Monday, June 21, 2010

Random thoughts for incoming ALTs & future JET applicants

After spending almost three years working as an ALT on the JET Programme, I admit I've gotten kind of crotchety. Keeping that in mind, here are some things I'd like to pass onto people who are coming to Japan this summer as ALTs and/or are thinking about applying for the JET Programme.

  • please remember that the JET program hires people to **teach English**--NOT to study Japanese, learn about Japanese culture or to travel around Japan/Asia (the ability to do so is a nice side benefit, but that shouldn't interfere with/take the place of doing your job)
  • use English as much as possible on the job (this is one I still really need to work on); it's easier to be friendly with students if you're constantly speaking in Japanese outside of class but it's invaluable for students to get exposure to real English so try to talk with them in English even outside of class; and if teachers/co-workers speak with you in English, I think it's only courteous to respond in kind: it seems kind of insulting to insist on speaking Japanese when people are making efforts to communicate in English--like you're saying "I don't understand your English, so let's just speed things up and speak in Japanese (although I *do* switch to Japanese when I feel like it better conveys the nuances of what I want to say...)
  • there are many things you can't control in the JET Programme--where you live, where you work, who you work with, etc.--but you CAN control your own attitude/response to situations; thinking positive really does make a difference
  • students are, for the most part, very well attuned to teachers' moods/attitudes; if they realize that you genuinely enjoy being with them and are happy to see them, they will generally respond in kind 
  • if possible, please consider staying for at least two years; since it takes pretty much a full year to get used to the job, the first year you're probably taking more than you're giving back; the second year is when you really start to actually make valuable contributions to your school(s) 
Money Matters:
  • be aware that ALTs (particularly in rural, cash-strapped areas) are quite highly paid relative to other Japanese city/government employees (e.g. I probably earn about as much as someone in their fifth year working for the city) and make it a goal to do more every year to earn the salary you are being paid; even after almost three years on JET; I still feel like I'm not earning 100% of my salary (maybe only 90%?)
  • our salaries are paid (once) monthly; try to avoid being stuck in the situation where you have to live off of rice and soy sauce while waiting for your next pay cheque; if possible, it's also a good idea to build up a reserve fund that you can draw on when unexpected situations occur (like car accidents)
  • a lot of people get up in arms about their vacation days and get mad when they are requested to only take holidays during certain periods (like when school is not in session); personally I don't understand why people think that being JET ALTs in Japan gives them "rights" they wouldn't even have in North America (or wherever your home country is); I mean, chances are if you were working for an office/company you'd have to make a request--which might or might not be granted--to take time off and obviously employers would prefer you to avoid taking long vacations during busy times at work
  • in my experience, the earlier you make requests for vacation days, the more likely you are to have them granted; I recommend asking as soon as you even think you might want to take the day off--before making travel/accommodation arrangements, etc.
  • it doesn't hurt to request Tokyo or other large cities, but if you seriously expect to get placed there, you're probably going to be disappointed; large cities can have their pick of native English speaker teachers, so they don't need to get random assignments from the JET Programme
  • most of the JET Programme placements *are* rural (I think pretty much all of Aomori Prefecture is considered rural by definition), but there are also varying degrees of "rural"--consider yourself lucky if you have a Jusco =P 
  • there are various inconveniences that come with being in a rural placement, but on the bright side I think you get a more "real" experience of Japan living in a rural community than if you lived in a big city; you can always get the "big city experience" as a tourist, but you can't truly experience rural Japan unless you live in it and become part of the community
  • don't post anything online that you'd be embarrassed to have your co-workers--or students, for that matter--read; you might not think that they'd be interested or that the English is a deterrent, but you'd be surprised...
  • it's really helpful to have friends who will sympathize and listen to you complain about issues you have regarding work, Japanese culture, etc. and it's important to express your frustrations so they don't build up and explode, but you'll probably be happier in the long run if you try to keep a positive outlook on things in general
  • no criticism intended for those who can make it work for them, but personally I've never understood the whole "you speak in English and I'll speak in Japanese" mindset for language learning/exchange; I think language learning is most effective when both people are communicating in the same language, so if people want to practice their English, I respect that and communicate with them in English (using Japanese only to facilitate understanding); if I want to practice my Japanese I find/make friends who don't care to/aren't trying to learn English (although I admit that I don't always reply to text messages in English because I've found that typing in Japanese makes for shorter and faster messages--since I don't have a data plan for my cell, the "shorter" is important as I get charged based on the amount of data I send/receive =P)

Tamagoyaki chronicles end

Days until the Chuutairen: 0
Tamagoyaki made: 10
Eggs consumed: 20

Friday was an insane day of bento preparation. It even started in the morning during a spare period at school when I sketched out my bento plan:

After working hours were finished, I spent about an hour shopping for the ingredients I didn't want to purchase too far in advance (I had already purchased things like carrots, eggs, red wieners, etc. on Saturday). I got back home around 5:30pm and was doing food preparation until 9:30pm. @_@

It wasn't all bento prep, though. I had some potatoes leftover that I decided to use to make potato salad even though I wasn't planning on putting any in my bento. I also spent about 30min. washing dishes and making/eating my dinner. Dinner was a simple egg salad sandwich, but I had to cut it up to see how much I could fit into the bottom tier/tray of my bento box. (Turns out it can hold exactly 1 sandwich with the crusts cut off and divided into sixths.)

Specifically for bento prep I...
- made egg salad & prepared the tuna (i.e. mixed it with mayo) for sandwiches;
- cut/washed & cooked broccoli;
- cut red wieners into octopus shapes
- washed & dried blueberries
- washed, dried and cut off green part of strawberries
- made tamagoyaki

The tamagoyaki I made wasn't the best looking, but it was passable:

My fridge is usually almost completely empty, but thanks to all the bento prep/food it was almost completely full Friday night:

Saturday morning I got up at 4:15am, showered/dressed, made/assembled/photographed the bento, ate breakfast and was out the door by 6:15am.

Even though all I had to do was cook the wieners; re-heat (and let cool) the tamagoyaki & broccoli; assemble/cut the sandwiches; cut the apple & kiwi it still took me the better part of an hour (about 45min?) to get it all done. @_@;; Of course the fact that I was photographing the process at every stage didn't speed things up either. =P

Here's a shot of all the food before I put it in the bento box:

The "main dish": ham/lettuce/tomato, egg salad and tuna sandwiches

The "side dishes": octopus-shaped red wieners, tamagoyaki, microwave steamed broccoli

The "dessert": bunny apple, kiwi, blueberries and strawberries (Apparently have such a variety of fruit--or perhaps it's the fruits I chose in particular--is considered fairly "extravagant/luxurious.")

And here's the fully assembled bento:

Observant may readers may have noticed that not all of the food I had prepared fit into the box. In fact, I had an entire sandwich--2/3 of a ham/lettuce/tomato sandwich, plus 1/3 each of egg salad and tuna sandwiches--and most of the kiwi and apple leftover. The excess ended up being a convenient breakfast. =P

Saturday night I made タコライス ("taco rice") for dinner. The recipe I used was meant to serve two, but it actually ended up yielding enough for me to have it for two dinners (Saturday and Sunday night), lunch, and breakfast (Sunday morning--the stuff that didn't fit into the bento tier/tray). "Taco rice" seemed like a weird idea to me at first, but it was actually pretty tasty. Plus it was super simple to make--looks like I've got another dish for my "regular" repertoire! =P

Anyway, since I'd done pretty much all the prep work on Friday night, all I had to do was pack & refrigerate the taco rice ingredients, cut the green parts off the strawberries and make tamagoyaki and I was done with my bento prep for Sunday.

The final tamagoyaki:

Sunday morning followed the same pattern as Saturday morning, except that instead of preparing sandwiches I cut up tomatoes for the taco rice (the lettuce and meat were leftover from Saturday's dinner). The rice I just had to take out of the rice cooker and allow to cool--rice cookers with timers are a wonderful thing!!

The food pre-bento assembly:

One other change from Saturday's bento: I tried making a penguin wiener using a cutter I found/bought at Jusco!! ^_^ It was cute, but I still like the octopus better.

The fully assembled bento:

After this bento-making experience, I came to a few conclusions:

1) making bentos regularly is probably only convenient for people who also cook regularly; it's easy enough if you have leftovers from dinner to put into your bento, but if you have to make a whole bunch of food expressly for the bento it's a lot of work

2) Japanese wives/mothers who make bentos on a regular basis would probably be amazing business managers--planning meals/bentos is really a great exercise in resource/time management! Whatever faults a person might have, if they make bentos regularly, I totally respect the amount of effort they put into it! I know that with practice it probably becomes an easier, faster, more efficient process, but still...

3) "Proper" bentos are great, but I probably wouldn't have the energy to make them regularly; for long stretches without school visits (summer, winter and spring vacations) I'll probably stick to my usual onigiri/raw veggie bentos--although I might on occasion throw in some tamagoyaki or red wieners. If I have time to make dinner the night before of course I'd also throw in any usable leftovers, but except for special occasions I won't make it a point to plan out bentos.