This month’s contribution is by Rob Maxwell, an ALT in Oumu-cho, Hokkaido from 2008 to 2012, and then Sapporo. He reflects on his time as a clueless big boofy gaijin to becoming accomplished enough to take his wedding vows in Japanese. Now he works for the NSW’s Premier Office, showing you never know where JET could take you.
In 2004 I suddenly had this crazy idea. Move to Japan!!!! So I applied for an English teaching job (with NOVA) and off I went… And what a shock to the system it was. With little to no Japanese language experience I landed in a city with more people in it than my whole country combined. I have vivid memories of walking through Shibuya wondering what the heck I was doing here and how the hell and I going to survive. After about 2 weeks culture shock hit me hard and I was ready to go home, but a close friend gave me some great advice that will always stick with me. “Joining a new culture is like taking a really hot bath. You have to ease yourself into it”. This small crazy bit of advice did the trick. A few more weeks later and wanting to leave was a distant memory. I had picked up a few nuances of Japanese non-verbal communication as well as a few survival phrases to make sure I could eat and get around.
Fastforward a few more years and I’m on the JET Programme. The start of my JET story is similar to most JETs. I was a regular ALT living in a small fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Othosk in North Eastern Japan (Hokkaido). This is a town where it gets cold enough for the ocean to freeze and for a guy who grew up on the beach in Sydney, it was yet another shock to the system. I had 8 schools, a car and it was the first time I had lived in a place where is snowed in winter. Actually it snowed A LOT!!! I think living in this small town of about 5,000 people where I was one of the only non-Japanese person for about 100km, was the biggest challenge of my life. Trying to communicate and express myself effectively in a foreign language put a big strain on me daily, but it was pushing myself to make the effort that really paid off both in personal growth and personal development. At times I would meet other foreign friends who came from all over the world, we would inevitably discuss problems we faced and debate the pros and cons of life in Japan. Although we did have problems in common it was interesting to see things that didn’t bother me (such as comments on how well I use chopsticks) really annoyed some other people.
Another few years into the future and I’m living in Sapporo City. I’m married to a wonderful Japanese woman, with 2 kids and I now have a large Japanese extended family. This takes intercultural communication to a whole new level. Having to memorise my vows in Japanese, communicating with my new family on complex topics such as politics and social issues as we negotiate language and cultural barriers. I’m lucky that my new family are all warm and welcoming. Meeting me half way and mixing in a few key English words to help bridge the gap. I am by no means fluent, but I try and in Japan, that is the key. At times I feel frustrated by my apparent lack of progress. But when I stop and think of the wide-eyed Sydney boy who years earlier stepped off that plane… I can see how far I’ve come and know how far I have yet to travel.
I wanted to take a moment to comment more specifically on some aspects of my JET experience. When I arrived in Japan as a JET, the mantra of the time at Tokyo Orientation was “Every situation is different”, but over the years this phrase seemed to be ridiculed by many as a ‘Duh, of course it is’ and as such has been quietly phased out. I think people missed the point of what was really being said. Maybe what they should have said was, “keep an open mind”. Because you will be challenged in some way almost daily. You WILL go through culture shock and you WILL (at some point) feel like just going home. Where am I going with this you ask? Well what I’m saying is, get involved. If you have a skill or passion, find some way to utilise it.
For me personally I got involved with my local JET group (HAJET) and helped out the way I knew best. I redesigned anything and everything I could. I redesigned their welcome guide, magazine and brand. I didn’t go to all the arranged events but I went to enough to make new friends and renew others.
I got involved in my town activities and kept an open mind. You don’t have to accept every small invitation BUT remember that after a few rejections, they may stop asking. I judged a baking competitions, I went to town events and social BBQs. There were small things that were a little hard to adjust to. The cold (in winter it got so cold the ocean froze), the fact that everyone knows what you are doing (hard to blend in when you’re 187cm tall) and onsen. You see, I love onsen (hot springs) and there was only 1 close to my town. This meant when enjoying said onsen I would often run into co-workers, students and parents in awkward situations… ok, lets be honest, naked, stark naked awkward situations. Even after a year it was still strange for me, but they all seemed to have no problem with it so I ganbatted and got over it.
Like so many opportunities in life, there will be those who embrace the differences and others who will use them as a point of stress. I wanted to be someone who embraced it. Time on JET is a time to be who you ‘want’ to be when you are done. To grow and be challenged. True there will be times when you will question the decision to accept, ‘what the heck am I doing here living in the middle of nowhere???’ and there will be times you will smile from the inside out and be like ‘holy &^#%@ I’m living in Japan!!!!
Career wise I decided early on what I could do whilst in Japan that would help me when I returned home. I joined a JET group, not only for the social contacts but because I saw a need I could fill as a designer. I studied Japanese and took the JLPT because it helps to have something to show for your efforts when asked about your level/skills when you return home (for me it was also about communicating with my new family). All the successful JETs I know are the ones that got involved in some way. They stepped out of their comfort zone and had a go. I studied taiko (with primary school students) and although I wasn’t the best, I enjoyed trying. I learnt how to make beer as well. Was it useful for getting a job when I got home? No, but it was me learning something new with a new group of people who are now really close friends.
Many JETs wait until they have decided to go home before thinking about what they want to do after they return home. In my opinion, it’s almost too little too late. From personal experience I would say the average JET stays on the program 3 years. So make a plan based on how long you expect to stay.
I now work for the NSW Government in Sydney and I’ve used my JET experience to advise senior staff on Japanese business etiquette produce bilingual business cards for the NSW Premier and assist in translation of websites and videos. After returning it took me 12 months to secure a full time job BUT I was very selective about the type of job I applied for. I’m a designer so I had the advantage of being able to freelance while I waited for the right job for me.
So to new and future JETs I say good luck, it’s an experience you will never forget.