It’s been a month since I returned to California from a three year spell in Japan, and I’m feeling nostalgic.
In the weeks (and then days, and then hours) leading up to my departure from Minamiboso and the life I’d built there, people kept asking me, “So… How are you?” And I couldn’t feel anything except confused. How was I supposed to be? Upset? Stressed? Lonely?
The truth is, I felt none of those things. When I first decided to work in Japan on the JET Program, I planned to stay for three years. And after an actual three years, it felt right to leave and begin the next stage of my life.
In my English classes, we started every day by asking the students “How are you?” Most of them would answer “I’m fine” or “I’m sleepy” or the rambunctious “I’m CRAZY!” Some students had answers that were less grammatically correct or contextually inappropriate, but nonetheless interesting: “I’m Kosei” or “I’m reading.”
So, in the spirit of my student who once answered “I’m reading,” as though “reading” was a state of being, the only appropriate answer I found to “So… How are you?” was “I’m moving.”
Because, perhaps like “reading,” that is too complicated a feeling to sum up with “I’m stressed” or “I’m sad” or even “I’m really excited to start my next adventure.”
I was all of that. I was moving.
With all the meanings of that word combined.
The decision when and how to leave the JET Program and Japan is different for everyone. Some people stay in Japan after they leave JET; some people go back to their home countries, or even to other countries. Some people leave after one year, some after five, some after… well, if you stay for more than five, you’re probably going to be in Japan for the rest of your life.
And that’s not a bad thing. Japan is a great country. I know I’ve complained about it a lot and it certainly has some issues it’s gotta work out (coughxenophobiacough), but so does everywhere. Japan has its pros and cons. You just have to decide which ones matter to you and how much they are going to affect you personally.
For me, I wasn’t too fond of the work conditions in Japan, so I didn’t want to continue my career there. On top of that, as much as I love teaching and think education is important, I don’t want to be a teacher. Maybe I’m just resisting the inevitable, but I want to explore other things. Even if I do end up teaching again, I think it’s important to have other experiences, too. Maybe it’ll even make me a better teacher.
So as you’re getting ready to make your decision, ask yourself this: What do you want to do?
When the time came in February to recontract or not to recontract, my decision wasn’t so tough. It was scary, though; I was leaving something that was certain (at least for two more years) for the great unknown of Unemployment and Job Searches.
And also (shudder) the United States. Being in the good ol’ U.S. of A. is… a complicated feeling. I wrote an entire poem modeled after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy about “The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma.” (You’ll never see it, sorry.) I am not fond of this country in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it is my home country, and that’s something you can never really shake yourself of. Besides, now I get to be back in the country and try to change the things that made me reluctant to return, rather than watching helplessly from across the ocean.
I think I made the right decision. I felt good about it at the time, and as I sit here, alone in my house, searching for jobs in a really tough market, I still feel good about leaving the JET Program after three years. That was a good amount of time, and I’m happy with it.
This will be a new adventure. And like all my adventures thus far, it’s going to be Totally Awesome.
JETs from the U.S. have to make their recontracting decision in late January to early February, which always seems too early, especially for first year JETs. How are you supposed to know if you can survive another entire year in a strange country at a job you may or may not be accustomed to yet only six months in?
For second year JETs, it’s a bit easier; you know what you’re in for, pretty much. It’s just a matter of being aware of your abilities and limitations. This is why they push the culture shock talks so much at orientations and meetings; they really want you to be self-aware, so you can make the decisions that are best for you, and by extension, best for your schools and the program.
Back when I was working with a very difficult person, I was unsure whether I wanted to stay on another year if it meant I had to work with her. I wouldn’t find out until the end of March if she was being transferred away, but I took the chance and recontracted for a second year, because I loved the students and learning more about Japanese culture every day I was there. I figured if she wasn’t transferred, there were plenty of other things I could focus on to keep me grounded.
The first time, my courage was not rewarded. She stayed at my school another year and our working relationship worsened and it sucked. I tried to get along with her for the students’ sake, but at some point, it all just fell apart and communication came to a halt. She cried and screamed at me one stressful day, wagged her finger in my face, used a middle-person to communicate what we would do in class (I still feel really bad for that student teacher…), and finally made me cry. I didn’t cry in front of her, of course, but I did cry, and my other JTE finally took me aside to help me through it. It was a pretty bad time. I began to dread going to work every day, feeling almost physically ill at the thought of having to see her.
I finally decided that if she stayed at the school another year, I would have to stop going to her classes altogether, because it was becoming obvious to me that we couldn’t work together well and it was going to cause problems for the students. I was sad about not being able to work with the students in her classes, but it would probably be for the best.
So, naturally, after I made that decision, she transferred schools.
And I was blessed with a brand new English teacher that was so positive and open and enthusiastic, and I swear, you guys, I could not have had a better third year in Japan. My JTEs are fantastic teachers and wonderful human beings.
So why not end on a high note? February 2015 rolled in and I signed the paper saying I would not be recontracting for a fourth year.
Because it was time to move on.
Preparations for Departure
The JET Program is great because they provide so many services and support programs. A friend of mine is even currently having problems with her Board of Education, but instead of being left to the wolves, she has access to people who can help her because of the program. She can contact the prefectural adviser, and they can help her negotiate with her BOE. The JET Program also gives us resources for counseling and provides orientations and conferences throughout the year.
And then, when you’re leaving, they also organize a career fair and an After JET Conference to help departing JETs prepare for their next steps. The conference was very encouraging, and gave me tips on what I can do next and how I can apply the skills I’ve learned on JET to other things.
To be honest, the career fair was not as helpful as I was hoping. It was geared more towards people who planned to stay in Japan, which was fair. We were in Japan, after all. And I suppose if we’re planning to go back to our respective countries, we don’t need a job as immediately as someone who needs a Visa sponsor might.
My Board of Education was very supportive, too. Enoguchi probably did a lot of paperwork for me—there’s gotta be a lot of paperwork, right?—but he never let me see it if he did. He also guided me through the pension process, which I’ll finish in about six months. (It’s complicated.)
Now that I had a deadline for having fun in Japan, I shoved in a few more trips and a lot more socializing. My mom came to visit me, I took a trip to Korea (because it was right there), and I made a last minute trek to Mie for one more visit with Ryusuke and Mariko.
I also said good-bye to a lot of people.
First, I said good-bye to my third year students, the ones I came up with, when they graduated in March. A year prior, I had revealed to my JTE that I was going to stay one more year because I wanted to see “my class” graduate. She told them this and they were really touched and excited, and, damn, you guys, I miss them a lot. They were a great group of kids, and we got along really well.
One of my favorite memories comes from that class, actually. Back in October 2014, I dyed my hair red over a weekend. When I came to school on Monday, no one said a thing. No one noticed that my head had become a completely different color (albeit a natural-ish one).
Until sixth period, when I had a third year class. I walked in and they immediately began to yell about my hair in broken, frantic English. “HAIR COLOR. CHANGE HAIR. COLOR CHANGE HAIR! HAIR COLOR CHANGE!”
I played it off for a while. “What are you guys talking about? My hair has always been this color. Are you crazy?”
They began to get this look on their faces, like they were thinking, “Maybe we are crazy,” but one student, Tomoya, was looking at me with suspicion. Then he slowly stood up and, pointing his finger at me, yelled, “YOU ARE A LIAR!”
I will never forget how hilarious that was. They’re gonna take on the world someday. And they’ll be brilliant.
July rolled around more quickly than I can explain (temporal flux?) and then I decided I didn’t want to leave.
Not right away, anyway.
I made arrangements to extend my Visa a little (to a visitor’s Visa) and when the new JETs arrived, I moved into my friend’s apartment for a week. I had final hurrahs with everyone, going to karaoke ONE LAST TIME, enjoying a local fireworks festival with everyone ONE LAST TIME, and having lunch/dinner with friends, coworkers, and the Board of Education.
One. Last. Time.
Except not, because I absolutely plan to visit in the future, and guys, we have the internet now!
It’s the end of an era, but not the end of everything. It’s a See You Later, not a Good-Bye.
The Last Day
My last day in Japan was August 6, 2015. Enoguchi and I had a lot to do—we had to cancel my cell phone contract (expensive), close my bank account (easy), and give my car away (aww car). We had decided a while ago to just throw my car away, because it’s very old. Throwing your car away is expensive, but the car shop we usually deal with offered to take it for free—to sell for parts and then junk when they were finished. This seemed to be the best last-minute deal I was going to find, so on my last day, we dropped the car off at Tomono Motors (I still have opinions about that place) and I said good-bye to Cricket.
When we were finished with slowly pruning away pieces of my life in Japan, we drove to my school, which is located right at the end of the highway. My JTE had expressed disappointment when I told her what day I was leaving. She said that she usually sees her ALTs off at the airport, but that she had a meeting that day.
Luckily, my flight was in the evening and her meeting ended just in time. So Enoguchi and I picked up my JTE, the music teacher, the vice principal, and the science teacher, and we got onto the highway and drove to Narita Airport together.
My JTE told me that I was the first ALT that she had worked with for more than one year. Every other year, either she transferred schools or the ALT changed. She said she felt that we worked very well together and that it wouldn’t be the same without me and that she would miss me, and, ah, fuck me, I teared up behind my sunglasses. I thought I was going to be able to hold it together, but these people kept pushing my Feels Button.
On my last day of elementary school back in June, I finished up my fifth and sixth grade classes and then walked around the school to thank all the teachers I had worked with. They were very sad that I was leaving and told me good luck, but when I got to the fifth grade teacher, the tide came in. She said that before, she didn’t really like English and wasn’t very interested in learning it. But working with me for two years and exploring it with the students kindled her interest and now she wants to learn more. She started to cry and said that she would miss me and asked for my address, because she wants to send me postcards.
And you know what? Driving home from elementary school that day was the only time I actually sobbed about the entire leaving process. Because, shit, I did something. I changed someone. Someone was going to cry like that for me.
A lot of people I worked with expressed anxiety about the new ALT, about having to adjust to working with a new person after getting used to me and me getting used to them, and I kept telling them that it would be fine, that they probably thought the same thing when I came in as a new ALT, that seriously, you guys, I’m not that great, everything will be fine.
But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe I did something with my time in Japan that I didn’t even notice while I was busy just being me. Maybe I made a difference somehow.
That’s not a feeling that everyone gets to have in their life. That they made a difference. That they touched someone’s life in a way that, even if they forget you, will stay with them forever. Because I was only there for three years, and I’m sure that they will all eventually forget me (Megan who?), but at least for a little while, their interest in English and the rest of the world increased just a little bit.
And isn’t that all a “grassroots international liaison” can hope for?
So we said good-bye at airport security and took our final pictures together, and I walked down the stairs to customs, waving at Enoguchi and my former coworkers until we couldn’t see each other anymore, and stepped across the threshold into my next adventure.
Things I Will Miss and Already Miss
Thank you Japan and everyone I met there. I’m definitely not lying when I tell you that I’ll never forget you.
I really won’t.