I’ve always had a curiosity about life outside of the United States. Geography was my favorite subject as a child. I first heard of Japan in the fourth grade when my teacher would go on xenophobic rants about how the Japanese were determined to take over the world and eventually own America.
Due to circumstances, I would have to wait until my mid-twenties before going abroad. One day, my life took a drastic turn. My first serious relationship had ended a few months before and I yearned for a change. I needed to travel, explore and ultimately live overseas. I set my heart on Japan for two reasons. First, I’d heard it was possible to teach English in Japan. Second, I wanted to go somewhere far away and exotic.
I completed my graduate coursework that December. I had a nice position as a teaching assistant with my own office but decided to postpone writing my thesis and forego the last semester of my scholarship. Mentally, I had already checked out.
After doing research, I realized that it would take anywhere from three to six months to secure a job and working visa for Japan. I contacted all of the Large Japanese schools that hired from North America; Aeon, ECC, Nova, and GEOS. I arranged for an April interview with GEOS in Vancouver, BC.
Preparing to Go Abroad
Opting not to return to school and being three months out of my interview, I decided to embark on a three-month cross-country road trip with my best friend that would begin in Jacksonville, Florida and conclude in Vancouver. After living out of a car and camping through the American South and along the West Coast for three months, we made it to Vancouver at the beginning of April. The interview took five days. I was hired and flew out of Vancouver two months later following one week of training and receiving my work visa.
I had no apprehension about going to and teaching English in Japan and could barely conceal my excitement. I couldn’t believe that I would actually get paid to live in another country and teach a language that I had no experience teaching. Homesickness never crossed my mind because I knew I would see my friends and family when I returned. Money was not a problem at the time either since I had nearly $5,000 in savings to hold me over. My biggest fear was missing my flight or having my visa denied upon entering Japan.
While my friends encouraged me to go, my family worried. It was understandable since none of them had ever traveled outside of the United States. They thought I was insane and couldn’t understand why I had chosen Japan. My mother was convinced that I would perish in a massive earthquake. I alleviated her fears by telling her that there were no earthquakes in the part of Japan I was heading to. That was a white lie. She would become more comfortable with the idea once I was in Japan and settled down.
GEOS placed me in a small city in Hokkaido called Obihiro, which is a two-hour train ride from Sapporo. I worked in a small school in the outskirts of the town and lived in a spacious apartment nearby. There were no other foreigners teaching at the school and the Japanese workers weren’t particularly friendly. I was completely anonymous and spoke no Japanese.
I remember walking around on my first day off and feeling so free. Children would stare at me in the supermarket before being scorned by their parents. Then the parents would glance back at me as if I were an alien. I enjoyed the anonymity and solitude for a couple of months. The language barrier made everything an adventure and a challenge. It once took me an hour to send a simple letter to America at the post office.
By the end of the second month, I’d grown tired of solitude and needed the city. I also realized that GEOS and the other large corporate chain schools of Japan were not fit for my style. So I gave up my job with GEOS and moved to Sapporo.
By this time, I had been in Japan for three months and was beginning to understand how things worked. I fell in love with Sapporo at once and three months of solitude induced an eruption of socializing. There were so many places to go and people to meet. Within a month, I had friends, a job, an apartment downtown, and incredible excitement. I jumped out of bed each day knowing that a new adventure awaited me. I was also lucky to meet the right people and begin friendships that still exist today.
I worked for a small school located downtown. The atmosphere and culture were in stark contrast to the suit-wearing teaching days of GEOS. I became fast friends with the other teachers and often went out with them. There was a party for students and teachers on the first and fourth Saturday of each month. Those were always fun.
I had a wide array of classes as I taught children and adults of various backgrounds and ages. Most of the time, teaching was a breeze in Sapporo, but there were a few extremely difficult students that could make life miserable. In the end, I couldn’t complain and I used every ounce of patience to deal with those students.
Of course, there were tough days living in Sapporo even for someone like myself who loved being there. While the vast majority of people and staff at work were kind, generous and caring, there were those who gave me a hard time because I was a foreigner. I certainly was discriminated against a few times and had cultural misunderstandings.
However, I never let that bother me and despite a few difficult days, I felt comfortable in Japan. Looking back, what I enjoyed most was the fact that each day could bring something completely new. Nothing ever seemed part of a routine. At least during the first three years.
I came back to America after two and a half years in Sapporo to finish my graduate thesis, which took one semester. I quickly returned to Sapporo, but soon took a job in Okinawa after my school was on the verge of bankruptcy. I also wanted to experience another part of Japan before returning to the States.
Okinawa presented a new challenge being so far away and culturally different than Sapporo. I felt a new sense of excitement that comes with being somewhere unknown. I had to make friends all over again. However, it wasn’t hard since I already had the experience of living in Sapporo and my Japanese was getting good by that time.
In Okinawa, I worked as an ALT/AET assistant language teacher at a public middle school, which was a big change from the for-profit institutes. I was the only non-Japanese in the school, which was challenging at times. I sometimes grew frustrated due to cultural misunderstandings. Through it all though, most of the teachers were kind and tried hard to make me feel part of the community. The kids were also great and they loved to joke around.
Overall, life in Okinawa was a different experience than Sapporo. It was almost like being in another country. While I spent a great deal of time indulging in nightlife in Sapporo, I spent most of my free time in Okinawa studying Japanese, jogging by the ocean, playing basketball and swimming. By the time I left, I was in the best physical condition of my life, well-tanned and spoke Japanese fluently.
Time to Come Home from Japan
After four years of living in Japan, it was time to come home. I’d had a wonderful time in both Sapporo and in Okinawa. I left Japan feeling grateful and appreciative. Overall, my experience in Japan was amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. For the most part, people were kind and patient, which definitely had a positive influence on me.
Most importantly, living in Japan allowed me to grow as a person. It made me stronger and opened my mind to new perspectives. I also came to understand my own culture and country much better, which I believe is one of the great benefits of living abroad. I feel that we have to step outside of our own culture in order to truly understand it. Moreover, the obstacles that I now face seem less daunting after living through the challenges of being in a foreign country for four years.
Looking back, going to Japan was the best decision of my life. If you are currently in Japan or lived there for some time, I would love to hear about your gaijin experience.
Michael & Gina says
We enjoyed reading your article very much, Jimmy. We haven’t been to Sapporo. We were almost on our way after booking anr Air Canada flight & an apartment for one month when he North Korean madman started launching missles over Hokkaido that fell into the Sea of Japan. We had insurance but the owner of the apartment refused to give us our deposit back & because our government’s State Department didn’t list North Korea on its warning/alert list for Americans not to travel there, we couldn’t collect a penny back from Allianz Insurance. Anyway, we didn’t want to risk our lives so we took a financial hit.
We love Japan. We lived in Kyoto for 3 months renting an apartment as our home base and enjoyed overnight trips to Tokyo, Osaka, etc. The Japanese culture, cuisine, transportation, cleanliness, friendy locals was right up our alley.
We didn’t want to go home. Life away from the fast paced & busy NYC was sweet.
So, we’ll be in Singapore early March 2019 for a week. Then, we’ve already booked an Air Asia flight to Osaka where we’ll rent an apartment for two months, enjoy Japan’s ‘cherry blossom season,’ again before returning home to the big city in May 2019.
M&G – NYC
Great article, Dave!
I enjoyed reading about your life in Japan and how you processed various thoughts throughout your time there.
I studied abroad for 1 year in Kyoto and have plans to return to work in Japan in the future. Though I too found difficulty in some moments, I actually felt quite comfortable there in comparison to life in the states. However, with that being said, home is home, and I always feel relieved arriving back stateside.
Since I was studying Japanese langauge and culture there, my ability to interact in various situations was quite different from your early stages. I enjoyed mostly every day there.
I also am a quiet type and enjoy really old and refined music. So the classic kissatens and temple gardens in Kyoto were particularly suitable for me.
Anyways, thanks for writing and happy holidays !