What doesn’t kill you…

4 Mar

ImageI’ve always been an advocate of the JET Programme.  While I’ve only been a JET for under two years now, all of my experiences, both bad and good, have been a learning experience, both as a means of cultural exchange and as a step towards becoming an independent person in the world.  While experiencing culture shock and crying in front of my coworkers (as mentioned in this post) wasn’t really fun, it was enlightening in terms of knowing myself, and every time I’ve made an embarrassing mistake or been turned down when I’ve asked to do an activity or game in class, it’s been a building block in my understanding of Japanese office culture.  JET is absolutely what you make of it, and because I’ve really enjoyed working with the kids and living life here in Gunma, I’ve tried to put a positive spin on everything, including my two bouts of influenza and every small rejection I’ve faced at work. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say, and even at times when I’ve wanted to (or actually have) cried, even at times when I’ve been frustrated, or hurt, or sick, I’ve done my best to tell myself that I was becoming a better ALT and a better person from it.  And besides, times like the speech contest have made it all worth it.  

But recently, I had an experience that, while mostly minor and probably forgettable in other situations, would probably be the first experience that I’d classify as a completely negative experience.  Many ALTs will complain that they get ignored or forgotten because they’re ALTs, but for the most part, I feel that this sort of thing happens because Japanese staff are unsure how much Japanese the ALT understands and forget that things that are common in Japanese schools are not common in foreign countries.  They don’t realize that the ALT didn’t understand an announcement in the morning meeting because it was relatively simple to them, or forget that ALTs might not be aware of Japanese national holidays.  While these are things that I obviously find frustrating, I also understand that I’m the person who doesn’t understand in a workplace full of people who do, and I’m the one who chose to take this job and come to Japan, and that in most cases, it’s my responsibility to make sure I ask my coworkers for their help when I need it.  But in this case, there was really no way around it; I was treated poorly.  

What happened is this: Gunma Prefecture, and all of the Kanto region recently experienced a snowstorm of a high enough magnitude that no one was prepared.  Yamanashi Prefecture became basically inaccessible for days; Tokyo’s ever-running trains were stopped.  In Gunma, it was the most snow we’ve gotten for over one hundred years, and as a result, after the snow fell on Saturday and Sunday, school for the following Monday was cancelled.  Every teacher in my school received a phone call informing them that the students would not be coming to school on Monday, and asking them to take care but try to get to school so that we could all work together to shovel the parking lot.  Every teacher, that is, but me and my fellow ALT.  

This might not seem like a big deal, but for a second, allow my to talk about my regular work day. On a regular work day, I wake up around 6:45 to get dressed, do my makeup and hair, eat breakfast, and leave my house at 8 to bike for 15 minutes and arrive at school at 8:15, before the teachers’ meeting at 8:20.  My breakfast usually consists of two pieces of bread with butter, or maybe a cheese bread from 7-11, just enough to hold me over until the huge portion of kyushoku we get at 12:45.  Usually, I wear a skirt and blouse or sweater, nice shoes, and tights to work, expecting to stand in a heated classroom or teachers’ room for a few hours.  

On Monday, expecting classes as normal, I woke up at 6:15 in order to leave my house early to make it to work on time.  I dressed in my usual fashion: a light sweater, a knee-length skirt, and stockings before putting on UGGs, my warmest shoes, and preparing for the trek to work.  I left my house around 7:30 and brought my bike, unsure of what the conditions would be like but knowing that if I wanted to get to school in time for the morning meeting (which it would be highly highly frowned upon for me to miss), I needed to bike as much as I could.  Upon attempting to make it even a few feet, it became clear that the iced-over snow banks were not idea for biking, and that basically, I would need to haul my bike by hand all the way to school.  For anyone who’s ever dragged a bike across icy snow banks, you will understand that this is not an easy task. After my bike slipping dragged me down a few times and the sheer force required to move the thing over the uneven, slippery ground, I finally arrived at school just around 8:20, gasping and sweating, my arms aching from the effort.  What I expected was to go happily into the teachers’ room, take a break, drink some coffee, and pull myself together before first period. What I did not expect was to be the tenth-or-so person to school (out of a 36-person staff) and find everyone outside, wearing waterproof boots, sweatpants, and windbreakers, shoveling snow.  

It was only then that I was informed that today was a snow day and I would be required to help clear out the school parking lot.  When I asked the vice-principal about why I wasn’t informed, I was told that “I decided it wasn’t relevant to ALTs, because teachers have to come to school anyway.” So apparently, it was relevant every other teacher in the school, but it wasn’t relevant to me.  It wasn’t relevant to tell me that I should dress warmly and wear waterproof shoes, it wasn’t relevant to warn me that I should eat a filling breakfast because I was doing manual labor, it wasn’t relevant to inform me that I could take as long as necessary to come to school rather than attempting to bike and falling over and injuring myself in the process.  Apparently, my safety, health, and general wellbeing were not good enough reasons to make one simple phone call that probably would have lasted all of two minutes.  

I was upset and aggravated enough about that as it was, but then the shoveling began.  As more and more teachers trickled in a half hour, an hour, two hours late, having taken their time to slowly come to school in the safest way, I was required to use a six-inch gardening hoe to crack through layers of ice and allow shoveling in the parking lot.  While I’m not a fan of manual labor, I understand that this is what everyone in the school was doing, and what was necessary to allow the students access to the school the next day.  However, while my coworkers were happily dressed in clothes appropriate for the task, I was struggling to keep my expensive clothing clean and dry.  In the end, it was a lost cause; my tights and skirt were splattered with muddy, dirty snow, and my shoes were soaked beyond repair; in the long run, they are now unwearable despite having cost me $150 and being only a year old.  I always was feeling dizzy and lightheaded after not having eaten a real breakfast, and my arms had already been aching and tired after dragging my bike to school… which I wouldn’t have done if I had known I didn’t need to be on time.  One phone call would have saved me a $150 pair of shoes and my personal health… but apparently, it wasn’t relevant enough for my vice-principal to care.  

I understand that calling ALTs can be intimidating for someone who doesn’t speak any English.  I understand that he might have been worried that if he was unclear, it might make me and my fellow ALT think that we didn’t need to work tomorrow, causing us to lose a vacation day unnecessarily.  I understand that he was overwhelmed after all that went into making the decision to close school for the day and then calling 24 other employees. But that is his job, and I don’t think that those things justify the really unpleasant situation that my fellow ALT and I went through.  Because it isn’t just the fact that we suffered physically.  It’s the fact that there was no apology, and, in fact, insult was added to injury when we were told, essentially, that our health was not relevant to the people in charge at the school.  

There are plenty of ways that the vice principal could have contacted us.  He could have called one of the English teachers and asked them to contact us– under normal circumstances on the phone tree, it is the head of English’s responsibility, anyway.  He could have contacted my direct supervisor at the Board of Education, who has my phone number and email address, and asked for non-verbal contact information for me, so that it would be less stressful for him, or even asked my boss, who is directly responsible for me, to contact me.  I understand his (probable) concerns, but I don’t think that it’s an excuse.  This was not just a matter of personal inconvenience.  This was a matter of my wellbeing, and I got the message loud and clear that it was not relevant.  

I know this post sounds angry, but in some ways, I still am.  From people who I have trusted and so far had a good relationship, I find this behaviour shocking and hurtful.  And it wasn’t just me– the other female teachers at the school who I work with agreed, and kept saying that my situation was “pitiful” and sympathizing with me.  So clearly, it’s not just a cultural thing; clearly, something was amiss here.  

I’m not retracting my positive review of the JET Programme, or even my positive view of my situation.  I am lucky to have been placed in a town where English is a priority and we have a great supervisor who looks out for us. I am fortunate to have been placed in a school that I can access easily by bike, and where there are teachers who I can trust and talk to, and where my JTEs all have quite good English, and where I at least have some students in every grade who are enthusiastic about learning English.  But I am admitting that sometimes, as an ALT, really crappy things just happen, and there’s really no way to see them in a positive light.  I know that this has been a learning experience, and I’m going to become stronger from it and move on, but at the same time, I’m just going to accept that while it didn’t kill me, it did really suck a lot. 


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