Last time I wrote about the uniqueness of foreigners in Japan, especially in rural areas, and the level of celebrity that this inevitably brings to those of us that work here. Today I’m going to write about some other, less entertaining aspects of expat life in Japan that you’ve all probably heard can be a problem: culture-shock, isolation, and home-sickness.
I have a few advantages over many other people that come to Japan to work; I’d studied the language sufficiently at university that I can understand and be understood in most situations, I’d been to Japan twice before (albeit in study abroad contexts), and I like Japanese food. Why on Earth someone would want to come to Japan if they hated Japanese food, I don’t understand at all, but it happens more often than you’d think.
Another advantage that those of us in Ibara have over many other ALTs in rural areas, is that there are six of us. Many small towns will only have a single ALT, and for those individuals the threat of culture-shock and isolation (I would imagine) is quite a bit more real. In Ibara, after a long week of struggling to communicate in Japanese, we can all meet and vent in English. This is undoubtedly a major benefit.
In my case, I didn’t have much culture-shock aside from daily exhaustion caused by language challenges. For the first month and a half I had occasional days where I would seriously consider leaving after the end of my first year, but those moods usually only lasted a day or two at most and stemmed more from homesickness, and missing my family and friends. In this regard, the wonder of VOIP is a godsend. The time difference doesn’t allow for much communication during the weekdays unless I get up early, but on weekends I can talk with my family back in Canada for hours using Skype or other applications.
I can only imagine that ALT life before VOIP became common-place was quite different in this regard; only talking to people back home for infrequent, short periods, on expensive long-distance phone calls would have probably really added to the loneliness.
So I’ve had things rather easy. There’s another ALT in Ibara though, that although he seems to be coping remarkably well, must have a bit more challenging of a time. Unlike many of us, he studied no Japanese prior to arriving. This isn’t that uncommon, and the JET Programme which hired us has no language ability requirement. Unfortunately, of the six of us in Ibara, the board of education decided to place this individual in the schools up in the town of Bisei as well as several here in Ibara proper. Ibara today is a city that was expanded to include several nearby townships, including the town of Bisei which is located ~45minutes up the mountain by bus. Because of the awkwardness of bus times, this means that from Sunday evening until Wednesday evening, the one ALT in Ibara that speaks next to no Japanese, is alone on the mountain. If the board of education is seriously trying to encourage us to stay more than a year, this doesn’t seem like the smartest of moves. Then again, as I said, he seems to be doing very well, so maybe this isn’t so large an issue after all.
As the orientation presenters in Tokyo told us, three of the most stressful life events are moving to a new home, starting a new job, and ending relationships. We all experience the first two, and the third to some extent. Add to this the fact that the new job is one that most of us (all non-education majors) have had no training for, and it’s bound to be a rocky start for many. But that’s enough doom and gloom, what can you look forward to once you make it through the turbulent beginnings?
Life! I made a poppy out of red and green paper, and a paper clip to wear on November 11th, and when people commented on the cute flower I was wearing (doubtless thinking ‘what the hell is the foreigner doing now?) I got to teach them about Remembrance Day: CULTURAL AMBASSADOR’D! All throughout orientation and pre-departure we’re told that that is what we are, but this was the first time I truly felt that I was fulfilling that role. I know that just every day I manage to interact with people without disgracing myself is part of that same role, but this felt especially good.
This weekend was the Daimyo parade in Yakage, which seems to actually be a big deal in the region. Our local, over-priced train line probably saw more business on Sunday than it will for the next few months combined. Nine of us went up to party in Bisei the night before, and although we had a great time, we unfortunately didn’t make it down to Yakage early enough to see my taiko group perform. T_T The parade was a bit of fun though, and the area was packed with a huge number of vendor stalls. Some cool guys in old-timey armour demonstrated some old-timey firearms, which was rather spectacular; some of them were much closer to cannons than they were to rifles, and I’m quite certain everyone in that crowd should have been wearing ear protection.
Turns out that I do have something planned this coming weekend after all, but it’s just Sunday and it was voluntary on my part. One of the ladies from my English conversation class invited us ALTs to go hiking with her group in Yakage. Although there was some initial interest amongst the others, it looks like I’ll be the only foreigner going. It should be fun though, and I’m looking forward to it.