It’s been a little over a year since I came back home after 4 years on JET. It took me 11 months to finally get some form of employment and along the way I seriously considered abandoning all things Japan as it seemed to only continue to slap me in the face. In the course of trying to get myself together, I found it helpful to re-read this blog. On doing so, the omission of certain things that happened in my JET tenure really stood out and bothered me.
I always hesitated to write something like this given the very personal nature of the things that happened to and around me. On the one hand, it might help people struggling with the same types of issues, as these are things that I think tend to get shoved under the rug, or brushed aside with thoughtless though oft-repeated comments. JETs are constantly warned about “culture shock” as if they’re blank slates who go to Japan with zero problems and culture shock is the only thing they have to worry about. But obviously, that’s not the case.
On the other hand, I get the impression that more ALTs have the experience of living relatively isolated from other foreigners; not all prefectures let ALTs live in the kyoushokuin juutaku (teachers’ apartments) so ALTs don’t usually end up, if only temporarily, outnumbering the Japanese residents in a building as was the case where I lived. Not only that, but the reason I ended up dealing with some of these things in the first place was simply that I spoke more Japanese than the other ALTs around. The likelihood of someone going through these same types of things as I did is low.
So I started writing the post thinking I should keep it private. In the course of looking through old emails and FB messages to confirm the things I’d only hinted at in previous blog posts, I gained some new perspectives, and have found writing this to be very helpful in letting go the anger that plagued me in my last two years on JET and into the one year afterwards. It is, in essence, a self-debrief. Having looked back, I can move forward a bit more easily. And because of that, I think it’s better to go ahead and add this to Lucky Hill, and finally put behind me the JET chapter of my life.
TRIGGER WARNING: This includes a somewhat graphic description of someone dealing with substance abuse, and some talk of depression, suicide, and a passing reference to the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.
There were three major things that contributed to me generally hating the last 2 years I was on JET, in private if not in public. Those are the things I’ll write about here, though there were a multitude of little things that snowballed into my massive internal clusterfuck. All the names used below are last names randomly generated with fakenamegenerator.com, and I refer to every person with the pronoun “they” to mask their gender. I’ve given the five high schools involved the names Diamond, Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze according to their academic rank relative to each other, not my feelings for them, as their ranking plays a major role in this story.
The Story Behind The Transfers
In this post from July 2011, I gave a little bit of background about how I came to be transferred out of my first school. In brief, the only thing I knew at that point in time was that money issues were “probably” the reason the majority of schools which employed 2 full-time ALTs would go down to just 1 full-time ALT. In the end, to my knowledge, only one or two high level schools got to keep their ALT pair. All other pairs were disbanded. But there was, in my case, something else in play.
As chronicled in the post I linked to, I had found out about the August transfers in April of the same year. But, in January of that same year, I’d actually heard that one of the top schools in the whole prefecture, let’s call it Diamond High, didn’t like its ALT and was going to poach one who was more to its liking from another school. (Note that Diamond High had only one ALT, and was therefore not affected by transfers enacted as cost-cutting measures.) I was in disbelief, but still, I didn’t think it would affect me and forgot about it. But it did affect me. It’s not that I was poached by Diamond High—ultimately they got a completely new ALT rather than stealing an old one—but Diamond High’s ALT was the one who took my place at my school. Let’s call this ALT Byrd.
What I heard before I met Byrd was that teachers and even parents at Diamond High were complaining that students’ English work was being checked incorrectly, and that Diamond High was actually sending some assignments to another school’s ALT for checking. I heard this from the one doing said checking. So at the time, the picture as I put it together was that Byrd’s performance was very poor but that rather than simply deny this person a second year, the Board of Education instead decided that this person was good enough to teach the struggling children at the lower ranked Silver High (my school) and Bronze High. While the ALT position at Bronze High was opening up due to the ALT returning to their country, there was no such opening at Silver High. Someone needed to be moved. And so, rather than end up working at both Silver and Bronze High because of the cost-cutting measures, I was transferred to Gold High so that Byrd could take my place. That an ALT which the elite school deemed unsatisfactory was sent to the much lower ranked schools made me absolutely furious. I felt like the Board of Education was insulting the very students it should be looking out for. Anyone with half a wit should know that the poorer a student’s performance, the better the teacher needs to be to get through to them.
What I heard from Byrd themselves, a year after the transfer, was that Diamond High was aggressively pro-American, to the point it made Byrd teach about American culture despite the fact that Byrd wasn’t American. In light of that, it made sense that Byrd was transferred rather than denied a second year; they never should have been placed at Diamond High to begin with. As for papers being checked incorrectly, I don’t know what the problem was exactly. Was Byrd careless? Were there too many mistakes to actually correct them all?
I never got a satisfactory official answer; this is the picture I got after speaking to all the ALTs involved and from what people privy to more information would let on. The ALT in the prefectural office, the “prefectural adviser” or PA, told me that “it’s not just you” and that “certain ALTs needed to be moved, and that meant moving other ALTs.” The fact that it wasn’t just me didn’t console me at all. If anything, it made things worse. Were all of those other ALTs who needed to be moved also poor matches for their particular schools, or were they bad ALTs who were allowed to stay because it seems to be an unspoken rule to let ALTs stay on through their 3rd year even if they’re not that good?
I can best sum up my feelings about these not-just-me transfers with something I wrote to my former co-ALT at Silver High: “they’re shuffling us around like pedo-priests.”
My Second Predecessor
The silver lining in my being transferred to Gold High was that since it was an academically superior school, it couldn’t be thought that I was being punished for poor performance. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to going there. Not only because I genuinely cared about the students at Silver High and was loathe to leave them, but because of Gold High’s departing ALT. Let’s call this person Bridges.
Bridges was a graduate of a prestigious university, had lived abroad previously, and was assigned to work at Gold High. Bridges spoke no Japanese, and since they lived in the same building as I, from the day they arrived I offered to help, translating between them and the building manager. The first time Bridges contacted me for help was to ask that I tie their clothesline to the posts that were on the veranda for that purpose. I figured that Bridges was getting hit pretty hard by culture shock if they couldn’t tie a rope to a post. So I went up to their apartment and did it. But that was only the beginning.
The requests for help with the most basic things became the perpetual background noise of my second year, the verses of perplexing requests punctuated by a chorus of complaints about Japan. I was trying to figure out if Bridges was truly completely helpless but had somehow managed to graduate from a top university, or if they simply got a kick out of seeing how high they could make other people jump. Bridges started counting down the days to their departure with a countdown widget on their computer and by making huge X’s on their paper calendar as the days passed after having been in the country for only a couple of months.
And so, once I took Bridges’s place at Gold High, it would bug me when I’d be at school and it was plain that the teachers and students had been so in love with Bridges, yet the students were downright cold to me, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, “This person complained to me about your country on countless occasions, actively refused to study Japanese, called the country ‘backwards,’ and I know you don’t know that but I do so it bugs me, and I’m busting my balls for this school but that’s apparently not worth a shit because what? Because I’m not white? Because I didn’t go to an elite university? Because I’m actually fluent in your language? What kind of joke is this, Universe?”
In my very first lesson, my self introduction, as usual I asked if anyone had any questions. A boy raises his hand and says, “Where is Bridges?” That was the very first question I got from a student at Gold High.
I’m not entirely mad at Bridges because sometimes we’d have really interesting conversations, and I’m fully aware that I let certain things go on when I should have put my foot down. I was a bit of a doormat. I didn’t call them out until the very end. They sent me an email saying “You’re my successor so I’m going to need your help moving out and such.” I couldn’t help it and told them, “I think you’ve got that backwards.” It wasn’t until after Bridges returned to their country that I was a bit more open with them about what I thought of everything that had transpired. I was very surprised to get a reply saying that they were aware of the impression they must have given, but that while they were unhappy in Japan, they had enjoyed working at Gold High. What strikes me now as I reread those messages was that Bridges said they were just having a hard time because they were unsatisfied with where they were in life itself. When I first read the messages 3 years ago, I understood the words but it would be one more year until I personally understood their meaning, and I can empathize with Bridges a little more now, though I’ll always wonder about what really makes them tick. But as I’m writing this in chronological order, there’s one big thing I’ll write about first.
Living With Someone Else’s Substance Abuse Problem
In June of 2012 I wrote a cryptic post entitled “It’s Been…It’s Been.” Unlike what I wrote there to keep from saying what had really happened, this disease didn’t just “pop up.” What happened was no surprise at all. At least, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who knew what was going on with a certain ticking time bomb. Let’s call this bomb Thompson.
Thompson was an alcoholic. An alcoholic in a country that doesn’t think alcoholism is a thing, which is a dangerous combination. At some point in Thompson’s first year, they were involved in a bar fight with a couple of Japanese people. That’s all that Thompson themselves told me; other accounts had the ring of an urban legend as far as the number of opponents and who they were. Regardless, beating at least two bar patrons up didn’t get Thompson kicked off the JET Program, perhaps because what you do when you’re drunk in Japan tends to be forgiven. Or maybe Thompson really did beat up the cops who arrived on the scene and the cops were too humiliated to press charges. Who knows. In any case, Thompson was allowed to do a second year at the prestigious Platinum High.
As the months wore on, Thompson’s problem seemed to be progressing. They injured themselves in drunken falls a few times. Nothing too severe, but enough to be a pattern. Several pieces of furniture in their apartment were broken, perhaps also from Thompson falling on them. Even the toilet was broken, and Thompson began regularly going to the nearest conbini to use the bathroom. Then one day, when I went to the supermarket across the street, this cashier who had never before spoken to me save to say “irasshaimase” asked me, with a very sour look on his face, “how long have you been in Japan?” I answered “three years” and he asked, “Do you live in the apartments across the street?” When I said yes he just sort of went “hmph” and that was the end of that conversation. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had something to do with Thompson.
Things came to a head when, in early June of 2012, one ALT came home around midnight and found Thompson unconscious in the stairwell in a pool of blood and spilled food from the conbini. That ALT called another, and that ALT called me. I in turn called an ambulance, then I called the prefectural adviser, who mostly just said “keep me posted on the situation.”
Apparently, Thompson had struggled up the stairs, eventually tumbling and hitting their head against the concrete stairs, ending up with two gashes which were bleeding profusely.
On the ambulance, it became clear from the prescription cards in Thompson’s wallet that they were getting meds from a bunch of different hospitals. The ER staff wanted to run tests and stitch up Thompson’s injuries, but the nurse asked me to sign some releases first. I felt uncomfortable signing such papers; I was neither a family member nor a co-worker, and those papers essentially said that if something happened to the patient while the hospital was giving treatments, the hospital was not responsible. We could smell the alcohol on Thompson but had no idea whether they had taken drugs too. So if something happened to Thompson as a result, their family would probably blame me in turn. I signed the releases and then called the prefectural adviser again, hoping Thompson’s supervisor was coming, or at least the PA themselves, and was frustrated to be told “there’s nothing I can do right now” and “I’ve called the only person I can contact.” I knew there was nothing the PA could have done but it would have at least made me feel less like I was suddenly solely responsible for the life of this person who, for all I knew at that point in time, was perhaps about to die from mixing meds and alcohol.
After two or three hours Thompson finally regained consciousness, and became a bit belligerent when one of the other ALTs suggested we call their parents. The doctors said Thompson would be fine once the effects of the alcohol wore off; Thompson was kept overnight for observation and the rest of us were sent home. I spent what little was left of the night cleaning the mess in the stairwell and wondering if I would have to leave work to go to the hospital again in the morning if the PA didn’t contact someone from Thompson’s school.
Luckily, the right people were eventually contacted. But it didn’t seem to me like anyone realized the extent of Thompson’s sickness. Thompson was persuaded to speak to a counselor, but the counselor was in Tokyo. There was no Fukuoka chapter of AA, and I bet even if there had been, the hard part was finding a counselor who could speak English. In any case, Thompson, or their addiction rather, was telling these people, who didn’t see Thompson on a day to day basis, what they wanted to hear; meanwhile still drinking and abusing prescription meds. Even a whole week after the incident, Thompson still hadn’t contacted their parents. Thompson was slated to do a third year on JET despite the fact that their school wasn’t even letting them teach anymore. I was afraid that I’d come home, any day, to another disaster. The other two ALTs who witnessed things that night were on edge too. I started writing to the PA about everything I was seeing going on, and emphasized that Thompson was no longer in control of themselves, that the addiction was in the driver’s seat, and that the only thing that could save them was the kind of rehab that wasn’t available in Japan.
Eventually, the extension of Thompson’s contract was revoked, and they returned to their country. I don’t know if they ever went to rehab, but I pray that they did. It was heartbreaking to see someone become an empty shell. The moment their eyes went dead once the drugs had taken effect, the way they’d respond to a question that had been asked 15 minutes earlier, the state of their apartment…when I said the toilet was broken, I didn’t mean it didn’t work. I meant the porcelain bowl was broken in half, there was water and urine pooled on the bathroom floor. The night we found Thompson, when I went back to clean the stairwell, I’d doused the bloodied concrete with a full bottle of bleach but the gooier puddles of blood wouldn’t budge. I left a note on the neighbor’s door apologizing for the blood in front of his apartment, which I covered up with paper towel. The incident and the days following were so disturbing, half the juutaku was on edge, and it made me even angrier that Thompson had been allowed to go on in Japan, slowly destroying themselves, for what? So that someone somewhere could save face? I was angry at the people in kenchou, for being up there in Fukuoka City, making us shoulder this burden while they stayed over there, not witnessing things with their own eyes, apparently not listening when people were telling them “This person’s life is in danger and that’s also dangerous for all of us.” Part of me felt selfish for not wanting this burden on me, but I also knew that nobody there could give Thompson the help they needed. I felt like there was no justice, and lost all respect for the people in the prefectural office.
In retrospect, the only slack I can cut the PAs and other people in kenchou comes from the assumption that Thompson wasn’t the only four-alarm fire they were trying to contain. There were two other ALTs, not in my juutaku, who suddenly disappeared; I later found out that one had been fired and deported for shoplifting, and another one had decided to stop taking their meds and had a breakdown.
The Crash of 29
I turned 29 in my 3rd JET year and dreaded the approach to 30. It’s not that I have a fear of getting old. The source of my anxiety was the thought that I was getting absolutely nowhere in life, professionally and personally. I was in a temporary dead-end job where I felt like a joke. Each year at Gold High, my class became less and less important, and it wasn’t terribly important to begin with. I could count on less than a fourth of the students in any given homeroom to participate, the majority of them addressed me by my name only even though I explained countless times that teachers in the States are referred to as Mr. or Ms. Last Name, and I was teaching a class worth 10 points of another class’s grade. Sometimes teachers needed more time to catch up on their lessons and would ask to do a swap with my class, essentially giving me one of their post-test (read: lame duck) periods in exchange for one of my pre-test periods. Still, that was better than when one teacher started straight up asking to have the “Team Teaching” periods, and one time even told the students that they weren’t going to have my class without bothering to fill me in on the fact until the morning of.
In my last term there, the teachers wanted to make it so that all the homerooms had the same number of Team Teaching lessons before the tests. Which sounds reasonable, except for the fact that most homerooms were slated to have 4 lessons, a couple ended up with 6, and another couple had just 2 (the Monday classes, which get cut because of national holidays), and the teachers wanted to make it so that all homerooms had only 2. Yet they still expected me to give the students a test! On two classes’ worth of material?!
The teachers would tell me that the Team Teaching class was “important” and “good for the students,” yet their actions showed me that it wasn’t. Or at least, it wasn’t nearly as important as the other English classes. On the one hand, I understood the teachers’ dilemma: their job was to prep students for the Center Test, not teach them about culture or spoken English or being creative or how to guess the meaning of unknown vocabulary by learning the prefixes, suffixes, and root words that compose much of the modern English language, which are the things I would make the Team Teaching class about. But understanding the teachers’ dilemma didn’t make me feel any more useful. It only magnified the pointlessness of my being there. I believed I could teach the students things that would be both fun and make it easier for them to pass the Center Test, but increasingly, the time for me to do that would get taken away, and most of the students didn’t take my class seriously anyway. I couldn’t reach them, I didn’t know how to reach them, and I was exasperated. I tried to focus on the ones that listened just to keep my sanity. But I don’t believe that’s a sustainable teaching policy, and it’s not fair to the students.
On a personal level, I hadn’t made many friends in Fukuoka and figured the ones I had would cease to be friends in any meaningful way once we were no longer living in the same country. I’ve never been a popular person and that’s fine, but everyone needs one really good friend that they can count on for anything, a true confidant. Someone who, if you cry out to them for help, will drop what they’re doing to help you. I had no such person. Another thing bugging me personally was that I had never been in a serious relationship. There’s only been one boy in my life who ever asked me out, and, as luck would have it, I didn’t have romantic feelings for him. That was back when I was 18. In Fukuoka, all around me I saw that single foreign straight men were snatched up quickly by Japanese women and the few Japanese men who bothered to get with foreign women tended to prefer women who were white and didn’t speak Japanese. I know I’m not particularly pretty and weighing more than 50 kilos is the worst sin a woman in Japan can commit, but damn! I thought being able to carry a conversation in Japanese and not smelling bad would count for something. Once everybody around me started getting engaged, married, and having babies, I was basically like “Oh shit. I’m gonna be the crazy spinster cat lady.”
I’ve never been a particularly cheery person but what with all that, I was really depressed for my last two years on JET. My apartment was a raging mess half the time and on weekends I’d often just lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling, surrounded by the empty boxes of chicken nanban bento which I ate for dinner almost every night once I couldn’t be bothered with cooking anymore. Most mornings I’d wake up and rue that fact. What perhaps made things worse was that nobody noticed, the people I mentioned my despair to didn’t take it seriously, and I couldn’t take the prefectural advisers seriously after how I’d seen some of them behave in private and what with the way Thompson’s incident was handled, so I didn’t go to them. I didn’t feel there was anyone who would actually listen to my concerns instead of just being condescending with comments like “You think you’re the only one with your problems?” or “You’re just being negative.” Interestingly, the fact that I was going to the gym regularly was apparently taken as evidence of my being okay. To me, those were two completely separate things. In fact, I often went to the gym precisely because I was furious and figured it was better to go lift and press the hell out of really heavy stuff than lose it and cuss someone out. It’s really funny to me that other red flags, such as direct statements like “I’m going insane,” can get ignored just because there’s this one supposedly good thing going on.
And so, having lost faith in the JET Program, or at least in my part in it, worried about going nowhere in life and potentially having squandered my 20s, spending so much time helping others while others treated me as if I were some sort of psychological Clydesdale whose feelings didn’t need to be considered, and people, American and Japanese alike, making ridiculous assumptions about me, I decided to leave before I went and made a mess that would be a hassle for someone else to clean up.
I came back to the States running on fumes. Between the psychological fatigue and the physical jet lag, I was out of commission for practically a month. I’d fall asleep for 8 hours, wake for 8, then collapse asleep as if someone had pushed my power button. That had never happened to me before.
I didn’t experience re-entry culture shock at all. Part of the reason was that I’d had it too rough for too long in Japan to miss it. Apart from the drama and loneliness, going from living in the dilapidated teachers’ jutaku, a mess of concrete with very little by way of green spaces, to living at home, where my now retired mother had turned the small yard into a miniature forest, it was not a hard transition to make. I do want my own space soon, but as apartment living isn’t good for me, I have to postpone that dream until I can afford to buy a house.
I think the other reason I transitioned back easily was that I felt I wasn’t leaving Japan so much as taking a much-needed break from it. I knew that I wanted to go back to Japan for sure for GACKT’s next huge concert (which was supposed to be this year but has been pushed back to 2015), if not to work. That’s because my post JET plan, as of February 2013, had been to go work for a certain video game company which has an in-house localization department and had been recruiting at the Life After JET Conference. I was too busy and stressed with work to get my application in while still in Japan, but when the job posting appeared again in October of 2013, I finished getting my stuff together (rirekisho, shokumukeirekisho, and creative writing sample) and finally applied. I got rejected but I knew the creative writing piece I’d submitted was probably weak, and since they say you can apply again, I enlisted the help of a writer I’d met in Fukuoka and with their advice, submitted a much stronger story. Well, maybe it still wasn’t good enough, or maybe they just didn’t want to hire from overseas even though the jobs FAQ said applications from overseas and from non-Japanese were welcome, but I was rejected again. Oh well.
I applied to jobs in the States with no luck. The turning point was in mid-March and early-April, when I had two head-scratching interviews at a Japanese place in downtown Detroit. I was told I was overqualified for one position but was interviewed anyway, and was asked to go interview for another position for which I wouldn’t be overqualified. Still, one interviewer in particular repeatedly asked me, “Are you really going to stay?” and nothing I said could convince them otherwise. They emphasized, over and over again, that “the American staff always quits.” I didn’t even know how to respond to that. I thought, “Wouldn’t you normally want to hide it if you had such a troubling turnover rate? And what are you trying to imply, that Americans’ work ethic isn’t as good as that of Japanese people? Maybe you’re the reason they keep quitting!” To make matters worse, the Japanese staff had been horrified that I lived within city limits, laughed at the fact that I had walked to their office, and as I left, laughed while saying, 「お散歩を楽しんでください」(“Enjoy your walk.”). In contrast, the American staff had all been very friendly about my Detroit address, assuming that I lived in downtown, which even in Detroit affords a certain status, especially now with all the gentrification.
I wasn’t hired. I had been unemployed for 8 months at that point, and I had thought that was my best shot. But more than anything, the Japanese interviewers’ treatment of me had left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I felt that it was stupid to continue trying to get anywhere with Japan-related anything. So I applied to graduate school, my last resort, so that I could study something that, unlike my previous degrees in Fine Arts and Asian Studies, led to something very, very specific: a proper career in teaching. After passing the Professional Readiness Exam of the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, I got into the Masters of Arts in Teaching program, concentrating in Visual Arts Education, at my alma mater, Wayne State. The goal is to be an art teacher in Detroit Public Schools. My experiences post-JET led me to believe that, even with the city’s bankruptcy, and even though art and music teachers have always been the first to get the axe when the money runs out, I still believed that shooting for art teacher in a place I’m a part of is a more logical choice than trying to convince people who will always see me as an outsider that they should hire me and treat me with a modicum of respect.
It ended up being that about three months after the decision to apply to grad school, I found out about some freelance translation work available through a few different sources. One was gengo.com, a crowd-sourced, anonymous translation service. The pay rate isn’t good unless you can translate really fast, but it is very easy to get started (no resumes, you just have to pass their translation test) and you don’t have to spend time looking for clients, the work comes to you. Another was with a certain mobile game company, but I was freaking out for a while because it took a month from the time they said they’d hire me to the time they actually sent me work orders. I submitted my first order last Friday, have another one due in three weeks, and will hopefully get more orders after that.
So, it seems that I will continue on in Japan-related somethings for a while longer yet. I feel like there’s a lot of uncertainty in both freelancing and trying to be an art teacher, but hopefully one or the other will pan out. And if they don’t, I’ll make a cat calendar and sell it online.
To end on a cute note, here’s a little surprise I got in the mail this past July. It’s a notebook with messages from the members of the English club that I knew (that is to say, it doesn’t include freshmen members who joined after I’d left), a few of the members who’d already graduated, and some of the English teachers.
With luck, GACKT will start his tour in the summer like he said he would and I can go to Japan for a two-week period that would include at least one concert and at least my second school’s culture festival, so that I can see the last set of students that I taught. Well, the ones that would care to see me, anyway.
This will, in all likelihood, be my last post to Lucky Hill. I think it’s an honest way to close out the blog, and I feel good about that.