As I write today, it has been almost three weeks since I moved into my apartment, a quaint little jutaku in the middle of a city I had never heard of before the JET Programme. This has been the longest period in my entire life that I have lived completely alone, let alone in another country. I prefer to jump into the deep end, where I learn fastest. (Note: I did that once, literally and nearly drowned. I learned from that lesson, and thus how to swim. Now I pick my jumping a little more carefully.)
Now, this has not been in any way a bad thing but it definitely has not been easy – and mostly because everything that has been difficult has been about myself, not the environment. And you can’t escape yourself, so going home has not been the answer at all! Hence rather than a ‘learning curve’, I have begun to see my time here as being a ‘learning spiral’ – continually twirling onward and upwards with no end in sight. I thought I would share some of my musings from my first few weeks living here.
You never stop learning, now matter how old you are.
This one is an old saying, but it really is true and I never really appreciated it until now. My initial fears upon applying and being accepted onto the JET Programme were that I am not as young as many of those who are coming along for the ride, and that I would be out of the loop. That fear was pretty quickly diminished at both the Pre-departure and Tokyo Orientations, where I met many different ALTs of varying ages. But despite being slightly older and experienced through my previous work, I am in fact no wiser than anyone else on the programme. I am just as bewildered and in a childlike state of awe as those visiting the country for the first time. My Japanese ability matches that of my childlike state, with broken babbling ‘sumimasen’ and ‘gomen nasai’ constantly pouring from my lips, I feel like a child who has lost her parents in a supermarket and is unsure of where to turn for comfort.
But the uncomfortable state has made me the most productive I have ever been in my adult life. As more time passes, I have noticed I pick up more and more words in the conversations around me. I am starting to recognize some kanji here and there. Learning how to operate appliances fully in Japanese and learning what each button does. Observing my co-workers and their behavior – greetings to eating habits, even napping at their desks! By embracing my inner child and forgiving myself for feeling embarrassed, I have begun to take in far more than I ever did back home as an established ‘adult’.
It has also pushed me even harder to take studying the language seriously, and explore other interests too! I’ve started drawing again. I’m writing, taking pictures and generally enjoying every new experience that comes my way. I think I became a little stale living in London, so it’s nice to feel alive again.
Dependency is as important as independency
I am a fairly stubborn person. If something isn’t working – I want to fix it. If I am lost, I want to work out my own way to get to where I need to be. Growing up in London has meant that anything I desired was always a short trip or click away. I could be independent there, I knew what I was doing, spoke the language, knew the people.
But the moment I stepped away from my family in the airport and said my goodbyes, I was on my own. All my friends were at home, continuing life as normal. How long had it been since I really met so many new people? Since I left university? Started a new job? Confidence when meeting or approaching people is not an issue when you live in a city, but I felt as nervous as my first day at school in the airport, looking for the familiar faces I had chatted to online and introducing myself to many new ones.
When I arrived to Fukuoka, it was then that I truly realized the level of dependency I would need to embrace. I knew I couldn’t start alone, not right away. My supervisor and JTE’s were wonderfully supportive in filling out paper work and taking me to my flat and showing me my route to work. I realized how hopeless I would have been attempting this alone. Even through to setting up a Japanese mobile contract, I broke my stubborn attitude enough to ask a neighbor if she would translate through the process. All things stubborn old me would have refused to relent on back home.
That said – by accepting the need to be somewhat dependent has renewed my desire to become independent again. I forced myself to loan a bike and cycled round my town alone, getting lost and exploring the area to see what was around (this is my proudest feat as I have not touched a bicycle for over 15 years!). I have begun to study in my spare time, in the hopes that soon I am no longer dependent on other JETs or friends to translate menus and travel directions for me.
But, I’ll still ask for help every now and then.. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of the kindness of those around you. And out here, everyone is pretty lovely.
You will learn things about yourself you didn’t know
You are going to have an awful lot of time to yourself, out of touch from the world you are used to. If you are not comfortable being by yourself, you will have a horrendous time getting used to the silence (or cicadas, really..) around you. But after initial loneliness it is a beautiful time.
I always thought back home that I was content being by myself, until I realized I was never completely by myself. Someone else would be in my house, my dog snuggled up on my bed, my friends on the phone – if I wanted to have company I could. That’s not fully alone. My first night after being dropped off to my apartment, I was ALONE. No phone, no wifi hotspots, and no where within a 10 minute walk to venture to at night to find comfort. Totally alone.
That was rough for a while. Feelings of culture shock, jet lag, isolation and confusion all melted into a horrible mess that was me rocking on my chair wondering if I had made the right decision. And I did, I knew deep down that it was, and still is the right thing to have done. My confidence levels have soared, my brain is working overtime taking in my new surroundings and language. I am driven to better myself, eat healthier and develop new, good habits. There are no distractions around me, nothing to stop me or lure me into a comfort zone that will never push my boundaries or help me learn and do new things. And when I am really lonely, there’s always Skype, or the lovely new friends in my area who are in the same boat as me.
This experience is helping me push my limits. I am seeing what ones can be bent and what can be broken. Where I will draw the line and how adventurous I can really be. I feel that if I continue on this learning spiral, continually climbing and seeking to better myself, I will grow more in a short space of time than I have ever in my entire adult life.
Japan dwelling British geek, Vicki is a lover of tea, video games and art. If she is not eating in somewhere new, she is wandering around (a.k.a getting lost) and discovering exciting things!