Should I stay or should I go?

If you had asked me last week, “When are you leaving Japan?” I would have answered, “Next summer.” I really  thought I had made up my mind to leave. I have to sign the paper on January 10th, so the next few weeks I have to finalize my decision. Recently I’ve been analyzing my days, good and bad, trying to see if it’s worth it for me to stay a third year.

These statues at Nishiyama Park have wisdom to share.

Last week was test week. Students are so busy with studying they can barely breathe, let alone take a break to practice speaking English (which isn’t included on the tests, only reading, listening, and writing) so during those weeks I feel isolated and underused. I could be wrong, but it seems like at least once a month there is some kind of big test for all students.

On days when I know I won’t be utilized, waking up early and exercising and riding my bike to school helps me stay sane. I decided that unless its raining or snowing, I’m going to bike to school. It’s better for the environment, my health, and its just more fun. It wakes me up in the morning and makes me feel alive. Plus, most of my students bike to school, so why shouldn’t I?

As I leave my apartment I can see my breath, and I have a specific and addictive feeling that seems to drive a lot of my choices: I’m insane, but I like this feeling. (I think it’s the same feeling my dad has when he is doing 100 mile races, or climbing via ferratas by himself in Switzerland.)

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, nature and outdoor
Here’s my dad running a 3-day, 70 mile race in Italy and Switzerland. September 1-3, 2016.

When I arrived at school, I was bombarded by a chorus of greetings: “Good morning! Hello! Hi!” which is quite a stark contrast from how students used to treat me last year. One of the most amazing things about being a teacher is seeing students change. My entire school has taken a turn for the better – even the students who hate English smile at me and greet me now.

During first period, I planned a lesson for ni-nensei students (equivalent to American 8th graders) relating to a page in their textbook about a place in Fujian, China. There are three-story round houses that 80 families live in, so the character in the story lives next to 300 other people.  I made a powerpoint showcasing three different houses – stilt houses in Cambodia, a mansion in America, and my own house in Santa Barbara, California – along with a comprehension worksheet. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English, who is always in the room while I’m teaching) said, “You can teach the class for the first 15 minutes.” But when 15 minutes had passed, I just continued and he stayed in the back of the class, giving me complete power to lead the class for the full 50 minutes. I felt like a real teacher, although a bit disorganized, because I only expected to lead the first 15 minutes not the whole class.

Today I also had two interview classes with ni-nensei (about US 8th grade) students. My goal is to make it a fun experience for them, so I try to ask questions that I’m sure they can answer – but it’s really challenging and exhausting, because I have to think quickly. There’s barely time to breathe between students, and I also have to score them. One strict teacher urged me to give low scores to motivate them to study more, while another said that slightly higher scores will make them feel good about themselves. I tend to give higher scores and I write a comment on every interview sheet. Even students who are nervous and can barely say anything get a smiley face and a note that says something like, “Nice smile and eye contact!”

Another class today was team teaching with Mr. Imajo*. He brings English to life, and makes it a real, living, breathing, ever-changing animal for students, instead of a stoic dictionary needing to be memorized. Today, students made their own quizzes and the class became a game show. He divided the class into teams, and they competed for points. Students had to say their quizzes aloud in the front of the class and others had to guess the answers. There were a lot of laughs in that class.

I can’t post pictures of my students, so here is a stand-in.

My school life has drastically improved lately also thanks to one student. Makoto* was the captain of the basketball team last year, and since I joined a few practices, he taught me how to shoot properly. Over the summer, he made some foreign friends that he chats with on the internet, and he came back to school with a newfound passion for English. Unlike most students, he is not shy, and lately he’s been wanting to talk with me every day. A few times, he’s asked me, “Do you want to eat lunch with me?” which really made me feel valued, since sometimes I feel like I’m forcing my presence upon students who are terrified of speaking English and making mistakes. Today, he asked me, “Can you teach me how to write in cursive?” I really enjoy spending time with him, since he is so interested in foreign culture and English. He’s told me really nice things, like,” I can improve my English thanks to you.”

Every day after cleaning time, I stand in the hallway and say “Hi” to the students who are walking by, hoping that someone will stop and talk with me. Usually Makoto stops to talk to me,  but today one boy who had never approached me before came up to me and started trying to teach me Japanese. “Ka ki ku ke ko,” he said, gesturing for me to repeat. “Ka ki ku ke ko,” I obliged, laughing. Of course other students were watching the interaction too. I think every interaction has the chance to impact many people, because those watching may be affected, too.

Biking home in the dark with my students builds camaraderie, and they are surprised to see me on my bike. “I saw you on your bike today!” One student said to me, who has never spoken with me before. I see them changing before my eyes.

This is my view while I’m biking home from school.

And, here is my everchanging list of reasons.

Reasons to stay:

  • I have a good job with great pay, health insurance, and wonderful vacations.
  • I have my own apartment, car, bike, ukulele, and electric piano. I have everything I need for a comfortable life.
  • My situation at school is improving. While I was quite unhappy and feeling isolated last year, I’ve been able to make friends with some teachers this year who make a small effort to communicate with me. The problem is that I can’t understand Japanese very well – I can have a basic and simple conversation, but it’s not really enough to make friends with someone who can’t speak English.
  • The ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) social scene in Fukui is wonderful. I have a varied group of multicultural friends. I have friends from Japan, Ireland, Jamaica, America, England, etc… I have a host family who I barely have time to see. I’ll really miss them when I leave!!!
  • There’s still a lot of traveling I want to do in Japan: Hokkaido, Okinawa, Hiroshima… I love couchsurfing and volunteering on farms, so besides transportation I can visit most of these places for free. (But I can do this anywhere in the world, too!)
  • My myriad of extra-curricular activities  is adding to my skill-set:
    • I have two soccer teams, one all-girls on Thursday nights, and one foreigner group that plays against Japanese teams and meets almost every weekend.
    • I’m in a band that performs a few times a year, and I’ve had the chance to sing on-stage at festivals to a few classic songs like “Stand By Me” and “We Are the World.”
    • I know about two dance groups – one salsa group on Tuesdays (only 10 minutes from my apartment), and another ballroom on Friday (an hour from my apartment). I also heard about a ballet class that I haven’t gone to, but I’d like to try!
    • Last year, I was in an adult choir on Saturday nights that sang old, traditional Japanese songs plus a few in English, like “You Raise Me Up.” I stopped going this year, though.
    • I have a good friend who I go hiking with every few weekends. She knows all the local mountains like the back of her hand, so she always has an idea where to take me. Last year we went snow hiking and she loaned me her snowshoes!
  • I will really miss my students! But that will happen regardless of when I leave.
  • Great opportunities keep appearing. The longer I stay, the better relationships I make at school and outside of school. For example, I play soccer with a university professor who asked me to help him lead a discussion about gender equality, and another professor friend asked me if she could use my writing in her classes.
  • In the past few years, my tendency has been to bounce around from place to place. After college, I spend a year in New Zealand, a year in Australia, and about 8 months traveling in Southeast Asia (three months in Thailand, three weeks in Cambodia,  three weeks in Vietnam, three weeks in Taiwan, a month in Bali, a month in Malaysia, and three months in the Philippines. I paid for my trip by volunteering and working along the way.) Maybe I should break my habits and commit to a place for a bit longer, and see if I can make a bigger difference.
  • I can save money here (although my dad said ‘You’re life is worth more than money.’)
    This is from the ALT Christmas Party! We did a White Elephant gift exchange.
I spend my weekends playing futsal (indoor soccer)!

Reasons to leave

  • I know I’m capable of more than this. In class, oftentimes I’m just used as a tape recorder, doing ‘repeat after me.’ It’s kind of fun, but its not really helping me grow as a teacher. (Although recently I’ve had the chance to teach the whole class a few times, but without much warning. My school is pretty disorganized when it comes to dealing with the ALT.)
  • I’m frustrated by the school system. I want more opportunities to teach the class and lead communication activities. Students really need it, too; even though most Japanese people have studied English for 6 years – 3 in Junior High and 3 in High School –  the vast majority of Japanese people I’ve met in my community have no confidence to speak English.
  • People here are devastatingly shy. My outgoing and friendly personality doesn’t fit with the reserved and soft-spoken tendencies of Japanese people. Even if I learn Japanese, I feel a thick layer of ‘tatemae’ (politeness, pleasantries) in between me and the locals. Of course, there are many exceptions to this, and I tend to make friends who don’t fit these societal stereotypes.
  • Staying is the easy and safe thing to do, and I’m usually one to challenge what is safe and easy. I’m an ambitious person with a lot of energy, and I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to stay just because it’s easy.
  • If I stay at my ALT job, I’m just procrastinating my future.
  • I have so many things I want to do in my life!!! My bucket list is long! For example:
    • Study Spanish and teach English in South America, maybe Argentina or Chile. Spanish is a language that I can use when I move back to California in the distant future. This is the plan I’m most excited about, but it requires a lot of research and preparation.
    • Travel across Europe visiting friends, hiking, and volunteering on farms.
    • Live on an Ashram in India and study yoga and meditation.
    • Become a teacher in America to give back to my own country which gave me so much. I think this is what I’ll do after I live abroad for 5 or so more years. I do want to live near my family in California someday.
I’ll really miss the sushi when I leave!

4:31, 12/20
Now its Monday, and I just fought through a pretty boring day at work. The interesting teacher Mr. Imajo* wasn’t here today, so in the classes I joined I was pretty much just a tape recorder. After a day like today, I’m thinking I’ll leave next summer. Here’s my rough idea for next year. (Although I have to check the exact dates with my school):

January – Japan, work
February – Japan, work
March – Japan (spring break is 3/25 to 4/4)
April – Japan school year finishes. My sister’s wedding is April 22. Cherry blossoms!
May  – Japan, new school year starts
June  – Japan, work, sell my stuff
July – Japan, work, summer break starts mid July, move out of my apartment
August – Japan, summer break, travel, free ticket to CA (although I might not use it)
September  – Travel in Spain with my dad
October -Spain (teach English?)
November – Spain (teach English?)
December – California for Christmas
January – ???

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any ideas or feedback.

*All names with a star were changed.

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