THE WAY Returnees Edition introduces women who continue to shine and empower themselves even after returning to their home country by making use of their experiences abroad.
This time we meet Taeko Mano who spent about a year in Russia in April 2021. Her husband was stationed there and her family of four, including their two sons, lived in Moscow. Due to the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, she returned to Japan in March 2022 and is now an editor of a political party newspaper in Tokyo.
Taeko's family has moved around and her current location is their sixth. How has Taeko made choices as a wife, mother, and a woman in the midst of moving around a lot and how did she build her career? She talks about the hardships of building a life from scratch in a new place, the struggles of pausing her career to become a full-time housewife and her short but intense life in Russia.
Marriage, childbirth, raising kids, going back to work and moving abroad
After graduating from university, Taeko worked as an English teacher at a middle school but when her husband was transferred from Tokyo to Fukui Prefecture, she quit her job and became a full-time housewife.
“After the birth of my two children, it was difficult for me to go back to work but I was not at all suited to being a full-time housewife. So, I spent my weekends doing temporary work and taking an English proficiency test in the hope that it would be useful one day.”
She later returned to Tokyo when her husband was transferred back and decided to go back to work just as her oldest son was starting primary school. With the help of a family member, she began working as a clerk for a political party organisation. She thought about going back to teaching but didn’t want to make any compromises. She couldn't picture herself being able to balance teaching and raising kids.
Working for a political party was all new to Taeko and she found the work easy and interesting. All of her co-workers were kind and every day she felt the joy of working.
However, three years after she started working, her husband was stationed in Russia. Taeko decided to quit her job and accompany him to be with her family and went back to being a full-time housewife.
Living in Russia without knowing the language. How did Taeko build bridges with locals?
When it came time to start living in Russia, most of Taeko’s time revolved around her children. Although they expected to be in Russia for two to three years, her husband's term of office was undecided. In the beginning, she only thought about the kind of life she could provide for her children in the limited time she had.
“It was also difficult that we couldn't speak Russian since the official language is Russian."
In a country where you don’t understand the language, it’s difficult to access local information. Therefore, it was inevitable that Taeko spent a lot of time in the Japanese community. The Japanese community in Russia is family-like and most people know each other's family structures and places of employment. Because the community is small but strong, it’s possible to complete your life within that community.
In the midst of all this, Taeko had an opportunity to experience ‘Russian-ness’ through a children's soccer club. As soon as Taeko arrived in Russia, she wanted to find a place for children to play soccer so she found a local soccer club.
“The team was all Russian. Unlike in Japan, both parents and children were enthusiastic and they all clearly expressed their opinions to their coaches. I thought it was nice that they directly expressed their feelings of joy, anger or sorrow.”
The relationships with local people gained through soccer provided a good opportunity for Taeko her children to broaden their perspectives.
Career struggles as an expat wife and how Taeko overcame them
Having once been a housewife, Taeko was aware that she was not suited for the role. When she became accustomed to life in Russia, a desire to work began to well up inside her.
“I value my family, of course, but in terms of my career, I couldn’t help but envy my husband. My husband would get compensation, recognition and was moving up in his career. On the other hand, I felt as if I had stopped and sometimes felt impatient and empty.”
Taeko therefore joined volunteer activities led by a Japanese NFP and began teaching English online to Japanese high school students who were unable to go to tutoring classes.
“When you're not working and in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, you don't have as many opportunities to make connections to society. Volunteering to teach English meant a lot to me, not only in terms of my career but also mentally."
Expat family members may not be allowed to work in the country they’re in due to visa restrictions. However, they may be allowed to volunteer or take on Japanese work online. COVID-19 has changed our lives forever but Taeko thinks it has brought a ray of light to people living abroad in that it has promoted remote work in a tremendous way and created an environment where people can work regardless of their location.
The largest country in the world, what you don’t know about Russia
Although Taeko’s life in Russia was only for one year, she was able to experience the highlights of Russia through her daily life and travel.
For example, when riding on a train, Russian people were kind to women and children and they always gave up their seats. It is said that many of them are pro-Japanese.
Also, as the capital of Moscow, it’s convenient to have a wide range of restaurants and supermarkets, from high-end to inexpensive local stores. Taeko who boldly used local stores was called a ‘challenger’ by her Japanese friends. A peek into local supermarkets reveals rows of pesticide-free vegetables, indicating that many Russians do not like additives or pesticides.
Taeko and her family lived in Moscow but on holidays they also enjoyed travelling to places like Lake Baikal which is a beautiful, crescent-shaped lake that has been registered as a World Heritage site. It is the clearest lake in the world and is also called the ‘Pearl of Siberia’.
“I have fond memories of traveling with my family. The tin-roofed houses around Lake Baikal gave us a glimpse of local life which is different from that of people in Moscow."
Thoughts on Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Life in Russia began without knowing how many years it would last but the end came suddenly. In February 2022, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine.
Taeko and her family were on a family trip to Lake Baikal when the news of the invasion of Ukraine broke. At first, they thought things would settle down in a few days but when they returned to Moscow, they found that the atmosphere in the town had changed completely.
“It was just before the children's spring break from school and the Japanese in Russia were in a hurry to catch their flights home without waiting for spring break."
Taeko never thought she would be caught in the middle of news that caught the world's attention. Everyone was impatient and anxious. With as much luggage as they could carry, everyone left without any guarantee that they would be able to return to Russia. Many had to say goodbye to friends without seeing them again.
Taeko also took her school supplies and other belongings back to Tokyo, thinking she would probably start the new school year in Japan. Just like that, she was back in Japan.
“My sons feel very close to the current situation in Ukraine because we lived in Russia. I realised that living abroad had a great impact on my children."
Back in Japan, the situation in Ukraine was reported on the news everyday. Most of it focused on how outrageous Russia was and how much Ukrainian citizens were suffering.
In reality, however, most Russians do not want war. If they speak out against the war on social media, they get detained by the police and as a result, they cannot even express their opinions.
Despite her indignation towards Russia's outrageous decision which has had a profound impact on her own life, Taeko cannot help but remember the kind Russians has met. Although there is a lot of condemnation of Russia in the media every day, Taeko knows the suffering and kindness of the Russian people behind it that does not get reported in the media.
Life as an expat
Taeko has moved from Hyogo to Osaka to Fukui to Tokyo to Russia and back to Tokyo. Most of her time has been spent as a full-time housewife but now that she has returned to Tokyo from Moscow, she works for a political party as an editor of the party newspaper.
She originally worked in the office but this spring, decided to take on the challenge of editing, something I she had no experience in. She’s also in charge of interviewing and writing.
“Just like the reality of the Russian soldiers, there are many facts behind news reports that we don't know. That’s why I have come to feel the importance of seeing things with my own eyes and going to sites to listen to stories."
Taeko is now mainly interested in the areas of ‘children's rights’ and ‘food’ and is actively reporting on them.
“I've loved cooking since I’ve had kids. Now, I want to try farming. I couldn't continue teaching, which I loved and instead became a housewife but the reason I am enjoying my editing job now and why I became interested in food are all because of my past. So, I've come to think that it's good to go with the flow.”
The family of an expat must consider a combination of factors: your career, your partner's career, your children's education and where you live.
“You can't always balance work and parenting. If you choose one, you feel sorry and frustrated about the other. But in the end, I think it’s best for a mother to have a smile on her face.”
Taeko was able to make choices that allowed her to keep a smile on her face while still prioritising her family. She had the flexibility to go with the flow and the strength to control her temperaments.
We can imagine Taeko smiling charmingly and living a strong life wherever she goes, even if the place she lives or the structure of her family changes in the future.
We look forward to seeing Taeko conquer her next challenges!
Thank you for reading this, and We are always here for you!
Women can fly.
Much love, xxx
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