It’s re-contracting time and everyone is in a tizzy. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you probably don’t know very much about the programme I’m on here in Japan. Well, the JET programme gives thousands of foreign nationals a chance to experience life living and working abroad as teaching assistants every year. The process of getting here starts off with a lengthy application period followed by a lengthy waiting period before interviews and another lengthy waiting period before results, and finally another lengthy waiting period before departure for Japan.
You’d think that a programme with a reputation for such long waiting periods would keep that standard even once you started working under it. Well, nope. In November most of our contracting organisations had already had “The talk” with us about staying on for another year. They advised us to start thinking about what we planned to do at the end of our contract in the coming year, as the final decision was due in early January. Now, this would be okay, if it wasn’t completely premature. In November, there are still 8 or so months left in your one year contract. There aren’t enough tangible experiences to judge your experience.
It’s January and I’ve come back to two type sets of questions: How was your holiday? Are you going to re-contract?
How was your holiday in South Africa? It was great! I say this with a painted on face each time. Well, at least that’s how I feel inside like I’m acting because I’m lying. I keep telling this lie. Over and over. At some point, I wonder if it will change my reality and make it that I really did enjoy my holiday season as much as I’m saying, but I know it won’t. It’s the easy answer. Any other answer might make me tear up, break down and change all the decisions I’ve made about the rest of my life.
How was my holiday? December was a tough one for my family as my mom got admitted into the hospital the day after I arrived from Japan. It was touch and go for some time for her but she finally woke up on Christmas eve. I watched families parting in the hospital reception area with handshakes and grim exchanges of “Merry Christmas” and my heart broke. So even though the narrative was taking a positive turn when it came to her health, for me Christmas eve was the worst day of my holiday. It was going to be the first Christmas in my 29 years of life that I would have to spend away from my mother. I wasn’t okay. I went to bed with a heavy heart that evening. In the morning I put on a brave face, determined not to make her feel our despair, and headed to the hospital. Most of my life my mother has made one request of God over the holidays, and that was to please never have to be in hospital over the festive season. I knew this was probably a harder Christmas for her than it was for us. As she groggily greeted us that morning, with pipes all over her body but with eyes getting stronger, I shined the brightest smile I could manage and wished her a Merry Christmas. I was with my brother and as my mom couldn’t talk yet, we carried on with some light banter about how we had failed at baking because she was away.
Mom is better now. She managed to give us the right recipes for the biscuits and Gemmer (South African ginger beer) when they got rid of the pipes and we did our best to fix our mess before she came home.
She was discharged before New Year’s day so we enjoyed the rest of the holidays together as a family. So why am I sharing this story now? Well first, because God has been so good to us this holiday, it would be a shame if his work went undisclosed. So many people have lost loved ones over this festive season that I feel it’s only right to thank him for giving us more time. Second, I wanted to explain about the difficult answers first to explain why I give the easy answers.
Are you re-contracting next year? Of course! I say this with a bit too much enthusiasm each time I’m asked. Well, not really. As I watch my fellow JETs agonising on what they should do, I realise that this is the easy answer for me. Easy not because it was simple to come to it but easier than explaining the difficult answer behind my decision every single time.
When I first started at my previous job, it sucked. I had come from working in a small company of around 300 to being in this huge corporate of about 4000 staff on site. The overwhelming feeling I felt from the change threatened to swallow my soul. In that first three months of feeling terribly out of place, I had to remind myself constantly about what goals I had when I first began. When that failed, I told myself to at least stick it out for 2 years. On one hand, it wouldn’t look like I was a job hopper on my CV, and on the other, it would give me a chance to grow into the job. After a year I was still unsure. What was I doing with my life? Was I actually any good at what I did? It didn’t matter because even though in reality I was permanently employed, in my mind I was on contract, and with each passing month, the contract moved closer to its conclusion.
I grew to love the job when I hit the 14-month mark. I was finally in my stride, doing things in 15 minutes that used to take me 2 full workdays to complete when I arrived. At first, I figured I had lowered my standards, but when I looked back at what I used to write in my first drafts when I arrived versus what I was writing at that stage, I could see the growth clearly. Was the job environment itself any better? Probably not but I made more connections in the workplace and even gained a few lifetime friends which made the pressing feeling of having 4000 bodies around me all day a bit more bearable.
So what does this have to do with re-contracting? Well, to be honest, regardless of how my time on JET has been, I made a deal with myself to stick it out for at least two years at any job that freaked me out. And that’s what I’ve decided to do in Japan. Do I like the job? Yeah, I’m sure a small part of me does. Do I see myself doing it long term? Probably not, as I’ve since discovered that I’m a sickly person and children are germ factories. What about my career!?!!?!? I write every day! More now than ever before. I love this about this job. It doesn’t stop you from doing what you love or what you need to do to continue your life when it’s time to move on.
That avalanche of questions that come after giving the real answer is the main reason I love giving the easy answer. People don’t do it to rattle you but sometimes they do, sometimes you don’t have enough of the answers they need or the questions just remind you of harder days, either way, that avalanche of questions is never something I look forward to. No one does. I sometimes think we must be programmed to ask each other how we are everyday, because in reality all we are asking is for a second verbal confirmation of life. No one really looks forward to asking or answering “how are you” questions but we do it anyway, despite knowing the answer will likely be very top level.
Despite the topic, this hasn’t been a post about helping anyone decide anything about re-contracting or deciding what to do with their lives after Japan. Those are both very personal conversations that need to be had with your own self just like I did a few years ago on my drive home from the bank. This year I am lucky to have the easy answer. Perhaps next year when asked if I would like to re-contract, I will also struggle, but until then, here’s to hoping I make some sort of deal with myself before then so that I have another easy answer up my sleeve.