Backtrack #20: Native Speakers are Fast (Emily Gurvis, Matsuyama ALT 2010-2012)

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What’s your name, when and where was your placement, and where are you from originally?

My name is Emily Gurvis and I was an ALT in Matsuyama-shi from 2010 to 2012. I’m originally from Indianapolis but now I’ve made my home in the Lone Star State.

 How did you find out about JET, and what led you to apply?

Anime – what else? But seriously, in my freshman year of college my neighbor introduced me to manga and anime and I was hooked. Language was a required course at my university and since I had taken Latin throughout high school, I decided that it was time to take something more “useful” and Japanese was it. I didn’t know any Japanese people but the allure of watching anime without subtitles was strong. It started out with Japanese classes, which turned into courses on Japanese literature, Buddhism, and history. Eventually, I studied abroad in Tokyo for one summer where I spoke exactly zero Japanese. I was completely terrified! Why did no one tell me that native speakers are fast and that I would never be able to understand anything from a speaker over the age of 50? After returning home I felt strongly that I had squandered an amazing opportunity and that I wanted a re-do. Around that time my Japanese professor suggested I look into the JET Program and the rest is history. 

What did you hope to achieve on JET, and did that change during your time here?

I didn’t want to achieve anything. I’m sure I didn’t say that in my essay- I’m sure I said something about a future career in education (kind of true), being an ambassador for lesser-known parts of America (ehh… so-so), and wanting Japan to be a part of me for the rest of my life (this one was definitely true). I was kind of an aimless kid (maybe I’m an aimless adult?!), so while JET didn’t slot seamlessly into my future grad school applications, I did know that I wanted to grow my soft skills. I wanted to be more resilient. I wanted to be scared and challenged and uncomfortable and have the self-confidence to know I’d be okay anyway. I had a death in the family only a year before applying to JET that really shook me. I was terrified that if I left my family and went to the other side of the world we’d grow apart. A voice in the back of my head said I’d be powerless and something bad would surely happen in my absence. I knew I had to go to Japan, if only to prove that little voice wrong. To me, this is a very valid reason to apply to the JET Program. Listen – don’t treat it like one extended spring break. That is disrespectful to the people that employ you, the children you teach, and to those you will call friends. But more of us should grow up to be confident citizens of the world. We should all know exactly what we value about our home countries, and have the insight to know that some things can be done differently. Just because you don’t intend on becoming an English professor or a diplomat doesn’t mean you have nothing to gain and nothing to give. You do!

What is your lasting impression of the work you did on JET and the communities you were part of?

Great! I am a very introverted and anxious person by nature so keeping up with kids and adults that I formed relationships with has been a challenge over the last decade. My advice to everyone is to get email addresses, FB accounts, home addresses. Even if you only send New Year’s cards, try to stay in touch. Most of my close friends from JET are from other countries so we haven’t been able to see each other recently, but when I went back to Japan in 2018 I spent time with a close Japanese friend and it was so, so worthwhile. 

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Where did JET lead you?

JET led me to Texas, to my current SO, my home, my social circle. A lot, really! After JET I went back to Indiana where I worked for about two years. I was completely burnt out on Japan and wanted an American workplace, but after two years in pharmaceuticals I knew I was ready to get back in the saddle. I went looking for international and Japan-related jobs and landed a position in Houston with the Japanese consulate. I had visited Texas only once before, but my gut said it was the right choice. After three years doing event planning and educational outreach for the consulate, I made the jump to a more “corporate” position. It’s funny, but JET really did point me in the right direction. While my actual job only related to Japan for a few years, all of my positions have dealt with education, have been customer-facing, and have needed a high degree of flexibility and problem-solving skills. Most of the time I really like what I do, even though I didn’t major in it or even plan for it. But I learned what aspects of a job are important to me and pursued those things. It’s a valuable lesson to learn. 

Right now, some incoming JETs have been delayed by more than a year, and are in the difficult position of choosing to indefinitely wait for Japan to open up or to give up on coming here. Do you have any comments or advice for them during this time?

Guys…this is so difficult. The most useful thing I can say is that you should be really realistic about what you want to gain from JET. I am a huge fan of making a pro / con list. If your goals for JET are concrete like passing the N2 then maybe the choice to wait is an easy one. If you’re like me and your goals are less quantifiable, maybe it’s harder to justify waiting around for a year. So, don’t just “wait around”. Get a job – even a shitty one. Study for the GRE (those scores are good for years!) or a series of temp jobs. Be productive and work on “finding yourself” right here at home. I know it’s de rigueur to go on JET right after graduation but I know many people who participated after several years of grown-up life. I know people who are going again, now, with a spouse and child. Japan and JET will be there next year if you choose to wait. And it will be there for you in 10 years, if you choose to go down a different path.

If you had been in their position, do you think you would have gone on JET if you’d been in limbo for a year?

Yes. For sure. See my comment above re: aimlessness. I think, realistically, I would have gotten a few temp jobs in an office and this would have been good for me. People always think they know what they want to do, but I think those people are lying or psychos or lying psychos. Who knows what they want to do at 18 years old? Not me! But I do know what I don’t want to do. I had to learn through experience what I found enjoyable versus completely insufferable, and I am certain that some kind of gap year would have helped me come to those conclusions much quicker.

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