Monday, April 29, 2013

Second-Year JET reflections

I had always planned to stay on the JET Program for two years. That plan was nearly derailed early on after my bumpy start and the surprising, overwhelming homesickness I felt. However, I had hope that things would get better, and boy did they ever. With much trepidation I signed the contract for my second year in February 2012, but by the time I was making my way back to home in August 2012 for a visit, I knew I had made the right decision.

I had made some amazing friends, traveled to amazing places, and only just fully settled into my life in Japan. One year is simply not enough to properly fit in the experience or to even make the hassle of moving your life to a new country worth it. To make this post easier, I'm going to categorize my reflections.

I mentioned in another post how I enjoyed knowing what was expected of me and that the upheaval that comes with the new school year every April is jarring. Be that as it may, it is still infinitely easier to merely adjust to these changes than it is to find your groove when starting out. This second year meant that from the start I was confident in teaching, giving presentations, and communicating effectively with my students and teachers. It's an ease that can only come with time, so after about seven months of struggling to find the balance, the remaining seventeen have been a breeze.

Living Space:
When you're not certain about how long you'll be staying in place, certain purchases become questionable. Buying a car, or a TV, or some kitchen appliance for example. I hate investing in things that I won't get a significant return on, so this was plaguing me the first couple of months. After signing my contract though, I made a couple of 'comfort' purchases that I had decided I could live without for a year, but throughout have made all the difference. They tell us at orientation to make your apartment someplace you feel comfortable in as a means of escaping the every day stresses, and they were spot on. Not having to use the mental and physical energy to do this for the first few months in my second year was refreshing.

The nature of the JET Program is that people come and go. They make their mark on their communities and then become a memory. Luckily, six out of nine of us were new to our town when we arrived and we all decided to re-contract for a second year. We were definitely a dysfunctional bunch of misfits when we got here, but this second year solidified them as my family away from home. Unlike friends back home, I've relied on these people for my sanity. Friends back home do that too but it's not the same. This was survival in a foreign environment and it's because of them that I have not only survived, but prospered. When we received one new person our second year, we welcomed her with open arms and extended help the way it was done for us. Being a second year JET means you reciprocate what previous JETs have done for you and help them navigate through all the changes. The camaraderie among JETs and built in support groups are some of the best aspects of the program in my opinion.

Within Japan and Asia, there are more places than I could ever hope to have visited even after two years. Within the confines of the school schedule and carefully placed PTO, I have managed to travel to most everywhere on my personal list and then some. It's just a no-brainer that a second year in Japan meant that I'd once again have the cycle of holidays and PTO to travel. I was quite enthusiastic in my first year and traveled to most of my destinations within Japan so the second year was all about going abroad. It's just as expensive but more time consuming so not traveling as often has also meant I have saved money. This brings me to my next point..

Moving to a new country is ridiculously expensive! JET pays for your flight to Japan (thank God) but there are still a million things to buy in preparation and then upon arriving. Basically, you're broke until your first paycheck, and then traveling like I have means that I was constantly (but happily) broke in my first year since I'd blow my paycheck on weekend excursions to the furthest reaches of Japan. What you spend your money on and how frequently you travel are up to you, but this next part isn't: your contract. I was in the lucky last batch of JETs to have a contract with a stipulated consistent salary throughout my time in Japan. The next year we learned that new JET contracts work on a pay scale with each year adding more money to your salary as incentive to stay since bringing in new people is a hassle for everyone. In their first year, they make less than I do, in their second, the same, and then a little more in their third year. For me, staying a second year meant that sure, I could save money, but for a new JET it could possibly make a world of difference in supplementing their financial needs.

This program was my dream come true. After many years of waiting to apply and then being accepted, I'm so glad I stuck it out through the hard times in the beginning to see the best times of my life. Like I thought, after two years I'm ready to come home, but if you're on the fence and don't have immediate plans, consider staying a second year. It makes all the difference in the overall experience.

SING! SING! Singapore!!

Ever since I came back from my vacation in Miami, I've felt the need to 'take mental breaks' from Japan. The culture is so rich here is almost suffocating. I sometimes need to remind myself that there's a great big world out there where people from all different cultures live in harmony much like the place I'm from.

Singapore has always struck me as this rare gem in the middle of South East Asia. Being one of the Four Asian Tigers, I had read how modern, clean, and advanced it was compared to its neighbors. Pictures alone are cause to allure you. So despite how much more expensive it was to vacation here in comparison to other nearby choices, I ponied up and had my plans for Christmas.

After some skillful planning, we were off. Part of the reason the flight was so expensive was because it was direct, but I was happy I paid it to avoid a full day of travel. We were leaving freezing cold Japan for warm, tropical Singapore so that first breath of air off the plane was humid but welcome. We weren't in any rush so when our eyes spotted a Quiznos at the airport we wordlessly wandered in that direction...but then remembered we didn't have any cash so we exchanged money and THEN went. haha! Our fast food chains aren't transposed to these new places without some changes to the menu, but it didn't matter. It was a toasted fresh sub so I was ecstatic. We then made our way to our hostel via the metro. Like many of the other places I've been in Asia, they're metro was fast, cheap, and very convenient. The only part that wasn't fast about this metro was the ticket dispensing. I'm an impatient person, but this was obviously slow. Each time we'd go down to use the metro in a popular place, the line to purchase a ticket would be about 5 minutes long. It doesn't sound terribly long, but in most other places I've been, I walk right up to a machine. If you don't want to wait, I recommend buying an all day pass or metro cash card.

We stayed at a hostel that I switched to last minute because I was sold on the pictures. It was the Concept Hostel Singapore. I'm not going to give it a bad review. It was conveniently located near the center of town, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the place did match the pictures. My only gripe was with the bathrooms. I hated the showers. And although I've stayed in hostels before, because I booked last minute, I had to sleep dormitory style instead of getting a private room like I always go. I was not a fan of it at all. That's just the prissy girl in me though since I know many people who don't mind dormitory hostels at all.

With way too many options of things to do in the next few days, we showered and immediately head out to hit the town. The obvious choice since it was already night time was the beautifully decked out Orchard Road. The pictures I captured truly don't do it justice. I have never seen public spaces more fully cloaked in Christmas garb than I did in Singapore, and especially Orchard Road where it went on as far as the eye could see.The road sits on top of a huge underground mall. The stores were getting ready to close so we moseyed about making mental notes of shops to return to.

The next day we intended to make our way to Merlion Park (pictured at the top) and the conspicuously famous Marina Bay Hotel. Along the way we were severely distracted by yet another huge underground mall. I'm normally a woman on a mission when I'm traveling, but although I said the humidity was welcome, it was also just plain hot to be out in. That said, walking around a cool mall eating all the western food we could find became a blur over the rest of trip. Once we did force ourselves outside the comforts of the mall, we found it was overcast anyway. Yay, because it wasn't as hot, but boo because I wanted amazing lighting for pictures (oh well). I worked my magic and the final shots were adequately lit. Merlion Park isn't big at all with it's focal point being a two story tall fountain of the lion fish. He is the guardian god of Singapore and so he's the mascot representation for the city-state (even some of my students recognize him as Singaporean). He faces the bay where directly across sits the Marina Bay Hotel. A marvel to look upon as it appears to have a boat sitting atop its three towers. The hotel is practically new and has only been around for a couple of years. Once we snapped some photos of us with Merlion, we took a taxi (oh yes we did) across the bay to the hotel.

The inside of the hotel was as magnificent as the outside. So luxurious! That famous infinity pool you've probably seen a picture of without even knowing it is for hotel guests only (again, boo!), but with four floors of endless mall, I wasn't too fazed. There's even an ice rink in the food court! Once it started getting dark, we walked outside of the mall onto a connecting bridge that would take us to the Gardens by the Bay. You can go during the day to see all the gardens or just at night to just see the Super Trees pictured below (with the Marina Bay Hotel in the back). Remember when I said the pictures alone could lure you to Singapore? Well, these are the pictures that did it for me. The Super Trees are the main feature of these gardens and something about them just mesmerized me. They were so alien like yet beautiful with their pulsating glow. We walked around until the light show. A story was being told while these Eco-friendly wonders danced with light to the music. Besides being able to actually feel the Christmas spirit this year, this was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

The dedicated the next day to heading out to the Night Safari, an aspect of the popular Singapore Zoo. I was slightly disappointed to learn that we needed tickets that were sold out to see the newest attraction, a pair of Chinese pandas, but still we went. The Night Safari was recommened to us by some friends so that was the main event. It was a ways away, but more relief from the humidity while riding the bus was not so bad. At the zoo, I had the most delicious chicken platter (maybe it was delicious or maybe I was just really hungry) and we were able to watch a fire-dancing show while we ate making for an impromptu dinner and a show. Fun stuff! Then came time for the Night Safari itself. Like at other zoos, we waited to get on a tram and then went off onto the prearranged trail with a guide telling us about the animals. In the end, I was not impressed. I suppose I've been to enough zoos that the usual animals are not really exciting to see again and again. An elephant?! A tiger?! Yippee! Not.. The best zoos I've been to have been small but with the most unusual animals. 

On our last day, we found a beautiful temple and food market near our hostel that we enjoyed lunch at before heading out to Sentosa Island. This place had good potential on paper and if you're between the ages of 10-16 you'll love it! I'm not being mean with that quick review, but it's definitely a family place, so as a couple, we walked around and enjoyed the scenery, but most of the activities available - butterfly garden, ziplining, a mini Universal Studies, the beach - were things we either weren't dressed for or weren't interested in because we have such attractions where we're I'm from in Florida.

We relished in our last Western food dinner (yup, more Quiznos and Cold Stone) and made our way back to freezing cold Japan the next day.

Overall, I really enjoyed Singapore. I was floored by how modern and rich a place it was while literally being surrounded by other places in Southeast Asia that I had visited and were the complete opposite. In my mind, I think of places that are either worth a visit, worth multiple visits, or worth living there. I would rate Singapore as a place worth multiple visits, although I don't see myself going back for many years to come with so much else to explore, but thank you for saving Christmas 2012 Singapore!