Exploring Life In Japan: An Interview With A JET Program Teacher

While most of us are still dreaming of the places we’ll go after quarantine wraps up, it helps to know it’s a reality waiting around the corner by talking to friends who have made those incredible trips. I talked to Mallory Chen, a friend that just finished the JET program this past year and lived for 18 months in Japan as an ESL teacher. She also spent a few months exploring South Asia--solo hopping from Vietnam to Singapore and more! Check out her experiences below:

Mt Fuji Japan

1) What were the factors that led you to decide to try teaching English abroad? And why Japan?

I really enjoyed studying abroad in the Czech Republic my junior year, and by the time I graduated one of the only things I really felt sure about was that I wanted to live abroad again, and have a longer, more immersive experience this time around. I was interested in living somewhere in Asia, and the JET Program is so well-established so I felt like it was a good choice. 

2) What advice do you have people going into the JET app process?

Really think through the "why Japan?" question - it seems obvious, but it's a question that I think the program weighs pretty heavily, especially in the interviews. There are so many reasons one can have for wanting to do the program, but you should be able to be clear and specific about why Japan as opposed to another country. Also, be open to possibilities! The program lets you list preferences for the kind of placement you want, but I'd encourage people to leave it up to chance - sometimes it seems like the program gives you the opposite of what you ask for anyways, haha. 

3) Were you nervous or afraid when arriving to Japan?

I wasn't too nervous to be going, more excited and curious what it would be like as I'd never been to Japan before then. But it did hit me on my first day in Tokyo - I was standing there in Shinjuku, experiencing sensory overload, and I couldn't understand anything people were saying around me. I had a major "what have I gotten myself into??" moment. Then I got some udon and made my first convenience store purchase and the rest is history. 

Element5 Digital

4) What was your favorite part about teaching English to children? Least favorite?

Actually more than moving to Japan itself, I was nervous about getting in the classroom and teaching students with such a tough language barrier. The job was a challenge in many ways, and up until the end I was constantly learning. My least favorite part was probably having to teach unruly classes - it can be hard engaging young kids in a language they don't understand, and even harder trying to discipline with limited Japanese ability. But I loved when students got really into class - it's so rewarding to see the kids having fun and to be able to share that energy with them. 

5) Did you have any favorite kids you taught?

Of course not, I don't play favorites...

...but there were a few classes that I was particularly fond of, where the kids were really lovely and engaged and just such a joy to talk to and teach. But I miss them all!

6) What was your prefecture like? What did you learn about Japanese culture?

I lived in Fukushima prefecture, in a region called Aizu. Fukushima still has quite a bit of stigma around it, but it's such a beautiful and underappreciated part of Japan. Aizu has a very rich samurai history and culture and spectacular food (shout-out to Kitakata ramen and sauce katsudon). It's hard for me to pinpoint specific things I learned about the culture, but I felt like I was learning something new about it everyday. I did join a local taiko group, which was a fantastic experience.  

7) You told me before that social media distorts Japan a lot--what do you wish people actually knew?

The way that Japan is portrayed in social media can be somewhat one-dimensional and not always entirely realistic (which is what social media often does anyways). For example, Japan is often seen as a very technologically advanced place, but a lot of workplaces (especially schools) rely on fax machines. Things like fax machine usage, questionable hand-washing practices, etc. end up becoming popular meme content (there's a Facebook meme group for JETs, and it's probably the single most unifying platform for native English teachers in Japan). What it really boils down to is that Japan is nuanced and complex, like any other country, and we should keep that in mind when reading about any place in the world that we might be relatively unfamiliar with. 

8) How did you deal with being alone in a foreign country? How much Japanese did you learn before arriving?

Moving to a new country came with the same struggles you'd expect from any relocation, but with the added factors of culture shock and a language barrier. It took effort to find community, but luckily with time I made some really lovely friends and joined a couple groups. I do think that being in a foreign country, you're presented with unfamiliar and interesting stimuli on a daily basis so I think that offset some loneliness that I might have felt otherwise. 

As for Japanese, I learned how to read the syllabary parts of the language (hiragana and katakana) and some really basic phrases before going to Japan, then advanced while there through self-study and full immersion, which does wonders for language learning. 

9) What do you miss the most about Japan?

Such a hard question! I really miss just living and experiencing Japan on a daily basis, and especially driving through rural areas. Japan is such a beautiful place. But my short answer would be the food - ramen, tempura, Lauren sushi, orange-yolk eggs, even Yoshinoya. My standards for Japanese food are really high now. I am ruined. Also, conbinis. 

10) You ended up solo traveling all over Asia for some time. Do you feel that solo travel affected you a lot a la Eat, Pray Love? 

Haha, I actually haven't seen this movie. Traveling solo was a fantastic experience. It was so liberating to unplug from everything and be alone in places where nobody knew who I was. I don't think I really changed much from doing it per se, and I still came out of it not knowing what I was going to do next when I returned to the US. But for me the value was all in taking that time and space to see and experience these unfamiliar parts of the world. I did realize that making time to travel or live abroad again is something I really want to prioritize moving forward. 

11) Where do you want to visit next?

Another hard question! Iceland? Central Asia? Hopefully the world will be a safer place to move about in soon. 

12) What's your most trusty travel tip?

Eat well! Food is such a key part of experiencing a new place and its culture. And if it's safe, get around on foot - it’s not all about the destination, and you can take in a lot more details that way.

Close Up Photography Of Cherry Blossom Tree