”, where my “real friends” live.  Add in a healthy dose of awkward situations and a pinch of reckless adventure, and it’s clear why so often I feel like a teenager.

Teenage mind: anxious about the future…

Tokyo: anxious about the future…

While doing “research” for this blog entry I came across a diagram of the teenage mind from PBS.  It struck me that there is a superficial similarity between the shape of the teenage brain and the shape of Tokyo’s main 23 wards 23区, 特別区.  What does this mean?  Absolutely nothing, but after more “research”, I found a description of teenagers’ moods on the BBC website.  By replacing “teenager” with “expat”, along with other minor edits, the resulting passage forms a fairly accurate description of how many expat men and women feel.


Expat mood swings (courtesy of the BBC)

On top of the world in the morning, depressed over lunch time and angry in the evening – expats have a reputation for mood swings.

Raging hormones

Any rapid fluctuation in hormones is usually accompanied by irritability, recklessness, aggression and depression. In the first weeks of entering a new country, expats are experiencing very rapid rises in the level of sex hormones. So mood swings at this early stage could be caused by hormones, although there is very little evidence to prove it.

Expat women will continue to experience fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels with their periods. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome or PMS is an acknowledged cause of irritability and mild depression in adult expat women. It also affects expats women and they might struggle to accept or control this emotional change because they are experiencing being single for the first time.

Staring in the mirror

Other changes in expats’ lives are thought to contribute to their moodiness. Their rapidly changing career development can cause them to become much more self-conscious. Expats often start to hide themselves away, locking their bedroom doors or spending hours holed-up in the bathroom working on their appearance.

Stuck in the middle of being a recent college graduate and a fully developed adult, many expats get frustrated. Their minds have developed adult capabilities, but the working world is not ready to welcome them yet.

Expat depression

Moodiness in the vast majority of expats might be difficult to live with at the time, but it passes with increasing age and confidence. However low moods persist in some expats and they are diagnosed with depression.

Whereas it is highly unusual for a tourist to become depressed, in expats the frequency of depression does begin to rise. The causes of expat depression could be anything from a genetic predisposition, to stress and difficulties integrating into a new culture.

Does this sound like you?

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