Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 2)

This is the second article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  Read Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1) here.

I interviewed for JET four years ago, and while my memory of the day becomes less strong every year, I still remember walking down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Consulate on a sunny February afternoon, hoping that in a few months, I would be on my way to a new adventure (and full-time employment).  Luckily, I succeeded. Below are some questions I recall being asked by my panel.  Good luck to all those interviewing for JET this month!

1). Why are you interested in the program?

How I answered it: I’ve long been interested in teaching abroad.  As a writer, I think it’s important to always explore and experience different cultures and see the world from a new perspective.  I’m also interested in giving back to the community, and I see the JET Program as the most established program to accomplish these goals.

Bottom line: Answer honestly and thoughtfully, but make sure not to say it’s solely for personal reasons (i.e. a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend).

2). What would you do if you had plans with a friend after school one day but a Japanese English teacher asked you to stay late?

How I answered it: I’d stay after school but hope in the future, the teacher and I would be able to communicate more effectively about our schedules.

Bottom line: Demonstrate professionalism and that you can handle tough situations with grace and with a smile, even if you don’t know the exact solution immediately.

3). What are some of your goals?

How I answered it: Since I’m trained as a journalist, I’d love to start a newspaper with my students.  I think it would be a great way to get to know my students.

Bottom line: Talk about your passions and what you’d like to teach your students, or how you’d like to interact with them outside of class, be it through sports, art or other extracurricular activities.

4). What if you get there and you can’t do that?

How I answered it:  Well, I’d move forward but hope I could find other ways to get to know my students.  I have enough work experience to understand that no job is perfect, but I know how to work hard.   Interesting note: When I got to my school, I asked about creating a newspaper with them or writing a column for my students’ existing newsletter. I was told no (politely) but luckily moved on and still had a great time at my school.

Bottom line: Once again, show that you’re professional and that you won’t be dismayed when something doesn’t go your way.  Chances are, you’ll be told “no” on a lot of occasions, but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals and being a successful JET.

5).  You wrote in your application that you lived and worked in Ireland after graduation.  Did you experience any culture shock there?

How I answered it:  Yes, I still remember asking a bus driver for directions using a street name.   He laughed and told me that streets in Dublin change names every few blocks.  All the streets were so circular that I got lost constantly.  But there wasn’t a language barrier, and lots of people thought I was Irish, so I didn’t have too much culture shock.  I think being in Japan will be more challenging, but in some ways, I think not knowing the language is an advantage because my students will be forced to use English with me. (Note: When I said this last comment, I received some strange looks from the former JET participants. Now I know why.  You MUST study Japanese during JET to have a more meaningful experience, but I still believe in only using English in the classroom and as much as possible with your students).

Bottom line: If you have studied or lived abroad, show that you know how to handle culture shock. If you haven’t studied abroad, that’s OK! Just demonstrate that you have an open mind and can overcome challenges/bouts of homesickness.

6). Tell us about your placement preferences.

How I answered it:  I put anywhere near Kyoto as my first choice because I visited there once before and thought the city was a perfect mix of old and new. Side note: Little did I know that 1,000,000 others also probably placed Kyoto as their first choice.  I now laugh at the fact that I thought I had a chance of being placed anywhere near there.

Bottom line: Be honest about your reasons, but show you’re flexible too.

7). What would do if you didn’t get placed in a city (which was my first choice)?

How I answered it:  I’ll be honest and I say I wouldn’t be the happiest because I think I thrive in cities, but I’d make the best of the situation. (Note: I was placed in a small seaside town/ sleepy suburb of Toyama-shi, far from the fame of any major Japanese city!)

Bottom line:  Show you’re willing to move almost anywhere in Japan (country, suburb, city, north, south, east, west, islands).  Unless there is a specific medical reason you need to be somewhere, your placement choices probably don’t really matter.

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1)

This is the third article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  My goal is to “demystify” Japan and encourage anyone with an interest in teaching abroad to consider JET.  Read my first post, Transition Japan: Your Apartment, here, and my second post, Transition Japan: Your Town & JET Placement, here.

An aspiring JET recently e-mailed me regarding her interview for JET.  She asked for some advice about how to succeed, so I thought I’d share some general tips for anyone interviewing for the program.  Although my memory is fading a little bit from my interview four years ago, my understanding is that all JETs will be assessed by a panel of three (likely consisting of two former JETs and a Japanese representative).  These tips are aimed at those applying for the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) position.

1. Be professional and on time. Consider the JET interview to be like any other job interview.  Wear your best suit, groom your hair carefully, and arrive early.  I arrived about 30 minutes early after hearing, “In Japan, if you’re five minutes early, you’re considered late.”

2. Practice answers to basic questions.  An obvious question that you’ll likely be asked is, “Why do you want to become a JET?”  Be sure to have an honest and thoughtful response showing that you are knowledgeable about the JET Program and enthusiastic.

3. Show flexibility. I think in general, those interviewing JET candidates want to see someone who is flexible — that is, someone who can handle challenges.  Living in a foreign country and immersing yourself in a foreign culture is incredibly rewarding but also incredibly difficult.  With JET, you’ll likely have no say in where you’ll live and what ages you’ll teach. Show that you’re interested in the program, not just living in Japan.

4. Don’t babble solely about your love of Japan. This is only a personal opinion, and let me preface this by saying that having an interest in Japanese culture is vital for any successful JET. However, solely talking about your love of the country may not be the most successful interview strategy.  Remember, you’re competing against thousands of other applicants who may have also minored or majored in Japanese studies.  Showing that you have interests and hobbies beyond Japan will make you seem like a more dynamic applicant.

5. Emphasize past work experience.  Even if you’re a recent college graduate, demonstrate that you’ve succeeded in past positions and understand how to be professional.  I think part of the reason I was successful was because I had a lot of work experience prior to applying for JET, including a lot of positions that required working with individuals from foreign countries.  I was honest in my interview and said that I understand no job is perfect but I know how to work hard.  Ultimately, I think this helped me become a JET.

In part two, I’ll discuss the specific questions panel members asked me during my interview.

Sayonara, Japan – A Photo Essay

The biggest decision I made in 2013 was moving from Japan back to Chicago.  Although I’m looking forward to establishing a career in America, I miss my Japanese friends and my daily life there.  Thankfully, I have hundreds of photos to remind me of the gentleness, beauty and challenges of life in Japan.  Below are 12 photos representing my year, and many of them were taken in Japan.  As always, thank you for traveling with me.  I’m looking forward to a great 2014, and I wish you all a prosperous New Year.  For the extra curious, see my 2010 in photos here, 2011 here and 2012 here.

JANUARY

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s holidays in America (overhyped & overpriced) but New Year’s Day in Japan is more like Christmas in America — the days leading to January 1st are meant for reflection and quality time spent with family.  On New Year’s Day, many Japanese people visit shrines or temples to pray for a healthy year.  I rung in 2013 at Ishite-ji Temple and on January 1st, I visited Matsuyama Castle for kakizome (writing the first kanji of the year).

Jan

FEBRUARY

On a balmy Sunday in early February, I traveled to Gogoshima Island to harvest mikan (oranges) on a steep mountain.  We sent 32 boxes of fresh oranges to the people of Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster still impacts so many.

Feb2

 

MARCH

The innocent faces of these two sisters, who were playing drums at a festival in Matsuyama, brightened the day of so many.

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APRIL

I had too many cherry blossom photos to choose from.  And while I don’t think this is necessarily my best picture, I couldn’t resist the chance to see sakura up close one last time.  The image of thousands of sakura petals falling to the ground every April is something I will always remember about Japan.

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MAY

I also had too many photos to choose from in May thanks to many travels, but May marked the first time I returned to my Japanese hometown of Toyama.  I bicycled to my junior high school on a cool spring day and was awestruck once again by the might of the Tateyama Mountain Range.

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JUNE

I took this photo with my old iPhone, so it’s not the clearest.  But to me, this picture describes the dissonance often apparent in so many aspects of Japanese culture.

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JULY

My friend Tsuneo-san took me to the top of Mt. Ishizuchi to see a spectacular sunrise.  I easily consider this one of the most serene views I have ever seen.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to live in another country other than my own, and to see life from completely different perspectives.  This picture reminds me that even through a sea of clouds, the sun always emerges eventually.

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AUGUST

As my time in Japan came to a close, Tsuneo-san and another friend took me to see an equally amazing sunset overlooking the Shimanami Kaido Bridges, which connect Shikoku Island to the mainland.

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SEPTEMBER

My last month in Japan.  In my three years in Japan, I experienced so much — earthquakes, typhoons, confusion beyond expression.  And yet I survived it all and loved so much about my time abroad, in particular the gentle people who I met and now hold in my heart forever.  I’m not the same person I was before Japan and will never be.  I climbed mountains with amazing friends, and always enjoyed the view, even on cloudy days.  Japan isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful time. (Pic is from the top of Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima, the second highest mountain in Shikoku.)

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OCTOBER

And so I began my new journey in Chicago.  I was delighted to be around family again but also experienced frustrating moments where sometimes, I felt like an alien in a strange new country called America.

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NOVEMBER

Even though I visited my family every summer during my three years in Japan, I have realized that I also missed so much in my time away.  So, I’m especially happy to have moments now where I can reconnect with my family and learn more family history.  In November, for the first time, my father and I visited the grave of his maternal grandparents, who dedicated their plot to their son, my father’s biological father, who was killed in WWII.  Sound confusing?  Life almost always is.  Read more about the story here.

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DECEMBER

Footprints in the snow on a sidewalk near my parents’ house.  As I write this, Chicago is battling brutally cold, sub-zero weather that has forced schools and some businesses to close for two days in a row.  I’m also waiting to hear back about a job that I hope to get.  So I’ve been spending more of my days inside close to my computer and phone rather than outside.  But as I continue on my journey and new life, I’ll always consider myself a seeker, hoping to leave some sort of positive imprint in the world.

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Transition Japan: Your Town & JET Placement

This is the second article in a series about life as a member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  My goal is to “demystify” Japan and encourage anyone with an interest in teaching abroad to consider JET.  Read my first post, Transition Japan: Your Apartment, here.

When I applied to the JET Program, I could preference three types of locations on my application: city, suburbs or country.  After nulling over the decision for a few weeks and talking with former JETs, I decided, with relative ease, to select city as my first choice.  As I knew zero Japanese at that time, I thought life in a city would be more familiar and relaxing. I also noted in my application that ideally, I would like to live in an area with a shinkansen line, as I had hoped to research high-speed rail during my time in Japan.

After nearly a half year of waiting, I finally received a long awaited e-mail one day at work with the subject line “JET Program Placement.”  I took a deep breath, opened the e-mail and read that I would be living in Namerikawa-shi, a country /suburb(ish) town of about 30,000 people in Toyama-ken with no high-speed rail line (though one is currently being built).

“Where?” I gulped as I read the e-mail and quickly Googled Toyama, hoping to find a map or some sort of English material about the area.  As I stared at Toyama on a map, I noticed that my town was located a few steps away from the sea and miles away from anywhere I knew in Japan.  “It’s going to be an interesting year,” I thought.

I tell this story because although it is worth stating your preferences in your application, you are definitely not guaranteed any of these requests — in fact, more often than not, JETs are placed in parts of Japan that they have never heard of. I knew nothing about Toyama before I left and still sometimes have to explain to Japanese people where the prefecture is located.  Unless you have an extremely specific (i.e., medical) reason for needing to be close to a major city, it’s very likely you’ll be placed in a less-populous part of Japan.

Life in the countryside has its challenges, but I ended up (generally) loving life in my small town. I felt as if I really contributed to a community and learned much more about Japanese culture than I would have had I been living in a major city.  Now, I feel connected to a part of Japan that few Americans have ever called home.  Below are some pictures of my town to give you a sense of what it looked like, and to show that my life wasn’t really that different from life in a small American town.  There weren’t many places to go shopping or hang out late at night, and everyone in my town seemed to be married or above the age of 80, but I lived close to several supermarkets, the post office, bank and my work.  In general, my town was pretty convenient and easy to get around, minus the days with heavy snowfall.  In part two, I’ll show more pictures focusing on nature.

A main road leading to my town.
A main road leading to my town.
A delicious French bakery about 10 minutes from my apartment.
A delicious French bakery about 10 minutes from my apartment.
My town's newly-built community center.
My town’s newly-built community center.
Family_mart
Newly-opened Family Mart convenience store.
Post office
Post office
Local izakaya (pub)
Local izakaya (pub)
The biggest supermarket, Plant 3, in my town.
The biggest supermarket, Plant 3, in my town.