What Did I Get Out of JET?
The re-contracting deadline is right around the corner. Are you going to stay in Japan 6 more months or 18? If you’re so done that even half a year more is too long, then you’ve come to the right place. I’m about to positive-think your brains out.
I was ready to go in October of ‘09. If a baby had been conceived then, it would have been out the door before I was. It wasn’t a Bucket List that saved me, though I recommend that. It was a desire to be the best at what I was doing. Even when the skills of a job aren’t transitive, the approach is. I’m now studying Chinese in Taipei, and I’m so disciplined with my time and focused during class that I wish I could have done JET before college.
Fortunately, new challenges found me while I was in Japan. Heraclitus said you never into the same river twice, and schools are like rivers…of CHILDREN. Kids change quickly. I went from thinking “I’m here to teach English” to “I’m here to help these kids grow up.” I watched them grow, and every day away from them, I wonder how much taller they’re getting. I live in a city dormitory now, where I can engage society at times and places of my choosing, but to be honest, I miss my social responsibilities and the variety of my friendships in the countryside.
There are probably things you dislike about Japan. Japanese people have lists of their own (hopefully they don’t include you). No place has everything. Some of your dislikes are things you didn’t realize you liked about home. I was uttori (star-struck) when I returned to my beautiful suburban hometown and saw lawns again. Somehow, salmon and tsukemono are still hard to find here in the most Japanese place that doesn’t have the rising sun on its flag. But for me, missing something is an opportunity to remember what was great about it.
Believe in what you’ve accomplished here. If you’re not convinced you achieved much of anything, your job interviewers won’t be either. People who are apologetic or evasive about how they spend their time are not sexy. Many of you have done things I never thought of doing, I got nine resume points out of my two years of service. You can start with “professional communicator.” You’ve been conversing with a handicap and making sense of cryptic cues for years. You have more patience and sensitivity than most, and you also speak more concisely because you’ve boiled your words down to the essentials so often (“Toilet! Where?”).
What else did I bring home besides dozens of goodbye albums and wasabi Kit-Kats? An accent: people in my own hometown ask me, “Where are you from?” Identification with small-scale farmers: since I’ll be living in cities doing internationally related work for years to come, that grounding (lol) is vital. Respect for personal space: I bump into people, point at them, grab their things, interrupt them, and awkwardly hug them much less than I did before. Better relationships: I’ve received so many compliments that I can’t help complimenting others themselves. I’ve been trained not say negative things about others if it can be avoided, and this used to be my biggest problem. Most importantly, I give co-workers food every couple weeks. A healthier lifestyle: never again will I have a 2-10 AM sleep schedule or spend an entire day hunched over a computer. A smaller stomach, and with it the patience to appreciate each bite of food and the propensity to take pictures of everything I’ve eaten.
I have no inhibitions about speaking out and performing in class here because that was recently my job. For our final presentation last semester, I played a Japanese exchange student, and my teachers, who all have Japanese friends, fell out of their chairs watching a white person in a yukata replicating all the classic mannerisms and belting out “Shima Uta” while stomping around like an Okinawan boy. You’ll probably never have to do that in a meeting, but I’m surprised at how hesitant we can be to loosen up even a little when it would be the key to a presentation.
“I taught English for X years in rural Japan” is as much a conversation starter abroad as, well, your face is right now. Embrace it. You’ll never again have to convince someone you’re worth a 5 minute conversation. The more you understand what’s distinctive about your current home, the more interesting those five minutes will be.
I’m not sure what part my two years in Japan will play in my life story, but I know I’m living differently now than I ever have before. Mottainai. Good times, bad times, they’re all worth something.