Life In Japan 日本での生活: 6 Months Down The Road

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Foreword: I don’t mean this to be a long rant, but rather an insight into my experiences and the difficulties I have faced thus far on one of the most amazing adventures one can embark on in life, JET.

So I’ve been on this crazy roller-coaster know as the JET Program for 6 months to the day and needless to say its been a journey of epic proportions!
Honestly reflecting on my development from a personal perspective, I’ve grown more in the past 6 months than I have in the past 6 years, the person I was the day I stepped off that plane half a year ago is dead and buried. This however in no way is a bad thing, if moving to the other side of the world to a country where you scarcely speak the language on your lonesome will teach you anything it’s self-reliance. My cooking skills have sky-rocketed for feeding myself is a necessity, furthermore I’m in better shape than I have been in my entire life. Back home life was all but convenience, here if I want something I must do it myself which has made me more or less self-reliant, a perk of being a city JET is I need to ride a bike everywhere I go as opposed to relying on driving, a task I despise.

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Anyhow I’m now on the path I have been searching for all my life. I’ve discussed this in past posts but I had many issues when I arrived, being an early arrival JET I had more or less no support network as I came at a difficult period when many old ALTs were leaving, most had no time for me, nor the KEC (the Kobe board of education) the resources to properly orientate me.

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Don’t get me wrong the first 2 months in Japan I had the time of my life, it’s a period i can now nostalgically reflect upon as being a magical twilight, I was high on life, the JET handbooks tell us this is called the honeymoon phase….. It was all that and so much more, gazing out through the at window at the chilly landscape from my desk I wonder if it was even real.

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But the day came when it all came crashing down around me, as with any high, nothing lasts forever in the cold November rain.

Between my 3rd and 4th months here I fell into a deep state of depression, I took a good hard look at myself, the person I was becoming and decided a change was in order. Suddenly all I could think about was the life and people I had left behind, constantly overwhelmed by a sense of longing to return home. Almost overnight I started to notice things that I had previously found endearing about Japan to be little more than annoying and foolish.

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This sudden bout of depression hit me like a ton of bricks and couldn’t have come at a worse time….. the arrival of the new 2012 JETs! All around me were dozens of new faces still in their honeymoon phase loving life, meanwhile I was miserable for no reason I could discern. I loved my life, my job, my friends, YET I constantly found myself having to drag myself out of bed in the morning to face the day. Being around people was enough to bring me to tears, the worst part was I had no reason to be depressed yet I felt broken inside.
This was all compound by the fact that during natsuyasumi 夏休 (summer holidays) the Kobe board of education sends its 120 or so ALTs off for mandatory summer school, skill development conferences and language school! Because of this I couldn’t simply lay low for a couple weeks whilst I felt my world crumpling around me, but rather I had to put on a brave face day after day whilst I was forced to associate with the rest of the Kobe JET community. Now I won’t lie this place is pretty much highschool, with there being so few foreigners in Kobe it’s almost like living in a small town, everyone knows everyone and gossip is the commodity that’s most revered.

Regardless somehow I pulled through, I took a good hard look at myself, the person I was becoming and decided a detox was in order, overnight I stopped drinking, started exercising (even more than I already did) and radically changed my diet. I’d love to admit that this is the secret for conquering cultural shock but I would be lying….. As nice as the though may be there is no quick fix, there’s only one cure for this kind of affliction….. Time.

Anyhow on a more positive note there certainly was a light at the end of the tunnel, when did I emerge for this state….. Well I’m not entirely sure, it was around the beginning of my fifth month, but I thank god I had the support of my friends here. This certainly won’t be the case for the vast majority of JET participants but I have around 60 other ALT’s living within a 5 minute walk of my apartment, a good 10 in the building itself!!

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It wasn’t until the hecticness of the summer died down that I truly found my friendship circle and the people who would be there to help me pull through. This was when things started to shape up, after a long hibernation I emerged from my apartment a new man, keen to resume exploring all this country has to offer. I am now well on track to becoming a prominent outspoken member of the JET community here in Kobe, am enjoying my job more and more by the day and have not let the onset of winter keep me down.

At the end of the day I have landed on my feel and am really in a great place and am more or less content with life, when my recontracting forms arrived on my desk I sent them back signing up for another 20 months or so here in Kobe without a second thought, I really hope that the decision is that easy when they come around again next year.

Studying Japanese

Anyhow on to a question I am very frequently asked, ‘so how is your Japanese coming along?’ well although its certainly far from amazing every day is getting easier and easier. Now I never really bothered formally studying as I really lacked the motivation for a really long time, that said I know what am amazing opportunity it is to be living here and have the chance to learn Japanese with the plethora of resources available. Its not only that though, Japan is really a country that isn’t exactly very accommodating to those who don’t speak Japanese, seriously even in a relatively large city like Kobe you either learn or will find life very very VERY difficult! Now I naturally have a certain interest in Kanji so when i learn new words I typically look up how to write them and continue to revise until they stick in my head. And so through my natural curiosity my vocabulay has grown to the point where i know perhaps 1000 words, a couple hundred kanji…….BUT NO GRAMMAR!

受け入れ挑戦 (Challenge Accepted)

受け入れ挑戦 (Challenge Accepted)

Grammar was never my strong point in English so I have put of learning the Japanese equivalent like the plague, unfortunately with a less than basic knowledge of how to put together all the words I know I come off sounding retarded when I try to speak the language. In my mind I imagine that speaking Japanese is like building a house, although I have gathered many bricks I have no cement to bind them together and simply blurting out the (usually) appropriate words will only get you so far in conversation…….

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That all said I speak 10 times more Japanese than when I first arrived here, one thing I noticed about this years new Kobe JET’s is that I was one of 6 out of around 40 that didn’t have at least intermediary level Japanese. This often leaves me feeling very inadequate when compared to my peers, many who are Japanese majors, if anything though I have taken it as a source of motivation to step up my studying whilst I am here. In the least my goal by the end of my first year is to be able to have 80-90% fluent conversation with my shougakkou 小学校 (elementary) students, being children they can only put together more or less simple sentences so really make great conversation partners, more than that though, I have really formed a bond with many of my ES students and I hate myself when they ask me questions I cant quite grasp, since I really hate to surrender and tell them ごめんちょっとわからない ‘sorry I don’t understand’.

Work Life

Look I’m no teacher,I never was and I may very well never be. That said, I am expected to be one, as I have discussed in the past my predecessor was a woman who spoke fluent Japanese and in fact taught and developed the curriculum for the 2年生 (8th grade) JHS class without the Japanese teacher last year. What I’m getting at is I had ENORMOUS boots to fill, replacing this superstar ALT isn’t something I will be capable of any time in the near future……. but I’m getting there.

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In terms of preparing lessons they really threw me in the deep end with this one, for the first couple months I was all over the place and have no idea what I was doing, because of this my plans tended to be hit or miss. Unfortunately my chief OTE (Japanese teacher) is a first year sensei who speaks less than amazing English to the point where I’m often hesitant to speak to her without the other English teacher within earshot who can chip in to translate, as she misunderstands what I’m attempting to say most of the time which creates issues I would much rather avoid.

Generally though the English level of the teachers at the JHS level is not so bad, as I have been picking up Japanese here and there I can now even usually get my point across to the teachers who speak but a few words of it. One thing I try my best to do is help the English teachers improve on their English ability by actively trying my best to introduce new words to them on a daily basis, a favour I like them to return to me with my Japanese studies.

Now I teach at a JHS 3 days a week and 2 nearby ES on the remaining 2 days, luckily all 3 of them are within a half an hour bike ride from my house so if the weather is nice I often ride to school to get some bonus exercise in.

The only difficulties I have encountered at the elementary level would have to be in regard to the consumption of kyuushoku 給食 (school lunch) with I eat with the kids. See these meals are firstly usually disgusting (anyone who disagrees is admitting they enjoy consuming slops) but they also tend to contain 600-700 calories! That’s good and all for Japanese children with lightning fast metabolisms but 700 calories is almost as much as I eat in an entire day! Needless to say I quickly came up with techniques to subtly ‘avoid’ eating much of the food without the kids noticing but that’s a story for another post.

Otherwise I really love ES, the kids are usually still young enough to have an endless supply of energy and enthusiasm, they listen attentively, rarely refuse to participate. Basically when I’m there I feel like I am a kid again, its fun, the kids playing with me and I with them (as long as they keep their fingers out of me), shougakko will always be where my heart is at!

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My thoughts on teaching English to the Japanese, one that most ALTs tend to share is that the system really prohibits 99% of them from ever achieving real fluent conversational English, this is why the fluency level in Japan is by far the worst in all of Asia. The textbooks tackle teaching a language completely wrong, the focus is solely on exam results rather than on learning the language, often I find the textbook using unnatural clunky English that although grammatically correct hardly makes sense. However the opinion of the ALT hardly holds any swing, in fact in one brutal conversation I once had with an OTE I pointed out an error in the book, rather than accepting my correction he opened the book to the last page with the publishers details and told me to write them a letter…….. Despite the foolishness of the approach to teaching foreign language in this country, otherwise I really am quite happy at school now, its been a bumpy road much like the rest of my experiences here thus far.

If you got this far i’ll applaud you for your perseverance anyhow in the past 6 months I truly felt happy for the first time in longer than I can remember and content with the path I am taking in life, taking in to consideration the work and social aspects as well as my personal development, never forget all you need is Kobe.

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If you would like to read about my thoughts 28 days into the program you will find them here, I wrote another on experiences after 100 days located here.

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