This is the end
This is the end
The spectral voice of Jim Morrison echoing in your head should usher you into the reflective ethereal state I’ve found myself plunged in after reaching the end of my first year in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher.
Leading up to this point I’ve been crazily busy and haven’t been able to tell top from tail. As well as studying and finishing up at schools, my social life swelled with dance practice and visiting friends before my summer holiday travels, which I was planning right up to my UK friend’s arrival in Japan.
It’s definitely been a good kind of busy, I feel accomplished and super productive, if not a little tired. It does mean, though, that I didn’t have much time to reflect on my first year in Japan or to look ahead and plan for my next year on JET.
Despite my struggles deciding to recontract and some pretty grim experiences following my decision, I’m glad I decided to stay. I have to say though that for multiple reasons, my ‘honeymoon period’ with Japan is done. I’ve moved into a more informed approach to life in this amazing and troubling country.
Before going forward, I want to look back and it’s great to say that I can’t begin to list all the things I’ve been up to since getting here. 2018 Jess is like any wise old anime mentor ever, sitting smug in the distance, slowly nodding with approval at present Jess’ resilience and openness to try new things.
Over this year certain parts of my life have developed in ways I didn’t expect and some parts have bloomed completely into existence.
Travelling was very different for me when I was a kid; jetting off to sunny resorts, my main excitement was being able to eat chicken nuggets and chips in a hotter location. I didn’t look at the places I visited in the way I do now, my head was either underwater in a snorkelling mask or out of the sun fixed on my Pokémon-blaring Gameboy.
Deciding to leave the familiar and dive head-first into rural Japan straight from uni took strength, but I’ve been able to cope. I’m pretty sure that part of this success was, in some ways, determined before I left. I made sure to get myself into the mindset that I need be open to everything, to see positivity everywhere (even when it’s hard to find), to be grateful and to be resilient.
This mindset helped so much with travelling. Starting small, with solo road trips through the mountains, I grew more and more confident. Now driving, bussing and even flying are non-issues (although flying might need a few more practices). Planning trips, exploring new places, staying in hostels, meeting strangers and feeling at ease in situations that I’d never even considered before coming to Japan is such an amazing feeling that I’m motivated to keep it up!
It’s piloted me to the neon-screaming cities of Tokyo, quirky Osaka, the temple-speckled Kyoto, ferried me across to the mountainous Nagasaki and to the rainforests of Yakushima. I’ve stood at the crater of a volcano, hiked my way to a panoramic view of Kagoshima prefecture, chilled with wild rabbits in Hiroshima and swooned at the wild deer in Nara. I’ve looked across Japan from the tallest tower in the world, stared up at the largest bronze statue in the world and sweated my guts out climbing the longest stone steps in Japan.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of things I’ve been able to do in just one year in Japan and what amazes me is that it’s basically the norm for people on this programme. I’m surrounded by so many inspired-inspiring people and I can safely say that I’ve been able to learn a lot from them.
Language, or at least language learning, is another area of my life that was never that relevant to me before JET. I liked studying Spanish in high school and then the development and changes of language in university, but I’d never considered myself to be a ‘language-learner’.
I came to Japan with ‘ohayou gozaimasu’ and ‘arigatou’ and I can proudly say that immersing myself into a town where most people’s only language is Japanese has improved my language learning exponentially. It’s like my language learning hopped on one of those speedy arrows in Mario Kart.
Now, in no way am I fluent, but fluency was never an intention of mine. The prescriptive Japanese speakers out there would criticise my haphazard grammar and misuse of long/short form. Luckily for me, I don’t share this mindset. I’ve always believed that language is for communication and if I can communicate well with the limited language ability I have, gestures and goodwill, then I’m content.
“I found that the important thing is not necessarily the means of communication you use but how you communicate with people.”
It’s such a cool feeling to be able to hold a successful conversation with someone in another language, even if it is a little simple. My dad always said that conversation is like a dance. If so, then building genuine relationships with broken Japanese is like breaking into spontaneous, exciting dance in a musical.
This new found excitement for learning has also inspired another new addition to my life.
I got into teaching a lot faster than I expected; helped by the fact I was so busy starting out that I couldn’t be nervous about public speaking until I’d already gotten used to it. With each passing day I was enjoying the lessons and growing more and more confident. Bonus point: spending time in loads of different classrooms means that I have access to a variety of teaching methods and teacher-student relationships; helping improve my own teaching experience.
The ALT position also changed my perspective on kids. I thought kids were cool before coming onto JET but I’d never been able to spend the time with them that I do now. I’ve come to realize how hilarious, random and honest they are. Their openness and outrageous mood-swings are a welcome break from the layered politeness and sub-meanings that convolute adult conversation.
I can definitely say that my teaching’s improved over this year and I’m so much more equipped to deal with whatever teaching life has to throw at me. Nursery kid pile on? 84 beady eyes watching you eat lunch? 10 year old boys screaming ‘horse の penis’, ‘shut up fuck you’ or punching each other at the back of class? All in a day’s work.
My time at the schools has placed me in a constant state of amazement at how much communication is possible and how vividly every personality shines through despite limited language. I’m in the rare position where I love every teaching environment that I find myself in. The teachers and every single one of the students make sure that I have at least 10 things to be grateful for or to laugh about every day.
Being able to stay at the same schools for another year, an option that usually isn’t possible, makes me so happy. I cannot stress this point enough, I love my schools. The jarring difference between my cutesy mountain school and my hilariously raffish, central school (guess which school the ‘horse の penis’ comment came from) makes sure that every day of work is interesting. I have so much still to learn and I’m grateful to have the time to get to know the kids better.
Jess the Great
The biggest part of my life that has changed since coming to Japan is my relationship with self. Living alone in the mountains, in a house that doesn’t even exist on Google Maps, I’ve grown a lot closer to myself.
Being in tune with myself means that I can be more honestly critical. I can more easily pick out problems as well as correct my own toxic behaviours. (Still working on running myself into burnout and then binge-watching Star Trek in the bath like). I have come to realize though, that like any relationship, your relationship with yourself is in flux; so cutting some slack when that relationship drifts is a must.
I’m in love with my mind, my way of thinking and way of existing. I’ve surrounded myself with people who inspire me for a variety of reasons and I actively consider what it is about those people that inspire me and how I can apply it to improving myself. I know the areas of myself that I want to nurture and I’m actually excited to do it. I’m in a three-way state of becoming the woman that I want to be, the people who inspire me and the girl that I came from.
All in all this year has been amazing. I’ve come out of it older, wiser and with frizzier hair. I’ve overcome so many problems, a lot of which I could never have prepared for and, despite support from friends and family, I ultimately did it alone. I feel closer to myself than I did last year, loving who I am and being kinder and more forgiving to myself as a result.
I feel like my Philosopher’s Stone phase with Japan is over, now we get to the grittier part of the series. I expect the tests to get harder, the bonds I have to get stronger and, ultimately, to level up in ways previously never thought possible.