Last February, I was in my final year at St Andrews and had no idea what to do after graduation. I’d had one jet-lagged interview in January for an English teaching programme abroad, straight after stepping off a plane from Lima. Dissertation panic/mania had not yet set in (take heart, 4th years: it was successfully produced in six terrible weeks). A year later, I’m writing this in the staffroom of a Japanese high school. Outside the window is a large cedar tree and mist rolling off the mountains – really.
If you’re contemplating a year or so spent living at home and backpacking, I have another suggestion: teach abroad. Not hitching between villages and volunteering nomadically, but settling in a community for at least a year, immersing yourself in the culture, and working an actual job.
So: why teach, why teach abroad, and why settle for only one place? I’m now working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) and living in the sunniest prefecture in Japan as part of the JET Programme, an initiative that was set up in the 80s by the Japanese government and is now fundamental to the education system.
I must agree withcomedian Tim Minchin’s suggestion that everyone should be a teacher at least once in their lives, if only for the skills you swiftly develop. In four years at St Andrews I presented to my peers a grand total of once, so presenting at least ten times weekly to a room of uncomprehending and apathetic teenagers was a leap. By the end of your time teaching you will be an expert in motivating, persuading, engaging, and communicating. You will be more flexible than Mr Fantastic and nothing will phase you. (“Sophie, will you give a speech in Japanese/ dance to Japanese pop / perform a comedy routine to 900 students tomorrow?” “Um.. ok!”)
On the other side of the world, co-worker relations similarly present a minefield. Unlike the UK, Japan is a high context culture, so communication is based on a complex intersection of set phrases, interpersonal assumptions, and unspoken hints. The most basic norms we take for granted – like the idea that it’s the speaker’s responsibility to ensure clarity in a conversation – is reversed here. One ALT was asked to translate a memo about rotting food, and only realised three days later that this request actually meant “Don’t bloody leave your sandwiches in the fridge!” And I quickly learned about our school’s dress code after several teachers asked me “Oh Sophie, do you have cold legs?”
However, these cultural and communicative barriers are also a constant source of amusement. Last month in class we talked about New Years resolutions. One boy enthusiastically told me, “Sophie-sensei, this year I will be a man!”
“That’s great, Soujiro-kun!”
“I will move on to the next stage!”
“Oh, good English phrase!”
“I will now have different private parts.”
… I spend a lot of my time trying to maintain teacherly composure.
My fellow teachers are just as awesome. One of them named himself Carlos since he loves South America so much, and is constantly giving me chocolate and asking questions like “Sophie, do you believe in Jesus Christ?” (that was within four minutes of meeting). One day we talked about my trip to my boyfriend’s homeland Peru, a country which holds much fascination here as evidenced by llamas everywhere. As we were looking at a picture of myself and an ancient, toothless local woman in traditional dress, he said earnestly “Oh, is that your boyfriend?”
In addition to teaching, living abroad in one community for an extended period is a unique learning curve. When travelling, you enjoy the frisson that comes from new encounters and contrasting world views, and move promptly on to the next exotic experience. When you put down roots, even if only for 12 months, you can start to break down barriers and promote exchange in a meaningful way.
Sometimes, being in the 1.5% minority of non-Japanese is frustrating. Like when I pass 10 cars in a row whose drivers are staring at me open-mouthed, or when the post office sends my parcels back to the UK because the mailman doesn’t want to ring my doorbell. Japanese people are extraordinarily kind and polite, but this politeness can sometimes be extremely patronising and alienating.
Yet, these challenges have made me more adaptable, and less apt to worry about others’ opinions or social awkwardness. Realising that often your only power is over your own reactions and behaviour can be incredibly freeing. Being utterly removed from old networks and habits shows you clearly what you actually enjoy and want, and what was in fact related to status or social expectation. Shyness has no place when you’re seen as a cultural ambassador, even at your convenience store on a Sunday morning, and self-sufficiency is a no-brainer when you move to the other side of the world knowing absolutely no one.
I’ve mostly talked about the opportunities for personal growth, but that’s to say nothing of the countless moments of joy and wonder I’ve experienced here. Drinking shochu in the moon-shadow of an active volcano, playing taiko drums in a forest by a shrine, being buried to the neck in hot black sand, bathing in hot springs in the snow. I may be returning mid-2014 to a fairly bleak job market in London – the most expensive city in the world – but I return knowing I’ve had more than a glorified gap year. Joining a community to work in a completely foreign culture offers the chance to build both your CV and your character.
Sophie is more than happy to answer any questions about teaching abroad, the JET Programme, or Japan! Or, check out her blog for more information.