So I decided to write a blog, and I’d like to explain why.
- Firstly, because I have just moved to Japan. (I arrived on July 31, 2016) and I know I have some friends and family who are interested in keeping up with my adventures.
2. Because even though I’m not particularly gifted at the practice, I enjoy writing. I’m no author and I certainly do-not have a way with words (a quality which I admire so much in others), but writing just feels good. It’s a self-inquiry practice for me, which is very cathartic. I have thought about making a blog for a couple of years now however I always end up scrapping the idea, as I know it won’t be ‘perfect’ and I wouldn’t dare willingly show the world one of my imperfections. But I’m slowly feeling more comfortable with showing my sub-par writing skills to the world as I continue on my journey to giving less-of-a-shit what people think about me. So get ready for bad grammar, poor analogies and typos, woOOooO!
3. And because I have some things to say and a yearning to share. And contrary to what I believed my whole life up until recently, my opinion is valid. While this blog will certainly be a place to update loved ones on my time in Japan, it will be about much more than that, too.
So welcome to Sail on Silver Girl’s blog! Named after a lyric from one of my all-time-favourite songs ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkle. I hope you enjoy your visit!
I made it- I’m back in Japan. Let me explain the events that lead to me getting here…
Growing up, my family usually always had at least one, sometimes two Asian exchange students, many of which were from Japan. Because of this, Japanese culture has always been an interest of mine. In May 2014, my University friend, Emily, and I decided to stop off in Tokyo for a week on our way to backpack around Thailand.
We stayed with my cousin Al, who moved to Tokyo about 15 years ago to be an ALT (assistant language teacher) and my former exchange student Hitomi and her husband Yosuke. Hitomi lived with us in Halifax 11 years ago and met her Japanese husband Yosuke at St. Mary’s University. They became like family and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.
Our three amazing hosts showed us a good time and Emily and I fell in love with Japan. I promised myself I’d be back one day as one week as simply too short to soak in such a place.
Fast forward a year and a half, my sister and I decide to stop into a career fair in Halifax. I had just begun my first year in Fine Arts at NSCAD University so I wasn’t looking for a career, per say, but we figured there’d be free stuff there, lol.
I was approached by a kimonoed lady who asked me if I wanted to live in Japan… ‘I do actually” I told her, and she proceeded to tell me all about the ‘JET Programme’ so I decided to apply. The application process was lengthy and downright annoying to complete. I mailed it off and forgot about it. I knew the job competition was competitive and with no real teaching skills or Japanese to speak of, I had no expectation on hearing back from them. But when January rolled around and they called me in for an interview.
Having read on the Internet and hearing from friends how tough the JET interview was, I was prepared for the worst. Apparently they TRIED to intimidate the heck outta people; ask them bizarre questions and get them to sing songs. It is not uncommon for people to leave in tears. And it was indeed intimidating as hell. But I guess I did all right!
Fast forward to April 2016. I am finishing up my first year at art school, which I absolutely loved, and before heading back there in the fall for 2nd year I wanted to try something new for the summer. My plan was to drive across Canada (one of my life long dreams) and end up in Northern BC to spend the summer tree planting. Road trip plans were made, sleeping bags were purchased and I even spent a couple months working out my wrists and lower back in preparation for a gruelling season of hard labor.
Then, low and behold, I got an e-mail from JET…much to my surprise I had gotten the job. Because of the nature or the pre-departure schedule, I unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) had to give up my tree-planting job. But I flew to BC anyways and worked a short two month contract as an Interpreter for Fort Langley National Historic site in Fort Langley, B.C. (<-A great experience) I spent the month of July in the Halifax area living at my cottage with my parents and sister, Lou. (A bit of a challenging experience) I threw myself a going away party, (to any readers who attended…it really meant the world to me. I felt so loved that night. Thank you) packed my bag and BAM! Japan!
‘Nihongo Wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand Japanese)
I just closed in on one week in Japan. It has been amazing, exhausting, hectic, mind blowing, nauseating, beautiful and heart wrenching.
After completing our pre-departure orientation in Montreal it took three planes, one night in a hotel and about 16 total hours of air travel and we arrived in Tokyo for JET’s Tokyo Orientation. This is where a couple thousand new JETs gather from all over the world meet up in a swanky Tokyo hotel for three nights before sending us off to our respective placements.
Pic from our Pre-Departure Orientation in Montreal. Can you spot me?
Each day was jam packed with seminars, workshops and ceremonies informing us on life as a resident of Japan and as an ALT. Nights involved banquets and dinners and exploring Tokyo. And any free time involved sleeping off jet lag or connecting with fellow JETs. It was nuts. Similar to my Frosh week experience at StFX, it involve non-stop parties, people, information overload and no free time. Combine that with a 12-hour time difference and everyone was absolutely spent by the end of it. It was a really cool experience, though. I met some great folks from all over the world and it certainly allowed me to feel a bit more ready for what was to come. I also got to meet up with Hitomi and Yosuke (former exchange students I mentioned earlier) and my cousin, Al, who live in Tokyo. I only had an hour of free time to spend with them but it was great to see some familiar faces, nonetheless.
After the shit-show that was Tokyo Orientation, myself and about 50 other JETs hopped on another plane and headed south to the Kumamoto Prefecture…home of ‘Kumamon’, Kumamoto’s prefectural mascot, and one of the most famous mascots in Japan (there are thousands of them). There, we were greeted with adorable welcome signs from the area’s current ALTs . What a kind gesture! And we drove off to our respective regions. For me, it was Amakusa.
Warm welcome at the Kumamoto Airport
Kumamon!! I ❤ him
My area has three new ALTs; myself, another dude from Canada and a gal from the U.K. The three of us (plus about ten other ALTs that are already here) live in Amakusa. It’s a semi-tropical island, accessible to the mainland by five different bridges. (Not far from Negasaki) The population is about 91,000 with about 40,000 of those living in the main city of Hondo, which is where I live. The island is known for it’s beautiful beaches, dolphins, dinosaur fossils, pottery and Christian churches, among other things. (It was one of the sites of the Christian rebellion in the 17th century).
A few months prior to my arrival I had agreed to participate in an optional Japanese homestay experience for the first four nights upon arriving in Amakusa. I must admit, I did NOT feel like following through with it when the time came as I was absolutely wasted from Tokyo Orientation and jet lag and I needed some alone to recharge my batteries. But something told me I should stick to my word and so I did. And I’m so glad I did.
I was dropped off at my homestay, which was a beautiful and unusually large home (by Japanese standards) in Hondo, not far from my apartment. My housemother could speak some English (as she studied it in University) and her older daughter (15) could understand some but was very shy when it came to speaking. Their youngest daughter (10) did not know much. With zero understanding of Japanese on my side, there was definitely a language barrier here. Their electronic dictionary was put to good use the past few days.
My house family had received my information in the mail prior to my arrival, so they knew about my food allergies to gluten, lactose and peanuts, which I was grateful for. I figured dealing with these allergies would be difficult in Japan, but it has proven to be much more tricky than I expected. Firstly, besides peanuts, these allergies basically do not exist in Japan. It is very rare for restaurants and cafes to consider allergies or post ingredient lists. Many people do not even know what gluten is. Secondly, unlike in Canada, gluten and lactose are very hard to avoid here. Gluten is in soy sauce and miso, which is hidden in almost everything and a lot of recipes use cream and milk products as well. And thirdly, the language barrier means that I am not easily able to communicate my restrictions to others, nor can I easily scan an ingredients list for my three alimentary nemeses.
I must admit, this whole allergy thing has been hard. They are only something I’ve learned about a few months ago upon getting tested. I was still getting used to dealing with them in Canada but it’s a whole other story here. I absolutely love Japanese cuisine and I pride myself on the fact that I am easy to please when it comes to cooking as I will literally eat anything and I love trying new things. Over the course of the past week at Orientation and with my house family and new ALT friends, the issue of my allergies has come up so many times. People have been so kind and helpful and they’re trying their best to ensure I don’t eat anything I shouldn’t… I really appreciate that. My house mom, for example, was so worried about it that she ordered a big box of gluten free food off the internet and had it there for me when I arrived. (What a freakin’ sweetheart). But all of the fuss has left me feeling like a real nuisance and somewhat embarrassed. Not to mention, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out on all of the delicious Japanese eats. On a few occasions, I downplayed the seriousness of my allergies and stopped all the fuss and simply ate whatever it was that we were unsure about, in the hopes that it would indeed be gluten, dairy and peanut free. This resulted in three or four cases of feeling sick and bloated (pregnant might be a better term here) and hazy. The gluten also affects my brain quite a bit and leaves me feeling depressed.
These allergies are something I’m going to have to learn to live with and I will, even if that means missing out on all of the delicious and inexpensive food in this amazing country. I also vow to try to stop being embarrassed by my condition and feeling badly about troubling people because it. I am a people-pleaser by nature, something that I’ve become more aware of recently, which goes hand-in-hand with the core belief that I’ve held for probably my whole life entitled “I’m not good enough”(more on that later). My attempt to ignore or downplay my dietary restrictions for the ease of others is certainly no exception to my people-pleasing character.
Anyways… back to my week
My first night in Amakusa, my house family and I had a lovely dinner of sushi and sashimi and salad (yum) and I passed out cold at 8pm. I woke up to amazing allergen free breakfast complete with: nato (gooey fermented soybeans…you either love it or you hate it) salad, pickled Japanese raddish, cereal, rice, miso soup, eggs, grilled salmon, sausage tea and juice. What a spread! All of our meals together were delicious and expansive like this.
The next two days were used to help us get settled in our new home. The six of us (me and my two fellow ALT noobs, two current ALTs and our Supervisor) packed into a van and made stops around the city to set up our bank accounts, cell phones, car insurance, check on our apartments, etc. I was so grateful for all of the help I received in doing these things. I couldn’t have done it without my supervisor and the other ALTs, who answered our every question and acted as translators. God love them. This also gave us time to hang out and get acquainted.
Mornings and evenings I spent with my house family, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. The two daughters were absolutely lovely, not to mention brilliant. Despite the language barrier, we still enjoyed our time together. Well, I did at least.
The youngest had a friend over one afternoon and (via hand gestures) they asked me to play a game . We played ‘The Game of life” which I am somewhat familiar with, however, since I a illiterate in this country I couldn’t read a darn thing on the board. So our session consisted of me spinning the wheel and them doing everything else for me, the three of us smiling and giggling the whole time. It was cute.
Both girls play piano and the house has two gorgeous pianos (so that they could both practice at the same time when competitions came up). Upon meeting them I asked if they’d be willing to play for me but they were both super shy and embarrassed and said they hadn’t been practicing in a long time. One evening at the dinner table, the mother announced that tonight the girls would play for me. The youngest went first and my jaw dropped…she absolutely nailed this beautiful, complex medley. The older daughter went next. She played my favourite piano piece, ever, Chopin’s ‘Nocturnes.’ (There was a period when I was unemployed two winters ago and I would lay in the bathtub and listen to this every single night) She played it so beautifully I was blown away. I was so moved that I actually cried. When it was over I praised both girls for their talent and they couldn’t believe that I thought they were so good. Apparently they had messed up several times. I never woulda noticed.
One evening, my housemother invited my to join her youngest daughter at her English ‘Cram school.’ English is taught in all schools but many parents also send their kids to English Cram school at night for extra learning time) August is technically Summer vacation for the kids, however, it’s really not much of a vacation. They still have to go to school club activities, do speech competitions, band practice, English school, etc. Most kids seem to be involved in several extra curriculars so that makes for a busy summer vacation. And busy for parents, too, as they have to act as chauffeurs and lunch packers and school helpers… jeesh!
One morning I asked my house sister why she was wearing her uniform and she said she had to go to school to clean! They don’t have janitors here so this is actually a requirement of all students across the country… but on Summer Vacation I didn’t expect them to have to. ‘Work, work, work’ seems to be the mentality here. For adults, too..I have never actually met my housefather because he left for work everyday at around 6am and gets home at 10pm five or SIX days a week. Can you imagine!? Needless to say, they were shocked when I told them about what summer vacation is like at home. I’m pretty sure when I was 15 I slept in till 2pm everyday for two months and spent my afternoons at the mall or the beach… lol.
Anyways… joining my house sister at her cram school was so cute and fun. The kids seemed excited to have me. Some were friendly and others were nervous and either downright starred at me (they’re unaccustomed to seeing foreigners) or could not even make eye contact out of shyness. The owners of the school are Canadian/Aussie/Japanese and they all speak great English. They were lovely and welcoming and I was super happy to meet them. It will be nice to have other English speaking allies while I’m here. One of the teachers (from Toronto) is a paraglider and invited me to join her sometime. You can bet I absolutely took her up on this.
On Saturday, my house family was busy with a school concert so I was invited to join my housemother’s sister and her family for the day. They live just down the road. The mother is a doctor and did two years of studies in the U.S so her English is great and the father’s is a little broken but we could converse pretty easily. They also have two young kids a boy and a girl (4 & 8 years old, respectively). I arrived at their home and we chatted and got acquainted. I told them that I had just bought a car and was quite nervous as I had never driven in Japan before and I didn’t really know the road signs, nor could I read them. So we decided to pile in the van and take me to my car and go for a driving lesson. The husband sat in the passenger’s seat as I drove and he taught me the ropes. It was very bizarre driving on the opposite side of the road that I’m used to. I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinkers and everything felt out-of-wack. I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet but I’m sure I will soon. I’m very thankful I had some helpers for my first time on the road.
They kept asking me if there was anything I wanted to do or needed to buy so I told them I could use a sun hat. We went to the nearby ‘Uni Qlo’ (my new favourite store) and shopped a bit, but unfortunately couldn’t find a hat. Upon returning to their home, the mother handed me her beautiful sun hat as a gift and wouldn’t take no for an answer. This is typical Japanese generosity, which I have experienced on many occasions since I’ve arrived here as well as on my trip to Tokyo two years ago. They treat their guests like royalty.. pay for everything.. bring them around site seeing, cater to their needs and give gifts left, right and center. It’s crazy. Side story….on my 2014 Tokyo trip, Emily ate a hot pepper off her plate at a restaurant (bad idea) and her mouth was on fire. So my Japanese friend ALSO ate the same pepper and basically got sick because of it, so Emily wouldn’t have to suffer alone.
Later, the daughter had Traditional Japanese Penmanship class, which I got to go sit in on and observe. This was super cool and something I’d like to try myself for sure. Then we went for a beautiful traditional Japanese lunch. There must have been like ten courses of food, including sushi, sashimi, grilled fish, two kinds of soup, two kinds of tea, salad and dessert. It was so delish. We then picked up another friend of my house family’s and her daughter and went to the beach in Hondo, which is about five minutes from my house. There are many, beautiful beaches in the area. It was absolutely gorgeous but SO hot. Probably about 35 degrees, I would guess, but it’s the humidity that makes it feel unbearable. Even my Japanese friends are not used to this kind of heat. They informed me that it never used to be this hot when they were younger and it continues to get hotter and hotter every year. (Global warming, anyone?) After a swim and a walk about, everyone was ready to get outta the sun. Plus, all three kids got stung by jelly fish and they had had enough. So we went to get ‘shaved ice’ as they call it. Which is similar to a snow come but more delicious. That evening, after a much needed nap, the three families and I met up at a Yakitori dinner for food and we then went to a festival.
Traditional Japanese penmanship class
The beach in Hondo
The main strip was closed off and all kinds of different companies and establishments in town put on a choreographed dance, which they performed in unison while walking the streets in beautiful Japanese costumes. There were also floats and lights and freebies. It was awesome. (Side note. Someone told me yesterday that it was televised and they actually saw me on TV, watching the parade. So I’m basically a star now.. its whatever).
My house family at the festival
Yesterday after breakfast, I left my homestay and was driven to my place to unpack and settle in. My apartment is great! It’s the perfect size for just me and it has everything I need. My predecessor graciously left me all kinds of good stuff (cook ware, school supplies, bedding, etc). Later, my housemother picked me up again and we went back to their house for a BBQ. Guests included my house family, the gang from the beach the day before and other friends of theirs; a Japanese lady and her British husband and their four kids. We had a wonderful time. We sat around and drank and ate and chatted while the kids played. Later we pulled out the fireworks. It was a lovely evening.
BBQ in the front yard
Japanese showers are the best. You sit and look in the mirror while you wash up. Love it
I am so very grateful to my house family and their friends for allowing me to stay with them and get to know them. It was truly an amazing experience. It was really cool to be on the other end of it, too…growing up I was always a part of the house family, but this time I was the visitor.
I really loved getting to know them. They made me feel right at home. And I guess they enjoyed my company too because one of my house mother’s friend’s told me she had told them that I was like a daughter to her. This really warmed my heart. Upon leaving the BBQ my housemother told me that her house was my house too while I was in Japan and I could come there anytime. Now I have a whole group of Amakusa friends 🙂 yay.
Last night was my first night in my own apartment and now I have a free day to get my bearings straight and settle in a little more before going to my first actual day of school tomorrow. I am really nervous about this.
There was a lot of uncertainty about this move to Japan leading up to my departure date. While for the most part, I stuck to my commitment of taking on my JET placement, I was not sure if that was what I wanted. There were a few moments where I firmly decided that I couldn’t do it and I would not be going. But I always came back from those.
There were a few reasons for all of this uncertainty…
- Firstly, because of my placement in Amakusa. In our application they allowed us to choose three placement preferences and all of mine were in the North, in mountainous, snowy areas. I quite like the cold and wanted to spend time snowboarding, since Japan apparently has wicked snowboarding. So when I got my semi-tropical, southern placement I was definitely a bit unsure if I would like it. That, and the fact that upon Googling Amakusa I found very little information except for a blog post called “Amakusa, the island of dread.” (I should NOT have read that. Lol.) But in the days leading up to my departure I cultivated a new attitude about my placement and decided that is was going to be great. And I think I was right about that. There is a reason I got placed in Amakusa and I reckon it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. And while I’ve only been here one week, I can tell I’m going to really like it here.
- I was unsure if I could handle another move. Since graduating in 2014 and losing my job with Emirate airlines (if you don’t already know this story, I’m sure I will explain it at some point on this blog. Stay tuned) I spent the last couple of years wandering aimlessly, moving around lots and trying out new jobs. Here’s a lil’ time line…
April 2014: moved out of my Antigonish apartment and travelled to Japan/Thailand for five weeks (I was on this trip when I found out I would not be moving to Dubai as planned).
May 2014: Moved to the North end of Halifax for the Summer
September 2014: Moved back to Antigonish to waitress
October 2014: moved home to my parent’s basement
November 2014: moved to Byron Bay Australia with a one-year visa in hand
December 2014: moved home to my parent’s basement when everything in Australia went wrong
February 2015: Moved to Saint John, New Brunswick temporarily because I wasn’t doing anything and a friend there needed a roommate. Lol
May 2015: Back to my parent’s basement (ugh)
June 2015: Moved to Havre-Saint-Pierre, QC to work for Parks Canada
September 2015: Moved to the South End of Halifax & started at NSCAD
January 2016: Couldn’t deal with the South end so I moved to the North End
April 2016: Moved to Fort Langley, B.C. To work for Parks Canada
July 2016: Moved to my family cottage for about five weeks
August 2016: Sup Japan?!
…Writing that out makes it seem every more ridiculous than I thought it was. Ha ha!
The past two years of my life have been a tumultuous adventure, full of hardships and uncertainties, mental health struggles and spiritual self discovery. It was definitely rough at times, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned so many important life lessons in that time and I grew up A LOT.
One thing I learned about myself is that I have a difficult time staying put (as you can probably tell from the extensive list above). But when it came time to decide whether or not I was going to go to Japan, part of me didn’t know if I could handle another move. Clearly, there is a part of me that enjoys moving, and I’d like to think I’ve somewhat mastered it.. but it’s still freakin’ stressful! Each move involves packing up your things and settling into a new apartment; getting familiar with a new area; starting a new job (this is stressful enough as is) and trying to make friends. After coming home from B.C. I just didn’t know if I could do it again, especially to a place that speaks a language I have no knowledge of. In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed my first year of fine arts at NSCAD and I really wanted to go back.
3. The main reason I had my doubts about Japan is the actual job part. And there are many reasons for this…I have no true teaching experience; I don’t speak the language so I am worried that I won’t be able to connect with the students or understand what is expected of me; I’m not ‘good with kids’, per say; there is a lot of hierarchy and bureaucracy in the Japanese school system which I reckon will be difficult to navigate; I don’t know if I have it in me to get up in front of a class and actually teach and the big one.. I fear I might just not enjoy it.
But alas, here I am! And I feel very good about sticking to my decision to come here. Even if it goes badly (which I’m optimistic, it won’t), I will leave Japan with some more life lessons in my pockets and some stories for the grandkids. Amazkusa is beautiful and full of amazing people, the move actually went extremely smoothly and NSCAD will always be there when I get home. That being said, I’m still semi-freaking out about the teaching part…
Luckily, since August is summer vacation, I have time to prep. I’m still expected to be at school and students will be around but I can use this time to prepare lesson plans, get acquainted with the school, help students with their upcoming English speech contest, and study Japanese (<-which I’m SO motivated to do now).
Wish me luck. I will send another update soon. Please comment… I am intrigued to know who actually read this 🙂
Silver Girl (Aka Mary Ellen)