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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Andrew's Guide To Surviving In Japan

For the new AETs (assistant English teachers) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, they are now old hands at being whatever the heck they think their jobs is, after being in Japan for two whole months, and teaching for the past month.

For those not thinking about leaving already, congratulations.

For those who are having doubts about why you are in Japan - relax. It's a new adventure, filled with plenty of unknowns, and you know what? You will survive, even when it feels like you have the world on your shoulders and a fire-breathing dragon breathing down your neck.

Yeah... that image above is me done via some of my LEGO. Yes, it's no longer my disinterested son's LEGO (sigh), it's mine (yay!)

I was part of the second ever wave of young bucks on the JET Programme, arriving in 1990 with a smile on my sweaty face.

It was in the high 30s and humid those first few weeks in Japan... a place I never, ever wanted to visit, let alone be in for the next month... but I survived, and thrived.

I apologize for the shoes, but nothing else.
I arrived nearly 26-years-old as an honest-to-gosh virgin who had never left home before, doing five years of university (political science) and two years of journalism in college. I collected comic books, and sports cards, had played a tiny bit of slow-pitch baseball for two years prior to arriving in Japan, had played years of soccer, coached it even for eight years, and taught piano and clarinet for maybe three years. I was a newspaper journalist with the top newspaper in Canada (Toronto Star).

And, I didn't want to go to Japan, despite me filling out the forms, acing my interviews and being dragged to the airport by my father.

He told me to go... enjoy... that employment would be waiting for me when I got back. That Japan would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Turns out he was right about everything. Everything. Which kind of sucks, because it really has been a once in a lifetime opportunity now 26 years later.

One day I'll take my son there.

Holy crap, but this is a tasteless t-shirt from Mister Freedom of the U.S., with monies from this shirt to actually go to disaster relief. I'm assuming not much money was made for disaster relief from the sale of this shirt. It says: I survived Japan 9.0 and all i got was this lousy shirt. 9.0 is in reference to the 9.0 Magnitude earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami that killed upwards of 18,000 people and caused the near meltdown of a nuclear reactor that still caused most of that side of the prefecture to be abandoned causing loss of families, pets, jobs, and plenty of emotional scars. Yeah. Wear that shirt proudly.  Yeesh.  
I had never left home before. I was a punchline to an old William Shatner skit from Saturday Night Live.

In Japan, when I arrived at my three bedroom L-D-K apartment in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, with all the physical amenities of my home in Toronto, my board of education bosses left me with a fully stocked fridge complete with soda cans of something called Calpis... so I drank water, because who wants to drink anything that sounds like 'piss'.

I ate a huge Japanese apple the size of a softball, and looked inside my fridge and realized I had no idea how to cook. But, maybe three weeks later, and 14-lost pounds, I figured out how to make eggs, chilli con carne, and even lasagne. 

Once I ate my way through the food in my mini fridge two days later, I also realized I had no idea how to shop for groceries.

I had only ever eaten Japanese food just once before - the night before I got on the plane for Japan, and sure as heck didn't know how to use chopsticks.

But I figured it all out, and even won a speed-eating contest using chopsticks against a Japanese native.

I had never ever done laundry before. But I figured it out.

I had never ironed clothes before. But I figured it out. Hells, months later a home economics teacher even showed me how to sew.

I even got a girlfriend... though truthfully that happened on my second night in Tokyo after landing in Japan... but I had to wait three weeks more before losing that halo.

This was 1990... and although the internet existed, it did not exist the way it does now. I did not have a lap top or a computer in my new home. I did not have a cell phone.

If I had to figure something out, I had to talk to people--both Japanese and other foreigners like myself--and then had to simply try.

Maybe it's because I really don't have an ego... actually I have pretty damn good one... but I am a realist... and I know my limitations... and I learned very early that if I was going to survive Japan, I needed help to do so.

Think about it before you ask for the wrong type of help.... Satan can't even spell 'hereby' correctly. Or 'torture'... unless the Dark One really wants to take you places.
Here's the thing... when a person asks for help in Japan, whether its from the Japanese around you, or from your fellow foreigners... they will help you, no questions asked.

The help I received from the JETs who had already lived at least a year in Japan... well... it helped set the stage... knowing that they were unselfish.

While I can't say I was as unselfish in later months as Mary or Catherine was to me with their time and understanding and caring, well... I at least tried to be.

Pay it forward.
Me and a friend sharing one last cup of sake the night after we tied in a drinking contest at 47 glasses of sake apiece. The glasses were much larger than the cups we show in the photo.
Very quickly, I became one of those people that other people would call up and ask for advice, help or simply a friendly voice in the dead of the lonely night. Make no mistake about it... while most AETs seem to be happy and well adjusted, not everyone is.

I was free with my struggles of survival... talking to people... and what I quickly learned, I quickly passed along.

It might be a single chat with someone you'll never aren't even sure who they are when they call... but they know you.

What I found particularly helpful, was to simply pick up the list of AET phone numbers, and call up as many people as I dared under the pretense of 'checking up' on them. In reality, I was frightened, and wanted to see if anyone could talk me off the ledge, so to speak. And I already had a great friend in Matthew living near me, and a girlfriend one town over.

I just wanted to say that it's okay to have doubt about what you are doing in Japan... about how you aren't teaching anyone English, about how you are just a professional tape recorder: Repeat after An-do-ryu-sensei".
I can only hope these are Japanese acrobats from the turn of the previous century - 1890s...
Japan is a strangely weird and boring and lonely place.

How many effing typhoons does this place actually get... six in the month of September?

I had a car in Toronto... now I have a bicycle. I saw my first ever cockroach that first day in Ohtawara in my apartment... and after killing it, never saw one again... because it taught me very quickly that I should never leave dirty dishes or garbage lying around... that I should always keep my apartment clean... and that I should always air out my futon once a week and roll it up after I wake up every day so as to not rot out the grass mats underneath.... or else you'll end up with black mold and a brand new set of tatami mats and a new set of futons like I did... which is nice, but embarrassing, as I wondered if the bosses thought I was a complete effing idiot.

But Japan is also just like your home town filled with people who live and breath, have families, their own self-doubts about work and life. Japan is exciting... there's so much to see and try and learn!

But lonely?

Maybe I'm simply a guy who values his privacy... but Japan doesn't value said privacy.

I could walk down a street with a visiting female AET, and the next day I would be asked if I had a new girlfriend.

I could ride my bicycle down the streets of Ohtawara wearing a tee-shirt with a hole under the arm, and the next day I'd find three shirts stuffed anonymously in my mail box.

I'd get mysterious phone calls from an old Japanese woman who can't speak English, only to learn nine months later that it was actually a lonely Japanese boy with moderate learning difficulties wanting to say hi and to be my friend.

It's my Japanese bosses laughing at my stupid demands for a bug spray to kill the gi-normous spiders on one of my two balconies (north side), and being told that the Buddha, when he returns to Earth, will do so reincarnated in the form of a spider... and it's me asking why the Buddha would come back to my apartment - to the home of a non-Japanese unbeliever... and it's my bosses thinking for a moment before agreeing that my logic is so sound that we can leave the board of education office right now to buy some really potent spider killer spray.

It's that initial ride from those three days in Tokyo to my home in Ohtawara... in the back of a white van that only had two seats up front, with me sliding around on all my luggage... with one stern-looking Japanese man who can't speak English at all sitting down on the spare tire beside me to pull out a Japanese-to-English dictionary, to point out, and speak word-by-stinking-word a joke because he knew I liked jokes (it was in the resume they all receive about you ahead of time)...

It's all the people on the street that see you, bowing to you... kids you have no clue who they are waving to you from across the street, adults saying weird things to you after four days in Japan, such as konichiwa or ohiogozaimasu...

You are not alone. You'll figure it out.

Sometimes you just need someone to listen to you. Pika-pika.
Andrew Joseph
PS: konichiwa means hello, and ohiogozaimasu means good morning.

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