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Monday, July 29, 2013

JETs Ask: How Do You Stop The Loneliness At Work?

On the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Programme Forum page, some JETs are wondering - how do you stop the loneliness at work?

They aren't talking about the school days, but rather those days you have to spend at the BOE (Board of Education) offices... especially come August... when you have no school...

It can suck.

You know me... I was a junior high school assistant English teacher in Japan between 1990-1993 in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, and admittedly many things have changed in Japan since then... but that boredom or loneliness one can experience at the BOE as the lone English speaker is probably still a constant, and it can be devastating.

As usual, I was lucky.

I had one person - and one person only - who spoke decent English there (besides, myself, of course) at the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) offices. That would be one of my two bosses, Mr. Hanazaki... a former junior high school science teacher and judo master who was now a 'suit' in the BOE.

Luckily for me, Hanazaki-san was not only a complete gentleman, but he loved to speak English, tell jokes, teach me things about Japan and even take myself, fellow stooge Kanemaru-san (my other boss! who communicated with me via dictionaries and broken English, and the same way for me with dictionaries and broken Japanese) and myself out for jaunts in the car - to see the city's area... to have me learn about Japan.

Ohtawara might be called a city, but it's a small one with a plethora of beautiful farmland and countryside with many natural parks and rivers and sites and forests and hills just waiting for people to discover.

Almost every week, we would be off to learn. I was very lucky, indeed.

And let me tell you... I'm the type of person who gets off on learning new things. Knowledge and all that... you never know when... even 20 years later, you might find a use for such things - like starting your own blog.

So... I got lucky.

I was given my own desk beside Hanazaki-san and got my own computer. Keep in mind that in 1990, the computers that the small BOE offices had were like those circa 1980 back in Canada. Monochrome monstrosities with orange as the type on a dark green-black background.

I had a keyboard that could be changed from Japanese kanji production to romaji - what we know as English letters.

As such... I would sit down and type out letters to friends and family back home, create episodes of "It's A Wonderful Rife" for my AJET Tochigi-ken magazine (I created 80 such columns), and when the urge hit me, I would create my own short stories (close to 80) and a novella or three (only one has never seen the light of day yet in this blog - it was a 10-part story based on DC Comics' Sandman character... it's an effing good comedy-drama-horror romp through the circles of Hell).

Writer's block? What's that? I would sit at the keyboard with no concept of what I was going to write and I would just start typing... and whatever popped into my head became a short story... it was the most prolific fiction-writing time of my life... though I did recently sit down and create a story for someone just to see if she would like it, and to see if I could still do it. I can. (I also still write comic book stories - hopefully for professional publication soon by some folks in the UK.)

Boredom? At the office?

I also studied Japanese. I learned how to write some 500 kanji, and memorized their meanings, learned hiragana and katakana, and then tried conversational Japanese. I am conversant at a Grade 2 level. Or is that a 2-year-old level? Whatever.

It came in handy.

Seeing as how only one person at the BOE could speak excellent (coherent, really) English, it behooved me to learn how to communicate with my fellow workers - the other Japanese folks.

So I did.

Now... loneliness at the Board of Education offices? Nawwwww. Maybe it's because I'm a bit of a loner anyways, but being left alone was a godsend.

But even then... being an introvert pretending to be an extrovert - and a very successful one at that - I always had a smile on my face. Always. I still do when I walk around here in Toronto. If people see me - and they do - I get a hello or a nod or a smile back.

That happened in Japan, too, except I would get a bow instead of a nod. A bow is as good as a nod to a blind bat, right?

People... you are the stranger in their midst. They don't know you from Adam. You have to expose yourself, so to speak... be the one that makes the first move.

They aren't sure how to communicate with you, but I know they do want to. They always do. They want to know all about you and where you are from. Not only for their own knowledge, but so they can tell others around town who are also curious about you, but are too shy to ask.

Get out of your comfort zone.

Granted, it might be difficult for some of you to change who you are... not everyone can walk around with a smile on their face.

I am conscious of what I do and how I appear to others. Paranoia and being the only minority in the neighborhood can make one like that (like being a gaijin). But it's a positive thing for me, because I make it a positive thing.

Even at work here in Toronto... I look ahead - not down - to see who I am approaching or who is approaching me... I keep eye contact - and I offer a bigger smile as they near.

Doing that makes people think you are not only a happy person, but that you are actually glad to see them. I do this for people I know or for people I don't know.

I don't even know why people are asking the JET Forum for advice on things like this. Loneliness? Boredom?

At least nowadays, many of you have phones and laptops and can get the Internet whenever you want. I don't (and didn't) have a laptop and I certainly don't (and didn't) have a portable phone. I don't need to check for imaginary important messages from people every 45 seconds and I don't have my 'life' locked in a Crackberry. I don't get calls from work, which is also nice.

I'm not bored. I was not bored in Japan, either. I certainly wasn't lonely... not even at my BOE office.

Then again... I said I was lucky... not only did I have one person look after me... I had an entire BOE willing to look after me. I had a decent office filled with decent people.

I also knew how to amuse myself.

You should learn how to amuse yourself and learn how to make yourself more available and visible to your entire BOE.

Hell... offer free English lessons. Simple conversation classes at lunch time. Want to be a superstar? There's one way.

Lonely? Ask if you can meet with some of your school English teachers! Ask if you can go and visit some of the schools... see if they have any club activities going on. Not every day, of course... every once in a while. They will love the fact that you want to see the teachers and schools! Love it.

Take a vacation. Haven't you saved any dates? You get a couple of weeks a year... I went home once. I went to Thailand once and hung out with my mother who met me there. I stayed in Japan once.

Bring a book to read. Read the English newspapers. Do the crossword puzzles. Volunteer to help put the AJET newsletter together. Volunteer to go down to Tokyo to meet and greet the newcomers. Gods... there is so much to do.

Cook something special for your small office and bring it in to share... want friends? You got'em! Do something for everyone. Omiyage (presents) when you travel... give them to your office. Even if it's not individual presents... get a couple of boxes of sembei (rice cracker snacks) or buy the best damn green tea you can find and give it to the office! You're a hero! Friends!

Okay... enough... if you really feel lonely in Japan - even after a day at the office... read this blog... and then write to me. Compliment or criticize or just say hello. You would be surprised how often I answer. Every time.

Your friend in need, indeed,
Andrew Joseph
PS: It's now September of 2016 - and no one has felt the need to contact me re: loneliness. I'll assume it was because of all the awesome suggestions provided above.

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