Is Expat Still My Identity?

That Facebook memory thing is a pain. I joined Facebook in 2005, my first year of uni (back when you needed a university email). That’s a lot of years of memories to show me, and while it’s nice looking back on times gone by, boy do I feel old.

Memories informs me that it’s been around 8 years since I lived in Japan, and 5 years since I was in Germany. I’ve been in the UK 3 1/2 years and I can’t believe it. I came back to settle down, career up and live a more fulfilling life, and really it’s taken me 3 1/2 years to get somewhere near that. [Read more…]

How to Work in a Japanese Office

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Learn to behave or feel the pinch!

As promised, I have for you a post on how to survive in a Japanese office, should any of you be as unfortunate enough to work in one. My current Japanese office is very unJapanese, and has hardly any of the following rule in place. However, my last place was very much like all the things you are about to read.

These are all cultural tips I’ve collected after having worked in Japan, and then in Japanese companies outside of Japan. Sometimes companies make these little booklets on how to work with the Japanese, which I find hilarious because they are often very wrong.

Age over talent

Looking to climb the ladder, so you’re putting in extra effort to wow your boss? Save your energy, because your sparkling talent won’t get you that promotion; putting years into your company and growing through the ranks is how Japanese companies work.

While this is meant to show dedication to your company, it often means that useless people sail up through the company without being any good at what they do. I’ve certainly known some 60 year old Japanese men who seem to be doing pretty much nothing (more on that later!)

Don’t break the wa

Whatever you do, don’t break the 和 – the wa, meaning peace. This isn’t regular peace, like flowers down the barrel of a gun or opposing war. This is all about not sticking out and trying to be different in your Japanese surroundings. If there’s something you don’t like, do you complain about it? NOPE! Get your head back down and carry on paper pushing, you crazy westerner! It doesn’t matter if you see corporate mistakes on a ridiculous scale, bad things will happen if you try to act out.

You should be harmonious with the rest of your team, and your company at all times. You should not disagree or try to do something different.

A friend of mine met me hungover in a cafe in Frankfurt sometime last year. I asked if he was OK, and he told me he’d been a victim of “aru-hara”. “You know ‘seku-hara’; the Japanese term for sexual harassment? Well ‘aru-hara’ is alcohol harassment”, he explained. His boss had started to be really mean and spiteful to him when he said he wanted to stop drinking after just a few beers, until my friend had succumbed and drank more than what he was capable of. This is a common thing in companies, and I’ve heard stories from foreign friends in Japan as well of them being encouraged to drink so much that they just tell their colleagues they have an allergy.

Don’t break the wa.

Look Busy All the Time

This was something I noticed while working in Japan – a lot of the time my colleagues just looked busy, but were in reality doing very little. Then, once home-time came, they actually started doing their work – stacking up the overtime hours.

They’re not trying to gain extra money from overtime work – they don’t get paid overtime. They’re trying to prove to the boss that they are going the extra mile, even though the race could have been finished at 5pm.

Another great outcome of Japanese people trying to look busy at work is the “Japanese office run”. You know the kind of run where you’re actually walking, but putting as much upper-body effort into it so to make you look like you’re properly running? Yeah, you can often see that done by Japanese people. Again, I don’t get this so much in the current office; we’re much more chilled and I think it’s probably more likely that I’m the one doing the Japanese office run…

Get Some Proper Polite Japanese

Think you can speak Japanese? Nah, not until you’ve been in a Japanese office, can you know what it’s like to feel the brain burn of Japanese. Pretty much everything you say has to be said in totally new ways, depending on how high above you the person you’re speaking to is. The difference is similar to:

“Yo, morning, dawg”

“Good morning!”

“I wish you a pleasant morning”

“I humbly wish you the most wonderful morning and if it so happens that your morning is not full of sunshine, rainbows and fluffy bunnies, I will offer my life to the gods so that you can forever more enjoy mornings knowing that my blood has been spilled”.

No matter what your level, try to get some polite Japanese phrases down, because they’re always good to impress. For example, before you leave the office, it’s common to say “oh saki-ni shi-tsu-re shimasu” which vaguely translates as “I am so rude as to leave before you, please forgive me”. Yeah, tell me about it. But it’s a good phrase to use, and whipping that out for your Japanese colleagues will always impress.

 

I didn’t expect to be so completely negative with my Japanese office tips – though I guess after my experiences, it’s not surprising. Working in a Japanese working environment can be tough and strict and seemingly without fun, but I enjoy working with Japanese people very much (unless they are old smelly Japanese bosses who need to get with the times), and I do love my current Japanese office and colleagues very much. Last week I found an area of the building I’d not been to before and found a library area with Japanese and English business books. There was a book in Japanese called “Japanese Companies are Pretty Weird”, which I thought was hilarious.

If you’ve ever experienced a Japanese office, I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

My Biggest Mistake in Japan

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Recently I was in a Japanese restaurant with some Japanese friends. The conversation was flowing, but then I stopped dead when I heard a certain song. It was a song I’d long forgotten, a song that took me right back to the school I worked at while I was in Japan.

I worked at a junior high school, and in Japan, all JHS students should choose one club activity. It’s fairly hardcore, and the kids have to practise their chosen activity every day – even on weekends.

When I arrived at the school, I was told there was a baton twirling group. I couldn’t believe it! Of all the schools in the prefecture, I got the one that did twirling! From the age of 7 I was a majorette in a troupe called The Sapphires. We were the top in England…though I wasn’t that good myself. The winter months were spent planning our new routines, spring would be village fetes and carnivals to hone our moves then in the summer we’d travel all over the country to competitions – most of which we won.

So to have a team right there in Japan – I could show them all our training exercises and get them to be top of their game! They’d love me forever and we’d all live happily every after, right?

Wrong.

In Japan, it’s not the level of skill that you have that matters, it’s going through the motions. So, as long as you join the club and go to the meetings, it doesn’t actually matter if you put in any effort or not. You’re there as part of the team, not to be amazing at whatever it is yourself. Proving this cultural observation of mine, there are teachers assigned to each group, but the chance of them being an expert in that activity is slim, and they rarely turn up to train the kids. The kids train each other – meaning that bad habits are passed down from year group to year group.

So I turned up to their training session on the top floor of the school to find them sitting down, copying each others’ homework, playing with their phones. I asked to see their routines, and they were technically very very good. They’d been given some great tricks to learn – some of which I couldn’t replicate later at home when I tried… But their dances were set to slow music…love songs where the beats dragged on.

April came and the 3rd graders graduated and tiny little 1st graders joined the team. I saw an opportunity to start a new training regime and to oversee them practise so I could pick out any bad habits they were learning. The kids hated it. They hated me butting into their ‘downtime’, they hated me trying to change things, they hated the music I was suggesting for their dances. They just wanted to sit down with the team and chill out for a bit – even while the school’s famous sporting teams were showing dedication by training really hard outside the window.

I tried to show them videos of other Japanese baton groups who are just spectacular. I thought maybe they’d be inspired and want to be like them. They said that those girls were different. They were just country girls so they would never be as good as that. Then they went back to playing with their phones.

Around the time of me being exhausted trying to think of ways to make the girls be more passionate about baton twirling, some nasty bullying happened. A nasty 1st grader girl was picking on a slightly eccentric teammate. The bullied girl stopped coming to practice, and then stopped coming to school all together. I was fuming. As someone who suffered with bullying, I spotted the signs early on and told the Japanese teacher in charge. She said to leave it be, and the girls will sort themselves out. Of course, that didn’t happen and I felt rotten that a little girl was missing out on an education just because this wasn’t sorted out earlier, and more so that there was nothing at all being done about it. As a foreign teacher, I had no right to discipline the kids and I wasn’t even meant to be left in a room with students without a Japanese teacher there (though this rule was conveniently forgotten each time the Japanese teacher was sick and I was asked to lead classes alone).

The mistake that I made with my experience with the baton twirling group was that I, as a foreigner, can’t just come in and project onto the kids the things that I assume people strive for. In the west, we are taught to be the best that we can be. I am proud to say that I was in the top English majorette group, and I trained hard in my garden every night to try to be as good as the other girls. In Japan, they are taught to be a team. As long as they were together at the right place at the right time, even doing the least amount of work possible to qualify for that activity, then that’s OK.

I also can’t assume that education works the same all over the world. Bullying is dealt with seriously in the UK, but it isn’t in Japan. Me standing over a Japanese teacher tattle-telling on a spiteful girl won’t make Japan change its stance on how to deal with bullying. They are in charge of their own country’s children and I should treat this with an open mind, even when kids are staying home from school because of it.

I did a lot of good for the team, as well. After me prompting and then preparing them, they performed at the summer festival in the village, and were simply wonderful. Two of my favourite girls performed a duet and even pushed themselves to do much more difficult moves than they’d previously tried – which they aced on stage without a single baton dropped. They also performed at the local old peoples’ home, showing that just because they themselves chose the baton team to get out of much harder sports, they can still use their skills to make other people happy.

We expats go about the world and take with us ideas of how things should be, and what is right and wrong. It takes some failure to realise that you have to relax these jerk reactions in response to things that you think are wrong. And we can’t go into things like a bull in a china shop, as I did. This was my biggest mistake in Japan.

 

The JET Programme

 

** Another post copied over post from Sherbet and Sparkles! Enjoy! **

This week I went to dinner with a nice American girl. I’d helped her a little in her application to the JET Programme, and she got in.

I like to help people with the JET applications in my spare time. I had a lot of help when I applied, and so I like to give back. Also, I just like that satisfaction you get from knowing you helped someone out.

So what is JET? Most people think it stands for “Japan English Teaching” but it’s actually “Japan Exchange and Teaching”. The Japanese government spends a lot of money sending young people from all over the world to live in the Japanese countryside, to live among Japanese people who would never get to see a non-Japanese person  otherwise, while teaching in the local schools. I was on the JET Programme for 2 years.

I had always wanted to be on JET. I first encountered Japanese people when I did an exchange in my town with one of the Keio middle schools when I was 13. I thought those kids were amazing – I’m still good friends with some of them today. My Japanese teacher (because I would not shut up until my parents let me study it in the evenings) told me about the programme, and I had my heart set on it from that day forward.

Applying to JET is a rollercoaster of emotions. You need to write an essay, then you have an interview, then a police check – but that’s not all! You don’t know if you’ll get on the programme until around this time in the year (for a July departure) and you won’t know which area you’ll go to until June, in some cases.

I sat there across from my friend this week and I could see all the same emotions in her that I had 3 years ago. I’d been to Japan twice before – the second of which was for a year as an exchange student – so I imagine she was feeling even more nervous than I was. But I was so excited for her. I was bouncing on my chair telling her how she’ll be the star of her town, how the kids will be amazing, how the food will make her fat, but happy…

So why did I quit?

Well, there is a downside to JET. In preparation, I had done a joint degree in Japanese and teaching English. I had also had experience teaching English. I was ready and raring to rock the classroom. But you can’t as an Assistant Language Teacher. Well, not in junior high schools, at least. My job was to, if I was lucky, make 15 minute activities that couldn’t be too creative and at other times I stood in the classroom and was a living cd player. Why wasn’t I happy with the activities? Well, it really depended on the teacher and the class. Some classes were awesome – I remember doing a gap-fill exercise to The Beatles’ Hello Goodbye. The kids LOVED it. It was creative, used real English and wasn’t a textbook. Other times I was not so lucky.

The textbook had a section on how to take a train. It had a small map with stations called “Plum Station”, “Flower Station” and “Sunshine Station”. This was for 16 year olds. I was asked to do an activity based on this, so I started off working through these pages, and teaching things like “take the Apple Line to Plum Station, then change to the Banana Line”. This worked well. Then I whipped out a REAL LIFE map of the london underground. I had simplified it to a handful of stations and had written how to say the stations in katakana. The teacher wasn’t happy. The students did their best, but they just don’t experience real English. It was using all the same terms as we had just practised, just with real life stations. If it’s not in a textbook, the teachers don’t think it’s useful and the kids get scared and don’t try to understand it.

My opinions were not valid in the school, my experience and skills were not touched upon. And moreover, the other teachers in the school practically ignored me. I understand Japanese perfectly fine, but they spoke to me in a mock foreign accent… They made me so angry.

However, the students were angels and I love every single one of them. That’s why I went back to see their graduation last month. Even the kids who were little monkeys were sweet. One little boy in the first grade (11 years old) would come up to me every morning and say, in English, “Charlotte-sensei, I have a hangover!!” I’d reply with “OH NO! What was it this time? Beer? Whiskey?” While he would nod enthusiastically and choose which drink he had “drank”. Another girl named Airi was particularly close to me. She was a loud mouthed drama queen – always screeching about this and that and creating a scene. She dyed her hair and rolled her skirt up, and the teachers said she was a lost cause. Do you know what? I’ve dyed my hair since I was 12, I sure rolled up my skirt when I was younger, and teachers have also called me a lost cause (the one that sticks most in my mind is my A Level French teacher who told me I am “just not cut out for languages – if French is too hard then Japanese will be impossible”.) I wasn’t going to let her fall behind. I knelt by her desk when I was in her class and explained stuff to her one on one until she got it. And do you know what? I think she was one of the brightest kids in there. It’s just that when I wasn’t in the room, no one tried with her and so she didn’t try to study.

Look at this long post… I could talk for days on my JET experiences. If there happen to be people out there applying, I would be glad to write a post on how to prepare and so on. But I think I should make more posts about the cute things students wrote and drew for me. While looking back in my old folders I came across a stash 🙂

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