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Thursday, July 25, 2013

JETs Ask: What Keeps You Going?

Allow me to be harsh here. I visited the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme Forum earlier on Wednesday... at the behest of a friend, who wondered if I had an opinion on a question a person had: What keeps you going?


"I'm really struggling recently. Seems like everyone says they have the best time of their lives on JET, but so far I can't say I feel the same. What am I missing?

Do you ever have rough spells? What keeps you going? What gives you fulfillment here? What makes this better than what you would alternatively be doing?"

A great set of questions and are deserving of multitudes of answers...but to me... it smacks of "woe is me... others are having a better time than me on JET in Japan."

First... What keeps you going?

This is an important question for every single person on this planet.

Whether its ensuring you get one more breath, one more meal, one more kiss, one more toy, one more vacation, one more house, the idea of what keeps one going is highly specific to the individual an that particular point in time.

As for the JET participant looking for an answer on how to keep on going... well... many people asked more questions and others provided answers... good advice... People seem to care.

But... it seems strange to me that people can not fathom how Japan is not the best time of their life.

If you are there right now… that is the best time of your life.

And you know what? It's the best time of your life regardless of where in the world you are now, Carmen Santiago.

Want to go to law school and become a lawyer and help people? Want to become a doctor and play more golf? Great ideas… it may never happen, as life gets in the way. The future is completely unwritten and to assume things will work out exactly as promised seems silly at best, doesn't it? What does happen exactly as planned?

Believing that at some time during the past that things were so much better than now… well, that might have been true… but what can you do about it?

Now please note that this string is coming from a guy who is now 20 years REMOVED from Japan, and I'll bet many of you still believe he (me) lives in the past…

Look... I respect the past, and I certainly recall the past, but I would drive myself completely batsh!t if I dwelled on the fact that the past was better than the present. It's not.

Twenty years ago and more, my parents were planning for their future retirement… and then my mother died suddenly at 54 - 19 years ago. It threw my father into a state of flux, and it interrupted my plans for personal growth and pushed me down another pathway, as I stayed at home with my dad (and brother) and now had no bills to pay - just a whole lotta free time and cash earned. I worked out six times a week, womanized and drank a lot and did whole lot of naughty things that would blow the mind of most people... and it was the best time of my life.

Just like Japan was.

Just like it is now.

You can try and make plans for the future - by all means, do… just know that plans can fail as well as succeed.

The past doesn't exist anymore. It's gone. Gonzo, man.

We only have the present. That's it. We have the now.

People are writing in to the JET Programme and wonder how people can say that Japan is the best thing to ever happen to them. Because it is. It's happening now.

Commentators to the forum - not all, mind you - are lost in a romance, wilderness of pain… and alllllll the children are insane.

You are in a city, town, village or hamlet. There are people around you, but you lack the skills to communicate. So?

Unlike me 20 years ago, the capabilities are there to communicate with anyone around the world via Skype, e-mail, Twitter, Instant Messaging - in seconds.

Saying you are shy or introverted is the biggest crock of sh!t I have ever heard.


What the hell did you think you were getting into in Japan? You are coming out to be an Assistant English Teacher… at an elementary, junior or high school. You are shy? What was your plan to get over that? New start where no one can pronounce your name? Brilliant.

Japan? You decided to apply - and for some strange reason they chose a shy, introverted person to come out and be a part of the Japanese community?

Gee… it's your fault for applying and JETs fault for accepting you.

Did you study Japanese before leaving your home country?

Did you read more than ONE blog to get different perspectives on Japan? I like Japan a lot, but I frequently take the piss out of it. It's like any country on the planet… good stuff, bad stuff and so-so stuff happens there.

There is no perfect country.

I did not want to go to Japan… and was convinced that I wouldn't actually set foot on that jet airplane (I had only applied to JET to get laid - epic fail because my success at getting into JET caused her to like me even less as she did not get to in to JET. Ain't nobody getting into nuthin'!).

As such… I never actually researched Japan. I knew we kicked their ass in WWII (U-S-A! U-S-A!)… I'm Canadian, however.

I had nothing for Japanese research except a library I never visited, episodes of Astro Boy, and heavily edited Godzilla movies - this was my education on Japan... and yet... despite all of the preconceived notions out there of geisha running around, ninja in every dark corner and radioactive monsters destroying Japan every few months, I had zero preconceived notions when I arrived.

Maybe that's a wee lie, but when confronted with a contradiction to the preconceived notion I immediately discarded my preconceived notion. It's called learning and growing.

I actually believed that the Japanese had no sense of humor. That was thrown out the car window during my van ride up to my home town of Ohtawara-shi in Tochigi-ken in July of 1990, when one Japanese man, who looked so stern, moved to sit beside me in the back of the delivery van (no seats!!!). Because he spoke next-to ZERO English, while smoking a BAT cigarette, he slowly flipped through the pages of a Japanese-English dictionary just so he could tell me a joke. Kanemaru-san… you are my hero.

Do you all see what Kanemaru-san did there? He tried.

What keeps you going? You try every single day. Try what? Exactly.

If you don't understand it, perhaps there's an emotional maturity you have not reached yet. I'm, not saying maturity, because my sense of humor makes me appear immature. And I'm not saying intellectually immature, because I'm sure most of you did far, far better than I did in school…

But after I did five years of university, I did an additional two years of college. That put me at the age of 25 when I arrived in Japan… almost 26, in fact.

Not old, but not as young as some JETs who are a mere three or our years removed from high-school.

It was suggested to me by a friend that perhaps to avoid the angst and bed-wetting that occurs amongst many a JET participant who worries that their Japanese experience isn't the best experience in like ever, perhaps the JET Programme needs to install a waiting period… akin to what the U.S. has when you want to purchase a gun or rifle.

But… rather than a two-week wait to responsibly shoot things, perhaps there should be a two-year wait after graduating university to go to Japan and teach.

Why wait? Well... by waiting, the applicants will hopefully have gained a bit of real life maturity and experience as to how the real world works in their own backyard.

Think about it… people graduate… having never left home (like me), and are suddenly thrust into a situation that could break anyone… people tend to lack survival skills.

I had never left home before. Mom and Dad cooked, cleaned, shopped for food and clothing for me. Washed, ironed and sewed. I had only ever had one real girlfriend, and certainly had never slept with a woman. I had been shy and somewhat introverted until I was 23, when I decide not to be. I have a university degree in political science and a college diploma in journalism. I like sports, played and coached soccer, played baseball and judo, taught piano and clarinet but can play all brass, woodwinds and keyboards. I worked as a newspaper reporter for one of the top pares in North America… I'm okay-looking. Have a good sense of humor, and can talk to anyone about anything now that I've got over my shyness… and yet… you saw the first few lines of this paragraph.

No worldly skills to call my own. By my own ramblings, I shouldn't have been allowed to go… because I could have been ONE EPIC FAILURE.

Yeah… I survived. Thrived even. Depending on the day, I hated Japan or loved Japan. But really, what it boils down to was how I chose to handle myself that day.

People on JET seem to think they are there in Japan to teach English. Teaching English has ever been a small part of what your duties are as a JET participant. You are there to internationalize. To become the gaijin part of the community. There's nothing wrong with being called a gaijin. Really. You are an outsider.

When people get to know you… then you are Kristine-san, Matthew-san, Gasoline-san (Catherine-san, in case you don't understand my poor English skills). No one will call you a gaijin then. No one to your face, anyways.

But for all of you people in JET who are down because Japan isn't the best experience ever… ask yourself… are you giving it your best shot?

You are shy? Introverted? Stuck in a podunk place. Can't speak the language. No one loves me.

Man… if you are in a rut… get out of it. Get on your bike and ride around town. Go explore the countryside, the mountains, the beaches, the waters and rivers. Go explore the city. Go and get lost (take your business card with you!) Get on a train or a subway and ride... get out and look around.

Get out of you apartment. Go and sit in a bar and have a drink by yourself. If you don't drink, have a soda water. Sit. Wait. If not that day, then the next… but eventually, someone will begin to talk to you. Guaranteed.

Get out of your comfort zone. If you can't do that, life is going to be tough for you, because, as you will discover, life isn't all about being comfortable. It's about making the best of a situation. And… if you can have a good time while doing it - congratulations. You just learned how to keep it going.

Planning the future? You can't.

Life happens.

Just try and enjoy it. Just try.

Oh... and yes... I did have a great Board of Education office. I was like Ferris Bueller and could do no wrong. But it's a two-way street. They give as you give. I never denied them anything. And they rarely denied me anything... and when they did, I understood why.

I had a huge apartment and relatively low rent. It was well-furnished and I had air-conditioning, and heating. I had a queen-sized bed, carpeting, a couch, western furniture, shower, western toilet... washer/dryer... two balconies... I was lucky.

Granted... your office and bosses may suck donkeys. You apartment might suck, too.

A friend of mine was told by his bosses to cut his hair... meanwhile, I was told I looked 'cool' by office as I grew an 8-inch long pony-tail and had my ear pierced.

But... I always had my hair look nice. I always wore a suit and tie to school, I participated in every school club - just participate - you don't have to freaking teach it!, I ate lunch with the students, brought booze for the prinicpal(s), made my own green-tea and served the female teachers, I did radio and newspaper interviews when asked by my BOE... I asked for permission to teach a night school course not affiliated with JET (granted)... I screwed my way through many a prefectural JET entourage, and through the female citizenry of my city, I went out and drank and ate at local establishments, I went to school concerts, town concerts, I rode my bike around town, I got lost on the trains, I hit every party I was invited to, had private invites to family homes of my students, teachers and BOE friends, I traveled the country, I took photos, bought postcards, I asked questions, I even tried to learn the language (failed). But, I eventually learned enough to ask out Japanese women.
I called home, I wrote to family and friends, and anxiously waited for them to respond.
I took up hobbies that I knew would help me better relate to my students - video games, anime, manga - just have a brief bit of knowledge and see what that gets you! (Granted I liked those things already.) I built models, formed puzzles, read books, rented movies and watched videos of shows from back home.... and passed them around to other JETs. I began to write fiction and non-fiction. I became more involved in JET. I hit a lot of the JET functions... and then I withdrew... maybe because I became less needy of other gaijin.... that took two whole years. I invited people over for a party, I went to parties. I became friends with the locals, ate with them and they with me. I went on school trips, I hung out with students at lunch and talked to them and they with me. About sports... about girls... or boys (if it was the girls asking). I talked with other teachers about life in Canada. I talked with women about women's rights in North America, relative to Japan. I muddled through in broken Japanese and English and two dictionaries: Japanese-English and English-Japanese.
I learned about Japanese history - memorized it for a time (trust me... learning about anything Japanese impresses the average Japanese person). I did ikebana (women's art of flower arranging), I learned and did bonsai (art of tree bondage), I did kyudo (Japanese archery every week - even though I hated it), I bought 150-year-old ukiyo-e art. I bowed at everyone, I smiled at everyone and shook their hand. I signed autographs. I asked for help when shopping (Japanese people speak more English than even they realize!).
I ate every Japanese food placed in front of me. I shared my music with teachers, and they with me. They taught me about Sumo and Japanese baseball. I play baseball and soccer and judo. Do you like baseball? I played a few games with the BOE. I helped coach a junior high team. I played keyboards at a concert. I wrote and performed in a short wordless play/skit. I taught ONE cooking class. I wrote stories for the AJET newsletter, became its editor, turned down the leadership of AJET for my prefecture though I was secretly asked by JET themselves... stupid, I was.
I laughed, I cried, I yelled, I barfed, I screwed, I was stupid, I was smart. I loved Japan. I hated Japan. I hated everyone. I loved everyone. I hated myself. I loved who I was. I got sick twice, found out I was allergic to something only in Japan, thought I got my girlfriend pregnant, found out some Japanese people had me confused with the very poor actions of another foreigner. I dated a woman who was kinky and a bit psychotic. I fell in love.

There's so much more that I did, I should probably start up a blog and write about it.

I got lucky. You may not. But you have to try... Just know that there's no perfect JET experience save that what you make for yourself. Now go try.

Andrew Joseph

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