My expat story


Every expat has a story, what’s yours?

2013 is the year I’ll celebrate 17 years of being an expat. Ten years in Japan and seven years in the UAE. I think I have not shared the story behind why I became an expat though I might have disclosed it to a few who asked.


My being an expat is accidental. Unplanned. Serendipitous.

I dreamed of cold, wintery places.
My mother used to buy posters then frame it herself to decorate our small house.


I still remember those posters very clearly: verdant meadows, snow-capped mountains, cool running river by the hills. I grew up in a tropical country, living without airconditioning system or even a fan. While my siblings and I sweat in our afternoon nap, we would often look at the poster on the wall and declare, “We shall one day live in a place that’s cool. Winter! See and touch snow!”

Japan. Who would’ve thought?

I totally forgot about that dream of living in somewhere with winter until a friend in college rushed through the corridor with excitement:  “There’s a scholarship to Japan. Why don’t we try our luck?”

(Yes we’re like those two friends who played cards to win boarding tickets to the Titanic!)



Hmmm, I’ve never dreamed of Japan. Why would I want to go there? It was not in my mom’s posters back home. But I took the chance, never serious. It was a long shot at luck but I passed the scholarship exam and landed in Japan not knowing anyone (was told someone from the university will pick me up at the airport with my name on it), not speaking the language except to say “My name is Grace.”

I was sad I had to leave the friend who presented me the opportunity, the ‘accidental’ opportunity to become an expat at 19.

At the airport, I still couldn’t believe I’ve been whisked to a different place, miles and miles away from home. And I didn’t understand the language the people spoke! I couldn’t even inform my parents I have landed safely. This was 1996 and I don’t have a cellphone. Neither do they. We didn’t even have a land line at home, much more, internet!

It was October and autumn in Japan made me remember my dream of living somewhere cold. The jacket I brought – the thickest I had from my tropical home wasn’t enough.

I was looking out my dormitory room window to see the beautiful autumn colors.

Autumn in Japan

There I would spend the next four and a half years studying the Japanese language, writing letters by hand to my family and friends (there was no Facebook those days!), entering the university and earning my degree.

Grace Speech in Nihongo

It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Japan – what’s not to love? The people are friendly and polite, the cherry blossoms are very beautiful in spring, the lovely autumn foliage, everything is in order…and there are 200 kinds of Kitkats available!

Kidding. But really Japanese food is awesome. You already know that.

Just before I finished my university course and graduated in 2001, I decided to stay. Japan became my beloved second home. The people around me, my second family. I arrived when I was 19. With all the challenges I experienced living alone, it’s like I “grew” up there. I came of age there.

Celebrating "Coming of age day" in Japan

I did not just fall in love with Japan, I also fell in love with someone from there. *blush*

2001, Nagano, Japan

 This was us in 2001. That’s TWELVE years ago, people. He still looks the same, more or less while I have AGED.

Two years later, we got married, had Pristine in 2003. Look at the place I ended up. I was reminded of the snow-capped mountains in my mom’s poster!And with the jacket I was wearing, you can tell it is cold! I got my dream of living somewhere cold, ha!

Matsumoto, Japan 2006

In 2007, we sold our things and packed up our bags to move to Dubai – a world away from Japan. Now six years after we landed, we are still here, continuing our expat story. Who knows where we’ll end up next?

Are you an expat? How did you end up where you are now?

* By the way, I took the first three photos using an instant camera, the disposable type in 1996-97! Scanned the “developed” photos to post here.


  1. aww… I don’t know if my story is worth telling. LOL! You have so much love, while I on the other hand, have a lot of heartaches. Haaayy.. Pwede ako na lang sa Japan? LOL



  2. Your expat story puts a big smile on my face and ignites a wanderlust in my heart Grace! Just reading your story sets my soul souring, KNOWING that’s what my heart of hearts desires; just be able to leave and start somewhere in a foreign country.

    This was definitely a beautiful story and inspires me to look for scholarships like that accidental scholarship you got in the beginning 🙂



    1. I hope you could participate in those exchange student programs kind of stuff. I know there are so many families in Japan wanting to host American young ladies so they can learn English and show their culture, etc (The Japanese are very proud of their heritage and culture).

      Do you know any of these exchange programs in the US?



  3. Your story is amazing, it show me that hope never cease to exist. In my opinion it’s all about determination if u want to do something you will do it sooner or later 🙂



  4. I LOVE this post so much, and love that first picture it is SO captivating!!! Your story is so amazing, I have to agree @Michael.

    I backpacked all over Europe, bc of the inspiration from another expat! Moved to South Korea to teach amazing kids and lived there for 2 years, and just got back from Portugal, where my family is from. And currently based in Connecticut and New York City, but planning the next country to live in.

    The world is a beautiful place and thank you for sharing your stories with us, it is so inspiring.



    1. How we started doesn’t matter. Life is a journey, it’s what we do along the way that counts
      Luck or no luck with great determination we can achieve want we dream of! 🙂



  5. Oh wow that’s quite a journey.

    Mine might sound stereotypical but I came to Dubai when the Trade Centre building was the grandest building in the emirates. Few years later my dad ended up working for government hospital in Al Ain. University led me to the winters of Canada before I came back to Dubai. Learning to live in Dubai as a working person is far removed than just being a kid going to school.

    But to see things change the way they have in Dubai and UAE overall is an experience indeed.



  6. I like your story Grace. I’m so glad that you were able to realize your dream of living somewhere cold, and how you attracted that from the Universe. I’m also very impressed by the fact that you studied Japanese! I think being an expat is fun. I don’t consider myself much of an expat in Dubai, since I’m originally from the GCC and I grew up in this region most of my life. But here’s a link to my story anyway 🙂



    1. Thanks for reading my expat story post. I went and visited yours!
      Yes, I studied Japanese because I was enrolled in the university there as a government scholar and it was a do or die situation! 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s