Friday, 8 October 2010

The Other Side of the Coin (and How to Deal with it)

So far my entries have been mostly happy and positive, showing Japan as a magical wonderland and depicting teaching as non-stop fun. Well, in many ways, this is true. But I wouldn't be the objective person that I try to be without telling you about the negatives, too. After all, if you're thinking about coming here, it's only fair that you have all the available knowledge at your fingertips, not just a rose-tinted dream. The higher your expectations, the harsher you may feel the realities. Therefore, I will try to highlight some of the low points - not necessarily about Japan as a country, but about the lifestyle of living here as a foreigner and working as an ALT. If you read it and you still want to come here, then I'm guessing you're tough enough to handle it. However, if it completely changes your mind, then I'm sorry to have burst your bubble. But life is life, and nothing is truly perfect, although I believe that the majority of your experience comes down to your way of perceiving things and of dealing with situations. Anyway...

1) Culture Shock!

Even if you've never been to Japan before, or even travelled to Asia, you're probably aware that it is a very different place from what you're used to. The food is different. The people are different - in dress, manners, language and values.
If you're from a country where you drive on the right, you'll suddenly find everyone driving on the left. If you haven't studied Japanese, you will suddenly found yourself surrounded by pretty symbols that you can't read and fast words that you can't understand (more on language barrier in a bit). You try to order something that looks safe and it turns out to have tiny little fish in it, their tiny eyes staring at you, daring you to try getting a refund when you can't speak the language. You might find yourself totally lost as soon as you enter a train station or try to get on a bus. Most streets aren't named. You wanted pizza but it came with mayonnaise, seafood and/or strawberries. You pressed a button on the toilet and it violated you. You thought the place you wandered into was a bar, but a flirty lady started talking to you, and the next thing you know, you're landed with a 6000 yen bill... what's going on??

Japan is scary at first, and sometimes all you want to do is lock yourself in your room and cry. You will crave familiarity and comfort. This is why one sign of culture shock is surrounding yourself with familiar things - other Western people, seeking out Western food, sometimes a total refusal to speak Japanese. A lot of people who CAN speak it have come here and frozen, almost in denial that they can speak any. At times it feels as if you've wandered onto another planet. Kanji signs could speak of amazing restaurants or seedy hostess bars, and it's as if a large part of the world is closed off to you, an underground world of which only the Japanese know. You might find yourself eating nothing but McDonalds and drinking Starbucks, because these brands are familiar to you. Japan might seem terrifying, alien, confusing, frustrating, and you'll have no idea where to begin un-cracking the code.

What to do? Before you come here - research, research, research. Learn about hostess bars and strange customs and popular food. But better, try to study at least some basic Japanese, and if you don't want to study any kanji then at least know these - is men, and is women - you wouldn't want to end up in the wrong toilet to top off your sense of being lost!
Find some Japanese friends - some will be able to speak some English - or other English-speakers who have a better grasp of the language, or preferably who have lived in the area for longer than you. They will be able to show you which bars, restaurants and shops are good, and will be an invaluable tool for making you feel "at home" in your new life. It's only natural that you will miss home sometimes, but remind yourself of why you came here. It's OK to eat Western food sometimes and to hang out with your Western friends, but if that's ALL that you do, you'll miss out on the cultural experience that you came to enjoy.

Japanese food is nice. Not all of it, of course - I can't stand natto, octopus or anything with a face. But there is also sushi, sashimi, katsudon, okonomiyaki, ramen, curry, yakitori, domburi, udon, yakiniku, green tea... perhaps food that you liked back in your own country, but here it will be cheaper and of better quality. If all you like to eat are burgers and pizza (the stereotype that the Japanese seem to hold of all Westerners) then I do have to ask why you decided to move to Japan in the first place. Sometimes you have to gently push yourself out of your comfort zone... go into an izakaya, order some umeshuu and okonomiyaki (yum yum), see how nothing went wrong and pat yourself on the back. Every experience that you have which turns out OK will show you that you CAN do this. And, if it gets really bad, just jump on a train to your nearest big city (Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo etc) - there will be so many Western shops and restaurants that you won't remember that you're in Japan!

2) Language Barrier, or ええええ?何?分かりません!!

Japanese is hard, and people speak quickly. Moreover, the less cosmopolitan Japanese are not used to foreigners who don't understand them. So, while you may be used to slowing down and simplifying your English, using gestures, for people who don't understand you - this is an alien concept to many. So, when you let them know that you can't understand them, they will simply say the same thing again, or perhaps say it in an even longer and more complicated way. Combined with reverting to the literacy level of a small child (in my case, now, I have the literacy skills of about a 10 year old.... and the conversational ability of a chimpanzee) - the language barrier can make you feel stupid, lost, angry, confused and all those other emotions. Imagine suddenly being unable to read menus, instructions for things, signs on shops, bills that come through your door, even the buttons on your own washing machine... and being unable to ask the average person about them, because you won't understand their response anyway. It is almost inevitable that at some point you will want to scream, or cry, or hit something, whether it's when something in your apartment breaks, you get totally lost or when you accidentally order a fish's face and are forced to pay 4000円 for it...

What to do? First, remember that you are not alone. If there aren't any other English speakers near you, the Internet is loaded with them (Gaijinpot or Dave's ESL Cafe for example) - although some of these forums are loaded with negativity, some people might be able to give you advice on dealing with culture shock and the language barrier. I've found some blogs which explain exactly how to use the washing machines, etc... perhaps in future installments I will do the same! Try to learn as much as you can before you come here. I studied Japanese for a few months beforehand, but it has improved a lot more from being here. If you can learn one new word/phrase and one new kanji every day, you'll be well on your way. There's nothing like the feeling of excitement and achievement when you read an entire sign in Japanese and actually understand it! While it is possible to get by here without speaking Japanese - it is definitely easier in big cities - you are going to have to be good at guessing what people are saying dependent on the context, reading body language and gesturing.

There are times when people who have been learning Japanese for years still get stuck and don't know what's happening. It's a language that takes a long time to understand and perhaps years to master, if one can ever truly master it. Many Japanese people don't know all the kanji that exist. If you are studying it, you will inevitably hit walls where you feel as if you've been studying forever but you're no closer to understanding anything. Well, the only thing I can say is GAMBATTE KUDASAI! Please try your best! When you remember and understand something, or speak an entire Japanese sentence and have it understood, your confidence will increase. You will feel more in control, more connected to your environment and more confidence about talking to people. It's hard, but there are some Japanese people out there with good English, and you can take classes here as well as asking your new friends to help you.

3) Teaching...

As an ALT, I teach about 3 classes a day. The rest of my work day (that's 8-16.10 according to my contract, although it's more in reality due to bus availability) involves sitting at a desk, "preparing" for lessons. Now, when I first started, I delighted in taking the entire day to make a board game, colouring in each panel, laminating and cutting out each card... however, when I used it in class and the teacher (the one I don't like) complained that it was taking too long after 5 minutes I felt disheartened, and discouraged from putting too much effort into making anything again. Now, my games are lazier - I will knock up a worksheet on Publisher in about 30 minutes, print it off and be ready to go. So, preparation doesn't really take that long, leaving me with several hours to... well, write this blog, for example. It gets pretty boring.

On top of that, you might feel that the textbooks used to teach English are useless, stupid and ineffective... for example! The methods that the teachers use here might seem pointless to you. You might not get to do much in class, either - in one of my classes, I stand at the side of the room like a spare part for 70% of the lesson, and then I might be asked to read out some words that the students can repeat or a passage from the book for their listening task, but that's about it. It depends on the teacher. One of them will let me commandeer the entire 50 minutes if I want to, although I have no idea what she really thinks about this. But, what if you try to explain something, and the kids have NO idea what you're saying? What if you bring in a game that you thought would be fun, only to have everyone hate it? What if they don't listen to you, or don't like you??

What to do? Well, how about remembering all the awful jobs you had before this one? Now, you're being paid to speak your native language, while having hours upon hours of free time in which to do whatever you want (within reason). The recommended pastime, though, is studying Japanese. Co-workers who peer over your shoulder (and they do) will be pleased that you are making the effort to integrate, and some will be glad of an ice breaker. Many will also assume that they can't communicate with you and so won't try, so seeing that you're learning their language might make some of them feel confident about approaching you. Some will want to practice their English, anyway - but many will be too shy (and, well, let's be honest - some are just used to seeing a different ALT pass through their doors every year and have no real interest in you)!

As well as being grateful that you have such an easy job, it CAN be fun too! If you have just one teacher who lets you plan fun activities, make the most of it. The internet is LOADED with ESL resources, one of my favourite starting points is Englipedia, as it lists every textbook used in Japan by topic area and contains worksheets and activity ideas for each grammar point. Personally, I never use another person's worksheet because I'm a control freak, but I will use their ideas as inspiration to create my own. Games and activities are a gamble, sometimes. Some ideas will be amazing, others will crash and burn. Expect to crash and burn occasionally - but see it as a learning experience. This idea didn't work, well, now you know not to use it again. Now you have a better idea of what your students like. You mind even find that every class is different, and that some might prefer tame worksheets while others love crazy, chaotic quizzes. Sometimes the children won't listen to you. You won't be given the same respect as their Japanese teachers. Well, deal with it. Most people who come here as ALTs aren't "real" teachers anyway (that is, we don't have any teaching qualifications). Many schools encourage you to eat lunch with the students, too - the idea is that you're their foreign friend, rather than a scary teacher. Most students are quite easy to win over - research what anime, games, music etc is "cool" and mention it to the boys, own some cute character paraphanalia to win over the girls.. I mentioned that I played Final Fantasy, and cooed over Hello Kitty, it seemed to work for a few of them.

If you get frustrated with the Japanese school system and the teaching methods, well, I'm afraid you can't do much about it. This is just how they roll. Remind yourself that you've come to another country, and while they will usually welcome you as a guest, they will not appreciate you trying to push your Western ideas on them. Which brings me to...

4) Different Ideas... meet the Japanese

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that Japanese people think a little differently to Westerners. For example, the emphasis is placed more on the group, and group harmony, than on individual needs. So for us it can sometimes seem that Japanese people are brainwashed sheep, blindly following the herd, obeying their company's whims and never respecting their own or each other's personal needs. They can also seem unnaturally materialistic - obsessed with designer goods, "cute" characters, manga... sometimes it feels that they are in their own little world. You might often find that your students, and even Japanese adults, have no idea of what is going on in the world. They won't know about wars and disasters in other countries, they might not even know about other countries, even their own history. For we Westerners, who hold on tightly to the idea of questioning things and being an individual, this can be very frustrating to watch.

Another thing that can really wind someone up is being treated like a small performing monkey because you are foreign. Speak two words of Japanese and get treated with "WOW, your Japanese is so good!!"... use chopsticks and it's "wow! You're so skilled at using chopsticks!!".... when you first arrive, this might be nice. But if you've lived in Japan for a while it can be massively condescending. You might think - how dare they assume that I'm totally stupid? I've been studying for years!!

Ask a Japanese person their opinion. What do they do? "Ummm, ahh, *sucks air through their teeth*, well, MAYBE, some people think... ". Trying to get a straight answer can be like trying to draw blood from a stone. They will smile and tell you one thing, and then talk about you behind your back (or sometimes, right in front of your face). It can all seem very rude and two-faced, and you might start to feel paranoid.. how do you know if any of these people like
you? Are they just being polite? What are they saying about you behind your back?

What to do? It's quite simple. Again - remember that you are in their country. If you don't like the values, then it's your problem - you're not some moral crusader sent from back home to convert the world to your glorious Western way of thinking... right? Anyway, why does it bother you so much that people act differently to you? Why does it bother you so much when they compliment you on your Japanese? I'd suggest that you look at your ego for those answers.

It is the Japanese way to accept things as they are. It is seen as rude and impudent to question everything. Striving to meet your individual needs at the cost of group harmony is seen as selfish and childlike. Showing your true feelings about something is similar - showing anger or upset is seen as behaving like a small child, and blurting out your displeasure with a situation is very immature. Carrying yourself with dignity and learning the subtle art of saying something without saying anything is very important. Remember how intricate and subtle the Japanese can be - look at their art, their music, the slow act of the tea ceremony. Telling someone else what they think of you while being nice to your face is not seen as two-faced, it is seen as avoiding confrontation and dealing with the situation properly and without unnecessary conflict. Learn to look at the positive qualities in people, and think about your own country. Why is it that there is so much less obvious crime in Japan? Why don't you see enraged, red-faced customers, pumped with self-righteousness, demanding the things that they believe they are entitled to? Why have I never seen a Japanese teenage girl, pregnant and swigging a bottle of cheap alcopops, screaming "SAY IT TO MA FACE, YEH!?" at her drunk friend?

Of course, this is not to say that Japanese society is better. But, it is different, and in time you can come to appreciate the positives. You will also look at your own society in a totally different light. It is true that some Japanese people seem overly materialistic, and while shop attendants are super-polite, people who shove past you unapologetically on trains show a different side. It is my personal opinion that people are generally brainwashed by commercialism, but this is the way that the government moulds its society - you can't blame the individual people. However "brainwashed" they are, many Japanese people that I've met are very sweet, nice, kind people, who like to have fun once the ties are off and the lights are down. And, like in every society, you can find people who are a bit different, who reject the values of their society and might identify more with your Western ideals. If nothing else, let the experience make you more aware of yourself - to learn to bite your tongue before you speak, to be polite to people who you don't necessarily like, and to sometimes put others' needs before your own.

5) Mosquitoes and spiders and heat, oh my! - The Climate

As I covered in my post about the summer, Japan gets HOT from around June-October. This humid heat comes with a fun selection of annoying insects - mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, cicadas to name but a few (meaning I can't think of any more). If you're from the UK you won't be used to most of these things, and finding a cockroach in your apartment can be quite traumatic. Having to hide yourself in air-conditioned rooms might leave you longing for mild British summers and add to any culture-shock type feelings...

As well as the crazy heat of summer, it likes to rain a lot here, too. Winter gets very cold, although I'm yet to experience that yet. On top of all this, Japan gets earthquakes. Touch wood, I haven't experienced one yet, but the area in which I'm living is due a massive one soon (research the Tokai earthquake) so it's a scary thought... if I ever let myself think about it properly, without lashings of smoker-like denial, although I suspect that this is how most people cope with living here.

What to do? Read my "Surviving summer" post for advice. You can buy heat pads for winter, umbrellas for rain and bug spray/sun lotion/cockroach killing magic to deal with most problems, and there are earthquake survival kits available.

As well as these things (and I think I kind of covered several points in each one) there is the lonliness to think about, although it might come under culture shock. 6000 miles away from everybody that you know, living on your own, unable to read, write or speak to most people... it will make you stronger, at least. Luckily, these days, you can use Skype and Facebook etc to communicate with people back home on a regular basis... but is that why you came to Japan? Get out there and make some new friends. While some of the expats you will meet here will be arrogant or reluctant to hang out with you (often known as "My Japan" syndrome, where foreigers want to be the ONLY foreigner), many of them are other people who have moved out here for the same reasons as you. With this one big thing in common already, you might find that you have a LOT in common with some of these people, and make some life-long friends... or if not, at least some decent drinking buddies. Make some Japanese friends - they will help you with the language and showing you around, as I've already said.

OK! That was a long post, I apologise. Any questions? OR any "negatives" that I've missed that people think are important? I'll try to give my response...


  1. I agree, there are two sides to the coin, and that's something I try to mention to others as well. Japan isn't a one-dimensional country!

    Lots of good points, although for winter being very cold - that's relative to where you live. I live in Shizuoka, and it's really not that cold (though I personally feel it's cold b/c I hate cold no matter what form it comes in. And one thing about bug sprays etc., they are usually full of bad chemicals and I wouldn't recommend them - there are natural alternatives as well - but that's just my personal opinion. :)

    Anyway, good job with the rest of it, I'm sure others will find what you've written useful. ;)

  2. Gwynnie I read this and it took me quite a while. You are an amazing writer :) I think you covered just about everything, I can't think of anything you missed. I have been lazy but I'm going to read your blog more regularly now ^^ it's great

    Sian xo

  3. I am pretty much completely opposite from you in opinions about Japan! Maybe it's different for me because I came to Japan having studied Japanese for a long time?

    The only thing I can say that's not just opinion-based (and everybody's welcome to their own opinion, of course!) is that everybody's work situation as an ALT is not the same, so I think it's bad to make generalizations about it just based on your situation... For example, even though you might have a lot of free time, not everyone does. Even though you are allowed to use a computer or supplies at work, not everyone is. Some people have a full schedule of 5-6 classes every day and a lot of planning to do that they have to do at home because they aren't allowed to use the computer at school or supplies to make anything. Hours and hours of free time is a beautiful dream for me, not a reality for everyone...

    It's not "such an easy" job for me because I am constantly planning and struggling to keep one step ahead of things when I have a LOT of lessons and activities to plan and I'm stuck planning for them at home, and I have a lot of special ed. classes to teach and deal with that require a lot of extra time and work. It's really awesome that it's easy for you, but it makes me a little mad that you assume it's the same for everyone else. :/

  4. Hey Amarok, not really, this was about MY experience. If you read the paragraph about the free time you'll notice that I used "I" and "my" a lot. I know that it's not the same for everyone, that's just my experience. I have met some people who have no spare time, often people who work for private language schools, but sometimes ALTs, too. It depends on the school, I suppose. Some will have their ALTs do everything, while others (mine, for example) won't ask me to prepare anything for most lessons..