There’s nothing like the arrival of someone new into your life to make you question where you stand. Especially when that someone is starting from the exact same point you did years ago. I have a new co-ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), and she’s warm, kind and funny. We get along really well and I feel like I haven’t chatted this easily at work in years. In fact, thinking about it, it’s probably been two years, which is how long I’ve been in Japan.
I’ve been here for a little over 2 years, and gone from being unused for months on end, ready to bore holes in my desk out of boredom, to having a full schedule, with after school activities, and trust from my fellow teachers. I’ve made headway, and set up systems, and built bridges. I’ve been a successful ALT, and, you know, I kinda feel successful too. The students like me and respect me, teachers happily teach with me, and I feel like I’ve got the balance between teacher, coach and guidance counsellor down.
But, then, why have there been whole days when I didn’t speak to anyone? When no one spoke to me? Honestly, these days it’s not so bad, not since I suggested lessons be spread out evenly across teachers, the knock on effect being that I get to talk to lots of teachers everyday. But that’s not quite the same as being able to chat about upcoming holidays or just passing thoughts. It’s been two years since I chatted so easily at work as I am now with my new co-ALT. Two whole years since time slipped by so easily and quickly, sometimes too easily and quickly, but that’s sort of part of working with people.
So, what have I been doing up until now? Who have I been talking to? And, what about? I’ve been talking to students, obviously, and planning lessons and setting up after school activities for them to practise speaking, and even joining the tea ceremony club where I find out all about the student gossip. But there was always that feeling of missing something, of being a little out of the loop, of not really knowing my colleagues, of always being a little behind on the schedule changes and not always being aware of the office politics. Don’t get me wrong, these things come with their perks. I’m never at the center of any office disagreements but while teachers trust me fully in the classroom, I’m not really spoken to outside the classroom much, unless its work related of course. I don’t really know much about my colleagues’ preferences or families, or if they’d even be comfortable with me engaging them in conversation about those areas of their lives.
And this is normal, of course. As the legions of devout and eager to correct Japanophiles will tell you, the Japanese don’t talk about their personal lives at work, it’s just not the done thing. (Apart from that one colleague who assumes because you’re foreign he can tell you very personal, very sensitive things when you’ve only spoken twice. Although, that’s a very singular misguided exception.) But that doesn’t mean working in this culture is suddenly easy because I’m aware of the cultural difference.
The feeling of alienation and the fact that some staff have to ‘get ready’ to speak to you doesn’t suddenly melt away. It’s not that people are cold, don’t get me wrong. I mean, there was that first six months when I went largely ignored and staff were downright scared to talk to me, but I worked past that. It’s more that after two years I feel respected and welcomed although not quite part of the group. After two years of development and working at it I’ve reached the point where we sometimes laugh about funny students, or I’m recommended a shrine to visit. But the friendliness ends there. I guess I’m just used to forming closer workplace bonds, used to a little more comradery.
The base fact is that this is an inevitable part of living and working in a foreign country, especially if you’re struggling to be ‘office fluent’ in a foreign language. This isn’t to say staff should do more, ALTs are a transient crowd and that can be hard to engage with. But it is a testament to the isolation and loneliness of working away from home, of the fact that the highest cause of death on my teaching programme is suicide, and that depression is a commonplace experience amongst my peers.
So, I have a new co-ALT. She’s kind and funny and we get along really well. I am extremely lucky to be working alongside her. But I can’t help but wonder, in these past two years, have I really settled in as well as I thought?