Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Happens When You Live Abroad

Since my blog here is to help others and give them an idea of what living and working abroad might be like, I'm re-posting this article from Thought Catalog because I love how perfectly someone has been able to articulate what it's like (source link at the end). It takes a certain personality, a certain kind of person, to be able to do this and I've seen many people fall short. I definitely think it shapes a person in a unique way which they can relate to others who have lived like them.

I am forever changed by my time living in foreign culture, a foreign land, and I love it.

What Happens When You Live Abroad

May. 21, 2012

A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.
So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.
Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.

So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.
When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Teaching update!

Wow, so it's been more than a year since my last update on the teaching experience. I was quite blunt about it last time and will continue that now since, I wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong impression of JET (like I had). But do keep in mind that the JET motto is, 'every situation is different.'

I wrote my last post in November of 2011 and a big change happened between that post and this one - the new school year in April. Several things were a complete surprise to me since I had no idea about the changes that accompany the new school year in Japan. The biggest surprise was the giant game of musical chairs the teachers play (not actually, but I muse about it a bit in this post). When I got back from my spring vacation (time I used PTO for since teachers are expected to come to work even when there are no classes), I found new faces and a new desk placement waiting for me in the staff room. After 8 months of getting used to my role in this school, it was all about to change. Naturally I started to feel a bit nervous. Re-reading my last update, I might have sounded a bit dejected about how I'm used as an ALT, but actually I became comfortable knowing what was expected of me. New jobs always bring about challenges, but as long as you know what they want from you, it shouldn't be so bad. So new teachers, new schedules, new students, and probably some new responsibilities. At my base school, Hikami, the only change that affected me was the addition of a new JTE. Fortunately, she is the sweetest thing ever. Her name is Yamashita-sensei and although she replaced a younger, male teacher that I got along with, she is a far better teaching partner than he was. She's soft spoken, but knows how to put those freshmen in line. She doesn't necessarily make learning fun for them, but she teaches the material in a way they understand, so at least it keeps their interest. She observed a lesson with my usual JTE, Taniguchi-sensei, and now uses me much in the same way he does - to write out the exercises on the board, pronounce words, correct papers, give special lessons, get insight on confusing English, and the like.

At Hikami Nishi (HN), my visit school, everything changed. I even go there on different days than before. Before I came in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but now I come on Mondays and Thursdays. My weeks used to drag, but now since I change up my environment more often, every time I turn around it's Thursday and only one day away from the weekend! Another plus is because I don't prefer my visit school to my base school (for many reasons), whenever we have Monday off as a holiday (which is quite often), I miss a day at HN. Woo hoo! As for the actual teaching changes, two out three JTEs were replaced. All three were pretty incompetent, so I traded up for sure. Since my last post, I did realize that the reason these incompetent JTEs always had me come up with the lesson plans was because they just wanted a break. Nothing wrong with that, but they wouldn't tell me what the kids were learning so those lessons were not all that beneficial for the kids. I can tell though that under the new JTEs the kids have actually been learning. I am used more like I am at Hikami and so, although my job is easier, I'm at least being effective on their studies. The only problem is that for some reason, the new young female teacher doesn't seem to like me very much and so I only go to class with the other male teacher. We definitely have more in common anyway and even talk outside of class, so I don't mind. The third JTE (part of the original three ) was made into a part-time teacher so he's not at the school on the days that I am - bliss!

These are the actual changes that happened, but how about my attitude? It was pretty bad when I first got here, I'll admit. I hadn't been around that many kids in long time and considering some other messed up circumstances with other aspects of JET life, I let it seep into the teaching experience as well. Now though I am perfectly content and confident playing my role in both my schools. It's not personally fulfilling or challenging, but I do understand the impact I'm having on the education of my students and so I take that role seriously. I provide them with a positive, non-threatening experience with a foreigner (you may underestimate how important conidering how homogenous the Japanese society is). I gently correct their English in class and encourage them to continue their studies beyond high school. I give them an idea of how other people in other parts of the world live, whether it be by presenting my opinions on a subject, or with my occasional cultural lessons. I don't tolerate any inappropriateness you'll hear other JETs complain about so hopefully that communicates a respect for women and people in authority. Just my appearance is literally something to make their day a little different and more exciting. Outside the class, students will call at me from every direction just so they can wave at me. At restaurants in town, I'm sometimes spotted and am pointed out to their family. And most precious to me the unspoken bond we share: When they catch me making a face because I didn't know they were looking, or I when try to be funny behind my JTE's back and it works; When they want to stand next to me at assemblies; When they point out my hair, nail, or eye color and just stare; When they shyly come to my desk with a drawing, origami, handmade cards, or other stuff for me; And even if I (still) don't know their names, I'll always remember their faces as they are now.

So yea, now instead of annoying little brats, now I think my students are adorable (even if they are high schoolers already). I'm genuinely sad, but happy for my seniors who are going to graduate at the end of this month since they are the students I'll have had the longest. I'm happy to go to class knowing exactly what I'm suppose to do and being completely comfortable with my students and JTEs. I know other JETs got to experience this right away, but it took until almost the end of my first year for me to get it. Ironically, that is exactly the amount of time our liason at the Japanese consulate said it took her when she was giving us a pep talk at our pre-departure meeting.. It's one argument she made for us to consider staying a second year and now I can totally agree.

So unless much changes in the next new school year this coming April, I think this will be it for my teaching experience updates. From my friends, I know a little about the experiences of JHS and elementary school teachers, so please feel free to ask any questions about my or their experience if you're considering being an ALT in Japan!