January 27, 2010

Recontracting and Life in Japan


It's the one phrase you will hear ad nauseum on the JET Program and the frustrating thing is that it's unavoidably true. While your friends envy your placement at one academic high school you will feel burning jealousy once you learn their rent is less than half what you pay. For a nicer apartment.

How you cope with the inevitable challenges that will arise from your placement will determine how enjoyable your Japan experience is. There will be teachers you don't get along with, teachers who don't use you at all and others who leave everything up to you. There will be students who blow you away with how smart they are and others who couldn't give a crap about learning English (and make sure you know it). Your school will be roasting hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter with no happy medium in-between. Your apartment will be the same - no insulation or central heating makes winters without a kotatsu long and bitter.

Everyone experiences at least one or all of the above at some point during their stay. At the end of the day, you have two ways you can cope.

1.) Take it all in stride and try to see the positives.

Sometimes this is harder to do than others. Just like with any job, sometimes at the end of the week you are so frustrated all you want to do is up and quit. For these times it's important to have an outlet. Make some drinking buddies, start a blog, Skype your family back home - something that will take your mind off work. For every week or day that leaves you wondering what exactly you're doing here, there are a dozen others that are rewarding and fun so as long as you can focus on those you won't have any problems.

When it comes to your school or apartment being cold, well you find ways to cope. Heat packets, sweaters, heaters and a kotatsu will make winter a whole lot more bearable. Most apartments come with a heater and an A/C as well (or you'll be able to buy one off your pred).

2.) The other option is to let these minor things eat away at you until you either say "f*ck this place" and break contract or decide to leave after a year and spend the rest of your stay miserable and hating Japan because it wasn't everything you thought it would be.

On that note, a bit about Re-contracting...

One of the nice things about JET is that in most prefectures you have the option to re-contract if you like for up to 5 years (though some prefectures cap it at 3). If you really love Japan and your job (and enjoy making decent money) this is a great option. You'll usually get your re-contracting papers sometime in November or December and they're due in early February.

Re-contracting is probably one of the hardest decisions for most JETs to make. When they give you these papers your "OMG Japan is so awesome!" stage is starting to wane. Things are starting to bother you and you're getting home sick. You miss your family, you miss your friends and the thought of spending Christmas in Japan depresses you like nothing else. This is how I felt when they handed me my papers in the end of November. Welcome to Stage 2 of culture shock.

I knew I needed to see my family for Christmas so I took some time off and went home for the holidays. It was the best decision I could have made. Seeing my family made me feel about a million times better and I came back to Japan rejuvenated and ready to start a new semester. Suddenly all the things that had been bothering me before I left seemed really insignificant.

But I still wasn't sure I wanted to stay another year.

A year is a long time, after all. They have you sign these papers in February when you're only half way through your year. The second half could completely suck. Things could change. You could be miserable and then realize you're stuck here for another year.

Or, you could love it and it'll be the best decision you've ever made.

It's not an easy choice. In September and October I was 100% I was re-contracting for another year. By November I wasn't sure. By December I had serious doubts. It wasn't looking good. But then I had the opportunity to talk to a few second and third year JETs. Guess what? They all had the same doubts that I did. Some of them still do now as they debate whether to re-contract for a third or fourth year. What they told me was basically the same message - say "Yes". I had more than a few recall stories from last year of JETs who said "No" on their forms and come Spring were so upset that they were leaving.

It really comes down to what is best for you, but I would caution everyone to think about it carefully. Can you handle living here another year? Is it going to benefit you or hinder you in the long run?

I have pros and cons on both sides of my fence, but for now I'm going to say "Yes" and hope they ask me to stay.

My experience in Japan so far has been amazing. My job is great, my students are awesome, and I've met some of the most incredible people here. Right now, at this point in my life, I couldn't be happier. So why mess with a good thing?

I'll have another post soon about Culture Shock in Japan and what you can expect going abroad.