Finding a Purpose and Working like a Maniac
As you may know, people who apply for the JET Program cannot choose where they are going to live. Rather, the international ministry of the Japanese government and the various school boards around the country, in a manner that is never actually explained, place the 2000 incoming new teachers into positions around the country in June, a month before they depart for their new homes, two months –after– they accept the job, seven months after the due date for the application. As much as everyone dreams of working in Tokyo or Kyoto, at least 80% of the positions are in towns you’ve never heard of with populations south of 200,000 people.
When I applied, I was thinking “Osaka,” but I knew everyone would want it, so I asked for Nagasaki, the most Catholic city in the country. By JET standards, I got close: Tensui, population 8000, now officially a part of Tamana-shi, population 70,000, two and a half hours from Nagasaki, 5 hours by train from Kyoto, 9 from Tokyo. I was disappointed but later made peace with it: trying to come to Japan without knowing Japanese, I wasn’t entitled to anything. When I arrived, the reason I had been sent there would become clear.
I had the same questions before I went to Duke. What I found there were amazing friends, spiritual growth, and joy. The townspeople are very polite and considerate, and my kids are really fantastic by junior high school standards, but in terms of interests we’re not exactly a match either. This area is relatively famous for oranges, ramen, and onsens, but again, I wasn’t coming to Japan hoping to experience these things every day. Everyone joked with me (but really, they weren’t joking) about getting married over here, but there aren’t any girls my age here (or anywhere in rural Japan), so it isn’t even an issue. (Sorry!)
Having read Stuff White People Like, I know I can’t take myself completely seriously when I say this, but I think I’m a high-culture city type. The place that stimulated me the most was Madrid. I felt comfortable at Duke, I realized after graduation, because it was basically a city, cultural amenities and all. I’ve watched old Japanese movies that none of the other teachers have seen, and sometimes I know of famous Japanese authors that they don’t.
The Internet, since it makes news and culture instantly available, deletes most of that “I’m stranded here and have to turn inward for inspiration” sentiment that stimulated so many of the old Chinese poets. (Boy, my sentences are starting to get tortuous and Japanese…) Regardless, this town is a little distant. Being a half hour’s drive from the train station makes a huge difference: it means anything you want to do must be planned ahead, and there isn’t much being planned or performed to begin with. But I have found something to drive me. It flared the moment I was placed in Tensui and became terminal by the time I was wandering through seedy Tokyo trying to read all the signs It never leaves my mind for more than ten minutes at a time, even when I can’t do anything about it (like when I’m teaching English or writing these emails). My inspiration is learning Japanese. I want to be fluent, as in business-level, reading-novels good, by the end of July. Or even before then, so I have time to read some novels. I’m not sure where this skill will go; it just seems important for some mysterious reason. Did Mario and Final Fantasy surreptitiously hard-wire me? That would make sense if I still played those games. It’s a little fushigi.
I’m not sure how many white people have done this in a year before. Japanese is difficult! Maybe some people just can’t do it, and I can understand that: my brain’s reaction to a page of script is still “Why are you telling me I can read this?!” If reading English is like driving on a highway, reading Japanese is like slowing down to go pass through the construction zone. (Two months ago, it was more like driving past the scene of an accident.) Comparing my progress to the other teachers is pointless. Maybe they wanted to live in big city Japan when they came, but now they seem to have settled in to their lives. They’re still doing great things in their towns, and they have fun partying with each other, but they’re just not pushing themselves to learn the language. The ones who are better at Japanese than me now are the ones who have been studying for six, seven years. So I set my goals and design my studying all by myself.
One thing I’ve considered is whether time spent studying takes away from time spent adventuring. But I’m too distant to do anything on weekdays. There’s only so much you can get out of drinking with people you can’t understand and celebrating universal love and peace and promising to visit each other’s countries – that’s love that doesn’t last. I’ve lost a few weekends to studying, but in return, I’ve been able to have more fun and richer experiences with the people at school, where I spend most of my time. And if I want to ever live in big city Japan – I still feel a tug whenever someone mentions Kansai – I have to earn my way in with test scores. I’ll do heavy traveling when my family comes in June, when I’ll also understand everything I’m seeing.
My goal for the year is to pass the top-level Japanese proficiency test in July. This officially requires 900 hours of studying. On the way I decided to try the second-level test, which officially requires 600 hours, on December 7, after four months in the country. As you can see, the math is a little lopsided – I would need to do two thirds of the work in one third of my time here – but the lower tests are too basic to mean anything so I decided I’d take a chance. After the English speech contest, I learned something like 3000 new words and 100 grammatical expressions in seven weeks. I would have liked to practice for the listening and reading portions of the test, too, but I didn’t have the time. The paradox of practicing reading is that you have to understand what you’re reading first. A class can control your environment, so you can get your sea legs on simple canned speeches, but if you want to learn to read by immersion, you have to put in hard time.
The test was yesterday. The biggest surprise was the number of Chinese people in my testing room. They seemed to account for 90% of the participants in both of the high-level exams. They looked 29 but were really 22. “If you do not make anything of what you have, even what little you own will be soon taken away” came to mind, looking at that sea of people.
As for my score, I’d love to tell you that I blew it away, but the lack of listening and reading time caught up with me. The listening was TV/radio level fast, not conversational level; the reading was newspaper-editorial level, and I haven’t been reading newspapers yet. Vocab and grammar, thankfully, were not a problem. The passing mark is 60%. I’m confident in about 40% of my answers, and I was choosing between the best two or three answers on the rest, so with luck, I’ll break the tape. Either way, no problem – July is what counts. And now that I have the basic words, I can finally begin to read.
Sorry if this was too technical! There are cultural trends I’ve been thinking about, too, and I haven’t even told you about being Santa Claus, but given the length of this note I should probably stop, especially with so many people taking study breaks and not wanting to read about more studying. So you’ll hear from me soon, and until then, best of luck with everything! We’d say “ganbatte” here, but the two expressions are completely different. I’ll tell you about it next time.Interesting Places, Japan