Teaching English in Japan: Lost in Transition

By Scott Hillkirk

Experiencing culture shock is natural when you move abroad - here’s what you can do about it.

The moment I stepped off the plane in Osaka, Japan I was already bleary-eyed and bone-tired. I had spent the trip flying across the world in a half-sleep because my seat on the plane was so uncomfortable it felt like a tee-shirt wrapped around a stadium chair.

This was nothing new for me. I had become used to the 15 hour flight because my role as a recruiter for a private educational company focusing on ESL and teaching English in Japan to children. Our recruiters from our offices in Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago have meetings with our corporate staff in Okayama, Japan throughout the year. These short business trips are tough on my body but they are a breeze compared to my first cultural transition in 2003 when I first traveled there to teach English in Japan.

When I first moved to Japan as an instructor teaching English to children in an EFL setting, I found my train ride after my flight arrived a bit nerve-wracking. The signs were all in Japanese and English at first as my guide books promised but the scrolling electronic menus of arriving stations on the train were only in Japanese and so too were the voices over the intercom and the billboards we zipped past. I remember asking the clerk at the newspaper stand how much it cost for an English newspaper in my simple Japanese and he stood there smiling, unable to comprehend what I had said. It was official, I was illiterate in Japan. I was immersed in the cultural shock every travel book describes.

Moving abroad is a unique challenge and if you would someday like to live abroad - especially if you desire to teach English in Japan - it is critical to become actively involved in a key cultural transition, your own.

If you plan someday to work in Japan or teach English in Japan, keeping in mind the following steps will help anyone ambitious enough to leave their own culture for another.

- Get serious now, so you’ll have fun later. If you are applying for a job that requires you to move abroad, do your research before the interview about the country. This is especially true if you plan to teach English in Japan. Talk to acquaintances and friends who have lived abroad in the country where you would like to go and listen to their experiences. Ask questions and then when it is time to interview you’ll be that much more informed. Don’t just limit your research to chat rooms on the internet. Even though there are websites with postings from the legions of ESL teachers teaching English as a second language, these places are helpful for prescient information can sometimes be trolling grounds of the misinformed or disenfranchised. Go to the library and find a good travel book and write down the books on the suggested reading list and start reading!

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- Take responsibility. No one can better organize your departure and imminent arrival in a new country better than you. Quickly the tasks will mount and you could end up feeling overwhelmed. Don’t worry this is common. Start small and write everything down. Now once you compile this list of tasks, start working your way down and check them off one by one. However, if you are within a month from departure make sure it is all about the practical side. How will you be bringing money? Where will you get your prescriptions filled? What shots do you need? These are important questions to answer during your last month. Also, if you can’t fit it into your checked luggage while packing, don’t bring it! Put your overflow into a box that a family member can send you or bring with them later on when they come for a visit.

- Accept a helping hand. The candidates we send who apply as English teachers in Japan begin their journey abroad as soon as they accept their position in their home country. We begin a paper work process with them at this point but it should also involve learning about the culture, history and values of their destination. Hired candidates who actively pursue this information early on in the process adjust better and have a stronger understanding of what is going on around them, even if they don’t yet know the language. These candidates, of course, become more effective English teachers. Most companies implement their own orientation process prior to departure; make sure the company you’ve been hired by is one of them. We do our best to help our candidates adjust initially when they arrive. The assumption is that they will take over the process after they get moved in.

- Getting settled is no small thing. Our hired English teachers who have made the transition well are flexible and not easily rattled. They possess this confidence because they have thoroughly done their research and they are dedicated to making it work. There will always be rough days so account for them! How will you reach your family or friends when you have a difficult day at work? You can skype, blog, instant message or text your friends if you already have a way to get in touch with those that are important to you while you are adjusting. Teachers who move into the apartments we provide as a company and get settled in quickly also adjust much faster. This is a simple task but a very important one. Put those pictures up on the wall. Find a great local store that you can purchase food you like. Find a great place to work out or get a decent haircut. These are simple tasks but no small thing when adjusting abroad.

- You’ve gotten this far, go the distance! Probably one of the most frustrating things as a recruiter is when I had an English teacher who was homesick give up and head back home. Having a hard day here in the U.S. is an occasional occurrence but one that we often have to endure. The same is true for when you are living abroad. Candidates who have adjusted well find what they like to do in the country that they are living in. Do you like to play sports or go for a run? Are you interested in traditional arts and culture? Do you want to find a faith-based group to communicate with? All of these elements of our daily life are things that we underestimate the importance of until we live abroad and they are not readily available. The key thing is to not wait for your new life to come knocking at your door. You have to get up and go find it using the same determination and boldness that got you there in the first place.

As you can see, achieving success when you get to another culture is dependent on what you have accomplished before you left. Get started today with your great adventure by finding out where you’d like to live and work someday so you don’t get lost in the transition.

About the Author

Scott Hillkirk is an international recruiter for the AEON Amity Corporation of Japan promoting teaching English in Japan and training ESL teachers to teach English in Japan. For more information please visit: http://www.amityteachers.com


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3 Responses to “Teaching English in Japan: Lost in Transition”

  1. Brian Barker Says:

    As far as learning another language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

    I know that Esperanto is a living language, but it has great propaedeutic values as well.

    Confirmation can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. david Says:

    Saluton Brian.

    Many believe that learning Esperanto as your first second language offers many advantages. Thanks for the link.

  3. Gord Hunt Says:

    A great site for ESL students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com.

    AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an English vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most impoverished places around the world.

    Check it out at http://www.aidtochildren.com

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