Getting back to what I was yapping about some number of weeks ago regarding the “other side” of the JET Programme, I don’t really know what to say. To recap, I had finished up my critiques on the effectiveness of JET’s educational aims and then intended to turn my thoughts on to the everyday aspects of JET life, being a foreigner in Japan. Even though I’ve been away from the site and working on other things, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think of how I wanted to sum up this aspect of JET and I’m still no closer to figuring it out. I really want to say something about it, but I can’t come up anything more than the broadest of generalizations. So maybe we’ll just start there.
I’ll put this as simply as I can: As a teacher, you can be done with work for the day, but as a foreigner in Japan, you are never off the clock.
I suppose this is true in any country, not just Japan. Sayings like “you’re an ambassador of your country anytime you leave it” don’t come from nowhere. People have an unfortunate habit of trying to sum up and simplify everything they see, including other people. If someone sees any instance of an American, to some degree in their mind, every American becomes that person. Dumb? Yes. People? Yeah, them too.
The difference with JET is that in all likelihood, you’re going to be placed in anywhere from a modest-sized town to a meager village. What this means for the majority of ALTs is that people are going to know who you are, whether you like it or not. They may not know you’re name, but they know that you’re a teacher on the city’s payroll and you’re coming into regular contact with their kids. So the difference with this from just being an ambassador of your country is that when you’re on JET, the people around you in your town see you as a professional ambassador. You’re not just some yahoo on vacation there to drink some sake and buy a cool stereo before bailing back home; you’re a government-sanctioned example of a citizen from your country.
This of course creates a bit of tension between:
a) your obligation to increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations.
b) it’s 4:15pm on a Tuesday! Work is over! I’ll meet you at the beach and let’s get TRASHED!!!
Needless to say, some JETs chose not to acknowledge that responsibility and took the attitude of “I’m not at work, so everyone else can fuck off.” I did this sometimes, because, honestly you just need to have a private life, but on the whole you have to get used to the idea that, at least in your town, you won’t have one.
One weekend afternoon, I was crossing the street with a fellow JET of the female persuasion and ran into someone I knew from the town office. I did a quick introduction, taking care to emphasize that this person was a friend, not my kanojo (girlfriend), but it was all for naught. By Monday everyone in the Town Office was asking me if I had a picture of my new girlfriend and what her name was, how long had we been going out, etc etc. It was all good natured, I’m sure. Since you stand out and are a fish out of water to an extent, people are going to look after you and feel some sense of responsibility. So I can’t really fault the people in the office being curious about me finding a chica, but at the same time, that lack of a privacy barrier can be infuriating. Wherever I went, 7-Eleven, restaurants, the grocery store, the beach, the video store, whatever, I was constantly running into co-workers, students, students’ parents, et al. It just wouldn’t do to be rude to these people in your quest for a private life, because it WILL come back to haunt you.
So I guess to boil down what I’m trying to say is that, as a stranger in a strange land, like it or not, you’re a conduit to the outside world for curious people in your town. Sometimes that’s going to be fun, sometimes it’s going to grate against your soul like sliding your palm across unsanded, splintery wood. It’s not technically part of the job, no one can make you do it. But is part of the job, so it’s a good thing to sort out, before you go, if that’s something you can deal with on a regular basis for 1-3 years. Savvy?
I imagine I’ll have more to say on this matter before it’s all said and done.