Last night I attended a JET Programme Orientation at the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa and did a Q and A section for a group who will be heading out to Japan in August. It was interesting to see them all wide eyed and unsure. It got me thinking to when I was ramping up to leave for Japan and how anxious I was about going. So over the next few days I’m going to try and blog a little bit about the JET programme, I’ll probably break it all down into a little series informal of blogs/rants. Today’s section is the advice section from the 26 page letter to my successor. Yes, I wrote her 26 pages, because my predecessor left after only 8 months and left me a note that was only 3 sentences long. Note to new JETs, don’t do that to whoever comes after you. It’s won’t have all the answers you’re looking for, as it was the conclusion, but it should give you a few things to think about.
A little bit about me before I copy and paste (with a little bit of editing). I was a senior high school (SHS) Assistant Language Teacher in Fukushima city, Fukushima prefecture from August 2006 to August 2010. I taught at a high level academic SHS (my base school), a low level academic SHS, a technical SHS, two agricultural SHSs, a school for handicapped children where I taught both SHS and JHS classes and I did bedside lessons at a local hospital for SHS, JHS and elementary. The first three schools I went to each week with the rest being one shot visits every few months. Later posts will outline the school system and things you should know about that. I was the Fukushima Chapter AJET vice-president from 2007 to 2008, area support leader from 2008 to 2009, I attended the Tokyo Orientation in 2007, gave presentations at the Fukushima Orientation in 2007, 2008 and maybe 2009 (I can’t remember). I also gave presentations at the Fukushima mid-year conferences in 2007 and 2009.
If you have questions, feel free to send them to me via email, Twitter or in the comments. These might not apply to you for a little while as it is only May now, but they’re something to keep in the back of your mind and easy for me to post quickly, which is far more important. Keep in mind I’m taking this directly from the letter to my successor.
I’m going to use this next section to impart my senpai wisdom. Don’t take it as gospel or anything, these are just a few things that I think might help or are just good philosophies for getting through the rough patches, as well as anything I feel I might have missed. It might overlap with what’s above seeing as I started writing this short story about a month ago. So, here we go.
– First and foremost, I guarantee you will pack stuff you’ll never use or look back at and laugh. The things I brought because I was so freaked out were ridiculous. Just chill out, you really don’t need that much. (added: I’ll cover this in my next blog)
– When culture shock hits, and it most likely will in some way shape or form, realize that going home is not the answer. So many people come over, culture shock starts to hit them and they feel like they have to go home. Life, as I’m sure you know is not always amazing. The problem people encounter over here is that instead of just realizing, ok, I’m at a low point, they begin to think that if they were home, they’d be happy and everything would be amazing. It’s an added excuse that you generally don’t have at home, just ride it out and it will go away. Regardless of where you live, you’ll always hit low points. Don’t use a low point as an excuse to go home. It won’t be any better there and you’ll miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. At the end of the day, YOU LIVE IN JAPAN AND THAT IS FUCKIN AMAZING!!!
– That being said, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Everyone around you has either gone through or is going through exactly what you are. Make friends, go out, VENT. Talk shit. Who cares. JET is amazing because of the support group that exists here. USE IT. The moment you get to Fukushima, you just made 150 new friends. Sure, you won’t see all of them all the time, but there are always people doing something somewhere. There are always parties and activities. Go and talk to people. Everyone has been in the situation you are in, where they step off the plane and know no one. Embrace it and just put yourself out there. Maybe that’s not your style but just throw down. In the end it makes your time here that much better. When will you ever have such an international community at your disposal? Going out, looking around and seeing that over 10 nationalities are represented at a table of 15 people is FRIGGIN OUTRAGEOUS! There is something special about the bonds that you make here, so don’t miss out on that.
– Try everything! There are so many things that you can get involved in here and so many things you can do. Not just through FuJET (added: FuJET is the chapter of AJET in Fukushima, each prefecture has one, think of it like a student council) with the trips but through the Japanese community, your schools, community centers, etc etc etc. Snowboard! Go canyoning and free fall down the face of a 15 meter waterfall, onsen, hike, go to temples, explore! There are things around the corner from the apartment that I didn’t even realize existed until my second year. There are cool things EVERYWHERE and you won’t find them unless you just try. Who cares about your Japanese ability or your athleticism or whatever. JUST DO IT! You’ll be happy you did.
– As for the job, don’t worry about it too much. BUT, work on learning the student’s English vocabulary. They don’t know all the words in the textbook OR the words in their vocab book and it does take a little while to get used to, as their English is very rigid. Right off the bat I realized that saying something like, “Wow that’s hard” makes little sense to them. “That is difficult,” on the other hand they totally get. It seems minimal but when you string together sentences with a bunch of words they don’t understand, then you’ll see what I mean.
– At the end of the day, the job, the placement, the city and your experience are what you make them. How you deal with issues you may have and how you approach each day is going to make all the difference in the world. There are a TON of things that are difficult about living in Japan, but there are a TON of amazing things as well. Your experience as a
Singaporean woman (insert whatever you are here) will be very different to my experience here as a Canadian man. Japanese people are amazing, but you’ll find some things really really frustrating. Just accept it, you can hate it, but accept it. There will be other things that will BLOW YOUR MIND because of how amazing they are.
– Japanese is definitely important. My Japanese to be honest is crap. But having the ability to get around and be independent is important. Definitely work your Japanese ability to a point that you can at least have conversations with people. It makes SUCH A HUGE DIFFERENCE.
– GO TO ENKAIS (Work drinking parties). Higashi is a WICKED SCHOOL for partying. Go to the 2nd party (nijikai) and the 3rd (sanjikai) and the 4th if there is one. This is how you bond with people. Just make sure you’re good to go in the morning if they’re on a weekday, I’ve definitely overdone it a few times and that’s never good. You’ll be amazed at the difference in the people that sit around you in an office all day deathly silent. Talk to everyone, pour everyone drinks, socialize. They are all stealth English teachers anyway and it’s the best chance to practice your Japanese, (mine gets infinitely better after a few drinks, or at least I think so).
– Anything AWESOME you hear about me is a TOTAL FACT! Anything that paints me in a negative light, totally untrue. Slap that person around.
– Embrace your foreigness (ya, that’s right, I made that word up). There are negatives and positives to be a foreigner in Japan. You’re a rock star sometimes, other times you’re stopped and questioned by the police. Just go with it. At the end of the day, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. Embrace the fact that yes, you are foreign and yes you do live in Japan and sometimes that makes things awkward but at other times it allows for the gaijin smash. This rule applies with your co-workers as well. You don’t have to keep up with them. You play by a different set of rules and don’t feel bad when you’re the last person to show up in the morning and the first person to leave at the end of the day. It’s a different system with different rules.
– Ask questions about EVERYTHING. This um, 24 page novel I’ve written you is just the tip of the iceberg. Ask everyone about everything. Ask JTEs anything you want, ask your supervisor, ask sempais, ask whoever! No one is going to sit you down and explain everything to you and the only way you’ll learn anything here is by pushing a little bit and asking. Every situation is different, but the people that know the most about yours are those around you. Don’t be afraid to throw yourself out there and ask them. If you want to go somewhere or do something, chances are someone else has done it before you and they’ll have answers. There are no stupid questions, only stupid people that DON’T ASK. That being said, sometimes just going at something is way more of an adventure.
– Use Japanese in class. I don’t care what anyone tells you. Using you Japanese in class is a positive. I’m not saying use it all the time. But every once in awhile throw it down. Sometimes Japanese people are under the impression that there is no way foreigners can read, write or speak Japanese. Even people that I speak to IN JAPANESE come out with questions like, can you read katakana. As well, using Japanese shows your students that yes, learning a foreign language is totally possible.
– Pick your battles. There will be disagreements and problems with your job sometimes. Don’t feel like you just have to do everything you’re told to do. You have a contract and yes, sometimes, there will be things that fall outside of that. Like, English club, it runs until about 5:30 or 6pm one night a week. Meaning, you don’t technically have to do it, but c’mon now, it’s English club. On the flip side, there will be things that the school, the BOE or whoever will ask of you that are just out of bounds. All I’m saying is, fight for things when you feel it’s necessary but be careful about the battles you choose, because you won’t win them all. When I first got here, I had my eyebrow and tongue pierced, my first meeting with the kocho-sensei and kyoto-sensei, they told me to take out the piercings, because, “Japanese teachers don’t have piercings.” I regretted it and realized I should have fought for that, it’s internationalization. Other friends stood their ground on things like piercings and dreads and I was jealous of them afterwards.
– In the end, the above are just suggestions that have been given to me or I’ve given to people in the past and you can make your time here whatever you want it to be. Just always take time to look around and go HOLY SHIT, I LIVE IN JAPAN!! It’s amazing right? After 4 years, even to this day, as I’m driving home, I’ll look up at the mountains and go, OMFG, how crazy is this?
Added: I know that no one knows their placements right now, but here are a few references that aren’t bad to took a look at for more information.
I think I’m lost – A JET and living in Japan forum
GaijinPot – This is better for jobs, but the link goes to the teaching English section
JET Programme Official Forums – Title says it all
Fukushima Forums – This requires and sign up, but there’s a Prospective JETs section that has pages and pages and pages of questions and answers, while it is Fukushima specific for certain things, for others it applies to everyone.
When you do know your placement, look for your prefecture’s JET website and facebook page.
Hope this helps a bit. More to come.