Tag Archives: Japan

Looks can be deceiving – On being Asian in Japan

14 Nov

(This was originally written a while back for an editorial piece. However it did not really fit into the requirements, due to the general style and structure of the writing. Hence, it’s up here instead – for friends and family!)

“Is that your water bottle?” My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) asked, gesturing towards the turquoise David’s Tea tumbler on the table.

“Yes,” I responded.

“It’s… very nice.”

The exchange seemed normal enough till I found out that it is not customary for teachers to drink water during their classes. I guess it’s another one of those things to add to the “Only in Japan” list; a list that all foreigners start when they come to Japan.

Call it whatever you may, it exists.

Some lists bear striking resemblances, others differ greatly.

For example, I am a Canadian of Chinese ethnicity who grew up in Singapore and I’ve had conversations with my non-Asian friends who speak of experiences foreign to me.

I have never had someone stare at me as I walked down the street. I don’t feel like I’m an unidentified alien when I walk to the grocery store. Nor do I get surprised looks when I greet people with simple Japanese phrases.

In that respect, some might be tempted to think that Asians have it easy in Japan. However, like any issue that has to do with identity and appearances, that is only one side of the coin. When I first applied for a position on the JET programme to teach in Japan, I did so with initial trepidations due to my Asian heritage.

Would I be what the teachers and students in Japan were looking for?

See, I lived in Vancouver where there’s a diverse community of Caucausians, Aboriginals, and Asians who proudly proclaim themselves Canadian. Before arriving in Japan, my work in the University of British Columbia involved interaction with international students on a daily basis. There, I was exposed to students with varied backgrounds and was conditioned to think without having preconceived notions of individuals. Yet, with all that training, in addition to my background growing up in a culturally-diverse society, I am not spared from judging others by their appearances.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to me that in the eyes of the Japanese public, I must be Japanese since I look it.

When I first started teaching, students greeted me in Japanese and continued to do so even after I had been introduced to the school as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). Teachers at my school told me they first thought I was a new Japanese Teacher. In fact, every single person I’ve met in Japan has immediately assumed that I am Japanese.

Yet, without a doubt, I betray my ‘gaijin-ness’ with more than just my broken and sorely-lacking Japanese.

There’s a Uniqlo right in my neighborhood that I frequent. The first time I tried on a dress, I did what any Canadian would do, step into the changing room. On a whim, I peeped out of the changing room before closing the curtains. My eyes went from the horrified look on the sales representative’s face to the pairs of shoes that were outside the various cubicles.

Who would’ve guessed that the Japanese do not wear their shoes into fitting rooms???


Another time, a student came to me after having received her journal.

“What is wrong with this sentence?” she asked as she pointed at an underlined portion of her journal.

“Absolutely nothing, it’s great!” I said.

As I recounted this exchange to my supervisor, I learnt that in Japan, correct answers are marked with circles and wrong ones with checks.

What a great thing to find out, after already marking 280 of their journals.

Yes, I may look like one of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like the foreigner that I am.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully embrace looking Asian. I appreciate the chameleon-like ability it gives me to blend in. However, there is a danger that lurks when you start to believe the perceived reality that others have of who you are.

Take my situation for example: I look Japanese. People believe I am Japanese. I believe I am Japanese. (Sounds something like Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, maybe?)

So, maybe it’s not that simple.

There are other factors at play; the desire to embrace a culture and reflect one’s adaptability, for one.

If you have chosen to be in Japan for long-time work or studies, you likely relish the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture foreign to your own. Ideally, you would interact with it on your own terms. Realistically, you will be faced with situations you’d have never dreamed you’d encounter. Amongst difficult things like homesickness, fatigue, and stress, you may find yourself looking to be part of the community that you are so seemingly submerged in. Things that you’ve added to the ‘Only in Japan’ list start to become a commonality, possibly even a habitual trait of your own; an attempt to adapt and fit in, maybe? Or a genuine identification with culture?

Either way, for some this shapes and strengthens you. For others, this splits you in half. To the latter half of you, I say, “be wary.”

Take heed to find the balance between the fine line of adaptability and losing yourself.

The countless encounters I’ve had with the surprised looks and remarks about my not being Japanese did eventually take its toll on me. At one point, not being able to speak nor understand Japanese well made me feel highly inadequate as a person. Only when a friend remarked, “but, you speak English…” did I realize the need to consciously remind myself to put things into perspective…

So, whether you decide to add or delete things off your personalized ‘Only in Japan’ list, never, ever, let it diminish who you are.

The Waiting is Over…

7 Apr

Image

😀

This came in my inbox at 4.25pm this afternoon. Of course, I only see it at 11pm…

Fellow Canadian JET-to-be’s, look out for that email.

I’m so thankful that I’m finding this out on a Friday and need not fret over it on the weekend.

OKAY. OMGOSH. I KNOW THAT THIS IS SUCH A USELESS POST. BUT i’m like, really excited and happy and I can’t write properly. Gosh.

OKAY I’ll STOP HERE, for fear that I will bore all of you. AHHHHHHHHHHH

 

edit —

the above post was written on Friday, but I put off posting it for a few days 😉 Now I’m in a slightly better frame of mind to write more comprehensibly…

Before you ask me where exactly in Japan I’m to go.. as of now, I’m still unsure of the precise location. As mentioned in an earlier post, the JET Programme is a large organization, and as such I will have to wait till the end of May to find out.

Whats next? More exciting paperwork, of course!

I’m looking forward to making future posts on the adventures of a Vancouver JET newbie ❤

Shared Experiences

4 Apr

I find that what often gets people entangled in their emotions is the skewed perception that they are the only ones going through an experience. The belief that their situation is unique, and that they are all alone.

Would you not agree?

Think about a time when you were awfully stressed or anxious about a particular thing.

Actually, here’s one.

You’re stressed out over a paper.
You talk to your classmate, “how’s your paper going”.
“Oh, I have no idea where to start”, he goes.
“Me too!” you respond.

Then, what do you feel?

Relief, perhaps? Possibly stemmed in the fact that someone else shares similar emotions that are tormenting you and you’re not alone?

In any case, I choose to believe that I am at a point of my life where I am going through a bout of emotions that is shared by a rather large crowd:

1. The about-to-be-graduates

This category does not require much elaboration. I believe that many are looking forward to being done with their undergraduate degree, so much so that classes seem to be a drag and final papers a chore.

At the same time, stress levels should be pretty low.

Especially if you already have plans after graduation, like a full time job, or an acceptance to do your masters, or the education program (which seems to be the route that many of my fellow English Language majors are on), where your grades don’t seem to hold as much weight as they previously did.

As for those who have nothing planned after, I think you would oscillate between the anticipation of having nothing to do, and the anxiety of having nothing to do.

As for me, I oscillate between ALL those feelings. I kind of have something planned after graduation, but its all relative to other things, which mean I actually don’t have anything planned after graduation. I’m happy to be done, and relishing having no assignments and homework to think about, but also wondering about what my life will look like after exiting UBC.

That brings me to the second category…

2. The anticipating JET candidates

You might or might not already know this, but I applied for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme in November 2013. Yes, it was about 5 months ago. It’s a pretty extensive process (oh, you don’t say?) for an assistant language teaching position in Japan. I received an email late January notifying me of my passage to the second stage – The Interview. That took place in February.. and I’ve been waiting since to find out if I will be shortlisted.

The time has finally come, it’s April, when the emails/letters/pigeon mail start to stream in, letting candidates know of their acceptance or rejection.

So, as we enter the month of April… I choose to believe that many, like myself, not only started checking their inboxes/mailboxes/windows, but also googled things like “when do Canadians usually receive their acceptance into the JETprogramme?”

This might actually leave you feeling more anxious, especially when nothing turns up, and when the first link in the search engine directs you right back to the official JETprogramme Canada website.

Not very helpful.

Having said that, I guess this is the beauty of being a part of this process. It is such a long and extensive process, but guess what? Everyone else who applied and got through to the interview round, is having similar feelings. Not just those in Canada, but all around the world.

Oh, the beauty of applying to a large organization.

Thus, the waiting now continues.