This week, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Debbie Studwell who works at an international school in Tokyo. Debbie contacted me a few months ago, after DP and I moved to Yokohama, to introduce herself. She had seen my blog and wanted to reach out and say hello which is perhaps one of the coolest things about having a blog! Debbie has also worked in Bangkok so we have Thailand, Japan, international education and a love of interior design in common. At the EARCOS teaching conference in Bangkok in late March, Debbie stopped me in the hallway to introduce herself… so we’ve had just five minutes together in person but I look forward to spending some time with Debbie in person. Perhaps we’ll meet at a cosy cafe halfway between her school and mine which are on opposite sides of Tokyo. Enjoy the tour of Debbie’s gorgeous home as well as her thoughts about her life overseas.
I am the oldest of six kids, a member of a middle class family from the Philadelphia suburbs, and later on a small town in upstate New York. Traveling meant going to the Jersey shore, Cape Cod, or big excitement, Montreal or NYC for a day. However there was evidence of adventure and foreign travel in my family. My grandparents were travelers, my Mother’s emigrated from Belfast in the late 1920s, not to return for almost 40 years to their beloved Ireland. My father’s family made the next voyage after the Mayflower, my father used to say that in typical Studwell fashion we procrastinated and missed the boat. My paternal grandfather volunteered to drive an ambulance in Spain, a la Hemingway, before the US entered WW1. My father was one of the many brave Americans who fought during WW2. Having fought in Europe he had stories he never told us, but he did reminisce about R&R in the south of France, or the good times at his home base in England. The summer I was 15 my good friend Barbara and I had just arrived at her family’s summer cottage, that night we watched the original Anastasia [no, not Disney] with Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. We were so fascinated that we begged her Mom to drive us back to our town library to learn more. Yes, this was pre-internet days. The next summer I ventured off to Germany as a nanny, a job my Mom helped me get. I’m sure she had no idea what this trip would start. During my senior year my family sponsored an exchange student from Chile, another great experience. Then, four years of college, no money for travel or junior year abroad, I was stuck stateside. Nine months after graduation I fell into a chance to teach in Australia, and I have been overseas ever since. I have taught in Australia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan, England, and now back to Japan. I am a third culture adult, having spent over 30 years living outside my home country, and making many new places “home”.
A (small) home in Japan
My current home is in the western suburbs of Tokyo, about 30 minutes from downtown. It’s just a 5 minute commute to work, I love that. My flat is quite small, only 51 square meters, or 167 square feet for my American friends. Even though Japan is famous for small homes, I live in a small place because I can keep the leftover housing allowance. For me that translates to more money for holidays! While my flat is small I like it. To me home is where I feel comfortable, where I can have my favorite things. It also needs to be a place I can invite people over for a drink, a meal, or a movie night. When I move to a new place I need music and wine, then I unpack everything at once and quickly because I want to be settled. I am very organized and neat, which makes this small place work for me. I would kill for more closet space, but otherwise it is a good home. I am lucky to have some free space at school to hide away a few things.
It is obvious when you enter my flat that I like to shop, no, love to shop. As I travel I like to pick up objects that remind me of those places. The thrill is in the hunt, to find unique items I won’t find at Pier One or Cost Plus. Shopping is hard work, but my kind of work. I can’t move the furniture too much, but I am constantly rearranging collections, layering objects, going higher, going lower. When friends visit they always have questions about where things came from, though I am sure some of them just think I have too much stuff! I read a scary amount of blogs and websites about decorating. I have about 10 magazines on my Ipad, and I love to see what is different in each place I visit, bringing ideas home with me, if nothing else.
My décor is predominantly Asian, but I try to blend in treasures from Africa and Europe. I love photos, books, artwork, baskets, blue and white porcelain, and textiles. I doubt I will ever be finished decorating, I think of my house as a work in progress. I have also become an unpaid decorator for friends and family, though sometimes I get dinner and I will always work for a good white wine. If I was not a teacher, I would love to do something in the decorating field.
A few rules I follow; from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Also, from a 1950’s decorating guide, “Have red in every room, and a bottle behind every curtain.” Wow, I am glad that was not my life. I do have red in every room, but my bottles are out in the open!
Life as an international educator
Most people think that living overseas is just an extended vacation. Wow… that is debatable. Monday to Friday I work and I usually work hard. It’s good that I love being a 4th grade classroom teacher, but it is a demanding job.
Added to that I am basically illiterate in Japan, and I need a lot of help to do daily tasks due to language limitations. I really appreciate how easy it is to communicate when I am in English speaking countries. I love new cultures, but I am not a linguist. I still pay taxes, [in two countries!], go to the dentist and clean my house. Okay, in some countries I did not clean my house. While I have had a huge advantage to do and see amazing things I have missed some important family events, good times with US friends etc. However, I would not change my life for the world, [there may be a pun in there somewhere.] I love the challenges, the unexpected, experiencing new cultures and places. I enjoy taking photos and trying new food as I travel. It is a gift that I have friends basically all over the map. I have travelled to 60+ countries, and I am not finished.
I cannot pick a favorite, so many places are great for so many different reasons, but top contenders are Italy, Nepal, Thailand, England, Bali, and South Africa. I like places for different times and events in my life. I can’t think of anywhere I would not go back to, but some I would return to only if someone else paid for it. There are just too many places to go, my list only gets bigger, not smaller. I am constantly reading and exploring travel sites, and while I am on vacation I am already planning the next trip. I don’t think I will ever tire of traveling, but I am tired of long, uncomfortable, increasingly expensive flights.
Next on my itinerary, I am heading off to see friends for a few days in Chiangmai before the EARCOS teacher’s conference in Bangkok. Summer plans are still in the thinking stage. Like my ancestors I do procrastinate making travel decisions. Mostly, it is because I cannot decide where to go; I am greedy and want to go everywhere. I have been known to only decide the day that school gets out.
My latest passion for 4 of the past 5 summers has been safari in Africa. I have been to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Who knew animals were so amazing, I was just a dog lover before these trips. Now I can’t wait to see the Big Five again, will it be a lion sitting 2 feet away from me in the jeep, an elephant rubbing up against our tent, or an angry hippo charging our boat in Botswana? That was a terrifying but exciting time! I am just sorry none of us clicked even one picture, we were all too scared.
Each year, I also try to go somewhere new. Last year, I visited a small town in Italy called Ceriana. It is inland from the Italian Riviera, a medieval walled town. A good friend is retiring from teaching and opening a B&B/cooking school there. Let me know if you are interested; it’s fantastic!
It may finally be time for me to get to Russia this summer. On the other hand, maybe it is time to go back to Australia. Of course, I always head home to the US to see my family. Remember the old joke, “There are 3 good reasons to teach, June, July, and August.” I love to take full advantage of my long holidays. YES, I KNOW HOW LUCKY I AM!!!
When is it time to leave?
I think it is important to find a balance; you don’t want to be like the character in Gerry Raffety’s song” Baker Street”, and say, “Another year and THEN I’ll be happy”. Go, if you don’t like it. Stay, if you do, just don’t stay only for the money.
The next time I leave it will be to retire. I don’t know where I will go when I “grow up”, but I have a few ideas. In the past the decision was usually easy; time to leave because I was ready for a change, or wanted a new challenge. I left once because the job was not good, the pay was awful, living conditions not so great. I stayed there only one year, but I got good experience for my resume, learned Spanish, and made friends who are still important in my life 30 years later. FYI, they all left too! I have never been evacuated, I have just missed a few wars and civil unrest, good timing/luck there. I was in Japan last year for the big earthquake, as a matter of fact I am writing this on the one year anniversary. It was scary, and oh, so sad, but I am still here. Actually, I think seeing the integrity and bravery of the Japanese people actually made me like Japan even more.
Thanks, Monna for starting this and letting me participate. I have loved reading everyone’s entries, and I think we should start a house swap between us. Until then, I may meet some of you at EARCOS, or see the rest of you somewhere out there in this ever expanding world. In the words of the great Joe Walsh, “Life’s been good to me so far…”
Please leave your love notes for Debbie in the comments section below.