Sunday, August 14, 2005

New JETs Come In, Old JETs Go Home

August is always the time of the year when the old JETs go home, and the new JETs arrive.

If the JET program is like university (and in a lot of ways it is) then this is just like the beginning of school year when the freshmen come in. And as the new people come in and the social order readjusts itself, there is some tension between the freshmen and the upper-classmen.

If we continue the University analogy, then obviously I’m the pathetic old guy who still hangs out on campus long after he’s graduated. But I do remember my first year on JET. The feelings I had when I arrived in Japan for the first time, excitement mixed with nervousness and a little bit of homesickness, were not unlike the feelings I had when I entered university.

I felt like I really bonded strongly with the other first year JETs. We were all in the same boat. We were all nervous and excited together. We all arrived with no knowledge, and then gradually figured things out as the year went on. We would get together sometimes and exchange stories about all the things that we’d discovered.

I was very wary of the 2nd and 3rd year JETs. They were always telling me what I was doing wrong, or correcting me. They were always talking with the air of an expert, or showing off their Japanese skills, or otherwise making me feel inferior at every chance they got.

And then in August, the end of the year arrived, a lot of the old lot went home, and a batch of new JETs arrived.

In Japan, we foreigners sometimes get a bit of attention. Sometimes it can go to a person’s head, especially when they first arrive.

I remember the beginning of my second year a bunch of us were out in the city helping to welcome the new first year JETs. Some of the new crowd, well aware that as we walked down the street all eyes were looking at us, began to show off and talk in loud voices to each other, swearing loudly, and even mock fighting or doing all sorts of stunts or gestures to get more attention. I’m sure the alcohol was a factor as well, but I remember thinking I was just so over it. I had lived in Japan for a year, I had carved out a niche for myself, I had friends and a routine, and places I liked to hang out, and I was just living life, and I was over the whole scene of acting obnoxious in the streets to get more attention. I felt like all the new JETs were just annoying little pricks who had been in the country for two weeks and thought they owned it.

And then in a couple months everything had seemed to settle in to place again, I discovered that I actually did like a lot of the new JETs, and life continued on. But there is that initially culture clash between the people just arriving and the established group.

A lot of it is just territorial. These new people didn’t know anything about the past year. They didn’t know about the little dramas and the soap operas and the romances and the funny things that happened. They didn’t share any of those memories. And then all of a sudden they just arrived one day and were hanging out at the same places I was, and I wanted to say to them, “You can’t possibly understand what the last year meant. You and the new lot can’t expect to just come in here and take over everything.”

But there are also other factors. When we first arrived in Japan, we were amazed and surprised by everything. We wondered around wide-eyed saying, “Oh my god! Have you noticed Japanese people always do this or that?” And then after a few months or so you get used to it, you accept it, and the conversation begins to move on to other topics. Then in August a new group of people arrive, and the conversation gets knocked back down to the beginning.

That was 3 years ago. This is now my fourth time seeing the new JETs arrive, and I like to think I’m a bit more chilled out about it. I try not to be like some of the older JETs who were around when I first arrived, but I do catch myself every now and then showing off a bit on the Japanese. Also if I’m with some new arrivals, sometimes I do feel the urge to insert my “expert” veteran opinion on every single topic that comes up in the conversation.

It is good to spend time with the new arrivals because it helps me remember what it was like when I first arrived. I was explaining to a friend yesterday, “When you first arrive in Japan, everything is pretty overwhelming, but eventually a lot of it starts to fade into the background. It’s like if you move into a house by the train station. At first you go nuts because you hear the trains all the time, but eventually you get used to it and then you don’t even notice that they are there. And then one day someone comes over to visit and they say, ‘Bloody hell, how can you concentrate with all these trains zooming around?’
and you say, ‘Oh, I forgot they were even there’.
That’s what it’s like for me talking to the new 1st year JETs.”

There are hundreds of examples of this, but one obvious one is just the language. My Japanese isn’t as good as it should be after 4 years, and when I compare myself to some of my peers I get a bit depressed sometimes, but when I meet the 1st year JETs, who can’t speak a word of Japanese, I realize exactly how far I’ve come.

For instance, Chris is learning the Japanese alphabet now. After about a year of living and studying in Japan, I’d say the Japanese syllabic alphabet comes almost second nature. You can read and write it without even thinking about it. But I had forgotten how frustrating it was for me to learn it those first few months. I felt like I had re-entered the first grade and had to learn to read all over again. Every word I had to sound out painfully and slowly. Similar looking letters I would often get mixed up, and different styles of font would throw me for a complete loop.

Another quick example (and again, there are hundreds I could list, but only one more example will have to suffice for now):
this sounds a bit silly putting it down into words, but when I first came to Japan, normal everyday activities would often seem completely surreal. Going to a tea ceremony wouldn’t faze me, because I expected it to be Japanese. But going to a reggae concert, and realizing that the whole band was Japanese, and all the people dancing around me were Japanese, seemed completely bizarre. I had a certain image of what I expected a reggae singer to look like, and it was not a Japanese man.
Or when we went to a baseball game last summer, I remember someone commenting, “It’s weird to watch a game I’ve grown up with my whole life, and suddenly seeing that all the faces are Asian. It just doesn’t seem right.”
Or things like going to a dance club, or a trance party, or playing volleyball, or any of it just seemed strange because it was in Japan, and there was an element of surrealness doing everyday normal activities, but being surrounded by Japanese faces.

And then…you eventually get over it, and it’s weird to think that there was ever a time when it fazed you at all. And you begin to forget that it was ever something you thought about. Until the new JETs come, and you see it again through their eyes.

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