A little over 6 months ago Joe wrote up a post about what he's been doing since leaving the JET program. That was the half-year mark for us, and now it's been just over a year since we hung up our, uh, chalk (you don't actually write anything on the board when you teach kindergarten, do you Joe?). Anyway, I think this may be another one of my epic novella posts (just fair warning to you), but I think I want to write this partially as a reflection and partially as an anecdote to share with anyone reading this who may be teaching abroad on JET or a similar program and is considering their future. Actually, in light of how long this is turning out, I think I am going to break it up into two posts...
One of the unfortunate things about the recontracting process for JET is that while most JETs start and end their jobs in mid to late summer, the decision about whether to stay or go has to be made in the cold, dark winter months. It may sound silly, but the season can have a big impact on your state of mind, and that's something that should be taken into about when making that fateful decision. Although each of my three years I had to weigh what I wanted to do (my second year was kind of an easy choice, I think, but my first and third were not), it was the December of 2010 in which I decided I would return home.
At the time, these were my circumstances and considerations:
Work: Sometimes I really enjoyed my job, and sometimes I really didn't. I liked interacting with most of my students and I liked a lot of my coworkers. I didn't like having to travel over an hour each way to go to my visit school twice a week, but I was fortunate to work with some great English teachers over there and also luckily worked with 3 very cool ALTs over the years (from the US, Ireland, and New Zealand, respectively). Honestly though, I got frustrated and lazy sometimes. I had a really stimulating couple of classes with one guy I worked with at my base school. We had a small group of students who we met with a couple times a week, and we were able to do more specialized lessons with them. Aside from that, though, although I enjoyed being in the classroom, I didn't enjoy having to visit a dozen different classes (I had to see ALL of the 300+ freshmen) and repeating each lesson a dozen times. Taken with the facts that the Japanese school system focuses on tests and memorization over critical thinking and comprehension and that most of the students I met were only minimally interested in English, I got bored. I admittedly could have worked harder, but I often felt like it was pointless. I tried to connect with students and make them at least find some enjoyment in studying English, but beyond that there wasn't much I could physically do in most cases. Ironically, it was at my visit school for part time students that I met some of my brightest and lingually-predisposed students (not that there weren't a few at my base school - my English club members were really cool kids). But ultimately I just didn't feel fulfilled at work and I wanted to find something where I could feel more...useful?
Finances: In retrospect, I had it pretty good. At the time, this is what I saw - after sending home money to pay my student loans every month, I had enough for food and going out every now and then, plus sufficient funds to ride the Shinkansen once or twice a month to visit Yoshie, and a little money to save (which would invariably be spent eventually on some short vacation). I wasn't saving anything for retirement or any meaningful long-term goals, although if I had cut out vacations and some socializing, I probably could have. I don't regret my choices on this end, though. I just thought I had the potential to be making more at home (Ha).
Domestic Life: So my apartment was kind of ghetto. I had no running hot water (had gas heaters) and no oven. My building had roaches, and because it was older had little insulation to speak of. But the grass is always greener. The place was a bit pricey, but it was subsidized (I was paying half of the rent - 60,000 yen a month). I had fast and reliable DSL internet (don't think it ever went out that I can remember), lived within walking distance of several parks and my main place of work, and by living alone I had independence and privacy. It could be a little lonely sometimes, but my good friend Dylan visited frequently to hang out and watch movies, and a few times Yoshie came to stay for a few days or a couple weeks, and those are among my best memories of my time in Japan. But by the end I had had enough of the bugs, extreme temperatures, and lack of a decent shower, and I longed for more comfortable digs.
Social Life: I had a great social life in Japan. There are a lot of nice people in the JET community, and I felt like between JET and Dylan (he was in a band and I would often go to his shows), I was constantly meeting new people and expanding my network of friends and acquaintances. I made a lot of really cool friends over there. The flip side of this is that I was also missing my friends back home. I played video games online with a couple of them sometimes and exchanged emails, but it wasn't the same as physically hanging out now and then, and I could feel the friendships straining a bit.
I didn't date a lot in Japan, but I "secretly" went out with one of the teachers at my base school for about three months (everyone seemed to know even though it was secret). I still feel kind of bad about how that ended. I think it was one of those relationships...I liked her, but once we had been going out for a while, I felt that I had been more comfortable with her as a friend than as a girlfriend. We never got very serious, either physically or in any other way, and I broke up with her. We stayed friendly, even though I could tell sometimes it was hard for her. Eventually she moved to Australia to go to grad school, I think. I hope she's doing well.
Aside from that I only went out on one or two other dates. I could have seen more women if I were interested, I think, but I didn't really meet anyone who I felt like pursing. Until Yoshie, that is.
Romance: As I mentioned above, there were a few minor blips on the radar during the first half of my time in Japan on JET, but the main event was my relationship with Yoshie. I first saw her at one of Dylan's shows. She accompanied Dylan and Sammy (his bandmate) on the piano, and I remember thinking she was very talented and gorgeous, but I didn't give much thought to her at first. I found out she was living in Kyushu, which was hours away, and was just in Hyogo for a little while. After the show there were plenty of people who wanted to talk to her and I didn't feel like competing. A bunch of us went out, but she had somewhere to be and didn't join us. I just wrote her off as another beautiful girl I had seen once.
Fast forward about four months later. I was at another one of Dylan and Sammy's shows (on Valentine's Day, I believe it was), and as it was winding down I noticed her coming in and remembered her right away. She didn't seem to know anyone in the audience, so I took the opportunity to go talk to her. She apparently remembered me, too (or my face, anyway), and we chatted for a few minutes. Then she left with Dylan and me since she had to go the same way to catch her train. Turned out she was friends with a mutual friend of ours, and that's how she had met Dylan (actually her friend is now married to our very own Joe). After learning all this, I asked Joe if he knew if she were single. He talked to his then-girlfriend-now-wife and they arranged a couple of hangouts for the four of us that week. We went to a huka bar on our first outing, and then I invited them over to my place and made tacos. She seemed interested and told me that she was busy the next day but would be free once more before she had to leave. I took that as a hint and asked her out for that free night, and she accepted. We went out and had a good time, and I worked up the courage to tell her that I had decided after my first serious relationship that I didn't want to ever do long distance again, but that I really liked her a lot and would reconsider that if she were interested. She told me that she liked me too but just wasn't sure. There was a lot going on in her life.
She left to go back to Saga a couple days later, after we hung out once more with our two friends (the reason she was in Osaka is that she is a part-time correspondence student and has to occasionally travel to campus for tests and such). I asked her if maybe I could visit her in Saga sometime, but she was noncommittal. I was disappointed and thought that was probably the end of that, but we exchanged phone numbers.
Over the next month or so we texted each other a lot and talked on the phone sometimes. She wound up changing her mind and I visited her in Saga once for a weekend, staying at a hotel in her city. We visited Kumamoto and tried raw horse meat and visited an old castle, and one night when she dropped me off I very nervously asked if I could kiss her. I thought she said yes, so I gave her a quick peck on the lips and said goodnight (I later found out from Joe that she hadn't said yes but was actually asking if I meant on the lips, but she never said anything about it to me).
Eventually I got an email from her saying that she had thought about it and wanted me to be her boyfriend. It was April 1st, which I remember because she said despite it being April Fool's Day she wasn't joking.
I won't review our whole relationship, but I will say we had our ups and downs. I had trouble accepting her job sometimes (working at a hostess club as a pianist) and I would get a bit jealous, though I always trusted her. We traveled a lot together, even to Okinawa and to America.
We also talked about marriage and children a little bit, but that was mostly initiated by me. She was happy I felt that way but wasn't ready to seriously think about that stuff yet; she had a lot of musical talent and wanted to pursue that both study and career-wise.
We also talked about the possibility of her moving to Kansai to live near or with me. She said she wanted to, but never seemed to make any concrete plans. Eventually I decided that although she may have intended to, it wasn't very likely that she would do so quickly enough for me. I really didn't want to spend another year so far from her - the travel was expensive and I wanted to be with her more. I also felt that if I stayed and she moved in with me, things would become complicated. She would need to find a job, and if I decided to leave the following year or the one after that and she stayed in Japan, she would need to find a new place. So it was with these considerations that I made my choice not to recontract. This is still something I think about and wonder what if I had stayed. I remember when I told her that I had decided to recontract and that it would probably be better if we broke up rather than me dragging things along when we probably had no future together. We both cried and she convinced me to stay together with her for as long as possible, and although I often regret not giving her the chance to move to Hyogo to be with me, I don't regret staying together with her (even though there were plenty of bumps in the road to follow).
I think that's where I'll leave off for now. In my next post I'll talk about how things have been going since I came back and how each of my situations has changed.