Thursday, 10 May 2012

Diary of a JET #7: In which I expound upon the weirdness of ALTs in Japan

What you are about to read is probably going to be an unpopular opinion. You have been warned.

8.10 am and morning meeting begins as the school bell chimes, just like clockwork. The vice-principal bids the staff room a good morning. “Ohayo Gozaimasu,” we chorus back at him. The regular principal does nothing, sometimes he doesn’t even attend morning meeting. He is just a figurehead.

As usual, I understand nothing that transpires; the meeting is carried out in Japanese in hurried, urgent tones. A few staff members stand to deliver small announcements. I sit in my chair in the corner checking my emails, reading other blogs about Japan, googling nonsensical things like how to utilize neon accessories for spring and then pinning it all to Pinterest.

It’s a day like any other. Life here can become so uniform, so regimented, that days start to blend together, becoming just another link in life’s impenetrably-armoured succession of days. This is something that has come to my attention recently, the endless monotonous onslaught of routine. Sometimes I think each day is just a step closer to getting out of here. And then I get depressed because I’m probably not utilizing my time here effectively.
Why have I been lingering over this lately? Well, I hit a boiling point this past Golden Week: I realized that not only was I not utilizing my time in Japan effectively, but that I had not really done so since I had arrived here. Part of the problem is that I still haven’t really made any close friendships or travel-buddies here with which to do awesome travels in Japan. And instead of blaming myself for my bone-idleness and general social awkwardness, I’ve decided to blame everyone around me instead. You see, when ALTs come to Japan to teach, they are normally organized into groups by their contracting organizations and receive both pre-departure and post-arrival training and orientation. Oh, to be that lucky. Some of you may know about the unusual circumstances surrounding my contracting into the JET Programme but let me just bring the rest of you up to speed: they called me and said “Get over here immediately.” So I arrived in Japan in March, by myself, when in a normal perfect world (where I was not born with the worst luck) I would have arrived in July with a group of fellow noobs. 
The lack of training and orientation aside, I also missed out on a very integral experience for many new ALTs, one that many probably take for granted. I was not able to meet and bond with fellow noobs whilst en route to Japan. Not a big deal you are probably thinking, well, there have been some larger ramifications for me. The first of which was that the rest of the JETs refused to accept me into their herd, like I had some unusual stink on me. I also noticed a distinct grouping pattern of ALTs. All the first years together, all the second years together, etc… So where does that leave me who came by myself? Screwed. Mostly I just hang out with the Interac people, a couple of whom arrived in March too but we all know JETs and Interacs are sworn enemies. 

Better post this before someone else suggests it.

Okay, so we have established that I am ‘Nigella No-Friends.’ My point is that I don’t feel it is for want of action on my part. I have done everything in my power to make friends here. Why is it that ALTs are just not interested in setting down roots? I guess I can understand it; if you only plan to teach in Japan for a year, why get attached? I knew an ALT who was returning to their home country after a one-year stint in Japan. We were both members of a small group who had (I felt) gotten close during our time in Japan. I had offered to help him out with packing, etc. because I was his friend (I thought). When I asked if he was looking forward to going home, this was his exact reply: “Of course! It won’t be so bad. That is where my real friends are.” I just kind of struck me as odd that maybe he might not realize that his ‘real’ friends were right here, offering help and fare-welling him fondly. But at the same time, this kind of mentality seems to sum up a lot of ALTs: my real friends and family are back home, I’m just in Japan for the travel opportunities and the super-kawaii-desu-desu novelty of it all. After all, all the awesome stuff I’m doing in Japan makes for great posts on my Facebook wall (for all my real friends back home) and that’s about it. I'm not here to expand my cultural awareness through international friendships or anything.

The other problem with JET Programme participants is that a small percentage of them, I have found, are incredibly inexperienced with regards to interacting with people from other countries and this also inhibits their ability to do basic human things, like make friends with these people from other countries. This is their first time outside of their home country and it shows. Generally, my interaction with this strain of ALT results in them treating me as though I have sub-level human intelligence once they find out that I am from Australia and me deciding to never interact with their childish, ignorant arses every again. Or sometimes they just shout “mate” at me repeatedly. Or mimic my accent like its some kind of novelty. Every single time I run into them. Once I was told my opinion didn’t matter during a discussion because I was Australian and a “convict”. Once I was accused by another ALT publicly (on Facebook) of being a racist and that I had failed in my “responsibility to [Australian] aboriginal people.” Why? Because I posted this (unabridged) comment on my own Facebook wall: “Happy Australia Day!” I was attacked, insulted and accused of being racially biased for the simple act of being Australian. I feel like there is some hypocrisy to be found somewhere in all of this…

Really, the immaturity and offensive racial stereotyping around here can boggle the mind. I have read a lot of blog entries (not just here, but many many places) and articles on Japan Times which take time to discuss and analyze the way the Japanese people and government are racially biased against non-Japanese. But in my experience, I haven't had so much of a problem in this department, but conversely, it is with the non-Japanese (especially the aforementioned culturally inexperienced ALT) that I have seen these distasteful attitudes. If you are planning to join the JET Programme, you had better come prepared for some really ignorant behavior. 
Oh, and to set the record straight for the people who think Australian = unintelligent; I’m Australian and I just received my diploma for my Masters degree at the University of Adelaide, which is a Group of Eight university (one of the top eight universities in Australia) and globally ranked at #92 at the time of my graduation (out of thousands of universities worldwide). At least my university ranked.

#First world problems
The thing is, none of this really makes me that furious. Because, honestly, this whole experience has allowed me to test of the mettle of those around me. Should I be disappointed that these people didn’t pass that test? No. THEY should be disappointed in themselves. I have been the target of a lot of personal attacks lately. If you want to spread false rumours about people; fine. If you choose to believe those rumours about someone who you yourself know little about; that’s even worse. But I’m not mad about any of this. I’m an adult and the JET Programme isn’t high school despite the fact that I constantly find myself surrounding by some amazingly immature people (and I’m not talking about my students). Like I said; you didn’t pass the test. So now I don’t care what you say about me. I don’t care about you at all, darling.

I’ve poured out a lot of hurt into this post today and hey, you’re probably either incensed or thinking I’m the world’s biggest whiner, but if you feel like discussing some of this with me, I’m up for it. Maybe people just don't want to be friends with me, fine, okay, maybe I whinge too much. But I find it difficult to believe that in all my time living in Japan I have yet to make one friend who I will likely stay in touch with after I leave.  I'm not trying to be morally superior here, either. Maybe we are all guilty of poking fun at someone who is different in (what we believe to be) an innocuous sought of way; maybe you have made a distasteful “joke” about someone based on their gender, racial, or sexual background without realizing the gravity of what you have said and played it off as “just kidding” (and maybe this is how I get back at people like that, by posting passive-aggressive comments on my blog). I’m certainly not innocent myself. It is truly saddening to me that we still live in world where this happens. My question is, is this what the world has come to? Is it really this hard to make lasting friendships in this day and age? Leave a comment below.


  1. I totally get what you mean. For me, I know sometimes I'm not the most social person, and so when it comes to friendships, it can be hard for me to bond or get chummy easily with someone/anyone. There's no doubt that there are things like 'real' friends - even I myself feel like there isn't anyone here to whom I can truly bond and pour out my heart & soul, like how I can be with my best friend at home.

    I feel like sometimes people make friends just for the sake of doing it (maybe I'm wrong), so that they can feel like, oh even though I'm in a different country I have a bunch of people who I can hang out with/want to hang out with me. But of course I've met people who are genuine and they hold on to the friendships they've made in Japan dearly.

    So sorry to hear about you getting those discriminatory remarks - some people can be very narrow-minded.

    I'm very thankful for the JET because then I'd never meet so many people from so many different parts of the world, and they've really helped opened up my mind/perspectives. I hope soon enough you can find someone "worthy" of your friendship and goodness. :)

  2. That sucks :( I'm not sure if coming with other noobs helps that much though, really. Chances of having anything in common with any other given JET are slim. You'd think we'd all have an interest in Japan, but I've found even that to be a false assumption. The transitory nature of one year contracts and the language barrier make it really hard to connect meaningfully for me too. I hope things look up :)

  3. Hey Sarah,
    I'm really sorry and sad that you've been treated and feel this way. I was just pondering today on how relationships are perhaps different here because back home one spends a long time in the same society as people and ends up running with people who understand that society the same way they do and hopefully they have things in common. Whereas here we're all the new kid on the block you might have just one of back home, so we all have different expectations. I never considered that some people might be holding back because they don't consider these friendships to be worthwhile. Granted I haven't known people here as long as I have known a lot of friends in N.Z. and England, and I'm more likely to end up in one of those countries than the same country as a friend here; but I've spent more time with some people here than I may have done with some of m closest friends overseas, and I don't consider any one to be my 'real' friends, probably because I haven't had any lifelong friends because I have moved so often and, well, who happens to know and be placed in the same class as decent people they agree with from a young age?
    Anyway, I hope whoever is causing you this frustration gets a wake up call and sorts their behaviour out (especially if I'm one of them) and that I get to enjoy some time with you soon.

  4. Thank you everyone for the positive comments and discussion! I just can't wrap my head around this idea that it is not worthwhile to make friends while in Japan. I guess I just get really frustrated sometimes and I feel like I don't really have anyone in Japan to even just hang out with. Some of the attitudes SOME people I have met in Japan harbour have been a bit of a turn-off too. Is Japan some kind of arena separate from from the real world where actions and words are inconsequential?

  5. Wow, lots of honest thoughts here. I can certainly relate. I came on JET with a group and all, but I felt so awkward and out of place (although that's not unusual for me - I'm quite introverted and don't do well in groups). I instantly bonded with a couple people, who had just as many quirks as me, but they're not in Japan anymore. Now I hardly have a social life, much less with JETs, though my husband is a fifth year. Everyone bonds with their groups, like you said. If not by year, by region. The fact that I work and have a baby puts me into a different category I think. Not that there aren't nice people (JETs, etc.) who want to do things, but... I can never go off and do things whenever I want more or less. But, I know someone who came during my year late, and she also had a difficult time bonding with everyone, also because she was put way out in the inaka and didn't have a car so hardly got to see anyone else.

    Sad too that people make such ignorant and stupid comments. I don't get it either.

    But, just wanted to let you know, you're not alone. I still have difficulties making good friends, and it's annoying because we sort of have settled here and so many people come and go so quickly or completely dismiss us altogether. I know during my first year when I didn't go out to all the parties people started to talk about me being some kind of hermit. I sort of am I guess :), which is fine with me, but I never understood why people cared so much. My only conclusion is that they take it personally, so they project their own feelings of inadequacy of someone else, like, "we're not good enough for her to hang out with us?" Even though, it was never about anyone but me. I don't think people consciously think this, but otherwise I just don't see why people feel the need to talk about ALTs poorly if they don't go out 24/7 and go to ANYWAY....

    If you're ever in Shiz city or the general area, I'd be happy to meet up (depending on schedules and baby and everything). It's nice to meet people who do want to stick around and are more serious. I'm itching to go back to Izu (haven't been since husb's and my anniversary trip last May), but not sure when we'll be going that way. Either way - we should meet up sometime! (And I'm not the type of person who says that without really meaning it; that seems to happen to me a lot too.... :P)

    1. Its a real relief to hear that I'm not the only one who has experienced something similar like this. I know exactly what you mean about people taking it personally every time you cant make it to a social gathering. You and I sound very similar. I can be a bit hermit-y too and I guess people take that to mean I'm a snob or something (sadly). Definitely, if you are ever in the neighbourhood, send me a message on Facebook (I think we are friends on facebook: Sarah O.) ;)

  6. I can relate to a lot of what you say here, Sarah. I, too, felt quite isolated when I arrived in Japan. Although I did train with others (I worked for a language school - I wasn't a JET, ALT or Interac-er), I found them all to be very young and to have a different idea of what they were doing in Japan to me. Having failed at making many non-Japanese friends, I stuck with making Japanese friends. When I left after three years, I had way more Japanese friends than non-Japanese (although I did meet some great Aussies while in Japan). I am still in touch with my close Japanese friends and imagine I will be for a long time.

    As for the stuff about being an Aussie in Japan, I get that too. As a Brit I also felt I was "out of the club", simply because I wasn't American, and got really frustrated at the cultural stereotypes. One of the worst things I had to fight was being told that my pronunciation was "wrong", and that I shouldn't use words like "lift" or "trousers". I went with the flow, though, and just accepted that I was supposed to be teaching American English, and would therefore have to try to sound American.

    Hang in there, try and make some Japanese friends, and don't be afraid to travel on your own - it's fun! ;)

    1. I've been left with little avenue other than to travel by myself it seems! Based on the response to this post I think I'm just going to have to accept that living in Japan is supposed to be a lonely experience.
      Its interesting because when I ask my students where they want to go overseas, a lot of them say London (maybe because of the Olympics this year, I don't know) and to prevent them from learning unique British words and pronunciation is just selling those kids short.
      Thank you for the kind words and to everyone for reading my ramblings!

  7. Hi Sarah,

    Just found your blog, hi!

    I'm Aussie too, and a first year JET. I'm not staying.

    I've felt quite isolated here. Partly it's locality. I'm in a pretty small town. I've been surprised how hard it's been to form good friendships. Especially as on my time on AYAD in Samoa I found it easy to make friends, and had a good bunch of European, Australian, Kiwi and local friends. The American Peace Corp volunteers tended to hang out with other Americans.

    You're certainly not alone in your feelings. I haven't had anyone here be openly negative about Australia, but Americans and American English are certainly the dominant expat group here.

    If you want to meet up in Kansai some time in the next couple of months, let me know!



    1. Wow! Thank you for the kind offer! I will let you know if I'm ever in Kansai for sure!
      Is the reason for your decision not to stay longer than a year because of the loneliness itself? I'm curious.
      Yes, the American expats seem to be the dominant group and tend to just stick to each other. I seem to be something of a novelty to them at best, nothing more.

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  9. Hey Sarah,

    There are a few reasons!

    My city is cutting the JET Programme and replacing us with much cheaper private ALTs, and there wasn't any option for me to move placements.

    That said, if I had had a choice, I would not have stayed - I have very, very little to do at work, and the lack of a decent social life doesn't help either.


    Two more months!



    1. That's very unfortunate! I understand how you feel though; being an ALT is not exactly the most challenging job I've ever had. I hope you have fun with your remaining time in Japan!


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