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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Freaking About Going To Japan? Some Advice

At some point in time towards the end of this month - July - the next new batch of JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme assistant English teachers et al will be arriving in Japan for their three-day orientation in Tokyo.

If that might be you - read this blog entry.

Japan... It was a great time for me. I met Matthew, Kristine, Ashley, Jeff… and learned that being myself was okay to these people and the Japanese. Perhaps because I was as weird or dull or fascinating as they were to me.

Although I already knew I could out-drink most people, I learned I could also do it via Japanese beer and Japanese sake.

While I don't want to encourage drinking to excess, bonding at drinking parties is a very Japanese thing. Don't avoid an invitation - even if you just drink Coke or juice or water.

Hint: If you don't mind alcohol.. keep in mind that you never pour a drink for yourself when with another Japanese person... you guys pour for each other... and always keep their glass full... which you'll note means no one has any clue just how much they are drinking. You are now forewarned.

According to a friend of mine, he told me that every year, there are a few JET newcomers who completely freak-out during orientation and want to get the hell out of the program.

And so - back they go.

I arrived in 1990. Twenty-effing-five years ago… when I was 10… yeah… that's right…. after I recently graduated after seven years of post-secondary education.

Even though I appear to not know how old I really am, I recall that when it came to Japan, that:

a) I did not want to go to Japan;
b) It had never been a dream or a goal of mine to go to Japan;
c) I didn't know anything about Japan except for scant details about WWII, atomic bombs, ninja, samurai and geisha were from there, and, of course, Godzilla and Gamera were Japanese.
d) I had only ever eaten Japanese food once before - two days before leaving Canada - it was good to meh.
e) I had no clue how to eat with chopsticks;
f) I could not read, write or speak any Japanese other than "Sayonara", and only that verbally;
g) I had never lived on my own before;
h) I did not know how to cook;
i) I did not know how to shop;
j) I did not know how to clean;
k) I did not know how to do laundry;
l) I had never had sex with a woman before - I'm assuming thinking about doing Miss August 1973 doesn't count;
m) I was completely unprepared to go to Japan;
n) I really didn't care that I was completely unprepared to go to Japan;
o) I was on a hot streak, and knew I could fake my way through Japan until such time that I gained enough knowledge to adequately survive;
p) Although I had been on message boards talking with professors and students since 1980, the Internet was not commercially available because it didn't exist in the form we know now;
q) I was warned that sake (in this case Japanese rice wine) looks and tastes like water, but has a mule kick when you swallow it and continue to swallow it;
r) I had really good hair;
s) I had a good sense of humor;
t) I was a journalist (at least by school training), but had interned at the prestigious Toronto Star Summer Internship Program - the first college student to ever do so;
u) I was a piano and clarinet teacher and soccer coach, so I knew I had a rapport with kids - a real one;
v) I knew I wasn't a real English teacher;
w) I had no preconceived notions about Japan or its society;
x) I had never actually seen a Japanese woman before except maybe on TV in those Godzilla/Gamera movies;
y) I was extremely open-minded about everything;
z) I was going to smile and have as much fun while learning as much as I possibly could because this might be the only chance I ever got to see this part of the world - ever again.

I never heard about the JET freakout, but I would bet it would be kept hush-hush. Heck… I didn't even want to go, and I was trying to back out at the last instant…my problem was that I was too afraid... but my father convinced me otherwise telling me about point Z above.

The old man was correct - plus his warning about sake, point Q, was also bang-on... except I inherited his brother's knack for not getting hangovers. Ever.

It IS a lot to take in, but I guess it has to do with family upbringing, mental health, and your own way of reacting to life.

Being from Toronto has its advantages... to be honest, the # of people I saw the first night didn't freak me out because it looked just like Toronto - busy... it's why I was glad when I went somewhere - anywhere else than a big city for my JET stay. Then again, some people require the familiarity all the time...

I enjoyed the small city life. Everyone knew me. Everyone knew when I was single or in a relationship. Everyone knew when my clothes were shabby and I'd find some new clothing stuffed into my mailbox from anonymous strangers or friends. I could come and go as I pleased. People noticed who I was with - especially the women, which might have been a drag for them... but for a former shy guy, I enjoyed the notoriety.

If I never went to a big city while in Japan I wouldn't have cared... of course, I had family members sending me video tapes of North American TV shows... Matthew & Ash, too - so we had plenty to watch... plus Matthew eventually hooked me up with a local video/book/magazine store that was huge and had U.S. movies with Japanese subtitles... and I really did rent over 500 titles - usually two a night - over the last two years...

I also had Matthew & Ashley (they were fellow JETs) around me that first year - we looked after each other and hung around when we needed that gaijin mentality... we would use JET meetings to reaffirm our foreignness... I found at those gaijin would speak more Japanese than the Japanese did to me - very annoying because I didn't understand squat.

We also had senior AETs (those on their second or third year) who would check in on us... and later when I became senior (and because I was better adjusted than others), I was a voice of reason - believe it or not - to the newbies...

For you newcomers who are about to enter Japan for the first time… chillax… smile… enjoy yourself.

Things will not always go your way. But who cares? You're in Japan… no one back home understands why you are there - probably wondering why you haven't visited the Great Wall, yet. (You'd be surprised how many people I knew back home who confused China with Japan - it always pissed me off.)

You might not even know why you are in Japan - and that means you're like me - one of the lucky ones.Just go with the flow.

Keep an open mind. Learn the social customs. Don't embarrass yourself, the JET Program or your country. Keep in mind that you are an ambassador without protection.

And lastly - don't create a blog about your experiences in Japan. I've got you beat with wackiness, strangeness and information.

Kanpai (cheers!),
Andrew "That was a challenge" Joseph

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