Welcome back to the Woman of the Week Series! This Week I’m bringing you an interview with a fellow Sarah, whom I met in Japan this past fall. We crossed paths at a small karaoke bar while I was on a pub tour through Osaka, her current place of work and residence. Though we didn’t get to spend much time together in person, I was lucky to catch her for a phone call, and to pick her brain about her life in Japan. Read on for a peek into the life of a Midwest-USA-lady-turned-Japanese-expat below.
Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your expertise and story with us!
CONNECT WITH SARAH:
Hometown: Monroe, Michigan
Current residence: Osaka, Japan
Job title: Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)
Place you’d visit again: St. Petersburg, Russia
Destination on your bucket list: Anywhere in Italy
Photo: Me at nineteen, on the day I moved abroad for the first time in January, 2013. All three times I’ve moved abroad, I’ve packed everything I need in those two suitcases! I’ve always thought that if it doesn’t fit in the space the airline allots you for free, you don’t really need it!
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF.
I’m a lifelong learner and traveler living by the motto “I’ll try anything once!”
As with many kids, my first major travel experiences were with family—to Canada and to Mexico, and then to the Netherlands to visit extended family when I graduated high school.
When I got to college, I graduated to more independent travel, through two study-abroad semesters in London and Moscow. London was in 2013, just after my nineteenth birthday. There, I worked as a research assistant in the British Library while taking courses in British literature, history, and writing. I found time to travel around the UK and the Continent, but really I was there to study and to work! The same was true of my time in Moscow in 2014: That semester was the bridge between my undergraduate and graduate studies. I was studying the Russian language, literature, history, and art while also doing some light translation work on the side.
I took a two-year hiatus from international travel to finish my Master’s degree down in Florida. While studying transnationalism in literature, I spent my time in that program working in the university’s Reading-Writing Center and teaching those first-year Composition courses most undergraduate students absolutely dread. It was my time on that program that made me fall in love with teaching, and especially with the challenge of designing an engaging curriculum.
As I was finishing my thesis, I was planning my next move. I was ready to go abroad again. I knew I liked teaching English, and my time in the Reading-Writing Center working with many English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students got me interested in specifically teaching non-native speakers. As I researched, I discovered the market for English teachers was mainly in Asia. While mulling the idea over with my major professor, who happened to be Japanese, I landed on Japan. “You’d really like it, Sarah!” she said.
That’s really all it took. I found a pamphlet for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program hanging on a wall when I left her office, and I applied that summer. I got the position. I started taking a Japanese class, and I moved to Japan less than a year later. And I’m still here—working, travelling, and trying anything once!
WHY DO YOU TRAVEL?
To be productive: When I’m travelling—or, better put, when I’m living abroad—it’s easy to make every day feel productive. Even if it’s just learning one new word from a street sign or a conversation I overhear, there’s always something I can point to at the end of the day as a lesson learned. That attitude has done wonders for my mental health—for appreciating each day and recognizing that I’m moving forward even on days when I don’t feel it.
To learn from people: When I’m not in my native environment, I tend to rely much more on my interactions with others for my sense of everyday fulfillment. I find myself asking more questions, encountering more perspectives, and appreciating that you can learn somethingfrom anyone.
To experience the world first-hand: I’m a visual learner, and there’s no teacher like experience. I spent years in school learning from books, but the things I see when I travel stick somuch more vividly in my memory. Perhaps because of that, it’s been easier for me to process and be involved with conversations about international relations and politics when I travel, too. Instead of trusting the news about what’s going on around the world, I want to be there on the ground as much as I possibly can, listening to the other perspectives.
EXPLAIN WHAT YOU DO FOR WORK.
I’m currently an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, a program run by the Japanese government to place native English speakers in public schools around the country. Placements around the country vary greatly, but my own placement is in a suburb of Osaka.
I teach in kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools. A different school every weekday. Depending on the school, I either support native Japanese speakers who lead an English language class, or I lead a class supported by the Japanese teacher. I’m involved in curriculum development, lesson planning, grading, and yearly school events. To round things off, for the past year and a half I’ve been serving on a council that organizes events for English teachers around the prefecture. That position allows me to both build and be a part of a close-knit community of people in the same boat in Japan.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS JOB?
Right, so as I said before, I was finishing grad school and looking for the next step, and Japan just kind of fell right into my lap. I didn’t have a special interest in Japanese history, or anime or manga, or…anything really? I watched Godzilla as a kid, and the Detroit Metro Airport (my home airport) had Japanese signs everywhere because of the automobile ties there, but really, there was nothing there. I spent a lot of time explaining to people around me, “It’s just a God thing.” I was so sure it was where I was meant to go, and I was so sure I was going to fall in love with it, but I didn’t yet know how or why.
It takes a solid six months to get through the JET interview process. There’s a written interview, an in-person interview at a local consulate, and a lot of waiting to get your random placement. I requested to be put in the Kansai region of Japan, because I knew there were three big cities there: Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka. And they put me in Osaka. I thought I’d come for a year, and now it’s my third!
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY AT WORK LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
I get to school just before 8:30 AM. Depending on the school, first period starts either at 8:45 or 8:50. Before that, there’s usually a staff meeting, followed by lesson-plan-confirmation meetings with individual teachers. I make copies of worksheets and go over my plans one more time, and then I’m off.
There are six periods in the school day, and I have anywhere from three to five depending on the day. In my free periods, I grade papers, lesson plan with teachers, and observe classes to see different teaching strategies with different sets of students. I usually leave for the day around 4:15PM, unless I’ve got a later meeting with a teacher or extra seasonal grading to do.A few times a month, I dedicate additional after-work time to the Osaka JET council I mentioned before, so I spend some evenings either planning for or attending local events as well.
ARE YOU ABLE TO EASILY BALANCE WORK AND TRAVEL? IF SO, HOW DO YOU BALANCE THEM?
Absolutely! For one, compared to grad school, I have so much more time to myself. It took a while to get used to going home before dinnertime and not having any workto do. I could study Japanese, write, pick up new hobbies, spend time with friends, explore the city… In addition, this job gives me plenty of time off during the spring, summer, and winter holidays. I have all the time I need to travel both domestically and internationally.
Usually, when I travel during those holidays, I’m sure to take plenty of pictures and write up a short story about my trip, so I can turn the experience into a lesson for my students. That way, travels feel even more productive—like I’m doing research for the kids, using grammar they’ve learned to tell my stories while also motivating them to get out and explore in the future. It’s a pretty ideal setup!
WHAT’S THE BEST LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED FROM YOUR TRAVELS?
Be grateful. Look around and appreciate what’s in front of you. I mean, really stopand look around and appreciate it. I’ll physically stop in my tracks when I’m walking somewhere, trying to memorize every detail and appreciating the peace I feel in that moment. I’ll mentally stop in my tracks when I’m in the shower, grateful that somehow I have access to clean water and electricity, in an apartment that I can afford to pay for by myself, in a country in which I’m not even a citizen. I know this world was created for me to enjoy, so I’ve learned to stop in my tracks and really enjoyit as much as I can.
SHARE ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE TRAVEL MEMORIES.
Oh, man. The one that most changed my life, I think, was my trip to Paris in February, 2013 (while I was studying in London). Instead of sticking with the study-abroad students group for a tour of the city, my friends Alli and Shannon and I went off on our own. We bought supplies for a picnic to take to Versailles, and we hopped on a train to get there. We got completely lost because the train we needed wasn’t actually running that day (and no signs indicated so). But we were getting to know each other and laughing until our stomachs hurt—to the point that we didn’t even notice when the train got to the last stop and the staff were waving at us to disembark. We made it to Versailles eventually, and we had our picnic on the steps leading out to the gardens.
Later, after a tour of the Louvre museum, the three of us decided to go to the Eiffel Tower. We looked over from the museum and saw the tower, so we decided to walk there. Without phone service, we didn’t have Google maps to tell us exactly how far that was, so we just kept walking. And walking. And singing and talking and walking some more. And maybe two hours later, we were there! We got there just as the tower was closing, so we bought crepes at a stand nearby and just sat underneath the tower and kept talking. I didn’t spend a single moment worrying about not getting to the top.
We got so miserably lost so many times during that trip, but I had the time of my life sitting back and getting to know two people I’ll always consider lifelong friends. That trip did a lot to inform my attitude of saying yes to opportunities and living in the moment with whomever is there with you. Maybe I’ve done more adventurous things since then, but that trip was the turning point.
IF YOU COULD SHARE ONE TRAVEL TIP WITH OTHER WOMEN, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Recognize that anything can be an adventure if it’s new and it challenges you in some way. Taking a tent and going camping somewhere nearby is still travelling. Just a walk from a museum to a tower that’s already closed for the day is an experience you’ll remember forever.
You don’t have to go to all the best restaurants TripAdvisor or Yelp! or Instagram show off. Whenever I go to a convenience store, instead of thinking, “Ugh, all I can afford right now is convenience store food,” I find something at the convenience store I’ve never tried before and I buy it. Even if I can’t read the label. Why not, right? Be the kind of person who sees an adventure in those small opportunities, and you’ll find yourself absolutely blown away when the really big, life-changing opportunities finally do come along.
Although I’m not currently publishing new travel material, you can read a bit more about my experiences in Japan here! If you’d like to talk more about what it’s like to live abroad, either while studying or while working, please feel free to contact me through that blog site, or find me on Instagram at @dejongokay.
THANKS FOR READING SARAH’S STORY!
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