Monday, 18 October 2010

Teaching in Dreamland

"You can't be 45 and still working as an ALT, that's just sad..."

"I don't want to still be doing this job at 30. I need to go back home and get a real job."

"I feel like being in Japan is just delaying the real world for as long as possible."

These are a small selection of paraphrased things that I have heard from fellow ALTs over the past few months. It seems to be the general consensus that being an ALT is in many ways akin to being a student - it's fun, and it's fine for now, but to do nothing else for the rest of your life would be rather sad, if not a sign of refusal to grow up.

Now, this is an attitude that I can understand. I've done my degree, I've conducted quantitative research, analysed and written up the results, passed countless exams and written in-depth essays on a variety of topics. And here I am, with my Bachelor of Science from the University of Manchester, reading out "Do you like sushi? Yes, I do!" to a group of slightly bored twelve year olds. I can't help but feel, sometimes, that the massive tuition fee debts - which I will be paying off for most of my life - were unnecessary expenses. Years of knowledge and intelligence - the mind that I have spent over two decades carefully cultivating - seems doomed to disintegrate and regress to the level of a four-year-old who is just learning her ABC.

The common thought seems to be that continuing this well into your 40's is a recipe for braindead soup. But who says you are what you teach? While I have already met and said goodbye to a host of ambitious people, who completed their year or two in Japan and have returned to "real life", I have also met some people who ARE in their 40's and beyond... and still working as ALTs. How would they respond to accusations of being losers, wasters, manchildren? Could it not be more intelligent to stick to a job that you know is easy, fun and rewarding. Isn't that the dream? Why achieve it and then revert to some soul-killing office job? Has it been drummed into us from such an early age that "real" work is hard, boring, unpleasant - and that enjoying your job is somehow wrong, a sign of immaturity or denial? How sad is it that we can't let ourselves earn money in a way that is fun and easy without feeling that we are somehow cheating?

And yet, I understand how people feel. I don't think that I could do this job for more than another year before my brain starts to melt. I love my students, and I have a lot of fun most of the time. Life is amazingly easy and good, and I know that these are the days that I will pine for for the rest of my life. And yet, it's true, there is something unfulfilling about that. It is too easy. Making lesson plans and speaking your native language isn't a real challenge. Perhaps the greatest thing is that I am not making any real difference. I know that my schools would carry on without me, the English classes would probably be the same. Japan doesn't need me. Perhaps teaching in a third world country, where access to education is limited and rare, would bring a greater sense of satisfaction. A feeling that I was making a real difference.

What I wonder about, though, is this idea of "real life". Too many times I have heard people talk about returning to real life, or mention that they are putting it off by staying here. This leads me to ask - if teaching in Japan is not real life, then what is it? Is it a dream? Is it pretend? Are you not actually making money for speaking English with a smile? And, in that case, what constitutes "real life"? What constitutes a "real job"? I'm being paid, I have a contract, heck - I even wear a suit to work - so why isn't this a "real" job? Because it's easy? Because it can be fun? Because it isn't in an office where I push papers around in an anonymous cubicle, under an ill-defined job title and an unappreciative boss?

Here's my two yen - if it's happening, it IS real life. Japan may feel like a fantasy world sometimes, but unless you have slipped into some hallucinogenic coma (you never know, this might all be a product of your sick mind) it is still here, and still will be here when you go back to your own country. In years to come, when you leave this behind and find your "real life", you will think of nomi hodai, karaoke and disturbingly cute characters with fondness... and will you think "that was a good dream"? If you write off these days as a fantasy, as some interval before you start playing the real game of life, then you devalue what you are doing now. Wake up, this IS your real life. Appreciate every beautiful moment of it.

So this is my question to you (and myself, I guess) - how is being a mindless office drone, with the same spouse, house and two kids as everyone else, more "real" than travelling the world and experiencing different cultures first hand? The last time I checked, "real" wasn't a synonym for "normal".

I'd like to hear people's thoughts, so that I can post a follow-up, perhaps with interviews!


  1. Well said. I get criticised fairly often by friends back home and even my family. "Come back to the real world," they tell me.

    To me, the real world is a place where you're not afraid to pursue what you actually want to do, where you can experience something new and refreshing (or stale and irritating, even) on a constant basis, and where you can create the kinds of memories you will constantly relive until the moment you stop breathing.

    Japan is doing this for me at present, although, like you, I probably won't be doing this for a very long time in the scheme of things. But how is getting a stale, boring desk job back in my home country "going back to the real world?" It's confusing, because my "real world" isn't depressing like that. It's a life that's full of adventure, excitement, new experiences, and yes, Mom and Dad, it WORKS, despite it breaking some social norms back home.

    The fact that I get paid a living wage means that it's a completely acceptable and practical way to go through life. It's just that one of the side effects I get from this lifestyle is that I have a great time, nearly all the time. I don't know if I'd categorise the "join the real world" rhetoric as jealousy, but I think it simply stems from a lack of understanding of the unfamiliar.

    We're all pioneers of a sort, doing this, and to the familiar people we've left at home, that's something uncertain and worrisome, because they simply don't know what this lifestyle is all about and how it plays a part in shaping our lives.

  2. Great post! I personally couldn't do this job long term, but I agree that it's wrong to criticize those who do. If they love their jobs, why not?

    This is the best job I've ever had, but I still don't love it (I LOVE Japan though!). There are other goals in my life and I feel that I need to move on. Japan has been an awesomely amazing fun experience, but I don't think staying any longer would change me any more than a year would.

    But if I had come here and realized that I loved this job more than my previous goals for the future, I'd stay. Even if college degrees aren't used in the way they were meant to be used, you learn a lot from your past experiences. It's not all going to waste!

  3. I think it depends what you want your life to be. I've met a couple of English teachers in Japan who actually WANT to be teachers. But they're rare, aren't they? I think it's just that most people who come to teach English in Japan tend to do it because they (a) don't know what else to do with their lives, (b) love Japan and need an excuse to be here, (c) just want a year out before grad school/career.

    I don't think it's at all "sad" to be an ALT at 40, if you actually want to be an ALT. What would be sad would be if someone came here at age 22, became an ALT because they didn't know what else to do with their lives, bitched about their job and being a foreigner in Japan, but stayed for 20 years anyway...

  4. great post! this is something i've been thinking about of late as well... i don't think it's sad in the slightest if you're enjoying your life and what you do at 20 or at 40. at least you're out there giving it a go rather than just throwing your hands up in the air and accepting a dead end job and grumbling endlessly about it. as far as we know, there is only one chance at life so you might as well go out there and experience what you can.
    when it comes to being far away from what you studied by being here in japan, like jenna said, even if it's not being used in the way it was meant to be, being here can give you new perspective on what you have studied and make you see things from a different angle. i've got to admit my australian-anglo-european outlook on the world is changing, ever so slightly, even if i still retain the passion to see more of europe and the world...

  5. Hey nice post - pls interview some of those ALTs in their 40s! I am sure they would have some interesting things to say. I once met a guy in Japan who was 55, married to a Japanese woman and had a young child. At the time he was in a mountain school in Tokushima - last I heard he went back to the US but he was enjoying himself when he went there - his big thing was Dr Zeuss as a teaching aid!