Last Friday I went to a dinner for JET Programme participants departing for their first year in Japan. They’ll spend a year team teaching English as a foreign language in Japanese schools. Ahh, in so many ways I wish I were joining them. I was there like several alumni advice and encouragement. I enjoyed seeing how excited they all were.
Yet it was sort of weird as I know what they’re stepping into and what they don’t know. Theoretically, they’re well prepared. The JET program has been around for 26 years now and is a great way to experience another country. They provide volumes of solid information, have a good network of Japanese and expats to support the JETs in every facet of life (social, medical, professional, linguistic). Yet till you actually get there, you don’t know how you’ll react to the personalities you work with.
It was cute to hear them discuss what they’ll do when culture shock hits and how they’ll deal with homesickness or boredom. I had the same ideas. Yet I never was bored or homesick. Some of the information I received just was never needed. And some that was needed wasn’t imparted till I was in the thick of things.
My job was often mind numbingly boring. I was surprised that my ideas as a teacher weren’t welcome by 2.5 of the teachers I worked with. (One teacher bought into the idea of communicative English teaching half way.) I wasn’t prepared for the utter unruliness and lack of interest in learning the rebellious clique who ruled the school displayed. Still I coped thanks to my fellow JETs and my own resourcefulness.
I didn’t share that because chances are these JETs will cope too. That’s not the main feature of the experience anyway. These JETs will get to visit an amazing country and most likely get to partake of genuine hospitality, kindness and experiences that a tourist never hears of let alone gets. Ah the village festivals, conversations with students outside class, the ikebana lessons, the kindness of strangers as well as the cold shoulders. That’s the real Japan and they’re lucky to have it.
Even on their worst days, the JETs have a nicer life than the poor souls toiling away at a Korean hogwon or similar fly-by-night language school. It’s a great first job as they’ll make more money and probably have a nicer apartment than those who stay here in the US.