Sunday, April 27, 2014

So You Want to Teach in Japan, Huh?

I have gotten a few "How are you living in Japan?" and "Do you actually have a job or are you just a starving artist?" questions both to me directly and....not so much.  If it wasn't already made clear, I am an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for English classes in Japanese public schools.  As I explained in my last post, I am not a teacher and didn't really aspire to be one either, but life just worked out in this way and here I am in Japan as an Eigo Sensei (English teacher)~  Yes, it is a job.  Yes, I live in Japan and yes, it is a full time position.  It's also a lot of fun!

Here I will explain what my job is and what to do/expect if this type of position interests you.  Because I work in Japan, some of this post is specific to Japan but you should know that there are many opportunities to teach abroad besides in Japan.  If other countries interest you, do some searching to find a recruiter in a country you like.

What is an ALT?

An ALT is an assistant language teacher.  In Japan, most of the teachers who teach English are not native speakers and some of them don't really know much English at all.  In the elementary school I work in, the homeroom teachers teach English and they only really know what's in the book.  At first I didn't really like the idea of having English speakers go and teach everyone outside English speaking countries.  It felt kind of like colonization or something.  But as I learned more about jobs like mine, I realized that it's not really us forcing our language on other countries.  They choose to learn English as a foreign language because it makes it easier for them to communicate with many people.  English is really difficult to learn and I feel lucky that it's my first language.  Having native English speakers assist in teaching the language makes it easier for the students to learn about both the language and culture of English speaking countries.  The job of an ALT is both of a cultural ambassador and language instructor.  I work in Japanese schools and alongside Japanese English instructors.  My contract is for a year and my company helped me get a work visa for that period of time.

Why would I want to do that?

I described my personal reasons for coming to work in Japan in this post here so read that if you're interested.  But in addition to what I explained before, there are so many other reasons a job like this is awesome.  It's really difficult to find work and housing and all of those living necessities in a country you're not familiar with, especially if you don't speak the language.  My recruiting company, and I'm sure most others, helps employees find a place to live, pay utilities, taxes, and health insurance- all things that would be very difficult to do if you weren't fluent in the language.  So if you have ever wanted to live abroad, I think this is one of the most convenient ways to do it.

Do I have to know Japanese?

The short answer is no.  But, I think this varies depending on the recruiting company.  Some prefer that you don't know any so that it enforces an English only classroom situation.  It seems like the company that hired me likes hiring people with some Japanese experience since the majority of people in my training group had studied it to some extent.  Even though my level isn't super advanced, it's a huge advantage to me in daily life and during work, especially since many teachers don't know much English at all.  Those that know a little are always very enthusiastic about practicing with me though!  I don't think that not knowing any Japanese will disqualify you for the position by any means, but it will definitely make living here a less stressful experience.

Do I need a teaching certification?

This probably depends on the recruiter as well, but I don't have any certifications and most people I know of with this kind of position don't either so don't let that discourage you.

How much does it cost?

My company does not pay for your plane transportation to Japan.  It's a pain to pay for, but I suppose it's like moving anywhere for a job.  Additionally, as per Japanese tradition (as I have been told), payment comes 2 months after beginning work.  This is true for my company but I can't say how it works for others.  So this means you have to pay 2 months worth of rent and key money as a downpayment for your apartment prior to getting paid.  It's important to finance properly both before and during your trip!  My company recommended coming to Japan with $5,000 so you can afford your first 2 months and the apartment payments.  They also offer a loan service if you need to borrow money.  It was stressful for me to save up for all of this, but I found it to be worth it for the experience.

Where do I apply?

There are several different recruiting companies you can choose.  There are two types of teaching positions in Japan.  One is at eikaiwa, an English conversation school that students attend to supplement what they learn at school during the day.  These hours tend to be later in the day.  The other one is at the actual schools in Japan so those hours are regular school work hours.  Some recruiters may work better for you than others so be sure to check them all out before choosing one.

  • JETThis is the most well known and competitive one and people I know who have worked with them have loved it.  I believe the pay is slightly higher compared to other companies.  Additionally, it's a government associated program.  If you choose to apply to JET, I recommend applying to another recruiter as a back-up as I know of people with teaching certifications and impressive resumes who didn't get hired.
  • AltiaI have heard mixed reviews about this company.
  • InteracThis is the company I work with and they have been really wonderful and a pleasure to work with so I personally recommend them because I know from my own experience that they've been excellent.
There are some others as well but those seem to be the main 3.  If you're interested in applying, check out this forum because I read a lot about peoples' personal experiences there and asked a bunch of questions.

What's the hiring process like?

I can only speak about Interac because it's the only company I have worked with.  There were 3 parts to my application and a lot of paperwork in between.

  • Online application- This includes a cover letter/personal statement, work and school history.  It's pretty basic stuff.
  • Phone screening- It's not so much an interview as it is just a screening process to see if they think you're not going to bail out on the position mid-contract, at least from what I gathered based on the questions they asked me.  Some of those questions were if I was worried about being away for a long time, if I had been to Japan before, what are my concerns about living abroad, any challenges I anticipate, etc.
  • In-person seminar and demo lesson- If you pass the phone screening, they invite you to an in-person seminar with a recruiter.  The first thing we did was a grammar test that really shouldn't be that hard if you know English fluently, which you should for this job.  I tied with someone else in my group for the top score and I didn't study in advance.  It's mostly just a couple spelling and grammar corrections.  They aren't very difficult but can trip you up in the moment.  I would suggest reviewing commonly misspelled words in advance just in case.  The recruiter then gave a short Powerpoint presentation about the job and what to expect.  Most of that information was on the website so it wasn't really news.  The last part of the seminar is the demo lesson they send to Japan.  Don't worry, Interac sent options and instructions in advance so you don't have to go into this blind.  It's a really short demo so don't stress about if students would learn the material well in that quick of a lesson.  Just do your best and stay positive!  It was really nice to be able to talk to the other people interviewing with me before the demos because then all of us were a lot less nervous.  Once I got to Japan, I was trained for a week on teaching techniques and things so now I know that my whole lesson wasn't very good.  But I still got the job so I think they expect to be teaching you proper techniques once you're hired so no worries.

Is the job right for you?

I have only been working for 2 weeks now and as fun as it is, I can already tell that this isn't the job for everyone.  Here are two main things to consider before coming to Japan:
  • Like kids!- If you don't like kids, this definitely is not the job for you because you have to see them and work with them every day.  If that's unappealing to you in some way, just do yourself a favor and don't even think about applying.
  • Be easygoing- Your expectations will be exceeded but at times you will be disappointed and frustrated.  For example, your schedule will change last minute and/or you won't understand certain customs that may frustrate you but it's important that you remain calm and go with the flow.  During my first day at a school, I was told that I had to teach the first period that was accidentally left off the schedule so before even meeting any staff or settling in, I was brought into the classroom to teach a full lesson.  It went well but I know that had I had an anxiety issue like I have dealt with in the past, it would have been very difficult for me.  If sudden changes like this make you very stressed or anxious, this is definitely not a situation you want to be in.  It won't be fun for you if you're not mentally in a place where you can be accommodating of last minute changes or general stressful life situations
  • Be respectful- This goes along with the easygoing part.  There are going to be a lot of customs and procedures that seem illogical to you but you just have to respect them instead of arguing.  You are a guest in another country so you must follow their rules.
  • Know how to be alone- I don't have roommates, my Japanese friends don't live very close and everyone that I met during the week of training lives an hour+ away from me so it's not easy to see anyone in general, especially during the week.  I don't really know anyone else who lives in my city so I often just go home after work and keep busy but sometimes I wish I had a friend nearby to go get coffee with or something.  It was especially lonely during the first week after moving in when I didn't have work.  Sometimes it's also difficult in the teachers' room at school because everyone speaks Japanese to each other and gets along really easily but it's harder for me because my Japanese is very clearly not at their level.  Although I'm confident that I will meet a lot of people within the year, it can be lonely at times.  I've gotten really good at being my own best friend as silly as that sounds so I can keep myself entertained.  It's an important skill to have before coming here.
  • Don't do drugs- Japan is really tough on drugs and alcohol so I think it's necessary to mention this.  If you really feel like you need a joint to get you through a day, this is not the job or country for you.  Having one beer and riding a bike is enough to get you in a lot of trouble.  Your first marijuana offense could earn you years of jail time.  Japan isn't screwing around so neither should you.  More info here.

My advice

Definitely don't take a position like this if you don't feel mentally stable or physically healthy enough for it.  As helpful as my company is, it's not like I have a support system the way I do back home if I don't feel well or if something goes wrong.  If you choose to apply, go in with an open mind and make that clear to the company you aspire to work with.  The one I worked with really was looking for people who are flexible and I made sure they knew that I was open to a lot of placements and different situations.  Speaking of placements, don't have your heart set on anywhere specific.  I requested close to Tokyo because I love the art and fashion there and my location is 2 hours away which is not as close as other people I know, but still close enough for a day trip.  If you go into this with an open mind, you're way more likely to have an amazing experience.

If you have any questions about this post or life in Japan in general, feel free to comment here, email me, or send a message here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Japan?

Before I start making more posts about my Japan experience, I think it would be fun to reflect on my decision to come here in the first place.

I was raised Jewish with both my parents from Eastern European backgrounds so the exposure I had to Asian culture was a result of the area in New Jersey where I grew up.  I think my first experience with Japanese culture was when I became friends with a girl named Yumi in my kindergarten class.  I remember loving her hair accessories and that sometimes at lunch she didn't want to eat her onigiri (rice balls) and gave them to me.  Yumi and her family moved back to Japan shortly after.

It was after that when I discovered my first anime- Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and Card Captor Sakura.  Because I didn't have access to the internet like younger people do now, everything I knew about Japanese culture I learned from anime.  I think it was my attraction to the anime style of artwork that really sparked my interest in Japanese culture.  When I finally got a Gameboy Color, Pokemon Yellow was my first game.   If you were to go back through my school notebooks from when I was younger, you would find Sailor Moon, Kero and many versions of Jigglypuff, Togepi and Pickachu drawn in the margins.  When my family went to Japanese restaurants, I always tried to order onigiri because it looked so good on TV but none of the places ever had it and usually the wait staff were really confused by my request.  Now that I'm older, I have figured out where to find them in America when I need them.  Thank goodness.

These are the kinds of things I made in my ceramics class

Pretty sure we were supposed to be making bowls.

I spent far too much time downloading Sailor Moon remixes off of Limewire and looking at merchandise I knew I couldn't ever afford at the age of  10 or so.  I did manage to collect a good amount of the dolls as well as some small figures from both Sailor Moon and Card Captors.  It was hard for me as a child to believe that I wasn't even a little bit Japanese.  I was a little Polish, German, Czech, and Russian (which was good news during my Anastasia phase) but according to my parents, who I have now accepted are correct, I am not even a small percent Japanese.

with artist M. Alice LeGrow at NYCC 2008

In high school,  once I talked my parents out of forcing me into taking more Spanish after freshman year, I took 3 years of Japanese.  I went to a couple of anime conventions in high school but I feel like my interest in it dwindled once I encountered people who seemed to be overly passionate.

Anime had lost most of its appeal but my interest in Japanese culture remained and I wrote my college application essay about my Jewish identity and interest in Japanese culture.  It got me into 8 out of 9 schools so I think it must have been pretty good but I can't find it in my email now to prove it.  The college I chose to go to didn't offer Japanese language so I had to unwillingly return to Spanish studies to fulfill my graduation requirements.

Goucher requires study abroad for graduation so I took this as an opportunity to travel to Japan because there really was nowhere else I would rather visit.  I spent 5 amazing weeks in Kyoto during the summer of 2012.  My trip was right after I completed a difficult Asian art history course at school which opened my eyes to older Japanese artwork and how it inspired contemporary pieces I love so much.   It was also amazing to be able to see many of the places and artwork I learned about in person.  As a result, I have a new appreciation for Japanese architecture, woodblock prints, and paintings.  My trip to Japan was only a bit after I began to be really interested in Japanese fashion and music so it was nice to go with some knowledge of current pop culture since my initial interests in Sailor Moon and Card Captors had become rather irrelevant.  Since my trip, my knowledge of Japanese art, music and fashion has grown exponentially.

making friends with deer in Nara (photo by Yvette Brion)

I even got to meet up with my kindergarten friend Yumi at Tokyo Tower!

While abroad, I studied digital photography and intermediate Japanese which was really difficult considering that it had been a few years since I had last been enrolled in a Japanese language course.  When I returned from Japan, I was exhausted by the idea of taking another semester of Spanish and opted to take my last semester of language at another university to fulfill my language requirement.

As I completed my last year at school, I had become increasingly interested in Japanese artwork beyond the anime that initially caught my attention.  If you were to ask me, I could go on listing artists who are Japanese- Junko Mizuno, Audrey Kawasaki, Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami, Macoto Takahashi, Hanamizz (Yurie Sekiya) and Hikari Shimoda, to name possibly more than a few.  After visiting Japan, I experienced first-hand how artistic subcultures encourage creative self-expression.  I found that kind of mentality both intriguing and welcoming to me in some way.

with Junko Mizuno at her opening at The Cotton Candy Machine (my last night working </3)

Although I have strong interests in certain subjects, I feel like I don't have a specific career goal in mind, I felt like returning to Japan was what would make me happy.  My options for finding work were limited because of my level of Japanese language ability.  I was adamant about not wanting to teach but that's the way many foreigners find work in Japan.  Realizing that seemed to be my only option, I decided to apply for a position knowing I didn't have to take it once accepted.  After my application was in, teaching in Japan started to seem like an increasingly good idea to me.  Not only would it be a chance to experience something new, I would be able to have a whole year's time to give back my culture to the country who had inspired me so much throughout my life.

Tomorrow is my first day of work and I have to teach 4 elementary school classes as well as eat lunch with the students.  I've accepted that it's going to be really rough for the first few classes but that I have to get through it in order for it to get better.

I am thankful for everyone who has been supportive of me in my decision to pursue this opportunity and hope that I can share my experience as a thank you.  If you are interested in viewing photos of my adventure, this is where I dump them all.  Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions too!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Almost 2 Weeks in Japan

I arrived in Tokyo last Thursday.  I feel so lucky that I was upgraded to "business elite" for free during my second flight.  I just asked to have my seat changed so my boyfriend and I could sit together and I guess they overbooked the regular seats and underbooked the more expensive ones.  First class was full of people like us and the flight attendant told the two Japanese girls in front of me that the shouldn't keep worrying about being kicked out because they were in the right seats.  Basically, this is a once in a life time experience unless I win the lottery and every plane ride from here on out is going to be a serious downgrade.

Here I am with my free champagne rocking the "this flight is too long" look.

After one night in a tiny Tokyo hotel, I spent the next week training in Yokohama.  I can't say much about my job because of contract things, but I will say I don't have any regrets choosing to work with this company.  The rest of the ALT companies don't seem like they would have worked well for me so I'm more than happy with my choice to go with Interac.

My first 7-11 breakfast of my trip

I bought it because I liked the little anime girl on it.

Mr. Donut is amazing

Yokohama is amazing especially with the weather that's 100x better than what I left behind at home.

I just moved into my apartment a few days ago so I will probably make another post about where I live once I get settled.  Sorry if this post was a little dry but I'll be able to share more exciting things soon! If you're interested in seeing more photos, follow my Japan photo Tumblr!

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