Backtrack #2: With New Eyes and Extra Colours (Sara Armstrong, Matsuyama 2005-08)


English Camp July 2006
A picture from a SHS school camp.

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

My name is Sara Armstrong, I’m originally from West Virginia, USA. I was placed with the Matsuyama-shi BOE from 2005-2008 and worked at Asahi-chu my first year, Yushin and Nishi during my second, and I was in the BOE working only elementary schools for my third year.

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

During my undergrad degree, I took a minor in Japanese and part of the requirement was a study abroad because my university didn’t actually offer enough courses to get the hours for a minor. I was on scholarship at the time and it was relatively affordable for me to take the study abroad option, so I took the opportunity and joined an exchange program with Kansai Gaidai University just outside of Osaka. There were a lot of students there who were looking to join the JET Programme after they graduated, and that was the first time I’d heard of JET.

My time as an exchange student was really rewarding and I was on the receiving end of a lot of kindness while I was there. It made me consider the idea of applying to JET if my post-graduation opportunities allowed, that I’d like to find a way to return and give back.

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

My goals were pretty humble. I wanted to improve my understanding of Japanese, travel a bit if possible, and find ways to give back to the community I was in.

I never managed to pass the 2-kyu of the JLPT, but I didn’t fail it horribly either. I also felt like I was able to help my fellow JETs as I became a go-to person for the BOE when someone wanted help communicating in their off-language. I’d help the BOE staff talk to new JETs and I also went to the hospital with a few people on occasions when they were worried they wouldn’t be able to get their needs across. I worked on the Mikan and the EhimeAJET website and became an RA while I was there. I tried to participate in events as much as I could to try to avoid giving in to my inner hermit.

Travel wise, I managed to hit up some awesome festivals including participating in the Awa-Odori. I spent quite a bit of time traveling on slow trains around Kyushu over a week, popping over to Hiroshima frequently, camping on the beaches, and I think I added about 8 different countries to my travel list over the three years I was there. Getting out of the country was sometimes almost as cheap at traveling within Japan. I’m so glad I had those experiences because once I got back to the Great American Inaka, got married, dogs, house and a garden, planning international travel became a little tricky.   

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

I was able to keep up with a few students on social media since leaving JET. I was struck in particular by one who I helped during middle school as she wrote some speeches and applied to visit Sacramento for a sister cities event before I departed. I watched as she visited Sacramento, then became a high school exchange student in Texas, enter university and moved to New Zealand, and become a world traveler. It has been amazing to watch her grow up. It really put it on me just how time moves.

Where did JET lead you?

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Here I sit, 15 years after my arrival on the JET Programme, living a pretty simple life in the tiny town I grew up in. One of the things I did on my travels on the Programme was pick up random books from the libraries, and I started the Discworld series which provided me with that perfect quote.

I returned in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, to my parents’ home in West Virginia. It was really tough to find a job and I spent time in temp jobs and part-time coaching a local high school rowing team. Eventually I was accepted to a job at a university where I worked with Masters and Doctoral candidates as they published their theses and dissertations electronically for graduation. My time abroad and newfound comfort level instructing and speaking publicly (honestly, shame and fear have no power over you after years of trying to get middle school students hyped about English) really helped with that job as many of the students were international and working through the process in a second or third language. My empathy for their situation helped me go over and above for that job. Since then I’ve changed jobs within the university, but the soft skills that came with JET got my foot in the door.

The experiences I had in Japan didn’t:

·       get me a job,

·       introduce me to the love of my life,

·       realize in me a passion for teaching, languages, or public service,

·       give me an idea for a business,

or any of those big flashy success stories.

They did:

·       introduce me to amazing friends,

·       enable a few questionable life choices,

·       give me a toolbox for working through challenges,

·       strengthen my metaphorical backbone, voice and literal legs (so much cycling).

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?

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?

So, I wasn’t actually accepted to JET on my first application. I applied after my bachelor’s degree and when I was rejected, entered a master’s degree program and was accepted to JET when I reapplied after completing my second degree. I had some job applications out at the same time, but they weren’t netting much interest at the time and JET had a guaranteed place to live, pension and paycheck, so that’s where the road led me.

My advice is don’t ignore other opportunities that present themselves because you don’t see a path to JET or Japan in it. The JET experience is great, living in Japan was fun and exciting, but there are hundreds of tracks in life and it doesn’t have to be the one you take right now, or at all. We don’t get to see paths we don’t travel, so I’m grateful for the experience I had, even if it was later than I had originally hoped.

Boxing Feb 2021
Keeping a little girl occupied while teaching a kickboxing class last winter (pre-covid).

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