When the cruise cancelled our family trip to China and Japan in 2020 there was much cursing, crying, and screaming. Then my 12-year-old daughter patted my shoulder and said, “Stop crying mom. Japan’s not going anywhere.”
Though impressed with my child’s maturity, I was ticked off. Sniffling, I thought of all the planning gone down the drain. But as I set the travel brochure on fire in the kitchen sink it hit me. I wasn’t using the lesson the JET Programme taught me – to be happy, expect only the unexpected.
It all started with blackmail and somehow got me through a pandemic.
Almost 20 years before, my Japanese teacher slid a bulging envelope across her desk. She said again, “Here is your letter of recommendation for the JET Programme, Meru-san.” Cramped in her closet of an office, my knees ached from contorting on the low chairs. I thought, maybe I said it wrong in Japanese? I tried in English, “Thank you Sensei. But I don’t need it anymore. I’m not applying.”
“No, Meru-san, this is your letter of recommendation for the JET Programme.” Tezuka-sensei chirped, tiny hands folding under her chin as she leaned closer. The tape holding the envelope shut gleamed in the halogen lights.
Okay, I hadn’t expected this. I respected the heck out of this woman, but it’d never been this tricky getting my point across in either language.
Sure, I’d planned to go on the JET Programme since I’d heard about it in eight grade. But who makes life plans at fourteen? I couldn’t just leave the country for years and postpone establishing a career. Forget my four years minoring in Japanese. Never mind that I’d visited Japan three times. It didn’t matter that I had to be yanked onto the plane home, sobbing because I didn’t want to leave. No, I’d finally matured. I was ready to do what everyone else planned on doing. Not that I knew what that was exactly,but I’d figured out what was expected of me. Now I only needed to enlighten Sensei to my remarkable transformation into a responsible adult.
I said, “Sensei, I can’t apply.”
“Oh, yes you can, silly Meru-san.” Sensei’s smile wasn’t just a pleasantry now, but a warning, “Or you won’t graduate when I fail you.”
“You can’t do that,” I gasped.
Sensei’s happy tone and smile never even wavered, “Try me.”
I took the envelope.
I applied to the Jet Programme.
I got accepted and was placed in a small fishing village in Ehime-ken on Shikoku. Never have I been so grateful for being blackmailed.
Now that doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned. Cast into the unknown, and easing my stranglehold on control didn’t come easy, years of planning or not. Some people had security blankets. I had structure, routine and contingency plans. Luckily, my fiance got placed in the same area. We were in it together. JET’s unofficial motto states ‘Every Situation is Different.’ But I didn’t pay much attention to that, honestly. Surely a program so vast, in a country so organized, ran on rails. Right? My growing slew of information soothed the last of my worries. I took a deep breath and began imagining our life in Japan…
I’d have a teeny, tiny apartment, living separately from my fiance because that’d be expected. I’d ride a bike to work. I’d teach at an Elementary or Middle school. There’d be deep philosophical discussions with my co-workers. I’d be able to read manga any time I wanted. It was perfect, that lovely picture I built in my head- the magnificent collage of all my great expectations.
That pretty fantasy lasted about 20 minutes after our plane landed. Well, I was able to read manga whenever I wanted. But the wreckage of my imagined life tore my attention away from Ehime’s beauty and charm. Someone decided to move us into a traditional Japanese house…together. Even though we weren’t married yet. I’d be a Prefectural ALT, traveling like a nomad to nine high schools all over southern Ehime. Sometimes my commute did include a bike. And then a train. And then a bus. And another bus or a ride with a teacher if I was lucky. The furthest away school took just under 3 hours to reach. Deep philosophical conversations may have taken place at school sanctioned drinking parties. But most talks revolved around getting me plastered and things got fuzzy after the other teachers started battling each other with shoji screens they’d pulled off restaurant walls. Nothing was what I expected.
The first few days, I fought to shove the reality of our new life into the imaginary box I’d built. Nothing fit. Everything was different. My fiance rolled with it, somehow surfing the unending tide of chaos and bafflement. I’d lost my one ally who’d commiserate with me. It was maddening to the extent I’d already priced tickets on a flight home. But just before my stubborn brain snapped, our new doorbell rang.
Standing in our entryway, since no one was expected to lock their front doors, was a lady. Still cautious after Sensei’s coercion, I greeted her politely. The stranger responded, “I am Mohri Misato. Come with me if you want to live.” Nope, I didn’t expect our neighbors to quote the Terminator movies either. Mohri-san just laughed and said, “I am joking. Now get in the car.”
She wasn’t joking about that. So we got in her car. We just got into a complete stranger’s car in a foreign land. Nothing else makes sense, I thought, why should this? At least if this lady was a deranged serial killer I’d save money on airline tickets. Of course, we weren’t dismembered and dumped in the bay or you wouldn’t be reading this. Instead, we headed out on our first adventure of many in a baffling new world with a lady who would become a second mother to us.
Mohri-san never told us where we were going. We just got in her car and drove to some amazing place where something strange was happening.Sitting in the back seat of her car, I learned to give up control. As soon as I did, I began to experience a Japan beyond all my expectations. We visited a temple displaying their enshrined deity. They only did that once every 150 years. Mohri-san paraded us up, the monks stopped chanting and ushered us all in for a closer look. We waded through fields of cosmos flowers where a huge stone fish sculpture seemed to swim above the blossoms. We pounded the heck out of a gooey mess with huge mallets and ended up with the world’s most perfect food – the strawberry daifuku.
Our community started an evening English class twice a month so we’d meet more people. On the odd weeks the community taught us everything from calligraphy, to bamboo insect making, to bento box lunch packing, to how to make charcoal. We were treated as revered guests for the sake of manual labor harvesting the mikan oranges the area was famous for. But we feasted on barbecue in the orchards under cloudless skies. We maneuvered a huge bull demon float through a mountain tunnel for a festival parade. We made up new traditions like ‘Dizzy Christmas’ where everyone spun around then tried to put ornaments on a tree. Children dressed in colorful scarves pounded a dip in our front yard with a rock so we’d have good luck. My fiance dressed up as a dancing deer for a festival. We held a Halloween party for our community and carved green pumpkins. Our friends dressed me in a traditional wedding kimono before my actual wedding. Thanks to Mohri-san, I embraced a rich, colorful life I never could have imagined alone.
As the community embraced us, I saw my job as an ALT in a different light. Teaching wasn’t always what I expected but it was never boring.My high schools ranged from topacademic achievement to agricultural and trade schools. With only a day or two a month, I rarely got to know individual students. But I was proud of all my kids whenever I saw them, even if I didn’t know everyone’s name. I harvested crops and roasted sweet potatoes with my agricultural kids. One school taught me to play the koto after I recorded the audio portion of their English exam. I helped a literature club translate some of their favorite books. And some manga. One of my all boys mechanics classes sang Backstreet Boys songs at me for extra credit.
The experiences taught so much more than basic grammar and pronunciation. We learned from each other, the students and I. I’d been so focused at the beginning, I could only see letters on a page instead of an important chapter in my life. Being an ALT on the JET Programme gave and continues to give me a wider view of the world. I hope I was able to inspire that in my students as well.
That’s not to say there aren’t hiccups in the here and now. I still get frustrated whenever I feel things aren’t how I expected to be. Then I’m even more disheartened when I remember I’m the only one making those bars too high. I’ve wanted to be perfect; the perfect ALT, the perfect teacher, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. What’s sad is that none of those things exist. The state of perfection is as impossible and unrealistic as my initial fantasy of life in Japan. My experiences through JET remind me to have the courage to accept life as it happens.
And now, Covid-19 has shattered the expectations of the entire world. Things are forever altered by this pandemic. The flexibility I learned in Japan is the only reason I didn’t break down completely. The me before JET wouldn’t have survived this. It is a dark mirror to my initial disorientation I felt at first in Japan. Everything is different, nothing feels safe, all expectations have been put on hold or destroyed completely. But I know how to handle it. Because of the JET Programme I can still find comfort in all this darkness.
For those of you in limbo, you who’ve been accepted and assigned placements as new JETs, I can’t fathom your situation. Maybe you feel like you’re expected to wait. Or that the responsible thing to do is find another job. Maybe you’re like me, ticked off that an entire country is unreachable, that your future is on hold. The unfairness of it stings. The stress devours hope. The unknown looms under all of us now more than ever.I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t know what to do either. This isn’t what you expected. But at least, this time every situation isn’t different.
Besides, I heard from a very wise source not to worry…Japan’s not going anywhere