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Archive for November, 2011

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.

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Three Months: Feels Good Man

I’ve been in Japan for more than three months now. That’s a little exciting. I feel like I’m almost fully settled in now. Almost. I’m not going to talk about work this time, although everything is fine on that end. Later I’ll mention the various events that I’ve participated in during the past couple weeks, but first I want to talk about being huge in Japan. Sure 5’11” is a fair deal taller than most Japanese people, but I don’t mean physically large.

Westerners are cool. I’m sure the effect is magnified in rural areas such as Ibara, where there is less of an international population, so I can’t speak for city life. But in Ibara, I’m kinda a big deal. Because my foreignness is so uncommon, that I have: appeared on TV with the other new ALTs when we arrived, had a camera crew come to our favourite bar and interview us and the owner to discover why foreigners love the place, and have appeared in an PR video for locally grown grapes. When I bike past people, they comment to each other in Japanese about how cool I am. Another ALT told me that he spent an elementary school lunch hour with kids who wanted to know why exactly he was so cool, and then spent the hour chatting amongst themselves about his coolness. The people who know my name outnumber people whose names I know by at least 100 to 1, and countless people I don’t immediately recognize will wave and call my name when I’m out around town. The celebrity treatment is a nice ego bump, and I could actually imagine it being a bit of a downer going back to being another anonymous face in Canada after living like this for a few years. One of the other ALTs tells me that foreign men might be treated a bit differently than foreign women in this regard, so your results may vary.

Events: Two weekends ago we had our Halloween party in Okayama, and despite my previous mentioned reluctance I had a lot of fun. Ended up spending the night in a capsule hotel, so that was also a new experience, and not a terrible one either. Yesterday (Sunday) was the Ibara International Food Festival which, of course, we all participated in. Us four new Canadians manned the Canada booth with the help of one nice Japanese woman, and served poutine, maple cookies, and apple cider for five hours. It was a pretty good time. Some of the guys in the Indonesian booth next to us brought guitars, and we had rather nice music all morning. The weirdest moment was when we ended up teaching the Macarena to around 20 other people, and then slow danced it to the accompaniment of soft Indonesian guitars.

Next weekend’s the Samurai Parade in Yakage (10 minutes by train), and we’ll all be heading over to see that. My taiko group is also performing there. Just now writing this, I realized that I may not have anything scheduled for the following weekend. If that’s so, and I’m not mistaken, it’s wonderful. I could really use a weekend to just sit around and do nothing.

I’ve somehow managed to work in a few good runs, and am happy to brag that I’m back over 10 km. The problem is I’m always running in the dark. If I get home from work at 4:30 (the earliest possible), I would have to leave for my run immediately to avoid having the sun set on me while I’m out. That actually sounds doable though, so I might try that a few days this week. I need to ask someone in the sports section at the board of education about any upcoming organized runs; even if I don’t run fast, I’d still love to participate. Hopefully I can manage to keep running through the winter. There’s only three English conversation classes left, and after that I can start working in another run on Wednesday evenings.  I also found a nice looking hiking trail last week. This was a surprise since everyone I talked to assured me that no such thing existed in Ibara. I didn’t get to explore it very far, because it was already getting dark when I found it, and then it went and rained all weekend. I might head back today after work.

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