Interiors: Monna and Damien in Yokohama, Japan

Interiors: At Home with International Educators
This is a weekly feature designed to provide a window into the homes and worlds of international educators and our families. Educators will share their thoughts about home, culture, travel and food and each issue will be as unique as the person whose home is featured.

Today’s issue starts very close to home… with Damien and me and our (tiny) space in Yokohama, Japan.

Introduction
1. How big is your home? Tell us about it.
Our apartment is 80 square metres and every centimetre of that space is working hard for us! (80 m2 is actually quite large in Tokyo/Yokohama so I feel pretty lucky.) One noteworthy thing about our apartment is that for the very first time we had to furnish our apartment completely including the fridge and stove. We even had to buy our own light fixtures. (Yes… this led to intense shopping adventures!)

Here are a few shots of our pad as it looks now…

  1. What is your favourite thing about your current space?
    My favourite thing about our apartment is definitely the view. We live on the 22nd (and top) floor of our apartment building and because our balcony is transparent, our place is filled with light and seems larger and more open than it actually is. We can see Mount Fuji on a clear, “Fuji Day”… and it’s easy to feel as though the entire Kanto Plains is our back yard.

People ask if it’s frightening to be up so high during an earthquake but we live in a new building designed to absorb the shock so it’s really not that bad. Sometimes the only way that we know that we’ve had an earthquake is that we see the lamps swinging gently from the ceiling. (Okay… I worry a little bit about my ceramic bowls.)

The only downside of our location is that our view includes a very busy system of highways; the noise makes it impossible to leave the balcony doors open.

  1. How do you define home?

This…

and also these…

{Love + beauty + books + a place to create art = home}

I really believe that our home should be a sanctuary; this is particularly true for international educators when so much of our world is new, unfamiliar and often conducted in a foreign language. For me, a perfect living space is calm and comfortable, visually engaging, and also inviting for visitors. Finally, our space needs to engage and inspire us since this is where we both write, blog, edit photographs and create new projects. This 80 square metres is our office/studio/lab… this is the place where we dream up our future.

I’m also at home in this space and this space.

Gracious Living
4. What kinds of things do you purchase to make your place feel like home?
Oh… I can shop… and there is definitely a method to my shopping-madness while I’m travelling. I love to buy scarves and silver jewelry as gifts and for myself. The art, ceramic bowls and, more recently, rugs are for our home. There is always a funny point in our travels when Damien will look at the yummy things I have purchased… and sigh. That sigh is code for “Seriously? How will we get all of this home?” You know we always do… usually with ceramic bowls in our knapsacks.

When I look around our living space, I love to see the layers of practical and decorative items – including art – collected from the different places we’ve lived and traveled. Our place is a bit like an archeological dig in this respect. Beautiful things make me happy.

Life as an international teacher
5. What do your friends and family members think about you working overseas?
Damien and I began our overseas teaching careers in alarmingly similar ways but five years apart; our first international teaching jobs came directly after our completion of our Bachelors of Education at a time when Ontario schools weren’t hiring. We each got our first job – in different cities in Colombia – at the Teaching Overseas Recruitment Fair at Queen’s University and it will not surprise you that neither of our families was particularly happy about these moves to South America. Even though my time there was challenging in many ways, I feel grateful that I became a teacher in Cali, Colombia. I had just one course to prep (I know… that’s unheard of!) so I had time to create a curriculum that made sense for those kids. I ate a lot of vegetables (and just a few raw plantains), began to learn Spanish and danced frequently! Once my homesickness began to recede, I discovered that Colombia was a gorgeous, vibrant place to live. Over the years, our families have become more comfortable with our nomadic lifestyle and we’ve hosted many visitors in our homes on four continents.

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching overseas is that when we visit Canada during the summer, a few friends and family members don’t seem to know what to say to us. I have heard this from many international educators so I know this is not unique to us. Ultimately, what I’d like our people to know is that although the way we live is unconventional, the truth is that we live a pretty ordinary life as educators for at least 180 days a year plus most weekends. I’d like our friends to feel comfortable asking me about anything… the kids at our school, good films I’ve seen recently or my favourite breakfast cereal. (Here’s a hint!)

International life
6. In what countries have you lived?
We are Canucks by Ottawa-birth and met at an old, tradition-laden university in a particularly lovely limestone city in the Great White North. After university, we hit the road, first separately… and then together. The photos below are from our six countries.
Top row: Canada, Colombia, Mexico
Bottom row: Spain, Thailand, Japan

  1. What was the best place you have lived and why?
    Each city-home has been extraordinary in its own way but, honestly, Barcelona was my favourite. Even when we lived there, I knew how lucky we were… and that we would probably never live anywhere else like it. People in Barcelona know how to live. They know how to balance their work and their life. No… that’s not quite right because a Catalan would never talk about “work/life balance”. They know the difference between work and life and life always wins. Ones life revolves around family and friends, eating and drinking, and discussing politics and religion and art passionately and sometimes loudly. In Barcelona, you can be in your classroom teaching at 3:30 p.m. and on the beach by 4:30 p.m. (That kind of behaviour would be encouraged!) In Barcelona, you know you are alive.

Barcelona = The + Sweet + Life

Travel
8. What are your favourite places in the world?
We tried to narrow it down to five – honestly, we did – but we just couldn’t do it. Here are our all-time, top-six cities:

9. Do you still experience culture shock?
I am a person who embraces change… I love to move houses and countries and start over… but I still experience culture shock every time we move to a new place. Because I know it will happen, I read as much as possible about our new home before we move and try to prepare myself as thoroughly as I can. Like many expats, I typically experience the first few weeks/months in our new home as being perfect and delicious; that’s called the “honeymoon” period. (How I wish that damned honeymoon would last!) Then, as I know it will, the other culture-shoe drops and I am faced with the reality of the less lovely aspects of my new home-country. So begins the hard work of:
a) making sense of what I know about the culture… the great, the not-so-great and the downright scary
b) making a place for myself in this new community and developing connections with others)
c) making peace with the new home-culture. (Sometimes the best one can manage is a truce.)

It is quite common, when living in a new culture, to find oneself in the middle of an infuriating moment or interaction when you simply cannot understand what’s just happened; as a Canadian, my default response is, “How rude!” My friend Kathy calls these moments, “cultural incidents.” I have tried to train myself to reserve judgment when I find myself in the middle of a cultural incident… to ask myself what is really going on (and why) so that I don’t make incorrect assumptions about a situation I don’t understand. Ultimately, each culture has its own complex set of rules and these rules don’t need to make sense to me, nor do they need to be the same as the rules in Canada, because they work in the context of that culture. Really understanding this idea and living according to the rules and norms of your new culture is damned hard work and it continues to be. When I lived in Colombia, I wondered why people didn’t simply do things the way they were meant to be done… the Canadian way :) Now, I try to nip that crazy-thinking in the bud.

Truthfully, there’s always something in each culture that I find hard to adapt to. The heat and lack of good sidewalks in Thailand were difficult for me… as was my daily exposure to the Soi 11 sex-trade. Japan has been challenging because, although I crave order, I find this particular brand of order a bit soul-crushing. A number of my friends have been teaching me – each in their own unique way – how to rebel gracefully. If it’s true that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, then it stands to reason that it’s never too late to have a rebellious adolescence.

I also continue to struggle with the tension between being a norm-respecting, law-abiding resident of another country and being myself… a Canadian woman who is sometimes inappropriate, bossy and a little loud. (Sometimes bossy and loud wins!)

Food
10. Has living overseas changed your eating habits, diet or food preferences?
There’s a whole list of foods that I might never have ever tasted had I not begun working at international schools: empanadas, arepas, pan de bono, guacamole, tacos (the real ones… not from a kit packaged in a bright yellow box), tres leches cake, Spanish tapas, escalivada, green olives, pad thai and mango with sticky rice. I also take more risks with food now. I’m eager to try new things.

Living in other countries has helped me observe and internalize the way that people eat. In Spain, tapas (small, shared meals) are ubiquitous. It was quite common to have almonds and green olives at a Barcelona party. We still do that sometimes.

I’m going to leave you with some olives and almonds. Enjoy.

Photography Credits:
Photography by Monna McDiarmid with the following exceptions:

  • Photo of Damien and Monna in Barcelona by Kyle Hepp
  • Daikanzaka Street, Colombian Man, Dublin and Valparaiso photos + Amazing Photoshop Wizardry by Damien Pitter

23 comments

  1. LOVE this… though you’ve set the bar rather high for the rest of us who plan to contribute, my dear. I love this little peek into your home, and YOU. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi, lovely Sarah. Don’t think of it as a high bar… but simply a chance for me to explore/photograph and write about a whole lot of things that I find infinitely interesting and compelling. I’m so looking forward to seeing and reading your take on the idea of home in Mexico. (Also, if memory serves me correctly, I bet you have beautifully upholstered headboards in your home… speaking of a high bar!)

  2. A very insightful look into the lives of an international teaching couple, Monna. Very cool of of you to put yourselves out there and open up your world to others this way!

    1. Hi Jesse.
      Thanks for your comment and for the plug on Twitter… that was really kind of you. Writing about home and life as international educators doesn’t feel very risky to me but maybe it is a little more so for DP :) I hope all is well in Bangkok!

  3. Fantastic! What an intellectual and visual feast… Beautifully done Monna! We look forward to seeing you and Damien and perhaps discuss our cereal preferences :-)

    1. Caroline,
      Thanks for your lovely comment. If you experienced this first issue as “an intellectual and visual feast” (what a gorgeous phrase)… then I am both delighted and content. It will be great to see you guys in person!

  4. What a lovely project! I can think of several international teaching friends on various continents who will also appreciate your work as much as I do. I will be sure to share your blog as broadly as our visa stamps!

    1. Cory,
      Thanks for spreading the word about the project to your people via Facebook. Knowing me is not a prerequisite to participating – nor is having a home that looks like something out of “Better Homes & Gardens”! The idea is just to share a little sneak peek into the lives of expat teachers.

  5. Every time I see pictures of your beautiful spaces, I fall passionately in lust with how ordered they are. How free of all things extraneous. My own space is so far to the other extreme lately, that we move around our rooms like mountain climbers, searching for the clearest path. The phrase “one big bonfire” continues to surface. For me, your international life is a little fantasy of the road not taken.

    1. Nancy,
      Thank you for your lust for the tidy and the clean lines. (You will notice, however, that there are no photographs of our closets or our storage space :)
      You know that your life is my road not taken. xoxo

  6. Super cool. Thanks for sharing. LoVeD the artwork in your home, too. You must be cool people.
    For me, it’s been Santa Ana, Costa Rica; Munich, Germany; London, UK; Istanbul, Turkey; Santiago, Chile; and Asunción, Paraguay.

    1. John, it’s so cool of you to say “Super cool” and “LoVeD”. These are very good compliments!

      Istanbul! (So amazing, no?) I also love London and Santiago for completely different reasons (as is so often the case)… but have not yet been to Costa Rica, Germany or Paraguay.

      Berlin, Buenos Aires and Edinburgh are the cities at the top of my travel wish list for 2012.

  7. Your home looks very much like homes in Hong Kong. As I was reading your answers, I was thinking how I’d answer those questions.

    One of my first memories was eating curry for the first time. I was a bit shocked by the spice. My teaching partner looked over and said, “Yes, Janet, there are spices other than salt and pepper.”

    Janet | expateducator.com

    1. Hi Janet.
      Thanks for dropping by and for commenting.
      I’m really happy to hear that your instinct was to think about how you’d answer the questions… I was really hoping that people would feel that way!
      “There are spices other than salt and pepper” I love that :) and have had plenty of those (life outside Canada) epiphanies of my own. Do you like curry now?

  8. I love the way you write! I’m hoping to share this with my family, so maybe they will understand me better. (And because I definitely won’t be able to write anything at this high quality level to explain myself :-))

    I agree whole-heartedly that the Spanish really know how to live life. I miss that part of living in Barcelona…

    1. Guapa! I love LOVE that you complimented me on my writing. I work really hard to tell stories in a way that is fresh and engaging and easy to read but sometimes people assume that there’s no craft involved in my writing… that this is simply the way that I talk. (Damn it!)

      Have you ever heard of the “Black man’s nod” – a little nod of acknowledgment that black guys exchange (almost imperceptibly) that says, “I see you there & I know you get it.” I witnessed one of these nod outside our school a few days ago and it was a thing of beauty. (You can imagine that there aren’t very many black dudes in Japan.)

      I’d love for this project to be the expat teacher’s nod. “I see you. I feel you. I know that you get it.”

      Missing Barcelona still makes me suffer a little bit. I wonder if I’d live there more fully a second time around…

  9. You and Damien are adorable! It’s nice to put a face and a name to “DP.” And this feature was so lovely–I just ate it up, cereal and all. I am looking forward to future issues :-)

    1. Ha! Thanks, Rose-Anne. That DP – he’s a good one!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m really glad you enjoyed our first post. There will be a new issue tomorrow (Wednesday morning, Yokohama-time).

  10. I love this post! So awesome to see where you’re living. 80 meters is big by Santiago standards too. And your 80 meters looks very well distributed so you’re lucky! The apartment we bought is 80 square meters + balcony so I’ll be taking inspiration from you :)

    1. Hey, Kyle. Thanks for loving the post. Thanks, also, for taking that gorgeous shot that makes DP look like an angel! I still smile when I remember our photo-walk in Barcelona
      80 square metres is small after our place in Bangkok but, compared to our places in Barcelona, it is absolutely spacious. I love the way that you guys are opening the space up in your new apartment… that will make it seem even larger!
      P.S. Bold art. That’s my secret.

  11. Monna,
    Sarah Loring shared your blog with me. I love what you’ve done. ASFM is my second international teaching home. The places we choose to call home tremendously impact our satisfaction with each placement. My husband works from home, so our dwelling decides how long I will remain at a given school. I have found a lovely location in La Huasteca canyon and would love a chance to highlight my rural living opportunity (highly unusual on the international scene) with your readers. You have allowed many Mty folks to highlight their homes, all of which are unique and different. Keep up the good work. Jennifer Sikes

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