Marrying my childhood friend and moving to Tokyo

By Hoe I Yune, Aug 08, 2019

Having grown up in the US, Seolah thought she’d spend the rest of her life there. That is until, as fate would have it, she reconnected with a childhood friend living in Japan. Their dads first introduced them as two-year-olds, then again at 23 when they were single.

Hesitant at first, Seolah decided to give the long-distance relationship a shot and found herself flying 10,488km to be with her boyfriend after two years. The couple tied the knot last year.

* * * *

Hi, my name is Seolah. I’m 27 years old. 

I’ve been living in Tokyo for a little over two years now, but I mainly grew up in Columbus, Ohio. My family moved around a lot when I was younger — I was born in South Korea, then we moved to Japan, Africa, Pennsylvania, and New York. But I’ve been living in Columbus since I was eight. And once I started working, I thought I’d never leave the US.

Bo and I were childhood friends from when our dads worked in Korea. Like me, his dad’s Korean and his mum is Japanese. I can’t say that I remember anything from way back then, but his dad once mentioned that I scratched him while we were playing and he still has a little scar from that incident (oops).

We were about two or three and were playmates for a year.

We were about two or three and were playmates for a year.

Four years ago, our dads got back in touch with one another. They started talking about us and my dad asked his friend if his son was single. He said yes, and they set us up. My dad gave out my phone number, and a week later, I got a text from him.

At the time, I wasn’t too happy and was a little annoyed with my parents because I wasn’t really looking to get into a relationship.

But I’m close to my parents and I understood that they meant well. It was their first time introducing a friend’s son to me and they were very eager for things to work out between us, so it was kind of cute. It’s just that I didn’t want to get their hopes up or to personally take things too seriously in the beginning.

I thought it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I made sure to tell them so. I think they were very happy that I was at least giving friendship a shot. Besides casually asking for updates on how things were going, they left me to my own devices.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to talk to him. It was almost as if we were long lost friends (I guess technically, we were).

Before we started talking, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to like him. Because he spent most of his life in Korea, I incorrectly and ignorantly assumed that he wasn’t as open minded as me when it came to his world view and was reluctant to get close, but he was so earnest and genuinely interested in getting to know me that it was hard to be closed off for long.

We naturally progressed from texting to Skype calls and talked about all kinds of random stuff — from what we ate that day to our life aspiration and values. Over time, Bo became a very good friend and close confidant. He’s very patient and pragmatic (opposite of me!) so he was able to offer a more practical perspective to whatever issue I was going through.

Four months after we started talking online, my mum, brother and I made a trip to Hokkaido. We visit Hokkaido quite often because it’s where my grandfather lives.

A snap of me in Biei, a town in Hokkaido

A snap of me in Biei, a town in Hokkaido

Bo was just finishing up university in Tokyo, so he asked if he could fly over to meet me. I once again felt a bit reluctant. I knew he was interested in me. Whenever we were talking, he’d mention “us” in the long-term, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted a relationship. In the end, I said “Yea, sure” to the trip and just figured that I would take it casually and see how it went. He met my family, then we hung out for a couple of days.

On our first “official date” the next day, we went to this little city in Hokkaido called Otaru. It’s like a little Venice, and they’re famous for the canal and the glass music boxes. Strolling through the town, we could hear the music playing, and we passed through a chipmunk park. It was very romantic.

Three days later, which was also one day before he was flying back to Tokyo, we were sitting in a gazebo in a park. I was swatting away mosquitos and he told me that he liked me and wanted to be together. I remember just blurting out all the reasons why I didn’t think it was going to work.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like him - I was mostly afraid I think. Because being with him would mean living a future I never anticipated.

My biggest hesitation at the time was the geographical distance between us. I had a plan for myself and that was to build a career in the US. I tend to plan really far ahead and I knew being in a relationship with him would mean I’d likely have to move to Japan. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that.

But Bo didn’t give up and visited me in the US a few months afterwards. He met my dad too and joined us on a family road trip. My big crazy family is an important part of who I am so I wanted to see how he got along with them. Respectful, kind and patient towards everyone, he passed the “test” - if you want to call it that. After the road trip, he confessed to me again and considering everything he did for me up until that point, I couldn’t say no.

He put in a lot of effort to show me how serious and dedicated he was. Both his trips to meet me took place in the middle of “interview season”, which is the busiest and most important period for graduating students. In order to fly out to see me, he rescheduled interviews.

I also said some very hurtful things to him during our interactions to push him away but he never got angry. Neither was he ever pushy or overbearing. So I uttered a corny line about life being unpredictable like a Jenga game and told him “I guess I’ll give it a chance”.

For two years, we were in a long-distance relationship and would take turns to fly and meet every four months. It wasn’t so challenging in the beginning but the more time we spent together, the more I felt myself falling in love for him, and that’s when being apart became more difficult.

Since taking the leap and becoming “official”, I was able to put my guard down and was more open to getting to know him fully. Every time we met up and spent time together, I started noticing how awesome of a person he was and my feelings would get exponentially stronger. It wasn’t long before I went from feeling unsure to knowing that he was someone I wanted to spend my life with.

Maybe it was the food or the nice ambience but I remember we were at a restaurant in New Orleans when I looked at him and was completely smitten. It was then I thought to myself, “Wow, I could spend eternity with this man and feel utterly complete.”

It got me thinking about what’s next. We couldn’t be in a long-distance relationship forever so we had to talk about whether or not it would be unreasonable for one of us to move? Not just move but feel happy about that - that’s what I wasn’t so sure about. Up until we started dating, moving to Japan wasn’t something I had considered.

The time to act came when he got a job that he really liked and said he wanted to develop his career more in Tokyo so I decided, “Oh, maybe it’d be a good opportunity for me to try living in a different country and rediscover my roots since my mum’s Japanese.” I decided to make the jump. By that time, we knew we were going to get married — it’s something that we talked about extensively. Otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve made the move.

I was really worried before moving to Tokyo because I didn’t know what the job market was like, and I wanted to perfect my Japanese so that I could use it in a professional environment. In order to get a non-teaching job, foreigners are required to have a language certification to prove that they’re fluent. So I saved up money to take intensive language classes during my first year there. I also tutored students in English, but my career was essentially at a standstill.

I used my savings for school and personal expenses, and Bo helped by paying for rent and food.

I know that in the long run, it wasn’t a waste of time. But if I were to be honest, I sometimes doubt my choice as it really felt like I was falling behind on my career because I took that break.

My parents knew we had marriage on our minds for a while cause we had been talking about it. But when I told my dad that I bought the flight ticket to Tokyo, he was very upset that I didn’t involve him. He wanted me to tell him first and maybe we could’ve looked up tickets together, whereas I bought it on a whim because it was really cheap that day.

Thinking about it now, I get it but at the time, I was upset that he was upset and we had a little fight. He was probably sad that I was moving so far away, even though technically this was his doing!

Bo and I at the Ghibli Museum.

Bo and I at the Ghibli Museum.

When I first moved here, Bo and I got a place together so the first few months were spent settling in and sorting out the practical stuff like buying new furniture. Then I focused on school and half a year later, a friend introduced me to this website where you can connect with students interested in English tuition classes so starting the freelance gig was really easy. Within my first month of uploading my profile, I got eight students.

There were the little things that took a little getting used to when I moved to Tokyo. Like in the US, if you aren’t home, then the postman would just leave your package at the door but in Japan, someone has to be home to receive it. There are parts of Japan that are hi-tech but in certain aspects, it’s still archaic. For instance, it’s still a cash-based society so carrying cash was something I had to get used to again cause I hadn’t been doing it in recent years!

Manners are really important as well — no one speaks loudly on trains because that’s considered to be impolite.

Those were minor things. But something that gave me a culture shock was the way women are treated. I don’t think this is representative of everyone in Japan but I found out that the idea of men having affairs is more common than I had thought. And people view it very lightly, like it’s okay.

I was hanging out with a group of male acquaintances and even though they’re married, they were sharing how they’d go out on blind dates with young girls who make them feel good and shower them with compliments. I didn’t say anything because I was the only girl at the table and didn’t think they would understand my point of view just like I didn’t understand theirs.

But I found it deeply unsettling because from the way they were describing these women, it didn’t sound like they respected their wives at all.

I was afraid that I would have no friends but I reconnected with university or school friends who were in Japan. Plus Bo has a friend with an American wife so she introduced me to her circle of friends too and my network kind of grew from there. That aside, I think it helps that a lot of people travel to Tokyo so when my friends come to visit, we’d meet up and explore different areas, and I still feel connected to my old life.

I get a little homesick when I’m missing out on things like family trips, birthdays or Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, but I do fly back once a year, or they would come visit.

I guess I get the most homesick when things aren’t going well, like I’m frustrated with work or feeling lonely that week, and I want to go back to something familiar. I would have big breakdowns, crying once a month, but that’s happening a lot less frequently now.

During my first few months especially, I was lonely because I was going back to school, my career was at a standstill, and I didn’t have close friends around me. I always wonder if I made the right choice and if this is what I really want, but whenever the doubts creep in, I’d talk it through with Bo and he’d reassure me that things are okay.

He’s very practical, yet optimistic, and very good at saying the right things to make me feel better.

He’ll remind me that this is temporary and then we’ll discuss practical steps that I can take. Like if you’re feeling X because of Y, you can do Z. Some people might just want to vent and be heard, but I find his advice really helpful. He’s definitely my rock.

It sometimes doesn’t work out when a couple moves in together cause you start seeing the “bad” side to someone and it can become a disaster but nothing changed between us. It only got better. We’re very compatible roommates and were excited to make up for all the time we spent apart. I think it helps that my husband has a very easy going personality. He’s like an open book so I always felt that I could trust him.

Bo proposed about six months after I moved to Tokyo. We were in bed and he asked if I wanted to marry him. I said, “No, this isn’t what I wanted. And you didn’t even do a good job hiding the ring!” I actually came across the ring in his backpack when I was cleaning our place and was surprised that he kept it in such an obvious location. I felt guilty for feeling disappointed but it just seemed as if he didn’t put any thought into it. He wound up having to redo the proposal.

A few days later, I came home at night and heard the music from Love Actually play as soon as I reached our door. He did a reenactment of the scene when the guy in love with Keira Knightley stands outside her door to confess. I don’t think Bo has actually seen the movie and probably Googled romantic proposals but it was really sweet. He had a sketchbook with words on it, which he flipped through, then handed me a bouquet of flowers and held out the ring.

It wasn’t the Hollywood fantasy proposal I imagined growing up but it was very “Bo”.

For our wedding engagement photoshoot, we created the photo from our childhood, wearing matching outfits in blue.

For our wedding engagement photoshoot, we created the photo from our childhood, wearing matching outfits in blue.

It was pretty nice how our parents already knew one another. But once we got together, I think they realised how different Asian-American and Asian cultures are. Bo’s very family-oriented so he really loves and respects his parents and what they think. I am, in a way, similar. But I would say his family is a lot more traditional and that was something that I wasn’t used to. Even though my dad is Korean, he spent the last 18 years in the states, so we didn’t celebrate all the holidays.

Unlike in Korea and Japan where family hierarchy still seems really important, when I was growing up in the states, there was more freedom to define our own lives.

My in-laws were surprised by that. Also, as close knit as my family is, my parents took on a more “you can do your own thing and we’ll support you if you need help” approach. So I wasn’t used to how involved his parents would be. There were some disagreement when it came to picking the officiator for our wedding. In Korea, it’s customary to find someone who’s the groom’s father’s friend. Someone who knows the groom well.

But my parents had someone else in mind, a female family friend. I can’t remember how we resolved it but there was a lot of back and forth, and in the end, we went with my parents’ friend.

We had a small and intimate garden wedding in Hokkaido, surrounded by a few friends and family. I was very happy with how it turned out.

I know I won’t want to live in Tokyo forever. We plan to raise our family in the states - I’m just more familiar with the education system and my family’s there. Bo also wants to eventually grow his career in the states, but for the next few years at least, we want to be in Tokyo.

I’m now working at a global IT company. After I got the results for my language proficiency test, I started to network and apply for jobs. I landed my current job within a month. It is in a completely new industry, different from what I had been doing before in the US, but I could still apply skills I gained from previous jobs. Going to school was definitely helpful but I am still trying to study in my spare time because there’s always room to improve.

Honestly speaking, I didn’t think I would l love living in Tokyo as much as I do. I’ve made so many amazing memories with my husband and new friends over the last two years, and the journey has been a great learning experience for me. Guess it’s taught me that uncertainty isn’t a bad thing.

Photos provided by Seolah.

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