Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How did Iso get a job in Japan?

Time for another ‘non-game-related’ post on part, may God have mercy on my soul. My video card is working out better than I made out last week, and there isn’t anything horribly exciting happening in MMO news (besides druids getting nerfed LOLz), so I thought I’d address a different topic. I receive two types of private messages here at NotAddicted. The first is from people mystified by the girls in my avatar, and wondering who they are, and the second is from people asking how I ended up teaching in the public school system of Japan.

The first question is easily answered by reading the intial reply I made a while ago (scroll down to reply #25) after I first put my avatar up there. The second one I’ve answered in detail on more than one occasion, and it felt like I was pretty much writing an article unto itself, so there ya go.

It all started one sunny day in Oakland, California. I had been working for six years at a PDF conversion company. We would do things like take a legal company’s cabinets full of paper documents, scan them, OCR them, and then output them as swanky text searchable PDFs on a CD-ROM. These companies were amazed we could fit a whole filing cabinet on one CD, and we actually had a pretty good business model going.

I came on as lowly production grunt, proofreading what the computer ‘thought it saw’. It went something like this:

1)Open document.
2)No, that word is not ‘rnornarit’, it’s ‘moment’.
3)Hit Tab.
4)Go to step 2; repeat 8 billion times.

The work was boring, but the company recognized that, and actually paid us a pretty good wage considering they could have just shipped the documents off to Korea to be done for 2 cents an hour (more on that later). One day, the IT Guy, John, decided he had had enough of this little company, and wanted to go work for the local linux company that had its American office based in Oakland (SuSE). John left, and the management freaked out. ZOMGWhat will we do? I donned my cape of [+7 Computer Haxxor Skillz], and waltzed into the CEO’s office at the choice moment to ask the production manager a question concerning one of the scanners. I also happened to drop in an oh-so-offhand way that “Oh, what’s that? John’s leaving? You need someone to manage the workstations? Well, hell… I could do that… “

I took over the IT duties, and became the new IT Manager. I managed myself. I was the only IT employee. Lolz.

Anyway, that’s just buildup… the big factor in getting to Japan was when we began to run out of work. Anyone buying a scanner was starting to get copies of OmniScan, and people began to wonder why they should be paying us when they could just do the OCRing themselves. We gently reminded them that they were lawyers, and not people that sit at scanners for 8 hours a day. They realized there were people in the Philippines that could do that for pennies a day. We were doomed.

With my severance pay and a nice ‘thanks for all your hard work’ bonus, I was faced with a difficult situation. I could drink beer and play Warcraft all day long, or I could go on vacation somewhere. The money was going to be gone soon, and in the end I wouldn’t have anything to show for it either way. I decided on the latter, because I’m just crazy like that.

I had a friend that was living in Japan, in a place called Okayama, teaching in the public school system. He was a JET, which is a program where people just coming out of college have this opportunity to go teach abroad ( Japan). It’s like some governmental program for the Exchange of Foreign Cultures… it’s all very flutey sounding, and apparently the JETs love to get together and be… uhhh... foreign… together, and drink and be loud and generally behave like asses. If you’re taking notes, being a JET is the easiest way to get over and do the whole thing. They have orientation, they give little seminars before you leave, they set you up with an apartment, they offer culture shock counseling for once you get here. It’s all very ‘package deal’ oriented. BUT! You need to be just coming out of college to be a part of it.

I wasn’t just coming out of college.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. I came over to visit my friend. It was a two week vacation, and I had already been studying Japanese in a very lame city college class that was full of people that either ‘thought Naruto was rad’, ‘wanted to play PS2 import games’, or ‘couldn’t handle Spanish’. The level of enthusiasm in the class was pathetic. People would actually raise their hand in class and try to correct the teacher, a native Japanese woman, on proper grammar.

“Sumimasen, Sensei! Demo… I was watching this one fan sub of Ruroni Kenshin, and I think you’re wrong, because this one time Sagala was like…” RGARSFGHGAGSFGSG—stop it! Shut UP! FOR FUCK'S SAKE, LISTEN TO THE WOMAN. SHE CAN HARDLY SPEAK ENGLISH; I THINK SHE KNOWS HER JAPANESE!

Where was I? Ah…! I came to Japan on a two-week visit. The first two days I didn’t even eat, because I was too weirded out to even talk to anyone to order any food. I just drank can coffee and smoked cigarettes. I eventually got hungry and began with slow, easy Japanese to get warmed up. I began just walking around the streets asking someone every block or so what time it was, or directions to somewhere I already knew the location of. People in Japan are super nice. People say this all the time, but you really just have to be here to believe it. It’s not like someone in San Francisco won’t give you directions, but there’s that initial instant when you approach someone on the street in America and begin to talk to them... their first instinct is that you want to ask them for money, or are generally just fucking with them in some way. They’re on their defense immediately. That isn’t the case in Japan. You hesitantly approach someone, and you immediately have his or her undivided attention. It’s like… 99.9% of Japan is Japanese people… they’re kind of like ‘all on the same team’ already. They want to help you out, and get you on your way. Bonus points if you’re a foreigner, because they can practice their English with you.

After 3 days in Tokyo and 2 in Hiroshima, I met up with my friend in Okayama. We went drinking with some friends of his, both Japanese locals and other teachers that he had met while here. We went to some crazy ass huge Japanese empty home thing. Apparently companies can rent it out if they need to have a company outing or whatever bonding thing they do. We rented it out. 30 dollars for one night. This place was fucking enormous. Tatami as far as the eye could see. We drank there. Played poker. Set off fireworks. It was ridiculous. Japan is wacky like that. Everyone there kept stressing the point that if teaching over here was anything I wanted to do, it really wasn’t that hard to pull off. It always sounds really hard, but it isn’t. You just sell everything, and come to Japan. There isn’t even a third step!

The next day everyone left, and I got a bunch of email addresses from some of the Japanese locals that wanted friends in America or whatever to write letters and emails to. One of those people is now my fiancée. Did I mention Japan is wacky like that?

I stayed in Okayama another day or so, then just rode the train all over Japan and just kind of soaked it up. When I travel, I don’t go to museums, and I don’t like going on tours. This usually is discovered after we arrive, much to the dismay of whoever travels with me. You should have seen my ex in Italy. She was pissed. I want to go to other places to see how other people LIVE. Not to see some fucking painting that some dead guy made. I just would ride the Shinkansen (bullet train) and get off after an hour or two, wherever I happened to be. Maybe it would be getting near dark, or maybe I just thought the town had a cool sounding name. I’d drag my suitcase around, find a hotel, check in, then just sit out front and smoke cigarettes; wondering what it would be like to live here.

In the end, I made up my mind that I wanted to try it. I even cut my vacation short by a few days to save money for the eventual flight back out here. I got home, broke the news to everyone, and began looking for work.

Here comes Point Number Two, for those keeping track: Knowing anyone in Japan is HUGE. The Japanese people love to get friends of friends hired somewhere. If you know anyone that works somewhere, and they can refer you into a position, you’re golden*. I began looking for work, while emailing my new friends in Japan telling them that I wanted to come back and work there. I found a few job offers online at a website that distributes ‘teacher wanted’ ads, but a lot of the jobs were in places I had never heard of, or were very far from Okayama. I wanted to be somewhat near to my new friends, because moving to a new country where you don’t know ANYBODY is probably not a good idea. In the end, my friend Mori (fiancée, now) told me of a job opening coming up with her friend Matt. Matt was going back to England, and he worked at an after school program called Sophia Zemi. A few awkward international telephone interviews later, I had the position lined up.

I sold my car, sold everything else, mailed my computer to Mori’s address in Japan (I’m an Addict, not a fool), and made arrangements for my parents to watch my cat until the paperwork was finished and she could come to Japan with me (my father brought her during his visit after a few months).

A Zemi is an afterschool kind of cram-lesson center. Kids study English in school, but then can go to a Zemi after school to have a leg up on the other kids. There are Math Zemis, English Zemis, Soccer Zemis… whatever. The hours sucked, but they gave me a car, and offered to help me find an apartment. In the meantime, I could stay with a Japanese family, or they could put me up at a hotel. Mori offered to let me stay at her place until I found an apartment, since it was relatively closeby to one of the locations I would be teaching at (there were 5). The hours kind of sucked. Modays I would drive for about 2 hours to teach for 4, then drive 2 hours back home. The lessons were from 6 to 10, so I could sleep in, but wouldn’t get home till midnight or so. Some of the other locations were nearby (30 min - 1 hour drive), but a lot of time was spent in the car just getting to the location.

This went on for 4 months (I never did actually move out of Mori’s place), then another friend of ours told us she was going back to Australia. She didn’t work at a Zemi, she taught in the Public School System (caps for emphasis). The board of education was scrambling to find a replacement. I was their man. I lived nearby (like ridiculously close, a 5 minute drive). I already had a teaching visa. I had experience (well, 4 months anyway). I took the job.

The Zemi was PISSED. When I started work for them, I signed a contract saying that I would be there for a year. By breaking contract, I had to pay a penalty fee of one month’s salary back to them. In addition, they wanted four months notice before I would be allowed to quit.

I asked “So, if I stay for four more months, then I won’t have to pay the penalty?” They said “No, you’ll still be penalized”. I said “Bye”. They flipped out. They called me constantly for like a week, alternating between begging me to stay, and screaming at me for quitting (usually in the same phone call). One time I just hung up on them, and they called back to call me a coward for hanging up. I made the mistake of telling them where I had new work, and they called the board of education telling them I was a horrible employee and that they were awful people for ‘headhunting’ me.

I tried to use logic, to no avail. By taking the new job, I would be a city employee. I would make more money, have medical benefits, it was a 5 minute drive, and 9-5 M-F. They didn’t care, and here’s why: Foreigners in japan are kind of hard to come by. It is this reason that if you come here, you will have work. You just will. The Zemi was pissed to lose me, but the BoE was just as thrilled to have found me. Don’t let it go to your head, but never forget that you have options. For all the bullshit they tried to pin on me, they kept refusing to accept that I was honoring my contract. By leaving early, they got a FREE MONTH of work from me. Fuck them. I did, LOL.

Anyway, I’ve been an employee of the school district for going on 2 years now. It’s good clean fun, and the kids are great. Some classes suck, and some of the kids are shits, but there are way more good days than bad days. I have a few kids that I absolutely adore, and they’re good enough to make a shitty class worth enduring. Plus I get rotated around the whole district… I spend one semester at one school, and then go the the next after 3 or 4 months. It’s a little jarring for some people, but I like it. The kids are always fresh, and you never really get stuck in a rut for too long. Even if you have a Japanese teacher that you can’t stand teaching with, you only see them once a week for 45 minutes, OH NOES.

At the school I’m at now, I have 2 of each grade; 1st through 6th. That comes to 12 classes each week, which amounts to a grand total of 9 hours spent actually doing lessons. Out of a 40 hour paid week. Another school I taught at had 3 of each class. Some school districts will just let you go home if you have no classes, but don’t count on it. They’re the exception to the rule. The Japanese revel in pretending to look busy. They have it down to a science. One of the reasons I love writing stuff like this for NotAddicted is because typing furiously in word for 2 hours looks very ‘productive’. I make my own teaching materials, but I have my next month worth of classes already prepped and planned… there’s a lot of downtime, but for the most part I just hide out in the English room and read forums or whatever. I've been at my current school for a full year, but only because the city just underwent some tri-city merger thing, and the BoE had bigger fish to fry than sorting out our schedules (there are seven of us in the city rotation). We just got put somewhere while they did all the paperwork, but I'll begin rotating again in April.

Anyway… that’s my story. Once more, to summarize:

Coming out of college soon? Be a JET. Don’t have a degree? Get one first (I have a BA in Liberal Arts, LOL). No experience teaching? I did IT work, for chrissakes! Love kids? Hey cool, whatever! Hate kids? Probably not for you. Don’t speak Japanese? Just smile and bow a lot. You’ll be fine. To this day, I can go to a convenience store, and ask them to heat up my bento. Anything above that just elicits the ‘ha-ha-ha-okay!’ response.

As a final serious note: Coming to Japan is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was hard to just make the initial decision, but once I did, it was all pretty much downhill. There’s way too much ‘but how will I ___?’ crap before you make the decision. After the decision is made, all those questions just become ‘okay, next I gotta ____.’ Everything falls into place.

It builds character, dammit. Puts hair on your chest. You won't regret it if you decide it's somehting you're interested in.

*I kind of feel like a dick for tacking this on here, but let's be clear on something: I don't know you. I got the position because I knew Kento, who introduced me to Mori, who knew Matt.

P.S. Rawr.

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