Five Ways to get or stay Stuck in an Expat Bubble

    Expat Bubble FAIL

    How to Increase your Chances of Getting Stuck in an Expat Bubble.

    Living in a foreign country and tired of constantly being bombarded by foreign sounds, smells, and events? Don’t you just wish you could curl up inside an expat bubble and never come out? Well you’re in luck. This article is going to teach you how.

    I have lived inside and outside of expat bubbles on three continents. I’m a pro. I know the game. So, let’s get on with it. Here are some things that you can do to greatly increase your chances of getting stuck in an expat bubble regardless of what country you are living in.

    (Not sure of what an expat bubble is or why they exist? Check this: Expat Bubbles: The Forces that Suck.)

    1. Never go out alone.

    If you always go out with your other expat friends you can effectively decrease the chances that a random local will have the guts to start up a random conversation with you.

    Just think – if you’re sitting alone at a counter in a Japanese bar it’s possible that a random Japanese person will see you as a lonely defenseless foreigner with some time on his hands and start up a conversation. If you’re trying to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble you want to avoid this at all costs. Never go anywhere alone.

    It’s simple, just imagine, if you’re with 2 or 3 other foreign friends all speaking English together and drinking brews from your homeland what are the chances that a random local is going to take the time to bother you? They’re going to see you having a good time speaking rapid and slangy English — they’re not going to touch that with a ten-foot pole. Strength in numbers.

    Now, sticking with a group is purely a defensive measure that you should use when you have already entered the heart of foreignness. However, sticking with your expat friends has another preemptive benifit as well.

    If you stick with your expat buddies you will be able to feed off of their uncomfortableness with the local language and culture as well, ensuring that you never stray far from the centers of your collective confort zones.

    For example, perhaps one day you are feeling dangerously adventurous and want to try out some random restaurant in a local neighborhood you’ve never been to. You’re with your friends so you ask them along too. Chances are that at least one of your friends will save the day and prevent you from going native by saying something like, “I’m getting tired of the local food, let’s hit up Hard Rock Cafe!” This will ensure that the entire group sticks with what they are used to and never leaves the expat bubble. Mission accomplished.

    2. Never join a local club unless you know another foreigner already in it.

    Whatever city you’re in probably has lots of active informal clubs. Photography clubs, ping pong clubs, kite flying clubs, running clubs, classical guitar clubs… Whatever it is, be sure that you only join a club if you already know for certain that some of your expat friends are in it already, or at least plan to join with you.

    If you join a club that no other expats are involved in you will probably be forced to make new local friends, thus destroying your carefully crafted expat bubble. If you do join a club that has another expat in it, be sure that you quit as soon as the last foreigner other than you leaves. If you’re the last one your bubble will surely burst.

    The photo with this article shows one episode early in my Japan days when I failed to maintain my expat bubble by foolishly volunteering to participate in Ringon Matsuri in Iida. Bubble destroyed. Don’t let this happen to you.

    3. If you work in a mostly foreign environment, be sure that your coworkers are also your best friends.

    If your coworkers in a foreign country are mostly other expats, be sure you spend as much time outside of work with them as you do at work.

    When work is over invite your fellow expats out to dinner and drinks. Be sure to figure out your weekend plans while you are in the office so you can be sure to travel with a group of foreigners while out and about (see point 1).

    4. Never learn the local language.

    This is a no-brainer. If you can’t speak the local language you can limit the number of locals who have access to your mind. Furthermore, even if there are locals who speak your language trying to penetrate your bubble at least you can expect that they probably are familiar with your culture and will probably be happy hanging out in your usual expat locations anyway. This way you don’t have to leave your expat bubble, they can enter it themselves.

    As a further precaution, do not even attempt to learn the language — zero effort is the safest bet. If you get a private language tutor you open yourself up to being invited out to do local things with your teacher, and worse, your teacher’s friends. In fact, if your teacher is worth their salt they will do this on purpose, as every good language instructor knows that embedding a student into the local culture only speeds language learning and cultural understanding. Dangerous.

    5. Stay away from the local communications technology.

    Different countries will have different major modes of communication. Facebook is doing a lot to create a unified platform, but there are still country-specific places where people hangout online. Be sure not to join any of them if you want to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble.

    For example, in China I made the mistake of joining Weibo, China’s Twitter clone… everyone uses it here. Now I can be constantly plugged into what my Chinese friends are thinking about and doing, I can be informed of all the latest Chinese jokes, and my Chinese friends can reach me whenever they want to share something with me. My Bubble has been breached.

    If you are an expat in Japan trying to hold down your expat bubble it would probably be best not to get a mobile phone if you can manage. Japanese people text like crazy, and sharing phone numbers is the first step to building a relationship for most people. If you have to get a phone, which you probably will, try not to give out your number too often — you can make up some excuse like, “I don’t know how to read Japanese so I never look at my text messages anyway.” Or something. Also, stay away from Mixi and Gree, joining such social networks will only further thin the walls of your bubble.

    Bonus: Get an expat significant other

    Encore! If you really want to augment your expat bubble experience you can get yourself an expat significant other who also lives in their own bubble. This will enhance number 1, 2, and 3 by definition, and will also enhance number 4. You’ll always have an expat around to keep the local culture away! You will be able to cancel any annoying local culture related events by claiming it’s “date night.” The list goes on and on. Note, it is vital that your significant other live in their own expat bubble. If they are one of those people who integrates themselves into the local culture and learns the local language, you’re likely to be dragged out of your bubble with said S.O. Choose wisely.

    Seriously though, are Expat Bubbles all Bad? No.

    Not all expat bubbles are created equal, and people shouldn’t necessarily feel bad because they are living in one…

    In my last expat bubble related post I said:

    In Japan, mainly because I spoke the language, was dating (and am now married to) a local, and worked at a company that employed mostly locals, I was able to largely avoid the expat bubble — perhaps I even avoided it so much that it was, in a way, detrimental to my experience in Japan. On the flip side, when I lived in Tanzania I could count the number of local Tanzanian friends I had on one hand… France was somewhere in between, and my situation in Shanghai is a little weird… More on that later.

    But expat bubbles are evil! Why would I say such a thing?!

    I say this because a lot of expats are really cool and doing amazing things. You can gain a lot of energy and inspiration from the people in your expat bubble. It takes a lot of guts to move overseas and do one’s thing, whatever that thing may be, so a lot of expats who are out there making it happen are really high-calibre folks. I would say that the simple fact that someone is an expat makes them quite likely to be a lot more interesting than the average joe back home, or even the average local in many cases…

    Many expats are bilingual, entrepreneurial, international minded, adventurous, willing to share, and fun. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone — there are some expat idiot jerks as well… but it does apply to a lot of people. I think I met more cool expats on Twitter after I left Japan than I did while I was there. I consider this a missed opportunity, and if I ever move back to Japan long term I will make an effort to embed myself into the gaijin community. Knowing the right expats can really help you navigate the local environment, can help you find jobs, and can help you find fun things to do. Seriously, expats are cool. Don’t completely shut them out for the sake of your overseas experience.

    Any questions!?

    Check out this other recent expat bubble related post: Expat Bubbles, what are they, why are they.

Japanese Language Audio Books on iPad with Rye Studio

In an effort to boost my pitiful Chinese abilities… I got an App!

A company called Rye Studio makes a series of picture book apps for iPhone and iPad that read you a story while showing you the text in Chinese. Listening to target language text being read at native speed while reading along is a great way to pick up new vocabulary if you ask me.

What’s that you say? You’re not studying Chinese, you’re learning Japanese! Of course! Well, the kicker is that you can watch the story while reading and listening to it in a variety of languages… including Japanese in most cases! (Not that I’m spending all my time in China looking for Japanese language sources… no not at all… I just happened to notice this and decided to tell you about it… yeah that’s it…)

Mulan in Chinese!
Mulan in Japanese!

(Doesn’t looking at all the Chinese characters that appear in both the Japanese and the Chinese make you crazy?)

And rest assured, the Japanese seems to be being read by a native speaker as far as I and my Japanese wife can tell. So yeah, it’s high quality stuff.

The following Rye Studio stories are available in Japanese:
The Little Snail かたつむり
Mulan ムーラン
The Magic Brush and Maliang 魔法の筆と馬良
The Monkeys Who Tried to Catch the Mooon 猿とお月さん

There are lots more as well!

Also, these apps all run on your iPhone or iPod Touch as well. The screen shots in this post are all from the iPhone and iPod Touch screens. Note, it’s a universal app, so you only have to buy it once and you can run it on both of your devices.

Well worth a look!

Getting your GO on

Making the おやじ game look good!

So I recently started watching the ひかるの碁 (hikaru no go) anime, and as what I assume is normal for most people who do the same, I now find myself wanting to learn how to play Go.

If you haven’t watched Hikaru no Go I would recommend checking it out. You can stream it (in Japanese language thank-you-very-much) on Netflix. It’s amazing how they can make such an old fuddy duddy game like Go into a fairly exciting Anime!

Anyway, so let’s talk about my quest to learn Go. I figured that there would be an App for that, and after some sleuthing I found SmartGo!

I’ve been running SmartGo Kifu, which is the iPad version. The iPad is a great size for this type of thing. SmartGo is also available for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

I’ve been using SmartGo for a few weeks now, and so far I really like it. One of the greatest features I noticed early on is that the game allows you to create a profile, and it tracks your progress as you play. You get a player rating, and your opponents slowly increase (or decrease) in strength as you win and lose games. If your rating really sucks, like I do now, you even start with a handicap.

Getting wasted by SmartGo Kifu for iPad. I'm black.

As an incentive to not suck, the game starts off allowing you only to play on a 9×9 board and the 11×11 and 13×13 board options are locked. I’m only playing at level 6++ on a good day now, and the 11×11 board unlocks when you reach level 11, and the 13×13 board is unlocked when you beat level 13 playing on a 11×11 board. So I have a long ways to go. One game on the 9×9 board only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete, so it’s a good size for a quick learning match.

Another simple yet great thing about this app is that the computer will make smart decisions about when to resign when you’re winning. One of the hardest things (I think) about learning to play Go is that if you’re playing against another human who is also a newbie, you’ll both have no idea when the game is really over… A pro can look at the game in progress and understand when one side has already been to be defeated, but to a newb this can be tough to judge and you’ll end up placing pieces on the board until it’s full.

The menu interface for SmartGo isn’t the best – it has so many options that it sometimes feels a little cluttered when you’re digging through the menus. But then again, you you’ll be spending most of your time simply staring at the beautiful image of the wooden board and the pieces anyway, so that’s not a big deal. The menu only really comes into play when you’re switching profiles, or when setting it up for the first time.

I’m not there yet skill-wise, but it’s nice to know that SmartGo Kifu also provides a ton of professional games that you can replay and study if you’re so inclined. I’m sure that I’ll be using this app for a long time!

Have fun!


Twitter friend @ciholmer also recommended this online community to play Go

Hikaru no Go is currently available on Netflix streaming!

SmartGo Kifu for iPad

Japanese Calendar Converter for iPhone

I’ve had this app for a while now. It’s simple, but useful, and free!

The title is, “Gengou Free” By Masayuki Akamatsu.

It converts the year counting system you’re used to, like 2011, into the Japanese system which is like 平成 (Heisei) 23.

You know how when you’re filling out some form at a service counter Japan, you’re doing alright filling out your 名前 and your 住所 like a rock star, the staff are complimenting your awesome Japanese skills, and then suddenly the form asks for the year you first moved to Japan or something using the Japanese emperor system? And you’re all like… what?! 知るかそんな!It’s 2001 but I dunno what that is in 平成! But you’re too embarrassed to ask… cause you know, you’re rock star. So then you star sweatin’.

No more! Just whip out this app and you’re good to go!

Convert Years!

Good stuff!

Air-conditioned Clothing

This 空調服 company has created a line of products that use a low amount of energy to keep us cool in the humid summer months. How do they do it? To put it simply, the clothes and other products incorporate a battery-powered fan.

What? What’s that you say? You ask why their website URL is

Let’s have a momentary language geek-out session.

The number nine is 九 (kyuu, also pronounced ku).
The number 2 is 二 (ni, or 二つ futatsu).
The company name, 空調服 (kuuchoufuku)
So… 空(9 ku)調(?)服(2 fu, 9 ku).
See? The numbers sound like the name of the company. Not sure about the second 2 though… What is that?? Someone help me out.

This video shows one of their jackets. When it’s hot, flip the switch on, zip up your jacket (zip up when it’s hot?? Yes.) and enjoy the cool breeze.

This video shows the 空調座布団 (kuuchou zabuton). A zabuton is the cushion that many Japanese use to sit on when sitting on the floor, or to place on a chair for added comfort. The fan and airway will prevent your nether regions from getting all sweaty. Don’t you hate it when they get sweaty?

There is a twitpic posted by @mayanoko that shows some 空調服 in the wild.

Kuuchoufuku in the wild

Don’t want to spend the money to buy one of these excellent jackets? Well, this guy figured out that you can make your our 空調服 in your home. All you need is a fan.

Be sure that your cat doesn’t get in the way, and that the fan blades don’t chop off your ちくび though.

Here is another video of 空調服 in action.

Here is a guy actually doing work wearing 空調服.

This guy says that the 空調服 is so nice that he might even wear it on the train on the way to work.

I could use one of these here in Shanghai. It’s brutally humid here!

Wear Brain-controlled Cat Ears

Wearing cat ears is awesome.

Click to watch video on YouTube

Controlling stuff with your brain is freakin’ awesome too.

Wearing brain-controllec cat ears? Take my money now!

This Wired Magazine article explains quite nicely:

“The cat ear product, called “necomimi” is a novelty hair band that is worn in the normal way but features sensors that pick up on brain signals and convert them into visible actions — in this case by wiggling the cat ears.”

Here are some youtube videos literally showing the ears in action.

Well, it wouldn’t be a JapanNebwie post without a little Japanese language education thrown in now would it…

The Japanese in that 2nd video title is 脳波ネコミミを体験!

脳波 (nouha) literally means, “brain” “waves.”
ネコ (neko) is katakana for 猫 which is “cat.”
ミミ (mimi) is katakana for 耳 which is “ears.”

When you’re watching the second video you’ll hear the person running the trials telling people to either リラックス (rirakkusu) “relax” or to 集中する (shuuchuu suru) which means to concentrate. If they concentrate the ears should go up. It seems that people have a harder time getting the ears to relax again once they have gotten them to stand up…

Pretty straight forward. And now you know how to stay brain waves in Japanese.

The company that makes these is called ニューロウェア (Neurowear). Here is Neurowear’s official vol1 blog post on the product.

You know though… after watching that first YouTube video… I can’t help to think that they’re sort of a wearable… I mean, did you see how they perk up when the girl looked at that cute guy? It’s kind of like the function that males naturally have, but is normally hidden away from public view. Is my mind in the gutter?

I’ve said too much.

Play Hanafuda on your iPhone!

The popular amine Summer Wars has brought the traditional Japanese card game Hanafuda to the attention of more Japan-heads than ever before. Seriously. I’m not gonna lie. I wanted to learn how to play hanafuda simply because I saw it played on Summer Wars and thought it was a cool aspect of Japanese culture that I wanted to learn… Is there any shame in that?

Even though I don’t watch much Anime beyond Miyazaki Hayao stuff these days, I loved Summer Wars. Summer Wars is available on Amazon on DVD and Blue-ray, and I’m sure you can find clips on YouTube, so there’s no excuse not to check it out. Highly recommended.

As for Hanafuda, I looked around, and it turns out there’s an App for that! If you want to learn Hanafuda you can download the Free Hanafuda Lite, or purchase the full Hanafuda App for your iPhone or iPod Touch.

Hanafuda is a classic Japanese game played with special cards that depict nature, the seasons, and the months of the year. Literally 花札 (hanafuda) means “flower cards.” The individual plants on the cards represent the different seasons, for example the cards with Sakura represent March.

I’m not going to try to explain how to play hanafuda in detail here, I’m still figuring it out myself actually, but basically you match month cards from your hand to the pile or from the deck in order to attempt to put together special groups of cards to earn points. The app has a full explanation of how to play so you can study the rules right on your iPhone or iPod Touch.

The Free Version of Hanafuda for iPhone is still very complete and you can have a lot of fun with it. Get it!

Play 1 or 2 players over Bluetooth!
This is all animated beautifully.
Includes a manual explaining the game and its history.

Here’s the famous HANAFUDA scene from Summer Wars.

Links to the Apps:
HANAFUDA Japan Free – Japanese Traditional Card Game – Hidetoshi Hayakawa
HANAFUDA Japan – Japanese Traditional Card Game – Hidetoshi Hayakawa

And… as a special treat… the creator of HANAFUDA Japan, Mr. Hayakawa has given me eight promotion codes so that you JapanNewbie readers can download the FULL version of the App for free! Quick get downloading! To use the codes go to the iTunes Store, click REDEEM on the right-hand side in the quick links section. Each code can only be used once, so first come first served!

Download Codes!!!

ENJOY! and KOI KOI!!!!

Had any of you out there ever played Hanafuda before???


UPDATE: BTW, version 2.0 of this app is in the works, and it’s going to include multiplayer over the Internet!

How to use Aozora Bunko to get free Japanese books

Aozora Bunko is an excellent resource for free and legal Japanese reading material. Once you have downloaded Aozora texts you can read them on your computer, print them out, or even load them onto your Kindle.

If you like studying Japanese and have an interest in Japanese literature, then I’m sure you will find Aozora Bunko to be invaluable.

The interface for Aozora Bunko is completely in Japanese, so it can be a little intimidating if you’re not yet completely comfortable with the language. So, in this post I’m going to teach you how to use Aozora Bunko to get what you need.

The title of this blog post says Japanese books, but actually Aozora Bunko contains mostly short stories and, well, not so short stories. The famous Botchan 坊ちゃん by Natsume Soseki is an example of a book-length piece that you can find on Aozora Bunko. I once bought Botchan in a used Japanese book store for 50 yen, but now I can read it again on my Kindle for free! Yippie!

Ougai Mori, October 22, 1911

Okay, so let’s get into how to use Aozora Bunko.

Think of a story or author that you want to read.

This might be easier said than done if you are not familiar with Japanese literature. Not only do you need to know the title of the piece or name of the author, but you also need to know how to find it in Japanese. Moreover, Aozora Bunko only has works for which the copyright has expired, so you’re going to be looking at older Japanese literature here. Luckily there is a lot of really interesting older Japanese literature!

Some famous authors, their notable works, and the corresponding Japanese to get you started are…

我が輩は猫である (I am a cat), another famous Natsume Soseki piece, is not available on Aozora Bunko as of posting.

  • 与謝野晶子 (よさのあきこ Yosano Akiko)
    • Yosano Akiko’s modern (at the time) Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji is there.

    That ought to be enough to hold you for a while.

    Now, if you want something else and you know the name of the author or name of the story you’re trying to find, proceed to the next step.


    Access Aozora Bunko at
    (Duh, but I want to be complete.)

    Search by Author or Title

    First, let’s see how to search by author.

    Say you want to search for Natsume Souseki. You have to search by last name on Aozora Bunko, so know that his last name is Natsume. Last name’s are usually listed first in Japanese.

    Then, you need to understand the order of Hiragana. If you want to find any name that starts with NA NI NU NE or NO, you need to click on what is labeled as the 「な行」under the 「公開中 作家別:」section.「な行」means, “the NA row.” Similarly, a name like Miyazaki would be listed under the MA line, so you would want to look at ま行。公開中 作家別 on the left there means “items that are currently available, arranged by author.”

    Click the NA-line link in the author section to find Natsume Souseki.

    Searching by Title

    To side track for a minute, if you want to search by the title of the story you are looking for, you’ll click the character that is the first character in the title of the work. For example, if you want to find 鼻 (はな) by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, you would click on 「は」 in the 公開中 作品別 section.

    公開中 作品別 on the left there means “items that are currently available, arranged by title.”

    Use this area to search for a story by title

    Then, you have to flip through the result pages until you find what you are looking for.

    Having said that, it’s really easier just to use the Google-powered search box at the top of the main page if you know the exact title of what you’re looking for.

    Search by author or title directly if you know what you need

    Now, back to the author search.

    If you clicked on the な行 in the 公開中 作家別 section, you will arrive at a listing of all the authors that have a last name that start with な (NA). Find 夏目漱石 (Natsume Souseki) here, and click on his name.

    All available authors with last name ending in NA

    This will bring you to a listing of all the works by Natsume Souseki that are available on Aozora Bunko.

    Works by Natsume Souseki

    Let’s click the first title listed, イズムの功過.

    This will bring you to another page called the 図書カード (Library card) for that item. The download links for the text are at the bottom of this page.

    Scroll down to get the files

    If you scroll down to the bottom of that page you will see links to the story in various formats. The formats usually include a ZIPed Ruby thing, an eBook (ebk), and plain ol’ HTML. If you want to read it immediately on your computer just click the HTML link. Here’s the HTML link for イズムの功過 for example.

    The HTML link for the story

    That’s basically it. I hope that helps you find what you need on Aozora Bunko!

    Happy reading!

    Let me know in the comments if you have any questions and I’ll get right back to ya.


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