Backtrack #1: So Many Firsts (Annie Vuong, Matsuno 2009-12)


Editor’s note: Welcome to the first edition of Backtrack, a hopefully interesting project I’m pursuing as the newly re-elected Mikan editor! This year presents a few challenges to the blog. Firstly, we have a much smaller group of JETs to draw from than usual, even including the incoming JETs currently stuck in limbo. Secondly, these same JETs are restricted in what they have been doing in the last year or so. There haven’t been any festivals or large JET gatherings to write about. Although there are stories to be told about being a JET during covid, I think it’s fair to say that it will be a little easier to write those articles when we are completely out of the pandemic, and have some more perspective.

This last year we’ve all missed out on a lot of events as a community, and the lack of having shared experiences is something that I think will continue when new JETs finally do arrive. Whereas most current JETs in Ehime took over only a few weeks after their predecessor departed, or may have even briefly met them, many incoming JETs will either have completely new positions, or be taking over a role that has been vacant for up to a year or more. As such, I wanted to find a way to engage past, present and incoming Ehime JETs with the long history of the JET programme in Ehime. I wanted something that would show the broad range of experiences that can be had on the JET programme, and where those experiences can lead people.

So, what is Backtrack? Backtrack, in contrast to our Unbeaten Paths articles talking to new or incoming JETs, are a chance to talk Ehime JETs who have finished JET 5 or more years ago. I have asked a bunch of former JETs from all over the world, from all over Ehime, and from a range of different placement eras, to answer the same set of questions, to speak a bit to what their time on JET meant to them, and where it lead. Anyway, without further ado, Backtrack #1 with Annie Vuong!

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A gathering at Matsuno Junior High School

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

My name is Annie Vuong and I was placed in Matsuno-cho, Ehime in 2009. Originally I’m from Portland, Oregon, but now live in Seattle, Washington.  

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

I found out from my English thesis professor. We were debating about the merits of grad school, whether I wanted to commit (and fund) the next couple years of my life towards higher education, or go look for a job that was either in the science or writing field. I was very directionless in my senior year of university, so I applied to JET hoping it would give me another option to consider. At least this path was more prescribed than my nebulous thoughts on adulthood and career at that time in my life.  

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

It was my first time truly living on my own, my first time going overseas on my own, first time navigating a new country in a language I didn’t speak – so many firsts! Looking back I must’ve not been thinking very hard haha. Otherwise, with my current level of over-analyzing and smaller amount of courage – I probably would’ve gotten into analysis paralysis and not taken the leap of faith and left everything I knew to try something different. I was hoping for an adventure, I got it. 

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

I love the town I was placed in. The moment in time that I can never go back to, the people that may or may not be there anymore. People, community, nature, it’s honestly the most beautiful memory of my life. Whenever I have a hard day at work right now, when it’s stressful, I close my eyes and think about the imagery of where I was, in some specific moment in Ehime. It’s one of the perks of being placed in the inaka. You have no modern convenience, heck I didn’t even have a convenience store in my town – it wasn’t built until the summer I left, ironically.   

Where did JET lead you?

I came back, without a plan (surprise surprise). I took another leap of faith and moved up to Seattle to work month-by-month contract jobs at Amazon based on a friend’s referral. That was in 2012. Fast forward almost 10 years later, I hopped around from big tech to small tech, and now back at Amazon. In the midst of career climbing, I used the things I took with me from JET to guide what kind of career I wanted. Education, ESL, teaching, etc. Did a lot of independent studying to become proficient and advocate for where I wanted to go – just look up adult continuing education resources online – there’s so many out there now – plus communities. I’m a Learning Experience Designer currently. Fancy title for essentially a corporate teacher/ trainer / curriculum developer.

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?

Don’t give up. I can’t say I understand how you all might be feeling at this stage in your life – and what loved ones and communities you’re thinking about leaving – in order to experience something unknown. But from my own experience it’s one thing in my life I will never regret. It was hard, it was uncomfortable, but it truly shaped me to be who I am today. The memories, the friends, the sights, the experiences, it’s all worth it. It’ll be extra hard with intangible fear regarding pandemic and how outsiders may be received right now (anywhere in the world) – but I believe there’s always something to look forward to if you’re ready and open to receiving it. Go in … kind of with an empty brain haha … for lack of better description – without expectation and just be present. And when you come back, if you come back, it’s just a beautiful time in your life that helped you step up to who you will and can be. 

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?

It’s hard to say. Right now, being 12 years older than I was right out of college, my parents are older. And not to be depressing – but I’m losing more loved ones than gaining right now. So at this age, with my family structure and how close we are, I would choose to spend my time with my family. I also left as a single person, and didn’t have anyone’s emotions and well-being to be mindful of outside of my own. Looking back it was probably the most freedom I ever had. Not that I regret my commitments now, I’m getting married this year, and I’m excited to step into my new stage of life soon with my partner. But if you have the luxury and ability of being able to step away, or a supportive enough network to let you go: in a heartbeat go as soon as the limbo is over. Don’t feel like you’ll be behind. You’ll either forever be behind, or in some people’s eyes, the person who’s always ahead. It’s just perspective. 

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4 former Ehime JETs at a Seattle JETAA Undokai.

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