How I Became a Language Assistant in Japan

In my youth, I had never manifested any interest in Japanese culture. My knowledge was limited to the stereotypical images of ninjas, samurai, and geishas shown in films. My only “real-world” experiences came from my love of eating out at sushi restaurants in my hometown, Toronto. No one close to me would have predicted that I would spend three years of my life as a language assistant in Japan.

I heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme from a student of mine while I was teaching ESL at a language school in Toronto. I hesitated in applying at first. In my first 25 years of life, I had barely traveled and never lived abroad. How would I fare living on my own in a foreign country? Would loneliness consume me and leave me feeling unhappy and unsatisfied? Would I be overwhelmed by not being able to read or fully understand my new surroundings? Should I just buckle down, find a nine to five job, and dive headfirst into the societal definition of adulthood? All of these questions fluttered around in my mind before I decided to apply to become a language assistant in Japan.  

The Decision to Become a Language Assistant in Japan

In the end, three factors propelled me towards my decision. First, a friend of mine spoke highly of his experience as a JET 10 years before. Second, my sister gave me some advice on what she considered failure to be. She said that failure wasn’t having to return from Japan because of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, but instead, that failure would be not trying. In other words, I had to give it a shot no matter what the outcome. Lastly, I had just finished my master’s, and I wasn’t feeling motivated in my first post-university job. So, what did I have to lose? Nothing. If anything, the job would give me the opportunity to live and travel the world, which excited me. So, I decided to try my luck and apply for a position in the programme. 

The Application Process

The key eligibility requirements for JET programme candidates are: they must be a native English speaker; demonstrate an interest in Japanese culture, society, and the educational system; hold a bachelor’s degree; and be a citizen of the English-speaking country where recruitment takes place. The application process took around six to eight months and involved three main steps.  

First, I submitted a paper application. This included my personal details, what region I wanted to be placed in, and a short essay on why I wanted to be a JET.  After they reviewed my application,  they called me in for an in-person interview. Here, they asked me why I wanted to teach in Japan, gauged my ability to deal with potential culture shock, and asked me to give an impromptu lesson on the topic of body parts (I performed my best rendition of “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes”). 

I left the interview feeling a bit iffy. Why? I had mentioned that in the future, I wanted to complete my PhD in History, and one of the interviewers said, “You’d be great teaching adults.”  I automatically thought that they didn’t think I had what it took to teach small children or teenagers (turns out, I was wrong). 

As a final step, all the chosen candidates submit a medical and criminal record check. The latter, in Canada, takes about four to six weeks. Success! I managed to make it through the whole process. 

Pre-Departure Preparation

Before I departed, the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto offered free Japanese language classes to all candidates (on a first-come, first-serve basis). I got a spot in the class, and I was on my way to learning basic Japanese expressions and how to ask basic questions (unfortunately, I did not have time to attain a level where I could understand the answers to these questions, but, you know… baby steps). The best part of these classes were the connections I made. I forged some wonderful and long-lasting friendships with some fellow Torontonians. While only one of the people I met ended up being placed in the same town as me, I was able to visit the others all around Japan during the three years I lived and worked there.

Furthermore, I attended a mandatory pre-departure orientation in Toronto. Here, the instructors gave a basic introduction to the JET programme. They explained the basic duties of a language assistant and gave important pre-departure information (i.e., if you needed to ship personal belongings, bring prescription medication, etc.). Also, they held various seminars led by former JETs on how to adapt to life in Japan. 

Without a Second Thought

What I remember most about the orientation was everything I should bring from home. I needed to bring a small gift for all of the teachers at my main school (it’s customary in Japan) and a bigger gift for the Principal, Vice Principal, my Supervisor, and even my landlord.

Also, there were things that  I wouldn’t have even given a second thought to — from deodorant (the Japanese equivalent just doesn’t cut it), to makeup (not all skin tones available), to curly hair products and shampoo, to toothpaste (no fluoride in Japanese brands), and even tampons (apparently hard to find if you live in the inaka aka rural Japan). What I know now is that you can find almost anything if you look hard enough. It’s probably even easier now with the existence of Amazon Prime.

Tokyo-Bound

Before I boarded my direct flight (paid for by the JET programme) from Toronto to Tokyo, I was scared. The moment had arrived; I was actually going to be a language assistant in Japan. At the airport, my father hugged me goodbye, looked at me, and said, “If you’re not happy, call me, and I’ll buy you a ticket home.”  The support he gave me at that moment helped get me, fear in tow, through customs at Pearson International airport.

A three-day orientation session was offered to all incoming JETs in Tokyo. We were put up in a decent Tokyo hotel, breakfast and lunch included. They bombarded us with information sessions (the jetlag made it a bit harder to process). They further explained our roles as language assistants, describing the effects of culture shock, and even gave us teaching tips from former JETs. 

A statue of three monkeys mimicking the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil phrase in Japan.

I met who would be my supervisor for the next three years and the other teachers (from all over the world) who were placed in my host city. To tell you the truth, what I got most out of my three days in Tokyo was the opportunity to explore (and party in!) the city with the friends that I made both in Toronto and in the very hotel I was staying at. At the end of three days, I boarded a minibus headed to Gunma Prefecture: my home for the next three years.

The First Big Step on My Road to Travel

I often think about what my life would have been like had I not left Canada for Japan almost 14 years ago. I know that the JET programme changed my life. It started what would be my life “on the road,” my life as an expat, my wanderlust. The process of going to Japan was long, and the decision to leave Canada wasn’t easy. In the end, with all the knowledge and experience I have gained, it was worth it. Flying abroad to be a language assistant in Japan undoubtedly changed my life.

by Maria Perez

How I Became a Language Assistant in Spain

It was 2018. I was a few months away from graduating from Durham University with my languages degree, and I had to decide what to do next. Since I was six years old, I’d wanted to be a teacher. I always assumed I would go straight into studying for a PGCE, then on to a standard teaching job. However, for some reason, I didn’t feel ready for that. I wanted to do something else instead of plain old teaching straight away. This is how I fell into being a language assistant in Spain. But I had to make a decision about my future first.

Being a language student, my possible plans mainly involved travelling. I drew up a list of five options, including: 

  1. Becoming a language assistant through the British Council.
  2. Doing a masters in translation, potentially abroad.
  3. “Bits and Pieces” — volunteering at a local Steiner school, volunteering abroad with refugees, and working with a mountain activity company in Italy. 
  4. “Another year abroad” — two six-month placements abroad in countries where they spoke a language I’d studied or wanted to learn.
  5. Another degree! I studied two languages and two sciences at A-Level. I felt tempted to go abroad (double benefit of practising my languages and cheaper fees!) and study something related to Biology, Chemistry, or Linguistics.

What to Choose

As I can see looking back on this list, I obviously didn’t feel ready to start a standard full-time job! In the end, I chose the first option. Apparently, I’m drawn to teaching so much that even when I don’t want to teach yet, I end up being a teaching assistant! I think I chose this option because it was the easiest to organise. Plus, I’d be paid rather than paying for it. It also seemed relevant to my career path, so I guess it was easier to justify and to feel confident enough that it was a good decision!

There’s a lot of pressure to go straight into a full-time job after graduating. But I would strongly recommend going abroad first if it is something you’re considering. There will be plenty of time for a standard job during the rest of your life, and you will get so much out of living abroad! 

Graduating from Durham University

The British Council

Many English speakers from all over the world decide to spend a year (or more) abroad helping teach English through the language assistant programme. It is a great way to immerse yourself in another country’s culture and language while working part-time to cover costs. As a native speaker, it’s also easy to find private lessons on the side to earn a bit more money.

Depending on where you’re from, there are different ways to get a placement. However, for those of us coming from the UK, we usually apply through the British Council. This involves a fairly long but simple application form. Along with this form, you will also need a reference, and, for some countries, a video interview (but not Spain, where I ended up applying). The British Council currently organises placements in 15 countries around the world, from South America to Asia. 

Where to Go

I decided that I wanted to stay in Europe to be closer to my friends in England. However, I couldn’t decide whether to go to Spain or Italy (having studied both languages). Much as I love Italy, in the end, I chose to be a language assistant in Spain. This is because there were many more placements available there, and I would be able to practise not only Spanish, but also Catalan. Through the British Council you can also put preferences of the region of Spain you would like to be in, whether you want to be in a city or a small pueblo, and what age you would like to teach. They say they take this into account, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your first choices. 

Leaving home ready to start a new life in Spain

Application Sent

So, I sent off my application form in December, my reference was sent off by February, and then I just had to wait. In April, I heard back from the British Council that my application to become a teaching assistant in Spain had been successful. Now they would pass my application onto the Ministry of Education in Spain. Both of those agencies would work together to assign me to a specific region. In May, I found out I’d got my first choice region and would be heading to the Comunitat Valenciana in October. All that was left was to wait for the ministerio to allocate me a school.

Spain is notorious for taking a while to tell you where exactly you have been placed. They are working on this, but some people only found out which locality they would be in a few weeks before starting teaching! Luckily, I found out at the beginning of July. I was originally placed in the city of Alicante, but realising that they don’t speak much Valencià (the Valencian dialect of Catalan) in the city, I was lucky to be able to swap schools with my friend. She had also applied for the programme and was keen to be in Alicante. You’re not officially allowed to swap, but sometimes it’s possible! So, my confirmed destination was Castelló de la Plana.

Castelló de la Plana

I had never heard of Castelló when they assigned me to a school there. But it turns out that Carme, my Catalan teacher’s friend, was from there. I got in contact with her to find out what it was like. She put me in touch with a student who had been there on Erasmus. They convinced me that it would be better for my Valencià than Alicante and that it wasn’t too small, so I decided to go for it. Looking back, I had no idea what it would really be like, but I figured eight months wasn’t too much of a commitment. 

Moving Abroad to be a Language Assistant in Spain

As a previous language student, the whole experience wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for some people. I’d done placements and Erasmus abroad before as part of my degree, including in Spain. I spoke the language fairly well. I also knew Carme, and she helped with logistical things like the strange workings of the RENFE train websites (yes, plural: there are different web pages and places to search for different kinds of trains, even between the same two stations!). I’d found a flat online but only rented it from the start of October. Fortunately, I was able to stay with her parents for a week first. Her dad helped me carry my big suitcases up the three flights of stairs when I finally moved into my flat.

Before flying over there, my dad helped me sort out as much of the paperwork as he could from the UK. I carefully read the auxiliar guide and country notes I’d been sent by the British Council. Nonetheless, I don’t think you can ever be that prepared to move to a place you’ve never been before. I guess that’s all part of the adventure. So, I set off with an open mind and as much patience as I could muster for the inevitable challenges. I had a better time than I’d ever imagined. 

And that’s how I became a language assistant in Spain. 

by Kira Browne

Samantha LoDuca Shares Her Five Year Update

Sam in front of some water with a city skyline in the backgroundIt has been a whirlwind half-decade for Samantha LoDuca. She has lived in three different countries, got married, and started new jobs. There was so much to catch up on about her life. Samantha has come a long way since I knew her in Madrid as an inquisitive newcomer who wanted to embrace Spanish culture. Five years on, she’s contemplating signing up for Gaelic lessons from her base in Dún Laoghaire, a coastal suburb of Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital.

Your first Dreams Abroad article was an interview with me in October 2016. You revealed that you studied Spanish for eight years in school. How easy was it for you to adjust to the language in Madrid?”

After consecutively studying Spanish for eight years in high school and university, I was really surprised by how much I didn’t know when I arrived in Madrid. Although I had studied the same grammar repeatedly, I didn’t fully understand how to use it until I heard it being used by natives in everyday conversation. Thanks to the lesson style, my speaking and listening skills were really low when I arrived, but I could read and write enough to get by. All those years studying really helped me have a vocabulary that I could pull from when trying to string sentences together — that was really helpful. Other than that, I would say immersion and forcing myself to speak and listen in Madrid is where I gained the rest of my skills. 

In our second interview, you said you didn’t like to play it safe. What was the riskiest thing you did in 2017?”

The riskiest thing I did was decide to stay and teach English for another year in Madrid. I know that doesn’t sound very risky, but it felt risky to me. It was not a very popular decision among some family and friends at the time. They thought I was going abroad for a year-long adventure and then would return to “real” life. They thought delaying my “re-entry into reality” for another year would make going back so much more difficult. They weren’t wrong, but that second year in Madrid was one of the best years of my life. It shaped what I wanted my “reality” to be moving forward, and I’m so glad I made that decision. 

By 2018, you were well into your second year working in a school. How much had you developed as an educator?”

By 2018, I had learned a LOT about teaching. Before moving to Madrid, I had never studied education or worked in a classroom. There was a lot to learn (like managing classrooms, lesson planning, etc.). The most important thing that I learned was that EVERY single child has so much potential and is really excited to learn. When someone stops believing in a child (i.e., teachers, parents, coaches), that is when you see the child lose that excitement and potential. I never ever wanted to do that to the children that I taught. The best part of the job was seeing them get excited about learning. 

By 2019 you were settled back in Chicago. How much was reverse culture shock still having an effect on you?”

The reverse culture shock was SO bad for me. I honestly don’t think it ever fully went away. As I fell in love with Spain’s culture, people, and lifestyle so quickly and easily, I barely noticed that it happened. Coming home, it was so hard to accept that it wasn’t my life anymore. In Chicago, I tried surrounding myself with people that weren’t from the US and eventually started meeting some Spanish people living in the city. It was great! I was able to share my favorite parts of American culture with them. Additionally, they were able to teach me new things about their cultures. We all could connect on what it’s like to be a foreigner living in a new city. 

In 2020 you relocated to Madison. What did you learn most about yourself or life in general there?”

Relocating back to Wisconsin was a really tough decision for me. Chicago had been my home for five years before I moved to Spain. I thought that it would be the obvious choice to return to Chicago when I was moving back. But, after being in Spain, Chicago no longer felt like home. Most of my friends had moved on to new stages of their lives that I wasn’t quite at. 

I had a yearning to be close to my family (something I had never really felt before). There’s a stigma sometimes to moving back home, especially in US culture — so I was combating that too. Luckily, little did I know it was the perfect decision. I moved in with my parents in late January 2020 while I looked for apartments in Madison. 

When COVID hit, I was still apartment hunting, and I realized this is a chance for me to spend an unbelievable amount of time with my parents, something I never thought I’d have again. I lived with them until October. We went through the worst wave of the pandemic together, but we created some really amazing memories together too. 

You moved to Dublin at the beginning of 2021. How difficult was it to do so during a pandemic? Bonus question: Guinness or Murphy’s?”

Yes! Moving internationally during a pandemic is really hard. When we moved to Ireland, the country was in its highest level of lockdown (which meant only essential places, like supermarkets, were open. There was no gathering with anyone outside your household, and you could only travel 5km away from your home). It stayed like that for about five months, and now things are slowly opening up. 

The hardest part for me so far has been not having a chance to meet people and integrate myself into the culture. That’s my favorite part of traveling and living abroad. Now I’m finally able to start doing those things, and I am really excited about it. P.S. I have to say, Guinness!

As Ireland eases back into its laidback way of life, Samantha can’t wait to explore what the country has to offer. She’s looking forward to gaining a more authentic taste of the country, starting with a visit to Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city. There is so much regional diversity to discover within a relatively small space. You can get from one end of the country to another in less than three hours, and Samantha is excited to get to know this miniature paradise better.

by Leesa Truesdell

How Going Abroad Can Make a Difference

 

tyler black islandTyler Black moved to Extremadura, Spain for what he thought would be a teaching assistant role. He began teaching on his first day and developed lesson plans each week. Tyler led class discussions and began managing his classroom sometimes by himself. He was an unofficial but official teacher. After a year in Extremadura, he decided he wanted to make a change and head north east to live in a big city. He moved to Madrid where he worked as a language assistant and would actually be a language assistant. His role was much more defined and the tasks were more clear in his day to day role as an auxiliar in Madrid. Tyler traveled around Spain and many parts of Europe for a solid two years of living abroad.

After his two years abroad, he moved back to his hometown near Philadelphia. Here, Tyler worked at his family’s company before moving to Pittsburgh. Tyler has taught me a lot about the culture in Pennsylvania. I recently learned that there is about a four-hour drive between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and that people from Philly really don’t get to the “‘burgh” that often. He’s told me more but I had to share, since it seems like the two cities, although located in the same state, have nothing in common with one another. I hadn’t thought about visiting Pennsylvania until I met Tyler!

How did you hear about Dreams Abroad?

“One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch when my sister called to tell me that she met a woman in her salon who had taught English in Spain just like I had. We had even taught in Madrid during the same school year. This woman turned out to be Leesa, the founder of Dreams Abroad. My sister had given her my contact information, and shortly after, Leesa got in touch to discuss interviewing me about my time in Spain. That’s when I realized how important the community Dreams Abroad was for those wishing to study, teach, or travel abroad. Dreams Abroad can really make a difference for those in love with travel.”

Where were you when you first joined?

lama in peru tyler black traveling“When I first joined, I was living back in my hometown in Pennsylvania, recovering from my post-Spain hangover. I really had no idea what I wanted to do at that point so I began working for my family, and traveling whenever possible. About a year after being interviewed by Leesa, I went on a solo trip to Peru to hike to Machu Picchu. Upon my return, Leesa called to ask if I’d be interested in writing about my trip. I happily accepted, and haven’t stopped writing for Dreams Abroad since.”

How has your life changed since then?

“A lot has changed. Living at home just wasn’t cutting it for me. I had just spent two years on my own in Spain and wanted to continue on with that independence. I knew I needed to make a difference and I wanted to work in the travel industry. To my delight, I was asked to interview for a travel consultant position at BCD Travel in Pittsburgh. On my drive home, I got a call saying they wanted to hire me. So, a week later, I packed my entire life into my car and moved to the other side of Pennsylvania. Now I get to talk about travel every single day and learn so much about the industry.”

What did you learn from your experience of traveling abroad?

“I learned an absurd amount of things from living in Spain. First and foremost, I learned how to be comfortable on my own. Where I once couldn’t cross the street to get food by myself, I was now traveling to foreign countries solo and loving every minute of it. Instead of feeling out of place, I was now absorbing myself into the ambiance surrounding me. I became more confident in my decisions instead of letting others dictate how things should be done. This led me to become more open-minded and try new things like eating guinea pig in Peru or putting snakes around my neck in Morocco. I would never have been caught dead doing those things before going abroad.”

What have you been doing this year?

“This year I have been going through a lot of changes. I transitioned careers and moved to a new city so I’ve spent a lot of time learning as much as I can at my new job. I’ve also been getting to know Pittsburgh and all it has to offer, including learning how to speak like a proper Pittsburgher. Yinz will see one day! I’ve also been getting more involved with Dreams Abroad and brainstorming ways to generate more content and reach more people. It’s been a lot of fun seeing the site grow and start to gain a rather large following.”

Make a difference pittsburgh

What are your future plans?

“I plan on staying in Pittsburgh for a couple of years and learning as much as I can about travel management. Ideally, I would like to become an operations manager, a project manager, or an account manager. The company I work for, BCD Travel, has a lot of offices all over the world. I would be ecstatic if I could live abroad again AND work in travel management. That would be a dream come true. In my personal life, I’m going to continue traveling as much as I can to new places and experiencing new cultures. That’s something I’ll never be able to stop doing.”

make a difference to form a future

Paths Abroad Make a Difference

Tyler’s been working with Dreams Abroad for about two years. His first piece was his What I Know Now (WIKN) about things to consider before moving or working abroad. It was my first interview with him after he returned from Spain. I can’t believe how much we both have grown and how much Dreams Abroad has evolved. Since then, Tyler has written at least one piece a month, taken the lead on social media, and also become our travel coordinator. I couldn’t have asked for a more passionate team member than Tyler. He is dedicated to our mission and focused on ways to make a difference for our team members. He always hopes that they have a great experience albeit online or in the future, (fingers crossed) in person.

by Leesa Truesdell

Tyler Black