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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002

Overseas and under pressure

Staff writer

For people moving to a foreign country, the simplest daily activities can become a nightmare.

Take Siddharth Bambawale, a 27-year-old accountant, who found that the best way to do his shopping was to call his Japanese friends on his cell phone and get them to explain his needs to the salesperson.

For Kapil Jain, also an accountant from India, surviving in Japan was about finding restaurants that served vegetarian food.

"At first, I couldn't even explain that I was vegetarian," he says. "Most restaurants don't have a vegetarian menu, so there was nothing to choose from. It was hard for the waiters to understand that I don't even eat fish."

Arti Sasane knows these feelings all too well. When she moved to Tokyo two years ago, she could speak no Japanese at all.

"It was like a different world," she says. "I was like a child who had to begin learning all over again. I couldn't do even simple things such as buying milk."

However severe their initial stress, all three of them eventually found their footing in Japan and never felt the need to seek professional help. For others, though, that feeling of helplessness and anxiety from moving to a new country never really goes away.

That's where Sasane steps in. Not just as someone with a similar tale to tell, but also as a clinical psychiatrist. Sasane works as a counselor at the Ikebukuro Counseling Center in Tokyo, an independent organization approved by the Japan Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists. She is one of 37 counselors offering confidential support services in seven languages: English, Czech, Hindi, Marathi, German, Spanish and Japanese. (Some Japanese clients are those who, settling back into Japanese society after a lengthy period of residence abroad, experience social unease much as foreign newcomers do.)

ICC, which opened in 1989, draws clients from all corners of the globe, their ages ranging from 8 to 80. According to its estimates, its foreign clientele has doubled in the last 3 1/2 years, largely because of improved access to the Internet.

The center Sasane works at is not the only one offering such multilingual counseling services. Other centers for foreigners have proliferated since Tokyo English Life Line, one of the oldest services in Tokyo, opened 29 years ago.

The stress felt by Japan's foreign residents is often caused by language difficulties. Being able to express your problems in your native language can be a great comfort. "Early intervention by counselors is important to prevent problems from escalating," says Andrew Grimes, a clinical psychologist at ICC.

Sasane says the linguistic difficulties experienced by foreigners may have serious psychological effects. "Not being able to communicate -- and so not being able to perform even simple activities without effort -- can seriously hamper a person's self-esteem and confidence. This can cause a lot of negative feelings, which may in turn lead to depression."

But Sasane cautions against generalizing too much, since not everybody who moves to Japan suffers from stress. "Only those who are vulnerable to stress to begin with fall victim," she says.

In most instances, the interplay of both social and individual factors leads to stress. For newcomers abroad, social factors would be, for example, language difficulties, or the difficulty of adjusting to the customs and the lifestyle of a new country. Individual factors include genetic vulnerability, personality traits, capacity to adapt to change and the emotional support system at hand, including family, friends and colleagues.

Increasingly, Japan is playing host to foreign workers and their families, rather than the young single professionals who came to make a quick buck during the "bubble economy." Though relocating whole families sees a worker's domestic "support system" transported intact, this, too, can cause discord. "If one spouse does not want to move to another country," says Sasane, "or if a couple is living abroad but one person feels uncomfortable with that, this in itself can create conflict."

Once a client steps through the door (and some 20 people do daily), counselors take a person-centered approach that guides people through their specific problems to -- it is hoped -- a solution. There are clear steps to the counseling process, Sasane says. Individuals must first accept that they have a problem that is causing their stress; then they must realize that they can find a solution to that problem, and that there are people there to help them deal with it.

"We enable clients to become aware of their own resources," says Sasane, "so that they learn how to cope. If a problem arises in the future, they'll know how to recognize it."

"After all," adds Grimes, "we have to help people go back into the environment that caused their stress, and deal with it."

The ICC Web site is at: www.gol.com/hozumiclinic/ counselinge.html ; tel.: (03) 3980-8718; e-mail hicc@gol.com

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