Tag Archives: JET program

Saigo no saigo: My very last class

It was unreal. That glowing JET experience that they splash across the brochures and the websites — I lived it, for 50 minutes. My last class at junior high was one of the few times the students were so engaged, having so much fun, experimenting with their English. (Lately, among the first-year boys, this involves some variation of “You are beautiful.”)

I’ve been doing a Jeopardy-style quiz game in every class for the last 3 weeks, and it’s met with pretty good results, but nothing like the room full of screaming, laughing 12-year-olds, every hand in the air, that I experienced today. When I walked into the classroom, I was met with enthusiastic applause. When I announced that we were playing a game, applause. When I announced the name of the game (they have never heard the word “Jeopardy” in their lives) — applause.

After the game, I showed a PowerPoint that first covered my experiences around the prefecture and then introduced LA, loosely my home city. Questions abounded. These included the standard “How old are you?” ( I guess they’ve forgotten that every single class asked this 4 months ago at the start of term), and when I told them that tomorrow happens to be my birthday, there was yet another enthusiastic outburst, followed by a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

I made a short speech at the end of class thanking the class for a good year. They told me for the thousandth time that I am very cute and “You are Great Teacher” (they know that moniker from this manga/anime), which made me a little teary-eyed, causing shouts of “Oh, sensei! Namida [tears]!” and “Don’t cry!”

God, who’s been on my mind a lot as I struggle to deal with the grief of leaving, was with me today, coursing through the kids of grade 1, class 2 and leaving me with this unexpected feeling not of sadness but of peace — a washed-cleanness like that of the hot blue sky outside. The formidable energy of 36 teens focused, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, on my lesson — there’s nothing quite like it.

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An imagined second year

Preamble

I have hit a low point in my attitude towards Japan. Well, towards life as a foreigner, filtered through the lens of Japan. I’m not dissatisfied with the country per se; I’m disappointed in the treatment of foreigners and the underlying cultural attitudes about them. It feels like instead of meeting the Japanese halfway and striking a balance between our cultural differences, I’m stretching 90% of the way all on my own – and still find myself pushed onto a strange pedestal that feels more like a prison.

There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” I think the glaring exception to this rule is foreigners: no matter how much we try to worm our way into the proverbial wood, we are firmly held back, held separate, by the surrounding culture.

I’ve noticed a change in myself in the last month or two: for at least my first six months here, I tried so hard to adapt, to “read the air,” to show coworkers and the general public that I could fit into their culture. I was always on edge, always apologizing or preparing to do so, trying to do everything the way I saw others doing it.

I used to privately distinguish myself from other foreigners who really seemed to want, literally, to become Japanese – people who obsessively studied the language, put on all the cute clothes and mannerisms– but it turns out I was working just as hard to change myself, in the hyper-adaptability and humility I tried to exude. Now, I act and react more or less as my American self, stripping away the makeshift Japaneseness that everyone always knew was counterfeit anyway.

 I will always, my whole life, maintain that Japan is a gorgeous country with a culture worth learning about, both in the teeming cities of Tokyo and Osaka and off the beaten tourist track. But I cannot endorse it as a place to live and work as a foreigner. I don’t pretend to speak to the experience of all foreigners here, nor to imply that immigrant or resident alien life is better in the United States or elsewhere. All I am saying is that I’m disillusioned by my experience, and that life as a gaijin is not for me.

My Fantasy Second Year

There are so many things that I wish I could stay and accomplish, so many frustrations from this year that I know will never be resolved. So I like to imagine that, if I stayed a second year, I would confront head-on everything that has bothered me about my life here.

I would start by refusing to play along anymore in the caricaturizing of foreign countries.

One day, I would refuse to smile indulgently when a teacher told her 10-year-old students that, “if you put up the middle finger in America, you will be riddled with bullets” (this last clause not spoken but vividly mimed). My supplies of temperance and patience would run dry as I continued to correct the stream of outrageous and offensive assumptions about Americans or foreigners in general (because all too often in Japan, those two terms are interchangeable), presented to me gleefully by coworkers who should know better.

I would also confront the routine harassment of foreign women, the legions of men who target us because they assume that we lack the language skills to object.

When a store employee said, “you have long legs compared to me,” and reached to grope my hip – or when a stranger asked me out of nowhere if I was wearing nylons and pinched my knee – I would finally yell at him like I always wish, in retrospect, I had. I would embarrass him for the whole country to see: I’d eloquently tear down stereotypes (because in this second year, I would be practically fluent in Japanese) as well as this creep’s inflated ego.

No More Ms. Nice Guy

And yet, at the same time, I would be a stereotypical American. I would put my foot down, set ultimatums, stand up for my individuality and my personhood and my culture, for the ideals of tolerance and respect that America has instilled in me.

Why I haven’t done any of these things this year, I couldn’t tell you. All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.

Until tonight, I had felt guilty about the recent transition I’ve mentioned, from desperate attempts at adaptation back to plain old me. Until tonight, I had seen it as giving up. But I’m beginning to view the problem of cultural exchange (and yes, in Japan it is a problem) as one that can’t be solved with tact and gentleness and a sugar coating. I’m beginning to believe that, as someone hired for my foreignness, my job is more about constructive criticism than about playing nice. And my job extends far beyond the classroom: in a way, I’m always at work – challenging prejudices one at a time, in every interaction with every store clerk, postal worker and creepy stranger.

I think our countries have things to learn from each other, and the closed-mindedness I’ve run up against time and time again here discourages me. I can only hope that I won’t find a similar brand of exclusivist nationalism in my own country when I return.

Sometimes, the tough nuts do crack

Last term I taught the same four classes of 6th graders every Friday at my weekly visiting school, and many of you know that I was saddened to learn that I wouldn’t be teaching them this term. Luckily, the 5th graders that I’m working with now are adorably enthusiastic. 🙂

This week, however, the 5th graders are on a ski trip, so the other JTE, who’s now working with 6th grade, asked me to come in just for today. I got to see the 6th graders for the first time since early December, and it was a shock to see how they’ve changed. Maybe the class psychology has shifted now that it’s their last term at elementary school, or maybe simply having a new JTE has changed the way they behave in English class (even though the same homeroom teacher is still ostensibly in charge of discipline. Keyword, ostensibly…).

The most surprising change was in fourth period. This class was always the most stressful part of my Fridays last term: there were 4 boys in particular who were unruly and disruptive, and the homeroom teacher was explosive and borderline abusive, in my opinion. So I was apprehensive as they filed in today.

Not only was the class pretty well-behaved, 2 of the 4 boys in particular seemed to have transformed! Last term, they had chatted with each other and the other 2 boys, wandered around the classroom and often didn’t participate in activities (indeed, actively sabotaged them on occasion!). Today, by contrast, both of them seemed really engaged and focused.

One of them — let’s call him Okada-san — especially stuck out to me. He knew all the answers, participated enthusiastically in the games, and had this big smile on his face the whole period. I had always known that he was sharp (the disruptive kids are often the ones who are best at English and consequently bored out of their skulls) but it was still so inspiring to see the change that this 12-year-old kid had undertaken in less than 2 months.

Of course I felt a little sad that all this had taken place after I left — could I have done something differently to make it happen sooner? was there a way I could have better gotten through to the disruptive boys? — but still, it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. And I’m more optimistic than before about seeing how these kids will have grown up when they enter my middle school as first years in April.

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. 🙂

To become Japanese?

I have been forming these thoughts for a while, and I’ve already talked to a lot of fellow JETs about this topic in person. So if you’re one of those people, sorry for the repetition! Maybe I’ll be more eloquent on paper (well, on screen).

I always used to envy friends whose families had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. It seemed like there was this huge facet of their identities — that of having a mother culture — that I lacked. My family has been in the same country for generations; we never had to pack up our heritage and bring it to a new place. We never had to work to preserve the traditions, clothes, language that were important to us; these things already surrounded us, they were already part of the dominant culture. I always felt a little deprived, passed over, for not having the kind of cultural history and identity that I could see was so important to my friends’ families.

Coming to another country has helped me to become aware of my American-ness and how profoundly it has shaped who I am. Some people begin their journeys abroad as visitors and then become permanent expatriates; they create a home in a new part of the world. I have a strong feeling that the opposite is true for me. As I wrote in the last post, I feel that I belong in America, whatever its flaws may be; at least they’re intimately familiar ones!

This position of being between cultures — of growing up in one culture and then being transplanted to another — is one that people approach in a variety of ways. Some hold tight to what they are used to and fail to see any value in assimilating; they create an individual-sized American bubble in Japan, or a Mexican microcosm in the United States, and so on. Others attempt to balance the familiar and the strange, the old culture and the new, while still others dive enthusiastically into the new culture and try to soak up as much of it as possible.

Which brings me to my main point: The great paradox of the JET Program is that the Japanese government hires Westerners with the aim of bringing a small piece of authentic, pristine Western culture to Japan — and yet, many of the people who make the final cut are Westerners who want more or less to become Japanese. It’s this perfect, circular irony, like The Gift of the Magi or something! As Japan works hard to accommodate our difference and learn from a different culture, some JETs work just as hard to efface those characteristics that make them un-Japanese.

As you’ve probably figured out, I don’t believe we should become Japanese — indeed, I don’t think we can. I do think that we can and should learn from and appreciate the culture that surrounds us. So it’s a balance. If some behavior or belief that you brought from home is important to you, you can find a way to fit it into your life here. If it’s a hot day, I’d go ahead and wear that spaghetti strap blouse, even though I haven’t seen any Japanese women dress like that. But at the same time, I make every effort to eat new and strange foods, to notice and emulate the behavior of the people around me, and to speak Japanese.

At its best, I think time abroad should teach you an infinite number of new things while also showing you exactly how and why your home culture is precious to you.