An open letter

To my friends on JET,

Recontracting is all anyone can talk about these days. For a while, I had been considering writing a post explaining why I’m not recontracting, why I’m doing one year on the JET Program. But I feel that, through so many different conversations — both with many of you here and with friends and family back home — I’ve actually expressed it pretty clearly already.

What I want to write about instead is the reception of my news that I’m leaving in August, and how much it disappoints me, saddens me, stresses me out. Explaining my decision to my supervisor a few days ago was certainly a somber occasion, but after just one question she accepted my decision and that was that.

The reactions of some of my fellow JETs, on the other hand, have all too often been accusative, pitying, and altogether lacking in understanding and support. People have nagged me about all the great stuff happening after August that I’ll miss; they have insinuated that they know better than I how I should spend my youth (many other JETs are older than me) and that it is a waste to leave the program after one year.

A wise fellow JET told me a while ago that the root of people’s negative and unsupportive reactions is their insecurity at knowing I and others will be leaving while the recontracting JETs stay behind in Japan: they become afraid to grow too close with me because soon I won’t be around. I understand this feeling of uncertainty and fear. I also understand that JETs who have been here longer than I, but have decided to return home this year, experience similar misunderstanding and guilt-tripping from their friends here. But I think the pressure on me and the other one-year JETs is harsher and is patently unfair.

Let me first say that I had absolutely no inkling when I applied to the Program that not only was staying for more than one year the norm, but there would be such intense pressure to stay — not from my workplace, but from other JETs! In fact, part of why I chose to apply to and then to accept a position through JET was that it began with a one-year contract; other well-known programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps have a minimum commitment of two years.

My plan from early in university, maybe even from high school, was to spend a year abroad after graduating, and that plan did not change throughout the JET application and acceptance process. So I feel like I’m being punished, by people who just met me a few months ago, for having my own expectations and ideas for the near future. Had I arrived in Japan and chattered constantly about my glowing plans to stay for three years, and then backed out, I could better understand people’s disappointment and judgment. But I have known myself and my goals since the beginning.

  • [Note: There are many other facets to my decision to leave: it’s not as simple as “I made a plan and I’m sticking to it.” For a while after I had begun to settle into life here, I was seriously considering staying another year. If you’re interested in the other factors in my decision not to recontract, I’d love to talk about it online or in person!]

Here’s the simple truth: I am not you. Every single person here on JET comes from different circumstances and accordingly has different plans and values. To presume that you can discern or even prescribe my goals and priorities insults me.

Maybe this post has begun to sound like I resent everyone who signed the “Yes” box on our recontracting papers. Far from it! I’m calling you out on your treatment of my decision not because I dislike or disrespect you — it’s the opposite. Many of you have become my closest friends already. I love that I have the privilege of getting to know such different people from so many parts of the world. I am so honored to be a part of this program; I know my time here will be a fond memory for the rest of my life. And having had such an amazing time so far, I completely understand why many of you want to continue your experience for another year or more.

However, I feel that my friends’ obsession and unease over my “imminent” departure (six months! The blink of an eye!..) harms our relationships. I can’t connect with you if you see me as a calendar date rather than a person. I want to settle this point of misunderstanding so that we can enjoy more comfortable friendships for the remainder of my time here.

Please remember also that this focus on my leaving tarnishes my experience. As a one-year JET, I am working extra hard to pack in as much fun, travel, work experience and friendship as I possibly can, and it is difficult to live in the present when I’m constantly being reminded of my departure.

For everyone except the few JETs who will end up living in Japan long-term, this is a temporary situation. Mine is more temporary than many of yours, but we will all have to deal with departures and goodbyes at some point. So I’m asking you to do me the great service of accepting that I will leave you in August, for reasons that are legitimate and my own, and moving on to enjoy the significant amount of time we still have together.

I want to hear from everyone out there, too: What is on your mind as the recontracting deadline approaches? What are some communication difficulties between leaving and recontracting JETs, and how do you approach them? Should JET change its minimum contract to two years?

One last thing: this post certainly does not sum up the behavior of all the JETs I know, and I want to thank many of you for being incredibly supportive, respectful and understanding. I already feel that I’ll look back on JET as a time of significant personal growth, and it’s in large part to do with the really quality people with whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends. Stay classy, Toyama. 🙂

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6 responses to “An open letter

  1. I’m in my second year but I’ve decided not to recontract. I also have been a little surprised by the reactions from the people I know here. Many teachers and Japanese friends have asked me to stay “forever” – as if it were that easy! Actually, now that I’m for sure not recontracting I think most of them are fine with it, but my ALT neighbour keeps trying to find reasons for me to change my mind and one of our eikaiwa students can’t stop talking about how I’m going to be leaving. It was a really tough decision and these things make it tougher, when really I just want to focus on enjoying the rest of my time here.

    Interesting post! Hope you don’t mind my rambling comment. 🙂

  2. Thanks for stopping by! It’s nice to hear other people are going through a similar problem. The pressure around me has already died down just in the 3 weeks since we all turned in the papers.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, it helped me own up to my choice to leave after a year. A lot of my pressures were self-made, feeling guilty about choosing to stay a year, especially after hearing that familiar phrase ‘most people stay more than a year unless they hate it here’! Which I most certainly don’t. Looking forward to packing in as much fun as possible in the next 7 months!

    • Six months since coming home, I miss SO MUCH about JET, but I still think leaving when I did was the right decision. Also, the last half of the year was a lot more fun than the first half: by then my friendships were closer, I was confident enough to travel more, etc. Enjoy it! 🙂

  4. Thank you for writing this. After much thought I’ve also decided not to stay another year and have been feeling a lot of pressure from other people about my decision. I’m curious what your reasons for leaving after one year were, and what you think about your decision now in retrospect.

    • Hi Deborah – Post-JET life feels like being torn in two sometimes! I miss almost everything about Japan and yet I love my life back in the USA. In this post I explored a little about why I have such intense feelings about life in Japan, even a year and a half after leaving: https://melissathegaijin.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/ten-and-a-half-months-later/

      But I would feel that way even if I had done JET for two or three years instead of one. It would probably even feel worse. I can tell you honestly that I’m so happy I came back home when I did, and that one year on JET was a fantastic, worthwhile experience. (Bonus: looks good on my resume!)

      My big reason for leaving was that I found it exhausting and degrading to be treated differently all the time, to never know what to say or do, to try to meet people’s expectations of me as a Token Foreigner instead of really being myself. (For angst on this subject, see: https://melissathegaijin.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/an-imagined-second-year/) I also felt anxiety about the fact that every year I stayed abroad would be another year of my parents getting older, of friends getting married or getting new careers or going through tough times: there would be all kinds of milestones that I couldn’t be present for in a genuine way.

      Really, leaving after one year is something that seemed like a much bigger deal while I was in Japan (mostly because of pressure from others) than it does now in retrospect. My advice is to stick it out and trust yourself – I don’t think you’ll regret your decision. 🙂

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