Tag Archives: JETprogramme

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.

Of Packing and Homes.

15 May

Since my last post on Boston, I’ve been wanting to give equal attention to New York and Montreal. However, in a mad rush of things, upon my arrival back to Vancouver, I’ve been caught up with packing.

Packing, of itself, may seem like a simple process of shoving things into boxes. However, friends who’ve observed me packing for Germany can be my witness, I have a tendency to pack and label my boxes accordingly. To make matter more complicated, this time, I have additional factors on my list as I separate my stuff into categories.

These categories include:

1. Stuff that I’m leaving in Singapore for my sister who starts her first-year experience in UBC in September

2. Stuff that I’m packing to bring with me to Japan

3. Stuff that I’m bringing back to Singapore

4. Stuff that I’m bringing back to Singapore to be shipped to Japan, via air or a visiting friend, at a later date

Some find packing a calming and luxurious activity.

Personally, I often find myself getting sentimental and teary-eyed. These events could be triggered, maybe by  an old t-shirt that I got at a youth camp some 10 years ago. Or by a bus ticket which I received when I met the nicest bus driver ever in Vancouver. Or by nail polishes that a past student gave to me when she returned to Korea…

Today, I rummaged through cards and letters – if you want to test the prowess of your tears, this is a sure winner.

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These letters date back to as early as 2008.

As I paged through each envelope; some beautifully decorated, some humourous, with others bordering on offensive (like ‘aunty joy’ :p), it was as if I was swept through a myriad of memories, reliving key moments in my life, all in the mere hour or so it took to read through everything.

These memories made up what once was my home. Some would argue that it still is.

Regularly I’ve contemplated the idea of a ‘home’. I have written earlier posts about it, and have come up with the conclusion that home is wherever I am. In other words, I make the effort to create a home at each geographical location I am placed in by building up relationships, exploring places, partaking of food and experiences with others, thereby creating new memories.

Idealistic, maybe, but it is the only way I can reconcile the fact that I’ve moved so many times, am still on the move, and will probably continue to be ever-moving for a long while more.

If I really take the time to think about things (especially now that I can afford that time, with the lack of impending responsibilities and what-not), deep inside I’m conflicted between wanting to explore life, going on adventure after adventure, and wanting stability.

As I close the chapter of my life as a student at UBC and move to the next chapter, I can’t help but wonder if I will ever return to Singapore. This question, an honest question, eventually leads me to the conclusion that as I continue to put my trust and faith in a good God who’s plans are higher than mine, it is there that I will find stability.

Stability will be found no where else, not in a location, not in a person, and not even in a pug (sadly).

As of now, I am excited for the next immediate plans of working and living in Japan. When that chapter comes to an end, I will be looking forward to the next.

Maybe it will call for me to be in Singapore, maybe it won’t.

Each letter, reminds me of a person, which reminds me of an experience or experiences, which reminds me of my time in Singapore. Though I don’t see myself returning for good any time soon, and though I can sometimes feel anxious about the day that I might or might not return to SG for good, I know that the time I spent in Singapore, both the good and the bad, the relationships and the experiences, all remind me of God’s goodness and grace (:

In a not too far-off future, I look forward to a day, similar to today’s, where surrounded by boxes, I’d find myself sitting in a mess of cards and letters from those in Singapore and those in Vancouver, and I’d once again reminisce the goodness and grace of the One whose plans are beyond my wildest dreams or imagination.

 

The Waiting is Over…

7 Apr

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😀

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.