I’ve been in Japan for three months and it’s certainly been one hell of a ride. Gone are my China visa run days and the ever-present uncertainty of where I would live or what I would do next. The dirty looks, “laowai” comments from old peasants, and cheap, yet delicious street food have almost faded from recent memory.
The company I work for got me a three-year work visa. However, I knew I wouldn’t last long teaching little kids in a training center. I had done this work before in China but I found it so exhausting, depressing, and awful that I ended up in a KTV. I kept telling myself that Japan would be different, but ultimately I find this line of work completely unsuitable for me. Thankfully, unlike China, once a company sponsors your work visa, you aren’t stuck with that company if you don’t like your job. The visa is yours and you are free to pursue any job that falls under the rules of whatever they gave you. This is probably why many Japanese companies are reluctant to sponsor visas or hire foreigners outside of Japan. Every foreigner starts with the “visa job” which is usually awful and motivates you to hit the pavement in search of greener pastures.
As is the usual practice of fake language schools in Asia, they accept children who are just way too fucking young and should be in a nursery. Why? Because of the money. I absolutely cannot stand being around toddlers for a long time. It was only after I started working here that I realized we were more daycare than English school.
On the first day of work, I met Yui face-to-face, the lovely middle-aged Japanese woman who hired me. When we returned to the office, a super macho, dude-bro-looking guy greeted me near the front desk. He positioned himself in the chair like a pit bull, leaning over the table as if to sniff out any of my potential weaknesses.
“So how are you at teaching kids?” He asked, “Do you suck at it?”
I was a bit taken aback by the rudeness, but brushed it off and simply didn’t reply with anything but a nervous laugh.
“Don’t worry,” He said in a tone reminiscent of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. “We’re gonna train you to not suck.”
“Where are you from, by the way?” He asked.
“I’m from Chicago,” I replied.
“Cool. My name’s Jake. I’m from the UK.”
“What?” I said, my mouth hanging wide open. “Why do you have an American accent?”
This question, regrettably, spurred him into a long, tedious monologue about how it’s better to teach American English to kids in Japan, that he trained himself super hard to walk around with a fake accent, and how sometimes his Britishness slips out.
From that moment, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to be careful of this guy because he would make my time even more miserable if I got on his bad side. I’ve never been fond of macho guys. My entire life I’ve avoided them. Jake was literally, a walking, talking caricature of everything I disliked about American frat boys.
During training, I was placed next to a girl from Peru who’d spent a long time living in Australia and came to Japan because her mom is a permanent resident here. She wouldn’t be the first non-native speaker in the company, which led me to believe that they were incredibly desperate for workers. Native speakers can easily find better jobs in Tokyo.
The girl reminded me of a pastor’s daughter I’d went to school with in Upstate New York; pure, a bit shy, and sensitive. She explained that she had no teaching experience but that she was tired of doing cosmetic sales. She talked about how she cried every day in her old job, how she learned Japanese through her work, and her willingness to try something new. She was living far, far in the countryside and lamented her two-and-a-half-hour commute.
When they showed us the uniform, I almost fainted. The ugliest orange shirt I’d ever seen sat on the table before us.
“Change your clothes,” He said. “The bathroom is over there.”
Throughout the following days, we were bombarded with lots of company information and told to observe classes. I stood in the back on the first observation day with a notebook. After five minutes, a girl from the front desk ran up to me with a phone in her hand.
“Hello?” I said, throat closing up from anxiety.
“Hey! It’s me, Jake!”
“I’m watching you on the cameras. Don’t just stand in the back of the class. You need to interact with the kids.” He barked.
“But they’re in class. I don’t wanna be distracting.”
“Just go sit by them at least.” I heard before the hang-up click echoed in my ears.
I sat by the kids, said hello to them, and furiously took notes in the reading class. This was my process every day for the first week. After the training, I was placed in the school branch nearest to my house. Everyone had warned me about how that branch was the most miserable, the busiest, and the hardest to work at. It also happened to house all the bosses who would watch us non-stop so they could criticize us later for not knowing everything from day one.
The senior teacher at that school definitely had some form of a mental deficiency. When he asked me how the first day was, and I answered honestly that it was exhausting, he just said: “Why?”
I believe this is a problem with many long-term foreigners in Asian countries. They lose touch with what it’s like to first arrive at a new destination, doing an unfamiliar job. They expect you to know everything right away, are unwilling to help, and generally, you get the feeling that they just don’t care; especially, English teachers. They’re usually teachers because they can’t do anything else. I mean, who on earth would wanna be a preschool teacher? I have never had a job so demanding, low-paying, and stressful. Anyone who actually likes this job is bound to have a few screws loose.
The day was structured in three-and-a-half hour blocks. The first hour is essentially just babysitting. You have to chat with the kids, play with them, blah, blah, blah. The second part was something called “phonics fun” which lasts for about a half hour. Then there’s snack time, exercise time, reading time, English class, and this thing where we have to look up pictures on Google for a half hour. Of course, after the official program is over, some kids will stay until 7 or 8 o clock. More babysitting. Those long periods of watching the kids started wearing down on me after a couple of weeks. I never even had to do that in China and I certainly never taught kids so young that they couldn’t eat or go to the bathroom by themselves. Some were even still in diapers and required being fed by hand. The managers of the school don’t care if these kids learn English or not. They only wanna line their own pockets. Hence, why some kids who have been there for several months still can’t even form a single English sentence.
Of course, after the official program is over, some kids will stay until 7 or 8 o clock. More babysitting. When I complained about a lack of a bilingual assistant to help me teach certain content to the older kids that couldn’t be explained with gestures and funny faces, they made me feel like a pariah. All this, despite the fact that by their own rules, a bilingual staff member should always be present in the room. The foreign manager yelled at me multiple times for saying “I don’t know what to do”.
“Just pretend! Stop complaining!” Shouted Jake.
The environment became more and more hostile as time went on. I was only two weeks into OJT when they threw me in preschool by myself. I couldn’t deal with kids crying, wetting themselves, and saying “mommy” every five seconds. I’d never gotten headaches in my entire life but I started developing debilitating migraines from the constant loud noise and stress.
On the first day of summer school, a nightmare where kids are there the entire day so things like basic cleaning can’t get done, I was in charge of this ninja-themed event. I decided to ask the kids to make paper shurikens. The older kids could do it with instruction. The preschoolers, of course, couldn’t. Ten minutes before the end of my activity, Jake comes in to interrupt. He’s the type that likes to have you and the kids running around all day. God forbid, we ever do arts and crafts or anything even remotely calm. He asked them to throw paper shurikens at me and then took them to lunch.
Later in the day, he took me aside for a meeting.
“There’s some things you need to change about yourself, quickly.” He said. “You complain a lot. I need you to stop doing that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t realize every off-hand comment I made was gonna be analyzed to death. I’m new here and I don’t have anyone available to help me because one of the bilingual staff was sent to another school. We don’t have enough time to finish our tasks because kids are here all day and I always have to watch them.”
“Shin,” He asked my coworker. “Do you think complaining is a problem?”
I couldn’t believe this meathead was trying to turn my only comrade against me. She was always saying the same things as me and yet, I was the only one being talked to about it. I sure as hell was not getting paid enough to deal with the enormous mountain of shit that had been placed on me.
A few days later, I went home, tears welled up in my eyes, and flipped through my desk drawer to find my contract. I would have to give the company 30 days notice, but there was indeed a way out. I emailed my boss the next day.
The following week a interviewed for a language school in Chiba that was teaching in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Unfortunately, the school hadn’t yet opened and the owner wasn’t sure about how many hours he could give me. Also, the pay was low but he was offering free Japanese classes which I desperately needed. In the end, I told him to contact me again in September.
I did another interview yesterday at a large company in central Tokyo. They’d just opened a bar downstairs and needed foreigners. Japanese language was not a requirement. The shacho (boss), was a lovely woman who worked her way up from a simple flower shop owner to the leader of an international company in the heart of Tokyo. She smiled at me and told me I could also teach English in their adult lounge for employees. I was thrilled. I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. No more toddlers, no more macho Jake, and a chance to do something besides teaching English for a change.