Some people think of teaching English abroad as some kind of paid vacation, or sight-seeing with a paycheck. It’s definitely not that easy. But in the end, it’s worth the challenge.
It was twelve years ago when I called my parents up and announced that shortly after graduation I would moving to Japan to become an English teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Dead silence. I don’t think they thought they heard me correctly. “So you’ve studied Spanish for eight years and you’re moving where?”
Yeah. It was perhaps, one of my less logical decisions, but there were adventures to be had and money to be made.
No, I didn’t speak Japanese, or really know anything about Japan or teaching, but they gave me (along with 3,000 other native English Speakers from around the world) a job anyway. So I got on a plane.
I didn’t really think about it that much until about the second hour I was in Tokyo. All through the airport there was this gauntlet of foreigners every few feet with signs for JET and big smiles. I got settled into the hotel and then went out to stretch my legs.
I rounded the corner outside the hotel and looked around to find I was the only foreigner in sight. Moreover, every single sign was in Japanese and completely unintelligible to me.
That’s when it hit me…this was not Wisconsin, this was not even Spain, which while foreign was still familiar and comfortable. Japan was an entirely different experience than anything I had known. And it just got deeper.
After 3 days in Tokyo, I was whisked by train to a place called Yashiro where me and the other JETs in the Hyogo prefecture would meet our supervisors. It was this surreal kind of game show—a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner on steroids, where foreign teachers were lined up on one side and Japanese employers were lined up on the other side, each of us sweating like pigs in our formal business attire.
Then they called my name and I rushed down the aisle to meet my supervisor for the next two years.
The car ride away from Yashiro was one of the longest of my life. I had left behind the bright lights of Tokyo for swampy green rice fields buzzing with giant cicadas. My supervisor was a man of few words. We just kept getting farther and farther away from civilization and each town we passed he would say “This is Kasuga.” And then at the town limit he would say. “That was Kasuga.” It went on this way for about 2 hours until he finally said “This is Kaibara.”
This was the town I couldn’t even find on the map to show my parents where I was going to live.
The next two years were filled with adventures, like the first time I walked into a classroom and my entire class screamed because they had never seen a black person in real life. It took them a full 15 minutes to calm down after that and then I was supposed to teach, something I had never done and expected to have some kind of instruction in before actually having to do it.
I joined a soccer team and competed nationally against other hung-over English teachers. I did sake shots with the old men from the Board of Education and learned the words to every Beatles’ song so I could take part in karaoke. I visited as many hot springs as I could and both fascinated and terrified people with my tattoos and large brown nudeness.
It was a time of travel and laughter, ridiculous situations, embarrassment, and great learning. I did even manage to teach some English and even learned some Japanese.
More than a decade later, despite the absurdity of it all, I can honestly say that moving to Japan was one of the better decisions of my life. I was afforded a unique opportunity to become a part of a community, to teach, and also to learn from my students and their country. Compensation aside (and I was surprisingly well compensated between my salary and subsidized car and housing), I gained an experience that has truly served me well.
Professionally, it gave me access to my first job as a study abroad leader, which turned into three summers spent guiding high school students through Hokkaido. Seeing Japan through their eyes helped me to see how far I had come since the days of being that awkward new teacher sweating through my button down shirts and stumbling on my indoor slippers.
Personally, the gains were even greater. It was there in my little country town, with nowhere to hide that I learned how to really be myself.
There were some hard times, some dark moments where I felt isolated, but I learned how to get through it. Knowing I survived helped give me perspective when things got even tougher on my next expedition (tune in for Part 2!)
Japan gave me the gifts of fortitude, the confidence to laugh at myself, and the ability to communicate and connect with people outside the boundaries of words.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.